However, two men whose names were Eldad and Medad, had remained in the camp. They were listed among the elders, but did not go out to the tent. Yet the Spirit also rested on them, and they prophesied in the camp. A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” Numbers 11:24-27
Hands up anyone who has heard of Eldad and Medad. Mmm, I thought as much – even we Christians don’t know our Bibles very well. All right, to be fair, Eldad and Medad aren’t quite up there with David and Elijah, or Peter and Paul, in the galaxy of Bible characters. But even they have their story to tell.
We’d better start by getting familiar with that story – and really you need to read the whole of Numbers 11…
The people of Israel have come out of slavery in Egypt. They are wandering in the desert, heading ultimately for the promised land, under the leadership of Moses. But there is trouble in the camp. The people are complaining about diet – they are missing all the nice things they used to eat in Egypt. Some even want to head straight back. Moses’ leadership is being questioned. He is having a tough time.
God tells him it is time to share his leadership responsibilities with others. He is to gather seventy of the leaders of the people, and he is given this promise: “…I will take of the spirit that is on you, and put the spirit on them. They will help you carry the burden of the people…” (verse 17).
Moses does as he is told. He gathers these men at the sacred Tent where he regularly goes to be with God. And while they are there something remarkable happens: “When the spirit rested on them, they prophesied…” (verse 25).
They prophesied. Let’s not worry too much exactly what this means; it was probably some kind of ecstatic utterance, akin to the speaking in tongues we read about in the New Testament. Whatever, it was obviously pretty dramatic.
But now a little drama unfolds. It seems that two of the seventy men, Eldad and Medad, were missing from this gathering at the Tent. We aren’t told why – perhaps they weren’t well that day; perhaps they had somehow incurred a ritual impurity which barred them from going to the Tent. There is no suggestion that they are to blame. But anyway, they aren’t there. They miss out on this dramatic experience.
But wait a minute – no, they don’t miss out! It seems that they too are given this gift of prophesy, even though they are still in the camp with the ordinary people. A man comes running, like a school-child to the teacher: “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” And Joshua, Moses’ right-hand man, is distinctly unhappy: Moses,this really is most irregular – you should put a stop to it at once!
What does Moses do? Remarkably, he rejects Joshua’s advice. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that he would be a happy man if everyone had received this gift (does that remind you of anyone in the New Testament?).
So that is the curious incident of Eldad and Medad.The question that follows is obvious: is there anything we can learn from it? Let me suggest three things.
First, you can’t put God in a box. Yes, what happened that day with Eldad and Medad does seem a bit “irregular”. It happened in the “wrong” place and among the “wrong” people, and it didn’t happen under the official leadership. But so what? If God decided that Eldad and Medad should share in this experience after all, who is anyone to complain? God is Lord. He does what he pleases, and it is for us to bow to his will.
Things sometimes happen in church life which don’t seem quite right – they aren’t part of the norm, they don’t fit our tradition or our expectations. They make us feel uncomfortable. When this happens we should of course think them through prayerfully to establish whether or not they are genuine and authentically from God – there are plenty of false manifestations around, after all. “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God”, says John (1 John 4:1). But we shouldn’t respond with a knee-jerk reaction, like Joshua. Perhaps God is at work in a new way – and we wouldn’t like to get in the way of that, now, would we?
Second, we shouldn’t be too suspicious of fellow-Christians who do things differently from us. Christians all over the world worship, pray and serve in all manner of different ways. And of course we all like to think that our denomination or our movement or our church has got it right. Well, some practices are no doubt closer to the biblical pattern than others, but just because someone else has a different custom or practice doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong. Is anything clearly anti-biblical? Is any fundamental principle being violated? If not, it is for us to accept that other person as a brother or sister Christian, differences notwithstanding. (The little episode of Jesus and the “strange exorcist” (Mark 9:38-41) gives us a good New Testament parallel to our Numbers passage.)
Third, there is no place for jealousy or insistence on status, especially among leaders. I think Joshua’s indignation, however mistaken, may have sprung from a good motive: he didn’t like to think that his master Moses’ authority might be undermined by what had happened in the camp. But Moses puts him right: Don’t worry on my account, Joshua! If God is at work, whether through me or not through me, that’s absolutely fine. Relax, and let God be God!
All of us Christians can harbour a sense of wounded pride and get on our high horse when someone else seems to encroach on what we see as our particular territory – it might be teaching, or music, or pastoral care, or administration, or a thousand and one things. But rather than letting our noses be put out of joint, we should rejoice that that other person is using their God-given gift. A little humility is in order!
Lord God, help me not to tie you down by my own prejudices and expectations. May your Spirit work in me and in your church exactly as he pleases. Come again, oh Holy Spirit, this very day! Amen.