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B'Midbar/Numbers 11:29 And Moshe said to him, "Are you being jealous on my account? And who is it that gives all the people of the L-rd as prophets? For it is the L-rd who sets His Spirit upon them."
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Our verse provides a perfect example of one of the occasions when, despite having a clear unambiguous translation and an application that fits its surroundings, a biblical text is treated as an idiom and taken to have a different meaning. The immediate context is that two of those selected to be elders supporting Moshe did not come out to the Tent of Meeting but have nevertheless received the Spirit ofHaShem and prophesied; in their case, in the camp. Joshua has urged Moshe to restrain them for behaving in this way and our verse records Moshe's reply: "Don't look at me; whatever has happened is down to HaShem; He is the one who gives His Spirit." All contemporary English Bibles, however, translate it in the same way as the NJPS: "Would that all the LORD's people were prophets, that the LORD put His spirit upon them!" This is a very early understanding of the text as Targum Onkelos makes clear: it makes the idiom explicit by changing the wording to "it would be good that."
Ibn Ezra offers something in the way of an explanation, writing that "the Hebrew idiom is literally, 'Who would grant' - in the manner of one who asks, 'Who would grant my wish? If only there were someone who could give me what I want!'" Richard Elliott Friedman proposes that while the literal meaning is as we show it above - "who is it that gives" - it really means "if only it were so" or "I wish it were so", and points out that "this is the only time Moshe uses this expression. The people use it once, 'If only we had died by the hand of the L-RD in the land of Egypt' (Shemot 16:3, NJPS); it occurs once as part of a curse, 'In the morning you shall say, "If only it were evening!"' (D'varim 28:67, NJPS); and, most extraordinarily, Moshe reports that G-d used it after the revelation at Sinai 'Oh that they had such a mind as this always, to fear me and to keep all my commandments' (5:29, NJPS)."
What is Moshe saying by answering Joshua's injunction in this way? Thomas Dozeman suggests that "Moshe rejects the desire of Joshua to control the transmission of his spirit to the seventy elders. He states that he does not hoard his own charismatic power; indeed, he wishers that all the people were prophets."1 TheSforno would have Moshe say, "... without receiving the Spirit through me." While accurate enough as far as they go, I think that both Dozeman and the Sforno miss the point. Rabbi Hirsch comments that, "it proclaims that by the appointment of the highest intellectual and spiritual authority in Israel, no monopoly in intellectuality or spirituality is to be formed, that the spiritual gifts of G-d are are in no way dependent on office or profession, and that the lowest of the nation could be considered as equally worthy of the Spirit of G-d as the first official in the highest office." Jacob Milgrom adds, "The L-rd does not restrict His gifts to particular individuals or classes. This lesson inspired a later prophet to predict: 'After that, I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and daughters shall prophesy ...' (Joel 3:1, NJPS).
Nechama Leibowitz takes the argument on another step by noticing Moshe's choice of words: "Moshe does not answer, 'Would that the L-rd's people would prophesy' but rather, 'Would that all the L-rd's people were prophets.' In other words, Moshe does not ask, on their account, that the Spirit of the L-rd should rest on them momentarily, that they should be seized by a sudden prophetic frenzy, as it were, but rather that they should attain the permanent status of prophets, the status to which he had attained, involving direct communion with G-d, receiving the Divine orders directly from Him." She see a difference between a burst of 'frenzy' and being a prophet. Milgrom agrees with her, pointing out that "It is significant that Moshe uses the term 'prophets', rather than 'ecstatics', implying a qualitative as well as quantitative distribution of the L-rd's Spirit. In effect, Moshe proclaims that not only is it a desideratum that all of Israel qualify (through ecstasy) to become elders but that they may even attain a high level - to be prophets like Moshe himself."
We know that Joel's prophesy started to be fulfilled: historically on the day of Pentecost, and was followed throughout the book of Acts when believers received the Holy Spirit and manifest one or more of the voice gifts described by Sha'ul to the congregations in Corinth: prophecy, discernment, tongues, interpretation (1 Corinthians 12:10). Sha'ul specifically urges the Corinthians, "earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy" (14:1, ESV), because the gift of prophecy is the way that believers - both individually and as congregations - hear directly from G-d in this age: hearing the 'now' word of G-d applied to their individual situations, contexts and congregations. Sha'ul adds, "I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy" (v. 5, ESV), because prophecy is important. Just as Moshe wished that all of Israel might receive the Spirit so that they could be prophets and hear directly from HaShem, so Sha'ul wants all believers to exercise the spiritual gifts, especially prophecy.
Sha'ul gives specific guidelines for the way prophecy should be shared in a congregational setting: "Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said. If a revelation is made to another sitting there, let the first be silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged, and the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets" (vv. 29-32, ESV). Prophecy is not ecstasy; it is not shouting and screaming, hysteria or melodrama; it doesn't sound like the King James Bible. It is on the other hand reasoned, measured and done in order. Prophecy is to be tested by other prophets and always checked against Scripture. G-d is a G-d of order, not chaos, and we should expect Him to speak - however urgently or passionately - in an ordered way so that everyone is also to hear and receive what is said. Does that mean that everyone will appreciate what is said? Perhaps not, particularly if it contains a challenge or a rebuke that applies to them, but that is no different from reading Scripture seriously. Both as individuals and as congregations we need to hear the immediate voice of G-d speaking into our contemporary situations today.
The Bible does not usually give us situation-specific directions, although its principles can frequently guide us into making this sort of decision. Just as David needed a specific answer in a time of battle - "David inquired of the L-RD, 'Shall I go and attack these Philistines?' And the L-RD said to David, 'Go and attack the Philistines and save Keilah'" (1 Samuel 23:3, ESV) - and then a little later, "David said, 'Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?' And the L-RD said, 'They will surrender you'" (v. 12, ESV), so the people of G-d today need strategic and tactical decisions and advice from HaShem. He is our commander-in-chief and must be involved in the work we do and the battles we fight in His name.
Prophecy is more than just communication between HaShem and His people. Prophecy is how G-d speaks to the world. As Dennis Olson reports, "prophetic voices throughout Israel's history spoke from outside the centres of power. Voices of the Spirit regularly challenged kings, priests and others who misused their power and who led Israel to stray after gods and allegiances other than the true G-d of Israel. Prophets like Amos or Jeremiah spoke a true word of G-d from the margins of their societies. G-d's people need continually to be attentive to genuine voices of the Spirit who speak G-d's words of judgement and hope, even though they may not be part of the established channels of institutional power."2 We need to hear G-d speaking in these ways today too as He prepares the way for Yeshua to return. We should be expecting Him to have opinions about many of the issues that arise within our complex world and to be warning individuals, businesses, governments and, yes, even churches when they step out of line and are abusing the people Has had made in His image. The cry of the orphans and widows, the poor and the disenfranchised of society, always rises to His ears and He has promised to act on their behalf. It would be inconsistent with His character for Him to remain silent.
Do you have prophetic voices that speaks in your congregation or context? Pray that the Spirit may raise up, anoint and empower such folk in our midst. Pray that you yourself may be one of that number, so that you too may share G-d's heart for His world and His people with those around you and that you may encourage each other in this way. Pray too that G-d may raise up voices to speak His words of truth to the principalities and powers operating through the governments, councils, institutions and global corporations today. Not trivialities about who may win or lose an election, but calling out organisations of power who abuse, manipulate and exploit people as if they were slaves, destroying the natural world and denying people a safe place to live or enough to eat, in the name of profit or to protect influence. These things are a continual abomination before G-d but we should pray that in His mercy He will send prophets to issue a warning before the due judgement falls so that, if possible, people should repent of their wickedness and seek Him.
There is much to be done, many wrongs to be challenged and evil to be rebuked. Similarly, there are many weak hands to be strengthened, hearts to be stirred and doors to be opened so that Yeshua's proclamation of freedom and release for the captives may be heard in our days. The times are short and the Master will be returning before these tasks are exhausted - we must be ready to welcome Him, so that He finds us fully engaged with His business: "Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes" (Luke 12:43, ESV).
1. - Thomas B. Dozeman, "Numbers" in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary Vol I, edited by Leander E. Keck, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015), page 735.
2. - Dennis T. Olson, Numbers, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), pages 68-69.
Further Study: Matthew 9:36-38; Mark 13:9-11; Luke 21:13-15
Application: Pray that the L-rd will whisper His words of prophecy into your ears so that, emboldened by His Spirit, you may speak them out when He calls. Pray for boldness in speech, power of words and a simple open trust in G-d to proclaim His truth at all times.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2023
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