There is an interesting historical tradition recorded in the narrative of Numbers 11. Like most such narratives, there are simplifications involved in the telling of the story, and that can make it difficult, at times, for us to gain a clear picture of the underlying historical situation.
The basic tradition begins in verse 10 (see vv. 1-9 for the narrative context), as Moses is feeling overwhelmed at the responsibility for leading the people on their difficult journey across the desolate stretches of the Sinai peninsula. Within the Tent where Moses speaks with YHWH, he complains of this to God (vv. 11-15). In response, YHWH decides to relieve Moses of some of this burden, by having it be shared with seventy elders specially appointed for the role (on the tradition of seventy elders, cf. Exod 24:1ff, and cp. Gen 46:27; Exod 1:5 etc). Though it is not stated as such here, this relates to the idea of Moses as the ayb!n`, the spokesperson and intermediary between YHWH and Israel (cf. Exod 19:18-21, etc). In a real sense, prophecy in Israel begins with Moses, at least in terms of the Scriptural narrative, and he stands in many ways as the ultimate prophet-figure.
This is not to say that there was no prophecy and no prophets prior to Moses, since various forms of prophecy were practiced in the ancient Near East centuries before. Some of our best, and most relevant, information in this regard comes from the site of Mari, where at least two kinds of prophets were known (cf. Milgrom/JPS, pp. 380-4):
- ¹pilum, those functioning in an official capacity, it would seem, such as at the royal court
- mu——ûm, those operating at a more popular level, their gifted status marked especially by ecstatic experience
The use of the word “prophet” to translate Hebrew ayb!n` is actually rather misleading, since it tends to imply the limited function of telling/seeing the future. While the role of the ayb!n` may involve a measure of clairvoyance and visionary experience (as a “seer”, Heb. ha#r) / hz#j)), it is better defined as that of a spokesperson—i.e. one who speaks and acts on God’s behalf. The noun ayb!n` is quite rare in the Pentateuch, occurring just four times in Genesis–Numbers; this, along with the three passages in Deuteronomy where it is used (13:2-6; 18:15-22; 34:10), confirms the point above that the position of ayb!n` in Israel properly begins with Moses. Though in Exod 7:1 the word is used of Aaron (as Moses‘ spokesperson), the implication is that Moses himself is the one representing YHWH (Num 12:6ff; the use of the word in Gen 20:7 may be influenced by the Exodus/Moses traditions).
This brings us back to the tradition in Numbers 11, and YHWH’s response to Moses’ complaint in verses 16-17ff. Regarding the 70 elders chosen to share in Moses’ role (as spokesperson/ayb!n`), God says this about them:
“…and I will lay aside (some) from the spirit [j^Wr] that (is) upon you, and I will set (it) upon them, and they will carry with you (the) burden of the people, and you will not carry (it) by yourself alone.” (v. 17)
Though it is never so stated elsewhere in the Pentateuch, here it is clearly implied that Moses prophetic ability—that is, his role as spokesperson (ayb!n`) for God—is the result of a special gifting from the spirit (j^Wr) of God (on this, cf. the previous note). Now YHWH says that he will “lay aside” (vb lx^a*) something from this same spirit, and put it upon the 70 elders, just as it is upon Moses. In later terminology, this could be referred to more abstractly as “the spirit of prophecy” (Rev 19:10). According to the ancient way of thinking, all varieties of ‘prophetic’ experience were the product of divine inspiration—that is, the possession of (or by) a deity or spirit. For Christians, of course, true prophecy comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:21; Eph 3:5; 1 John 4:1-5, etc), and a comparable idea is expressed numerous times throughout the Old Testament (this will be discussed in upcoming notes).
The chosen elders are to gather around the Tent of Meeting, and, while Moses is inside, this transfer of the ayb!n`-spirit will take place. This is narrated in verses 24-25, precisely as declared earlier by YHWH:
“And YHWH came down in a cloud and spoke to him [i.e. Moses], and He laid aside (some) from the spirit [j^Wr] that (is) upon him, and gave (it) upon the seventy elder men; and, it came to be, as the spirit rested upon them, they also (themselves) acted as ayb!n` [WaB=n~t=y!]…” (v. 25)
While the specific noun ayb!n` is not used here (cf. below), the related verb ab*n`, a denominative from ayb!n`, does occur. The basic meaning is “act/speak as a ayb!n`” —that is, to fulfill the role as an inspired spokesperson for God. This is the same role Moses has, but now it is being shared by these 70 elders. The extent of their prophetic role is a matter of some dispute, given the ambiguity of the last two words of the verse: Wpsy aýw+. The Hebrew text wpsy could be parsed as Wps*y` (“they continued [to do]”, i.e. did repeatedly, vb [s^y`), or as Wps%y` (“they ceased [doing]”, vb [Ws). According to the first reading, the negation (with the particle aý) would be “and they did not continue” (i.e. in this role as ayb!n`)—that is, it was only temporary, under special circumstances. The second option would be “and they did not cease” (in their role as ayb!n`). The latter is much to be preferred syntactically (but compare e.g. Gen 38:26), and in the context of the narrative; it is also supported by the Targums (Onkelos, Jonathan), while the former reading has the support of the LXX and other Rabbinic authorities. It remains an open question of interpretation. Cf. Milgrom/JPS, pp. 89, 308.
A fascinating related tradition follows in verses 26-30. Two of the appointed elders—named Eldad and Medad—apparently were not gathered around the Tent with the others, and yet the prophetic spirit still came upon them. They, too, acted as ayb!n` —the same reflexive Hithpael form of the verb ab*n` used in v. 25 (cf. above). Such use of this verb seems to have the technical meaning of exhibiting a certain form of inspired prophetic experience. Based on similar occurrences elsewhere in the Old Testament (to be discussed in the upcoming notes), it would imply an ecstatic experience, manifested at times in strange or aberrant behavior. If so, it would have been striking indeed for these two men to go about through the camp, speaking and acting under such ecstatic inspiration. It is understandable why Moses’ young attendant Joshua might be troubled by reports of their activity (v. 27), calling out as he does to his master, “My lord Moshe, restrain them!” (v. 28). Moses’ answer in verse 29 is not what we might have expected, given the importance (expressed elsewhere) of regulating and testing apparent prophetic experience; here is his reply to Joshua:
“Are you red (with concern) for me? And (yet) who would (not) give (that) all (the) people of YHWH (would be) <ya!yb!n+, that YHWH would give His spirit [j^Wr] upon them!”
One is reminded of Jesus’ response to his disciples’ complaint about people, outside his immediate circle, performing miracles in his name (Mark 9:38-41 par). Moses’ words also seem to foreshadow the use of Joel 2:28-32 in Peter’s famous Pentecost speech, with the promise that the Spirit of God would come upon all His people, and that they (i.e. all believers) would act as prophets. The initial question posed to Joshua suggests that the younger man’s concern may have been for any possible threat to Moses’ leadership that might arise out of such prophetic activity in the camp. Since Moses was aware that the inspiration of the 70 elders was the direct result of YHWH’s action, he had no immediate cause for concern. This also confirms Moses’ position as supreme ayb!n`, a point made even more explicit in several other passages which would greatly influence the subsequent Old Testament and Jewish tradition.
In the next few notes, we will continue to explore this important emphasis on the relationship of the Spirit to prophecy.
References above marked “Milgrom/JPS” are to The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers rbdmb, commentary by Jacob Milgrom (Jewish Publication Society: 1990).