Reluctant Prophets, Humble Leaders

BAHAALOTEKHA — NUMBERS 8:1-12:16

By Peretz Rodman

Published June 01, 2007, issue of June 01, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

‘My lord Moses, restrain them!” So shouts Joshua as he and Moses observe that two men, Eldad and Medad, are behaving as prophets within the Israelite encampment (Numbers 11:28). Prophecy, after all, is Moses’ claim to authority. Should it be discovered that Moses has no monopoly on prophetic powers, perhaps his authority would be eroded, his leadership subject to challenge. Joshua, as his loyal acolyte, is acutely sensitive to that danger.

Moses himself, however, is unconcerned. “Are you jealous on my part?” he asks Joshua. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would place His spirit upon them?”

Who are those two men? Despite some ambiguity in the narration, it appears that Eldad and Medad were among the 70 elders whom Moses had chosen, when directed by God, to gather around the outside of the Tent of Meeting, inside which Moses, accompanied by Joshua, would encounter the divine presence. Those two, we are told, remained in the camp, “and the spirit of the Lord rested on them, and they were among those inscribed [that is, among the 70 elders enumerated by Moses], but they did not go out from the tent, and they prophesied in the camp.” It was their presence within the camp, rather than at some remove from the population like the other 68, that made Joshua consider them a threat to his master’s authority.

What was it that impelled Eldad and Medad — whose Tweedledum/Tweedledee names both may mean “beloved of God” — to stay back when called to the Tent of Meeting? Fear, perhaps? Or maybe humility? If it was the latter, their humility nearly caused their downfall. It is no accident, then, that it is Moses, the person described early in the very next chapter as the paragon of humility, “more than any person on the face of the earth” who exculpates them. He, of all people, can value true humility. In fact, Moses is the paradigm of the man reluctant to take on the prophetic role, the first of many to claim that he was unfit for that task as God thrust it upon him. He imputes to Eldad and Medad a similar sentiment as they stayed back when called forth to leadership.

Prophecy is not only for the bold, though. In Moses’ view, the more people who are granted the ability to think God’s thoughts or, at least, to feel God’s feelings, the better the world will be. In a perfect world, we would all be prophets.

The story of Eldad and Medad is striking for its position within the Book of Numbers. It is embedded in the middle of another narrative, which it interrupts: the story of the riffraff among the Israelites clamoring for meat, a demand that is answered by God in two ways: first with a miraculous gift—a surfeit of quail meat, on which they proceed to gorge themselves—and then with a divine massacre of the gluttonous offenders. By inserting the story of the 70 elders in the middle of the quail tale, the Torah is contrasting them. In place of the mob whose sole concern is physical delights comes the sacred assembly of elders, men of soul whose concerns are of those of the spirit. Standing out in each story is one man, or a pair of men, embodying the humility that is the mark of the true leader. In both stories, the authority of Moses is (or seems to be) called into question; in both, Moses prevails. While things go badly for the mob in the frame story, ending with the naming of the site as Kivrot Ha-ta’ava (“The Graves of Lust/Desire”), in the embedded story danger is averted, and Eldad and Medad are praised as exemplary leaders.

Moses, though, remains the quintessential leader in these interwoven tales. At the seam between the interpolated story of the elders (including Eldad and Medad) and the resumption of the story of the quails, we are told: “Moses then re-entered the camp, he and the elders of Israel” (Numbers 11:29). According to a collection of Hasidic commentary published in Warsaw in 1899, “Likkutim Hadashim,” Moses was at that moment demonstrating the most valiant sort of leadership: “When Moses our Teacher sensed that the people of Israel faced imminent disaster—the severe punishment at Kivrot Ha-ta’ava—he took his tent, which had all along been located outside the camp, and pitched it inside the camp. If disaster was to strike [the Israelites]—it was his desire to be with them and among them.”

Rabbi Peretz Rodman is a visiting lecturer in Hebrew language and literature at Hebrew College Online. He lives in Jerusalem.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.