26 May 2015

Numbers 11:24-35

“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!’” (v. 29)

Psalm: Psalm 68


This is a very curious little passage from the account of when the people of God were wandering in the desert. It is worth reading the narrative that immediately precedes it in chapter 11, because the context is significant. The story goes that the Israelites, once having longed for freedom from their bonded labour in Egypt, found that journeying in the desert also turned out to have its hardships and times of tedium, especially from the point of view of their diet. They may have been sent manna from heaven to keep them alive, but there wasn't a lot of variety, compared with "the fish, … the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic" they were used to (v. 5). So they moaned, and Moses, the hero of the Exodus, lamented to God in prayer, "I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me" (v. 14). Many who exercise leadership today, including ministers, may be able to empathise with him.

In the story, God responds by inviting Moses to gather 70 picked elders around the tent of the Lord, and then pours out God's own Spirit upon them too, not just upon Moses himself. It is as if the elders share the burden and the ecstasy of God's Spirit so that they can help to "carry" the people. (We may notice that according to Luke's Gospel, Jesus later also picked seventy disciples to carry his message around, Luke 10:1-21). But something anomalous takes place. Two men, named Eldad and Medad, who did not gather around the tent but stayed in camp with the rest of the people, also received God's Spirit and prophesied, much to the consternation of Joshua (Moses' chief of staff). He wants Moses to forbid them (verse 28). In the Bible, there are many narratives which bear witness to the way that God's Spirit cannot be contained, or God's power limited to those who have 'officially' been authorised as prophets, or disciples, or 'proper' Christians (those who were casting out demons in Jesus' name, Luke 9:49; the Gentiles in Acts who received the Holy Spirit without first becoming Jews, Acts 10:44). Moses, Jesus, and even (after some wrangling) the early Church recognise the 'unauthorised' reality of what God is doing.

The last thing that Christians should be is 'jealous' of God's Holy Spirit, desiring to be the only beneficiaries. It will often be the case that this power spills out in places that we are not expecting to see it, and we should learn to recognise it and rejoice.

To Ponder

  • Have you ever witnessed the power of God's spirit at work in an unexpected place or among unexpected people? How did you react?

Bible notes author

Janet Morley

Janet Morley is currently the Commissioning Editor for HOLINESS, the journal of Wesley House, Cambridge (www.wesley.cam.ac.uk/holiness). She worked for ten years in the Connexional Team, with the training and development officers, and latterly, as Head of Christian Communication, Evangelism and Advocacy.