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Numbers 11:24-30

On Pentecost Sunday the Book of Numbers gives us a story to illustrate the hardships of the Israelites' journey through the wilderness, and the new way God guided them. The story contains God's answer to the heavy burden of leadership on the shoulders of Moses. The Lectionary pairs this story with the alternate Gospel reading of John 7:37-39 where Jesus prophesies that believers in him with receive the Spirit after his death. There are also obvious parallels with the traditional story of Pentecost in Acts 2.

The context of the Numbers story is an illustration of the way the guidance of God was understood by Moses and the people. The ark of the covenant was regarded as the place of God’s enthronement. As the people moved in the exodus it was carried out ahead of the whole company, sometimes for three days, so that God could guide the forward scouts to good places of rest and food. It appears that there were enemies of the Israelites around, and God's presence was both a guide and a guard. Yet the people still complained, and brought God's anger on them in the form of fire. Even that did not stop the rabble rousers among them from protesting about the lack of meat. The manna that fell during the night simply did not satisfy them. For this people it was no longer a matter of food itself, but they now complained about the menu.

At this point Moses' resources of strength and faith for leadership of the people were fast ebbing away. He also complained to God. He was weary of the burden of all these complaining people. God's answer is a challenge to the idea of a 'one man band' style of leadership. No longer will Moses have a monopoly on receiving divine guidance. No longer will he alone possess the Spirit of God. Yet that does not mean God will lead the people without Moses. On the contrary, some of the divine spirit in Moses will be shared with seventy elders of the people. They will not have the same status as Moses, who received the spirit of God directly. They will receive it via Moses as mediator. Yet their role will be to carry some of the burden of the prophet. Moses is to gather them in the ‘tent of meeting’ where this will take place.

The King James Version says that after receiving a portion of the divine spirit in Moses, the elders prophesied and ‘did not cease’. However, the Hebrew phrase is lo yasaphu, which means ‘they did not continue’ or ‘did not do it again’. It seems that their prophesying on this occasion was sufficient for God to speak to the people through them. There is even more to this new development. Two young men were not in the tent where it was thought God's presence was only to be apprehended. Yet they also received some of the spirit in Moses, and prophesied outside of the tent, in the camp among the people. This is a huge step in understanding the way God relates to and through God’s people. It can happen in ordinary, mundane places and circumstances – among the people. God's spirit will not be confined to human-made 'holy' places.

Moses recognizes this with obvious delight. He does not express anger or regard the young men as having acted presumptuously. When his deputy Joshua expresses dismay that Eldad and Medad have acted improperly we almost hear a chuckle in the voice of Moses: ‘Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!’

This story illustrates another leap in the Old Testament's understanding of the way God uses human hands and voices so the divine will can be made known to the world. The story of Moses and the seventy elders offers a challenging perspective on the New Testament's understanding that the Spirit of God was given for the first time to the followers of Jesus on the Day of Pentecost. The Gospel of John (20:22) and the Book of Acts (2:4) say the disciples received the Spirit of God for prophecy – as did the elders of Israel. Moreover, we note that the purpose of the distribution of God’s spirit among the people was not to enhance the status of those who received it. It was above all to facilitate the working of God among and through all his people. We have here a Pentecost before Pentecost.

Psalm 104

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