Eldad and Medad Successfully Challenge Moses’ Control over Prophecy
The Story in Context
The brief episode of Eldad and Medad (Numbers 11:26-30) is easily overlooked amidst the larger narrative units in Parashat Behaalotcha. The story, however, is of unusual significance and merits sustained reflection. The incident is really a subunit within the larger framework of Numbers 11 as a whole, where we are told how God provided Moses with a special group of seventy elders who would serve as his assistants in his dealings with the tumultuous people.
According to the divine instructions (verses 16—17), the elders were to undergo a special “initiation rite.” They were to follow Moses to the tent of meeting that stood at a distance from the Israelite encampment and stand there with Moses in a state of preparedness. God would come down in a cloud and speak to Moses at the tent, and He would extend some of the “spirit” (ru’ach) that was on Moses onto the adjacent elders of Israel. This, apparently, would “energize” the elders, and give them the spiritual authority necessary to aid Moses in leading the people (cf. First Samuel 10:5—7).
Everything seemed to proceed as planned. Moses gathered the elders and placed them around the tent of meeting. God came down in a cloud and spoke to Moses, and conferred some of the spirit that was on Moses onto the elders. The elders immediately hitnab‘u, “prophesied,” or “spoke in ecstasy,” clearly as a result and sign of their newly acquired spirit (verses 24—25).
Just then, however, a new development is reported. Two men, Eldad and Medad, “spoke in ecstasy” in the presence of the people when Moses was away and far out of sight:
במדבר יא:כו וַיִּשָּׁאֲר֣וּ שְׁנֵֽי אֲנָשִׁ֣ים׀ בַּֽמַּחֲנֶ֡ה שֵׁ֣ם הָאֶחָ֣ד אֶלְדָּ֡ד וְשֵׁם֩ הַשֵּׁנִ֨י מֵידָ֜ד וַתָּ֧נַח עֲלֵהֶ֣ם הָר֗וּחַ וְהֵ֙מָּה֙ בַּכְּתֻבִ֔ים וְלֹ֥א יָצְא֖וּ הָאֹ֑הֱלָה וַיִּֽתְנַבְּא֖וּ בַּֽמַּחֲנֶֽה:
Num 11:26 Now two men named Eldad and Meded, remained behind in the camp, and the spirit rested upon them. They were among those who had been enrolled, but they did not go out to the Tent. And they spoke in ecstasy inside the camp.
When Moses is informed of this (v. 27), Joshua attempts to intervene:
יא:כח וַיַּ֜עַן יְהוֹשֻׁ֣עַ בִּן־נ֗וּן מְשָׁרֵ֥ת מֹשֶׁ֛ה מִבְּחֻרָ֖יו וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנִ֥י מֹשֶׁ֖ה כְּלָאֵֽם: יא:כט וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לוֹ֙ מֹשֶׁ֔ה הַֽמְקַנֵּ֥א אַתָּ֖ה לִ֑י וּמִ֨י יִתֵּ֜ן כָּל עַ֤ם י־הוה נְבִיאִ֔ים כִּי־יִתֵּ֧ן י־הוה אֶת רוּח֖וֹ עֲלֵיהֶֽם:
11:28 And Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ attendant from his youth, spoke up and said, “My lord Moses, imprison them!” 11:29 But Moses said to him, Are you being zealous for me? “I wish that the entire people of the Lord were prophets and that the Lord would confer his spirit on them all!” (Author’s translation)
The story exemplifies Moses’ modesty (cf. 12:3). He is not zealous for his status as a leader. While Joshua sees in the act of prophesying in the absence of Moses a potential threat (perhaps more to his own future position as successor to Moses than to Moses’ present one), Moses sees in it a sign of divine blessing and even expresses the wish that all Israel might become prophets.
Why did Eldad and Medad Remain in the Camp?
An important, often neglected issue for understanding the story concerns the reason for Eldad and Medad remaining in the camp.
Hizkuni: They Weren’t on the List
These are the words of Hizkuni (13th cent.):
ותנח עליהם הרוח אף על פי שלא נבחרו בכלל השבעים הואיל והיו ראויים לכך לא הוכלמו ושרתה עליהם הרוח ונתנבאו.
Even though they were not among the seventy who were chosen,since they were worthy… the spirit rested upon them and they prophesied.
Hizkuni’s idea that Eldad and Medad were not among the seventy chosen elders initially seems to be based on v. 24:
במדבר יא:כד וַיֵּצֵ֣א מֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיְדַבֵּר֙ אֶל־הָעָ֔ם אֵ֖ת דִּבְרֵ֣י י־הוה וַיֶּאֱסֹ֞ף שִׁבְעִ֥ים אִישׁ֙ מִזִּקְנֵ֣י הָעָ֔ם וַֽיַּעֲמֵ֥ד אֹתָ֖ם סְבִיבֹ֥ת הָאֹֽהֶל:
Num 11:24 Moses went out and related to the people the words of God and he gathered seventy men of the elders of the people and situated them around the tent.
This verse states that Moses, as instructed by God, situated seventy men around the tent, not sixty-eight.
This textual evidence, however, is equivocal. As opposed to verse 24, verse 26 states “two men remained behind in the camp.” This implies that they were supposed to go out. Furthermore, the continuation of the verse states והמה בכתובים ולא יצאו האהלה, most probably means, “they were enrolled (in the list of elders) but didn’t go out.” Why, then, does Hizkuni insist that they were not part of the seventy?
The reason is probably theological. We must remember that the plan of taking out seventy men to the tent of meeting came from God. How could Eldad and Medad have remained behind, contravening the divine plan, and still merit the divine spirit? They must then have been unrelated to the seventy and they did not go out because they were not meant to go out. The reason that they received the divine spirit is that they were in some unknown way particularly meritorious. This divine bestowal of the spirit had nothing to do, however, with the simultaneous bestowal of the spirit on the seventy elders.
Rashbam: They were Humble
Rashbam (Samuel ben Meir , 1085-1158) follows a different approach. He affirms that Eldad and Medad were indeed part of the seventy, as indicated by the text, and insists that they did not go out because they were particularly humble people. The story may be seen as epitomizing the rabbinic dictum (Tanḥuma Vayikra 4):
כל מי שבורח מן השררה, השררה רודפת אחריו
Whoever flees from leadership, leadership pursues him.
God allowed His spirit to rest on Eldad and Medad in the midst of the camp and the presence of the people in reward for their attempt to shy away from the limelight. The Bible indeed confers leadership specifically on those who are least interested in its promise of renown and prestige. (The contrast with our contemporary political situation could not be starker!)
This approach, however, begs the question. Nowhere is it stated that Eldad and Medad were particularly humble or that this was the reason they didn’t go out to the tent of meeting.
Challenging the Singular Voice of Moses
I would like to offer another suggestion, which is diametrically opposed to the interpretation of Rashbam. I think that Eldad and Medad refused to go out. They did this in conscious defiance of Moses who chose them to be among his seventy “yes-men.”
The arrangement that God and Moses had made was designed to bolster Moses’ singular authority. All spirit had to be transmitted to others via Moses (see esp. v. 25 asher alav), and the purpose of this transmission was strictly to authorize subordinates who would serve him (see esp. v. 17b: ונשאו אתך במשא העם, ולא-תשא אתה לבדך – They shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone ). There was no place in this arrangement for individual spiritual voices that might speak independently of the figure of Moses and bring a diversity of opinions into the public domain. Eldad and Medad challenged not only the centralized and exclusive authority of Moses but also, at least implicitly, the attempt to wield political control over the divine spirit.
Rebellion Against Moses: Can It Ever Be Good?
Rebellion against the ultimate and final authority of Moses is attested elsewhere in the Torah. It is found, for example, in the neighboring story of Numbers 12. Aaron and Miriam speak against Moses and maintain their prophetic equality to him. God again comes down in His special cloud and affirms the superiority of Moses’ prophetic status (cf. also Deut. 34:10, but contrast Deut. 18:18). In the story of Numbers 16, Dathan and Abiram refuse to obey Moses’ call to “go up” to him and find themselves “going down” to Sheol. Our story, I suggest, offers a contrary perspective.
God approves of Eldad and Medad who refuse to go out to Moses’ tent (see Exodus 33:7—1). He rewards them with the bestowal of His spirit, not because of their excessive humility but specifically because of their spiritual audacity. And He gives them of His spirit directly, without the mediation of Moses at his tent. God allows them to prophesy in the midst of the camp because God ultimately endorses the spiritual freedom and pluralism that they seek to promote.
Moses, himself, recognizes this ideal and resists Joshua’s call to imprison the “rebels.” No single party should attempt to hold a monopoly on the divine spirit or place restrictions on its freedom of expression. The ultimate ideal, Moses recognizes, is that each individual Israelite becomes his or her own prophet, receiving the spirit directly from God and expressing it openly inside the camp.
Balancing Religious Stability with Holy Rebellion
The story of Eldad and Medad has many implications for contemporary religious life. I would like to spell out briefly two of these. First, the story, as I understand it, legitimizes and even promotes the act of challenging the religious establishment. This establishment has a natural, vested- interest in buttressing its own authority in the service of religious constancy and communal stability. These are perfectly legitimate concerns and this is why God, too, promotes the established order.
But the religious establishment can also have a stifling effect. It may seek, like Joshua, to squelch the personal search for religious truth in the interests of the common good, forgetting that uniform answers will never be able to satisfy the spiritual needs of diverse individuals with variegated sensibilities.
This is why God and even Moses support the “holy rebellion” of Eldad and Medad, who may indeed serve as models for us. At times, we too need to challenge the religious establishment and seek out the divine spirit from God directly – not only through the mediation of the recognized authorities. This may even serve as a vital catalyst to rethinking and soul searching within the establishment.
The Elusive Nature of the Divine Spirit
The story may also teach us something about the very nature of the divine spirit and, by extension, religious truth. Religions by nature seek to define, categorize and systematize the final truths about the divine and its manifestations in the world in all encompassing ways. But can any group or individual really capture such matters definitively? Or is each individual and group given only a very partial and imperfect glimpse of a reality that is far too broad and complex for a single mind or group of minds to fathom?
The story of Eldad and Medad teaches us that the divine spirit cannot be controlled by any human institution. God’s spirit indeed rests on Moses and the elders. But it equally rests on those who disobey Moses! The spirit will authentically rest on divergent agents and these may even prophesy in significantly divergent ways.
Conformity and Nonconformity
The lack of conformity of some prophets will cause the Joshuas of the world to accuse them of false prophecy and seek to incarcerate them and “protect” society from their influence. But such accusations merely reflect the narrow mindedness of the accusers, their lack of confidence, and their concern with their own power and influence.
The Rabbis importantly insisted that no two authentic prophets prophesy in the same way (b. Sanhedrin 89a):
דאמר רבי יצחק: סיגנון אחד עולה לכמה נביאים, ואין שני נביאים מתנבאין בסיגנון אחד.
As Rabbi Yitzḥak says: One oracle is passed to several prophets, but no two prophets prophesy using the same style of expression.
Spiritual uniformity and conformity among those speaking for the spirit is a clear sign of their lack of authenticity (Editors’ note: see James A. Diamond, “Discerning False Prophecy: The Story of Ahab and the Lying Spirit,” on the story of Micaiah ben Imla and the four hundred prophets in 1 Kings 22). Each individual is radically unique and perforce gets a glimpse of the divine in a radically unique way. The greater the spiritual diversity to which we are exposed, the closer we come to the higher truth.
We must learn, then, to emulate the great spirit of Moses. Instead of bemoaning the spiritual diversity introduced by Eldad and Medad, he expressed the wish that it spread throughout the nation. Like Moses, we must learn to respect religious diversity. We must indeed encourage its free expression and humbly attempt to learn from every teacher. In the wise words of Rabbi Yanai (b. Avodah Zarah 19a):
כל הלומד תורה מרב אחד – אינו רואה סימן ברכה לעולם
Whoever learns Torah from [only] one Rabbi will never find blessing in his study.
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June 6, 2014
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Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).
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