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Reluctant Prophets, Humble Leaders

‘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.

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