Joel Cohen’s Question:
G d told Moses to gather seventy men from among the elders. He emanated from Moses’ spirit upon the seventy men, who then began to prophesy.
Two men, Eldad and Medad, however, remained behind in the camp. The Spirit rested upon them, and they prophesied in the camp. Joshua, however, beckoned Moses to incarcerate them. Moses rejoined: “Are you being zealous for my sake? Would that the entire people of G d could be prophets, if G d would but put His spirit upon them.”
• Were Eldad and Medad foretelling when the Hebrews would come into the Land?
• Were they predicting Moses’ death?
• And was Joshua motivated by his impression that Eldad and Medad were supplanting him, causing him envy? That’s surely what it looks like.
Rabbi Eli Popack Responds:
Joel, before judging any of the characters of this story, we need a few crucial details that, as you’ve pointed out, are not written explicitly in the Torah:
1. The verse tells us these two men who remained in the camp “were among those written, but they did not go out to the tent” (Num. 11:26). In other words, they should have been among the elders who gathered at the Tabernacle, upon whom G d conferred of Moses’ spirit, but instead remained in the camp. But why didn’t they join the rest of the elders?
2. What exactly did they prophesy about?
The Talmud discussed these questions, and in classic Talmudic style there are a few opinions as to what went on here.
But first, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 17a) tells us how the seventy elders were chosen. Assuming that each of the tribes would want equal representation, we are stuck with a problem, because 70 is not divisible by 12. If each tribe provides six elders we have a total of 72 people, while G d only asked for seventy. So Moses took 72 slips of paper; on seventy of them he wrote “elder,” and two of them he left blank. He then chose six men from each tribe and instructed them: “Draw your slips from the urn.” Whoever picked one inscribed with “elder” was in. Whoever picked a blank slip was out.
What happened next? Here, we have three opinions:
1. Eldad and Medad were the two who picked the blank slips.
2. Eldad and Medad feared that they would pick a blank slip, so they did not participate in the lottery at all, choosing to “remain in the camp” instead.
3. Rabbi Shimon says that Eldad and Medad actually picked “elder” slips. Yet, feeling unworthy of greatness, they did not go to the Tabernacle—even though they “won” the lottery.
(For the rationale behind this dispute, see Where Were Eldad and Medad?)
So according to the first opinion, Eldad and Medad were not part of the seventy, but for some inexplicable reason, known to G d alone, they were suddenly imbued with their own “resting of spirit.”
This would also explain why Joshua was so disconcerted by their prophecy: it wasn’t due to what their prophecy was, but simply because they prophesied. They were not from the seventy upon whom G d promised to confer from Moses’ spirit. This was not part of the “distribution of prophecy” plan. So, Joshua concluded, it must be a charade, they must be either insane or offensive.
But according to the second two opinions, Eldad and Medad were part of the seventy—and therefore they were simply prophesying with the others, albeit from the camp. (Although according to the second opinion they didn’t pick their slip, some explain that another two elders had gotten the blank slip, leaving Eldad and Medad among the seventy elders of choice.) If so, why then was Joshua so upset? Well, according to these opinions, it was the content of their prophecies.
What was the prophecy?
Here, too, the Talmud offers a variety of opinions:
1. “Moses shall die and Joshua shall bring Israel into the land.”
2. Abba Chanin said: They prophesied concerning the quails (the birds which the Israelites were miraculously fed in the wilderness, starting immediately after this incident): “Arise, quail; arise, quail.”
3. Rabbi Nachman said: They prophesied regarding Gog and Magog (the war which will be fought at the End of Days).
According to the view that they prophesied that Moses would die, Joshua’s reaction is quite expectable: as a student who loved his teacher dearly, as one who spent time with the greatest prophet of all times and the one who brought the Torah from heaven to earth, he was appalled at their chutzpah, their suggestion that Moses would die and not be the one to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land.
“But according to the two other views,” the Talmud continues, “why did he say ‘My lord Moses, incarcerate them?’—Because their behavior was unseemly, for they were like a disciple who answers questions in the presence of his teacher.”
To assume a position of guide and leader in the presence of your own teacher, even when divinely inspired, is not in concordance with Jewish ethics.
Notwithstanding Moses’ reply – “If only all of G d’s people were prophets, that G d would bestow His spirit upon them” – Joshua’s reaction teaches us an important lesson in respect for our teachers and educators.
Rabbi Adam Mintz Responds:
The Talmud includes two views about the identity of Eldad and Medad. The Talmud explains that G d chose 70 elders to assist Moses. Yet, this was an unfair distribution as there were twelve tribes. One view in the Talmud states that Moses chose six people from each tribe, totally seventy-two. Eldad and Medad were the two extras who were not included in the chosen ones. The other opinion claims that Eldad and Medad decided on their own to remain in the camp so as not to embarrass the two people who were not chosen. According to this second opinion, which is the one that is adopted by the commentators, they were rewarded and given an extra amount of prophecy. The Talmud adds to the intrigue by claiming that the prophecy that they uttered was that Moses was going to die and Joshua would lead the people into the Land of Israel.
If this is the case, it is easy to understand why Joshua felt uncomfortable and reported their action to Moses. But, how can you explain Moses’ reaction? Didn’t he realize that this type of prophecy would lead to terrible discouragement among the people? How could they imagine entering the Land without their leader Moses? I believe that this story highlights the quality of leadership in Moses that allowed him to feel secure in his role and therefore not be afraid to share that role of prophet with others. Moses was one of those few leaders in history who did not feel threatened and was not afraid of competition.
Yet, we can still wonder whether Moses’ humility got him in trouble. In next week’s parshah, the sin of the spies causes the Jews to wander in the desert for forty years. This event was the beginning of the decline of the Jews culminating in Moses’ hitting of the rock and G d’s punishment that he too would not enter the Land. Did Moses begin his downward spiral by not standing up for his position and his role as leader of the Jews? An interesting question to ponder.
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