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Numbers 11:16-30 – The Seventy Elders

Summary

In response to Moses' prayer for help, God appoints seventy elders, putting upon them "some of the spirit" that was upon Moses.

Analysis

The tradition knows that there is no prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 34:10), but it also knows that God will raise up a prophet like Moses when such is needed (Deuteronomy 18:15-18). This story makes a similar point: though Moses remains Israel's unparalleled leader, he is not alone. The same spirit that empowers Moses, making him a prophet of God, can be given to others. Moses, burdened by "carrying" the people, cries out to God in distress (Numbers 11:11-15), and God appoints seventy elders (a large, full number) to assist in Moses' prophetic work. Though their "ordination" is temporary, they are a sign that God's leadership will endure even beyond Moses. God's spirit goes where it wills! Two men who had not gone out to the tent of meeting with the others also receive the spirit and prophesy.

Joshua complains, but Moses answers, "Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!" (v. 29). Precisely this is announced much later by Joel, who envisions a time when God will pour the "spirit on all flesh" and "your sons and your daughters shall prophesy" (Joel 2:28-29). Jesus echoes Moses' welcome of the unexpected prophets when he forbids John from stopping an unknown exorcist who was said to be "not following us." Like Moses, Jesus is open to God's work through many sources: "Whoever is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:38-41).

Numbers 11:16-30

The Seventy Elders

16 So the Lord said to Moses, ‘Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. 17I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself. 18And say to the people: Consecrate yourselves for tomorrow, and you shall eat meat; for you have wailed in the hearing of the Lord, saying, “If only we had meat to eat! Surely it was better for us in Egypt.” Therefore the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat. 19You shall eat not only one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, 20but for a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you—because you have rejected the Lord who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, “Why did we ever leave Egypt?” 21But Moses said, ‘The people I am with number six hundred thousand on foot; and you say, “I will give them meat, that they may eat for a whole month”! 22Are there enough flocks and herds to slaughter for them? Are there enough fish in the sea to catch for them?’ 23The Lord said to Moses, ‘Is the Lord’s power limited?* Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not.’

24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. 25Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

26 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. 27And a young man ran and told Moses, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’ 28And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men,* said, ‘My lord Moses, stop them!’ 29But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!’ 30And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

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10 February 2011

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