Unruly Spirit

The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.’

Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the Lord became very angry, and Moses was displeased. So Moses said to the Lord, ‘Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favour in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,” to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, “Give us meat to eat!” I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favour in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.’

So the Lord said to Moses, ‘Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you.

So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’ And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, ‘My lord Moses, stop them!’ But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that [God] would put [the Divine] spirit on them!’

Mark 9:38-40

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.”

            What you and I know in our English Bibles as the “Book of Numbers,” all those folks reading from the Hebrew Bible know as the book titled, “In the Wilderness.”[i] It’s a more intriguing title, for sure – unless you especially like math and then you’re just in for disappointment because beyond the census lists in the first and the twenty-sixth chapters, there aren’t a lot of numbers in the book at all. It is, indeed, a story about a people’s journey through the wilderness.

            In today’s text, the people have left Mt. Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments. And the people set out on a multi-decade trek through the wilderness following Moses as they journey on through the first ten chapters with things going fairly well for them.

            And then, “The rabble among them had a strong craving; and the Israelites also wept again, and said, ‘If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.’”

            Murmuring and complaints among the people is a motif that runs throughout the Exodus journey through the wilderness – the need for water and for food and for rescue from the brink of death, just in the nick of time. And every time, the people have their needs supplied, again and again, through seemingly miraculous means. And each time, Moses is the heroic figure who cries out on behalf of the people – the great prophet and sturdy leader of the Hebrew people.

But this time, “Moses heard the people weeping and Moses prayed to God, saying, ‘Why have you treated me so badly? Why do I have to carry the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them? But you said, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a wet nurse carries a feeding child,’ to the land that you promised. They’re all weeping saying, “Give us meat to eat!” Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? It’s too much. It’s too much! If this is the way you are going to treat me, I’d rather just die.’”

            And the voice of the Divine answers Moses’ cries once again, this time not to just provide for their physical needs, but to bolster the prophetic leadership that Moses, alone, could no longer muster among the people. In a period of nearly suicidal desperation, Moses could no longer carry the people on his own. So seventy elders are appointed to share the burden; seventy people who would gather in the Tent of Meeting in expectation of the Divine presence to come among them; seventy from the camps who would share the burden with Moses to speak an inspired word of guidance to a people on the move, a people in the wilderness.

“Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to [Moses], and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.”

            In a brief but profound moment in the book of Numbers – “In the Wilderness” – the seventy elders received the Divine Spirit and began prophesying in the Tent of Meeting – a cordoned off space, sacred and set apart for this type of thing – the holiest place in the camp, away from where the masses of people lived. While the voice of Moses had been for some time the sole voice leading the people in the way they should go, guiding them from stage to stage in the wilderness journey, now there was a polyphony of voices speaking inspired words of truth and guidance and encouragement, shaping the direction they would go in pursuit of their call forward into the wilderness.

            But two of the Israelites, Eldad and Medad, weren’t out at the Tent of Meeting with the others. And the spirit rested on them, too. And so receiving their unauthorized, unanticipated, overflow of Spirit out in the camp, they began prophesying right where they stood, among the people – making a scene in public. Not in the cordoned off space, sacred and set apart for this type of thing, the holiest place in the camp, but right there in the midst the camp, where the masses of people lived, Eldad and Medad received the Spirit and spoke inspired words of truth and guidance and encouragement to a people on the move, in the wilderness.

            And Joshua, you remember him, Joshua who was always right by Moses’ side, his most trusted advisor and companion, a leader of his people… When Moses told all the other elders to wait for him until he came back from Sinai, it was Joshua who set out alongside Moses up the mountain. This Joshua, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, heard that Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camps, unauthorized and unordained and not even in the proper place of worship, and Joshua said, “My lord Moses, stop them!”

You know how it is, don’t you? There’s a time and a place for the Spirit’s moving and the voice of the prophetic to emerge. There are leaders who have been selected and ceremonies for those we’ve ordained and proper authorization and cordoned off places we’ve set aside for this type of thing.

But Moses, glad for the help where he could get it, said to Joshua, ‘Are you jealous for my sake?” Moses, who knew how unruly the Spirit of the Divine could be, took Joshua by the shoulders and looked into his eyes and said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that [God] would put [the Divine] spirit on every single one of them!”

But, still, you know the urge moving inside Joshua, don’t you? There are leaders who have been selected and ceremonies for those we’ve ordained and authorizations that have been issued and cordoned off places we’ve set aside for this type of thing. There’s a time and a place for the Spirit’s moving and the voice of the prophetic to emerge.

When the killing of unarmed black people by the police leads to a burgeoning BlackLivesMatter movement, staging weeks long protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, and elsewhere and people put their bodies on the protest line and breathe the tear gas and take the rubber bullets, and unflinchingly insist that the way it is ain’t the way it ought to be…

            And the nice, “understanding” folks who believe all the killing is wrong, but who know the reasons decorum matter say, “No, no, no, there’s a time and a place for these sorts of things. You can’t behave in such an unruly manner. You won’t get anywhere that way. We have a procedure to follow and forms to file and a cordoned off place where you can make your voices heard. This sort of unruly display just isn’t acceptable.”

“My lord, stop them!”

When a religious leader – let’s just say, the Pope – speaks to the masses of people right they live, even in the halls of Congress, calling the government to account for the evils of unfettered capitalism and the rampant destruction of the earth and the killing of innocents by military force and the inhuman nature of the death penalty and the mistreatment of our neighbors throughout the earth…

            And the pundits say, “No, no, no, there’s a time and a place and a range of acceptable topics for religious leaders: keep it to Sunday mornings in your cordoned off houses of worship and stick to the pie-in-the-sky afterlife talk and heart-warming love stuff, everyone likes that. Just keep your nose out of ‘politics’ and our pocketbooks. My lord, just shut him up!”

But two of the Israelites, Eldad and Medad, weren’t out at the Tent of Meeting with the others. And the spirit rested on them, too. And so receiving their unauthorized, unanticipated, overflow of Spirit out in the camps, they began prophesying right where they stood, among the people – making a scene in public. Not in the cordoned off space, sacred and set apart for this type of thing, the holiest place in the camp, but right there in the midst the camp, where the masses of people lived, Eldad and Medad received the Spirit and spoke inspired words of truth and guidance and encouragement to a people on the move, in the wilderness.

Unauthorized, unordained, not even in attendance in the house of worship, Eldad and Medad got caught up in the Spirit’s inspiration. And the great prophet Moses heard about it and said, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that [God] would put [the Divine] spirit on them!” Would that they all prophesied before the people, right where they live, speaking words of truth and guidance and encouragement where it is needed most, to a people on the move, in the wilderness. Would that the unruly Spirit move in surprising places to call us forward in the journey in ways that we can’t anticipate, ways that shake us up and that seem utterly out of place.

            And maybe that’s enough of a sermon right there. It’s a good message – one we’ll always need to hear. Eldad and Medad: representatives of the Spirit’s unruly nature to move about where she will, inspiring prophetic work among the people, unauthorized, unordained, not even in attendance in the house of worship. That’s a decent enough sermon.

            But…

Why weren’t Eldad and Medad in the Tent of Meeting that day when the Spirit came down and the seventy began prophesying? They were among those registered.

Maybe they thought the invitation to join the elders was a mistake…  

Maybe Eldad and Medad didn’t consider themselves worthy candidates for such a call…

Maybe they could never conceive of a day when they would be needed as leaders of the community – not when there were folks like Moses and Joshua around…

            Maybe they were “too young” to be leaders of the people…

            Maybe they were not as erudite as the seventy who gathered in the Tent of Meeting…

            Maybe they had always felt a little out of place in the house of worship…

            Maybe they had trouble believing, and weren't quite “orthodox” enough in their theology to speak holy words of truth and guidance and inspiration…

            Maybe they just didn’t think they could possibly be of any use when it came to leading a people on the move in the wilderness…

            And for any of these reasons, they didn’t go out to the holy place, but stayed behind, tending to their daily tasks, sitting with the folks they always sat with that time of day, out in the camps, minding their own business – unassuming and unsuspecting.

And what about you? Unauthorized, unordained, unassuming, unsuspecting.

Not enough of a “religious person,” or “true believer,” or not “spiritual” enough for such a role…?

Not possibly of any use when it comes to leading a people when there are folks like so-and-so around…?

Too young, not erudite enough, feeling just a little out of place in a church…?

And the spirit rested on Eldad and Medad. While they were among those registered, they had not gone out to the tent of meeting, the holy place, the house of worship, and so they prophesied right where they were, in the camp, among the people.

And Joshua, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!”

No, no, no, Joshua, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that [God] would put [the Divine] spirit on every single one of them!” Every single one…

Even on Eldad… Even on Medad… Even on you…



[i] Terence E. Fretheim, “Commentary on Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29,” Working Preacher, online: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1355
  • The Rev. Cody J. Sanders
  • September 27, 2015