The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Department of Jewish History
The incident of Eldad and Medad who prophesy in the camp(11:26-30) raises a number of important questions. We recall that it took place immediately after the spirit of the Lord had rested upon the seventy elders and then departed. Here is the description:
And the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took part of the spirit that was upon him and put it upon the seventy men of the elders, and it was, when the spirit rested upon them, that they prophesied, but did not continue [Hebrew yasafu,on which see below]. And two men remained in the camp--one was called Eldad and the other was called Medad--and the spirit rested upon them; and they belonged to those who had been recorded, but they had not gone out to the Tent [of Assembly], and they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, and said, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp," and Joshua son of Nun, servant of Moses from his youth, answered and said, "My lord Moses, restrain them [or, destroy them]." And Moses said to him, "Are you jealous on my account? Would that all the people of the Lord might be prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!" (Num. 11:25-28)
It is not at all clear from these verses what actually took place that led Joshua to demand their detention. Moses's reaction demonstrates that two approaches were possible: restraining the perpetrators (Joshua), or hoping that all the people do the same (Moses). To clarify the event we must first explicate what is said just beforehand of the seventy elders, that "they prophesied, but did not yasafu."
Yasafu has been interpreted in two diametrically opposed ways. According to the Aramaic translation of Onkelos, the meaning is that once the elders had begun to prophesy, they did so without cessation. Conversely, the Sifri (the Tannaitic Midrash to the book of Numbers) states that while they did prophesy on that particular day, they ceased to do so thereafter:
Of the seventy elders it says, "They prophesied, and did not yasafu": that is, they prophesied for that occasion. Of Eldad and Medad it says, "They prophesied in the camp"--they prophesied until the day of their death.
These opposing views affect the interpetation of the following incident of Eldad and Medad. According to the first explanation (that the elders continued to prophesy), Eldad and Medad erred not by prophesying but in the content of their prophecy or in the way in which they announced their vision in public. According to the second view (that the elders ceased to prophesy but Eldad and Medad continued), the impropriety resided in the very fact of their prophesying.
If this is so, the incident raises a serious question about the nature of prophecy. Does not true prophecy rest upon a person through God's guidance and authority? How then can there be anything wrong with it? Or are we to understand that prophecy is merely a human inspiration which people are able to control? Perhaps this is why the Talmud distances itself from Sifri's explanation and declares that not only was there nothing improper in Eldad and Medad's prophesying, but on the contrary, it was their reward for having "diminished their own importance" (Sanhedrin 17a). This is the Talmud's way of making its position clear with regard to prophecy--that it does indeed come from heaven.
In the ensuing discussion, the Talmud has to explain why Joshua felt that Eldad and Medad had sinned. If the defect was not in the fact of prophesying in itself, it must be sought either in the content or in the way it was made public. The Talmud suggests three possibilities for what Eldad and Medad actually said:
Of these three possibilities, the Talmud rejects the first as improper in content, while it was the manner of presentation which made the second and third questionable: "It was not proper behavior for them to prophesy, for they were as a student who rules on halacha [Jewish law] in his rabbi's presence." The seriousness of this point must not be overlooked: Nadab and Abihu paid with their lives for acting improperly (Lev. 10:1-4)and according to one opinion, their fault was "teaching halacha in their rabbi's presence."
But the problems are still not laid to rest. If there is nothing wrong with prophesying in itself and we are speaking of genuine prophecy which was a reward for their humility, how can expressing the prophecy be invalid? Prophecy is presumably given in order to be uttered, which makes it hard to understand why Joshua thought Eldad and Medad should be imprisoned for being "true" prophets. Secondly, any explanation has to take the argument between Moses and Joshua into account.
A novel approach to our story takes into account the sociological analysis of leadership and the phenomenon of sectarianism. Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch were among the first scholars to develop a typology of church versus sect, organized religious bodies as against splinter groups. What characterizes a sect is that its leadership is charismatic: the leader claims to be endowed with direct prophetic powers.
Niebuhr and many others have noted that a sect's existential problems arise mainly in the second generation, when its leadership has become institutionalized and organized, and the sect itself has effectively turned into a church. The sect is liable to split into further factions and to question its leadership.
Joshua, the first leader to inherit his position in an institutionalized manner, is by nature representative of the second generation. No wonder that Joshua is described here as ’the servant of Moses from his youth": he is, as it were, a trainee leader--as against the alternative option of a charismatic leadership. He recognized the danger in a charismatic leadership of the type that Eldad and Medad represented.
Eldad and Medad, appearing out of nowhere (they even prophesy within the camp, whereas the other elders must leave the camp before they are granted prophecy), undermine the authority of the existing administration. Even if their prophecy is genuine, Joshua reacts with "My lord Moses, imprison them," because of the danger they pose. To preserve the people and their government and general organization, he is prepared to lock up a genuine prophet.
If we take this approach, the two last possibilities suggested by the Talmud for what Eldad and Medad actually said are the most dangerous. The first, "Moses is dead, Joshua is bringing Israel into the Promised Land," does not call the current administration's authority into question; on the contrary, it strengthens the organized transition of power from Moses to Joshua. But prophecies about immediate needs and the End of Days are indeed a threat. A leader who is in power expresses himself through his governance of the present and his capacity to draw people in the direction of the future, and these authorities form the basis of his leadership. In relating to the present and to the future, the prophecies of Eldad and Medad posed a threat to Moses's government and alarmed Joshua, who wanted to maintain the integrity of the people.
Leadership can be undermined by an interest group--Moses and Joshua already experienced the rebellion of Korah and his associates--but it can also be challenged by people who are moved by an ideology or by genuine prophecy. These too can lead to national collapse, and as the representative of the second generation, for whom the leadership has become institutionalized, Joshua saw a serious danger in this type of challenge and reacted vigorously to Eldad and Medad. Moses's response, by contrast, shows us that genuine prophecy or a chosen leadership is more important than the preservation of the existing organizational framework. Let us not forget that Moses himself belonged to a generation typified by this kind of leadership.
Judaism aspires to prophecy for everyone; all Jews should rise to the level of Moses--provided the prophecy is genuine and the "spirit of the Lord" is indeed in our midst. As Moses said, "Would that all the people of the Lord might be prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!" Truth and true prophecy win out over all self-preserving frameworks.
These, then, are the lessons to be derived from the incident of Eldad and Medad: