16 May 2016

Numbers 11:24-30

“But 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!’” (v. 29)

Psalm: Psalm 67


Moses is regarded highly in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as a great prophet through whom God liberates the Hebrew people from slavery and delivers the law that will bind them in covenant to God. Both the books of Exodus and Numbers reveal that he was often a beleaguered leader, the target of the people's grumbling, and one charged with mediating the disputes the people had with each other and with God. This passage from Numbers 11 is part of the larger story of the people's 40-year journey in the wilderness under Moses' leadership. Although God gave manna from heaven to feed the people when they complained of hunger (Exodus 16), the people were now demanding meat. God will provide it, but not quite yet. A different story seems to interrupt the account of God providing food.

God commands Moses to gather 70 elders from among the people. The 70 will receive a share of the spirit that is upon Moses. This seems to be more than simply a reference to Moses' energy. The spirit that rests on Moses is a gift-bearing spirit, one that brings him wisdom and authority as a leader.

When 'the seventy' (though really the 70 minus 2) are assembled, the mystery of God's presence descends "in the cloud" (v. 25) and the spirit rested on the elders. There is no implication here that Moses' authority or energy for leadership is diminished. Instead, the responsibility is shared or multiplied amongst the other elders. There is the sense that the spirit resting on the cohort means that it settles with them because they gift they receive is perpetual.

Although some might (and do) interpret the word 'prophesying' in the text as referring to speaking in tongues or preaching, other interpretations point to the role the elders would have in mediating disputes, making judgements, and taking responsibility related to governing the people.

The Spirit's role in empowering and sustaining people for leadership is also exemplified in the account of Eldad and Medad, on whom the Spirit chooses to rest even though they remained in the camp and were not with the elders and Moses in the tent. They continue to prophesy or exercise leadership even when the others have ceased to do so. Instead of objecting, Moses affirms their leadership and wishes that the same spirit to empower all God's people (verse 29). The passage conveys the sense that authority for ministry does not rest with one person alone, but is exercised in a community in which many receive gifts for leadership.

To Ponder

  • To what extent does leadership involve spiritual gifts?
  • What is the role of church leaders in identifying and encouraging the leadership of all God's people?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Cindy Wesley

Cindy Wesley is the director of studies at Wesley House in Cambridge. She is responsible for the life of the chapel and for advising students about their courses and modules.