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Would that they all were!

 

Text

Number 11:26-30:

26 Now two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the Spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 And Joshua the son of Nun, the assistant of Moses from his youth, said, “My lord Moses, stop them.” 29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” 30 And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.


Introduction: Synopsis and Questions

This story is set within the framework of Numbers chapter 11. After spending the entire book of Leviticus camped out at Mt. Sinah, the people of Israel are now on the move, headed (for a while) toward the promised land. However, in Numbers 11, the people have already descended into a pattern of constant complaining, introducing an “anti-epic note into the story.” 

After God instructs Moses to gather 70 elders from the people, upon whom God will place some of the Spirit which had been upon Moses, we read of two men “among those registered” (v26), yet who are nonetheless not with the rest of the elders. And when the Spirit descends, they continue to prophecy long after the others! Joshua is upset about this - but Moses, apparently, is not. What are we to make of this incident? Does it have broader significance than teaching Joshua not to be jealous? Is there any relevance for us today?

Random Story?

The first clarifying question we ought to address in approaching this story, is to ask, “who are Eldad and Medad?” Are they among the 70 elders whom Moses called out from the camp? To put it briefly - we can’t be sure. It seems likely that as those “registered” they were elders, but given that they were not at the tent (v26), it seems unlikely that they were among the 70. Some have suggested this is because they were ritually unclean, but this would not make sense given that they are within the camp. James Barnette writes, ‘The text is not clear as to whether their having been “registered” means that they were themselves elders. Most likely, Eldad and Medad were of a larger body of elders from whom the seventy were chosen.’

Their prophesying certainly stood apart from the 70 elders whom Moses had called, as those men “prophesied. But they did not continue doing it” (v25). In contrast, Eldad and Medad are going to town in the camp (v27). This placement in the camp, whether among the 70 or not, would mean that Eldad and Medad were far more visible to most of the Israelites. Why wasn’t Moses upset by this?

It seems that Moses, being a prophet, understood the need for the Lord’s Spirit in order to effectively minister to His people. In his declaration, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!”, Moses seems to be anticipating what the prophet Joel would prophecy centuries later,  

“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit.” (Joel 2:28-29)


While the falling of the Spirit in the Old Testament seems to be given in limited measures (see Numbers 11:17), the prophet Joel foretells a time associated with the Day of the Lord in which the Spirit would be poured out more generally. That text from Joel is then quoted by Peter  in Acts 2:17-21, indicating that Peter saw at least a partial fulfillment of these events in what happened on the day of Pentecost.

We might well ask, “what was the content of the prophetic utterances?” But given that Moses is happy to have the men prophesying in the camp, it seems best to assume that these are not mere ecstatic statements, but rather are a form of positive and Spirit enabled ministry. This would align with how Paul describes the ministry of “spiritual gifts” later in 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14. The Spirit fell in Numbers, as later in the church, not for the benefit primarily of the indwelt, but of those they would minister to.

Thus, Moses longs for the day when this is true of not merely two men, or 70 for that matter - “would that they all!” were filled by the Spirit, and speaking from Him.

Conclusion: The Significance of the Spirit

     The coming of the Spirit in a more general way is seen in the Old Testament as a great indicator of God’s blessing. This gift is promised by Jesus to all who come to him by faith to drink of his living water. Moses would look to this reality and rejoice, because the gift of the Spirit means not only a new life for the one who receives Him, but it also means that the people will be ministered to by God Himself, through the people he empowers. So the question a believer in Jesus should walk away from this text with is this: how am I using the gifts of God’s Holy Spirit to serve His people in my “camp”, city, or church? Would Moses rejoice?







Bibliography

Barnette, James R. “Unauthorized Prophecy: ‘Would That All the Lord’s People!’” Review & Expositor 90, no. 4 (Fall 1993): 553–60. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000869851&site=ehost-live 

Hamilton,  Victor P. Handbook on the Prophets. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.

Ryken, Leland & Phillip Graham Ryken, The Literary Study Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007.

            Wenham, Gordon J. “Numbers”. In The ESV Study Bible, ed. Justin Taylor, 1889-1993. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.

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