Numbers 11 in the Context of Moses’ Era

If we attempt to draw twenty-first century ministerial analogies from an era a full millennia and a half prior to the scene in the Upper Room, we must consider the cognitive facts of the text. By simple observation, we can be certain of the following facts:  As a result of Moses complaint (11:1-15), God told Moses to select seventy elders. God would in some measure empower these men with the Spirit to share Moses’ burden (verse 17).

It is only in six related verses (verse 25-30) that we can ascertain anything additional concerning these seventy men. God did, in fact, give these men His Spirit, (verse 25) and they did prophecy ‘without ceasing’ (verse 25). After two of the seventy were heard prophesying by Joshua, he complained to Moses and asked Moses to prohibit them (verse 27-28).  Moses responded by saying that he desired that all God’s people would be blessed with the Spirit (verse 29).  Beyond this, we only know that Moses took them with him into the camp (verse 30) just prior to “the very great plague” at Kibroth-hattaavah. But let’s not attempt to bring these seventy men into twenty-first century Pentecostal pulpits. 

To prophecy (in Hebrew “naba”) does not necessarily establish one’s prophetic office.  A “nabi” is one who prays and entreats; one who prays in reference to God and entreats in reference to man. (1)  This is not to diminish the importance of forth telling, but sound exegesis demands we open the door a bit wider theologically. First of all, these seventy were not the seventy who went to Sinai with Moses about a year before as praying elders (Exodus 24:1), for Moses newly selected these seventy in Numbers 11.  There is no mention of the seventy in Exodus 14 being selected by God or man. Nor is there any mention of a direct connection between these seventy in Exodus 24 and the Spirit of God, as there is concerning the seventy in Numbers 11.

It seems fair to assume that Moses was fast approaching burnout at this point in his ministry and perhaps he even entertained suicidal thoughts (verse 1). Moses was ordered by God to select seventy elders (verse16) that he recognized as leaders of the people. The Lord Himself did not select them. Moses, as the charismatic leader, was to use his own wisdom. How God actually transferred the Spirit that was upon Moses and gave it to these seventy is unclear (verse 25). That it was indeed the Spirit of God (and not the ‘spirit’ or character of Moses) that was actually transferred is evidenced by the fact that they continued to prophecy from that point onward. Such prophetic utterances are always generated by the Spirit of God. God ordered Moses to select these men (verse 16) so that he would not have to bear the burden of the people alone (verse 17). Exactly what the role of these seventy was remains a mystery, although assumptions and presumptions abound, for no record of their work is extant.

In light of Joshua’s complaint in verse 28, Moses wrote that he wished “all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them.” (verse 29) As an exhausted leader, the first evidence that others would lift up his hands spiritually, as Aaron and Hur did physically in Exodus 17, must have been a breath of fresh air. 

Given the context of Numbers 11, it is clear that leadership must be shared to be effective. However, it seems unfair to force Moses into the Upper Room. Gordon Fee states, “A prophet who speaks encouragement to the church…speaks a different word from the predominant word of judgment on ancient Israel”. (2)  Indeed, except for the Spirit’s creative activity in Genesis, direct references to the Spirit in the Pentateuch are comparatively rare.

Although we cannot state with certainty what the specific duties of these seventy were, it is noteworthy that they were selected in between the two horrific judgments in Numbers 11. A judgment fell upon the complainers in verse one and another upon the presumptuous quail eaters in verse 33. It would be more in keeping with the context to assume that the seventy were somehow involved as spokespersons in the judgment activity surrounding their selection.   

Numbers 11 in the Context of Joel’s Era

The historical context of Joel’s prophecy concerning the outpouring of the Spirit differs little from Moses’ era in that he was still pre-Upper Room Pentecost. Joel wrote a millennium after Moses, and these manifestations of the Spirit would not be seen for another five hundred years. “Textural evidence suggests that prophecy was a widely expressed and widely experienced phenomenon, which had as its goal the building up of the people of God so as to come to maturity in Christ” (Eph. 4:1-16).  (3)

Indeed, edification and exhortation are primary characteristics of the Spirit, both in the Old and the New Testaments.  Joel, as a writing prophet, foresaw our day when the Spirit could indwell all obedient believers. In stating that the Spirit was restricted in His activities pre-Pentecost, we in no way diminish His role. He is restricted only by post-Pentecost unbelief. Stronstad has well stated that “Joel’s oracle identifies the disciples’ experience of ‘speaking in other tongues as the Spirit gave utterance’” to be prophetic speech. The prophetic character of this eschatological gift of the Spirit is reinforced by Joel’s reference to dreams and visions, which, from the time of Moses, are the accredited media of prophetic revelation”. (4)  He further states that “ Joel’s oracle announces…the age of the Messiah is characterized by a universal outpouring of the Spirit of prophecy which crosses all age, gender and socio-economic barriers in contrast to Israel’s experience when only selected individuals were endowed with the Spirit”. (5)

The term endowed should be kept in context, as such Old Testament endowments were never referred to as permanent indwelling by the Spirit of God. As with all manifestations of the Spirit in the Old Testament, we can assume He came upon these seventy for a limited time only. When and if the Spirit departed from them at some point, we are not told, but a pre-Pentecost permanent indwelling of the Spirit for these seventy cannot be assumed. Joel indicated signs would follow the manifestation of the Spirit and the sign to the nation that He had come upon these seventy was the vocal gift of prophecy. However, the fact that they “prophesied and did not cease” (verse 25) does not prove a pre-Pentecost infilling. The Hebrew word prophecy here is to be understood, not as foretelling of future events, but speaking under the inspiration of God. This must be seen as a temporary endowment of the Spirit, for it would be out of contextual balance with all other pre-Pentecost manifestations of the Spirit to conclude that they prophesied until the day they died. These seventy elders cannot be set forth as examples of contemporary Charismatics/Pentecostals.


Numbers 11 in the Context of Paul’s Era

The highest Jewish court of law, the Sanhedrin, assumed that they themselves were “The Seventy”. Their assembly was always comprised of exactly that number, until they were disbanded by the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (6)  The lineage they claim is a false one, for there is no mention of any legal assembly of seventy elders in either Judges or Kings.  To trace any history of The Seventy from Moses’ era to Paul’s is, of course, impossible. It has never been the pattern of the Spirit to entrust the prophetic office to any self-appointed group. Church history does not validate the Sanhedrin as a group of prophets. Paul’s extensive treatment of the prophetic gifts in First Corinthians is comprehensive. His view is reflected by the author of Hebrews in the very first verse of chapter one: “God, who at different times and in different ways spoke through the prophets, now speaks through His Son.” The Son speaks to us through the Holy Spirit. It was the task of the New Testament writers to interpret the prophetic office, and it falls to individual believers to appropriate it. 

Numbers 11 in the Contemporary Context

The prophets of Numbers 11 and the prophetic office in general can only be understood against the terrible background of human sin. Whereas prophecy in the Old Testament was given primarily for judgment, prophetic gifts in the New Testament are given primarily for blessing. The selection of the seventy is a prelude to Pentecost only in the context of delegated authority. The specific role of the seventy elders in Numbers 11 is unclear, for it is stated that they were to share Moses’ burden, not his authority (verse 17). 


Conclusion

What can be learned from the analogies drawn from Moses’ narrative in 1500 B.C. when contrasted with our own era? Let us not miss two timeless and universally applicable lessons the Spirit has preserved for us in Numbers 11. 

First, our souls are “dried up” (verse 6).  We long for what we cannot have, while despising the manna that God sends us. We have allowed the “mixed multitude” in our churches to hold the dominate influence. Kibroth-hattava was never about who or what was prophesied, but rather begs the question,  “Why do we so greedily devour what God chooses to send?”  It’s about the absence of the fear of God, when one must walk three foot deep in birds for ten miles in any direction( verse 31). It’s about the callousness of our people who clear a spot to cook their birds while the leadership is in dire need of reinforcements.

Moses states that he wished “all men were prophets and that God would put His Spirit upon them” (verse 29).  Pentecostals may see in this a precursor to Pentecost.  However, theologically, this is difficult to prove. They were not selected by God, but rather by a man, Moses (verse 16).  God then placed His Spirit upon them, for direct reference is made to His Spirit (verse. 29). Therefore, to view these seventy in the same context as twenty-first century Pentecostal leaders is something of a theological stretch.   

A second valuable lesson is the insight provided by Joshua’s attitude in Numbers 11. The selection of the seventy may have been more for Joshua’s sake than Moses, for it demonstrated to the one who would soon assume command the necessity of delegated authority.

It is theologically reckless to believe that Numbers 11 should be viewed as the foundational Pentecostal/Charismatic passage in the Old Testament. It seems crystal clear that Moses was clueless concerning what steps to take next. Though he was under the guiding cloud of obedience in the wilderness, more definitive and immediate ministerial relief was needed.  Because God intervened, leadership in the next generation was empowered to move forward. Because God stepped in to direct Moses to select the seventy, the congregation was forced to focus on shared leadership, a lesson which served Joshua well throughout his ministerial career. We, as New Testament Pentecostal/Charismatics, would do well to focus on the obvious lessons the Holy Spirit sets forth in this dynamic Old Testament passage.


Footnotes:
(1)  William Wilson, Old Testament Word Studies (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1978), 330.
(2)  Gordon Fee, Paul, the Spirit and the People of God (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1996), 172.
(3)  Ibid., 172.
(4)  Roger Stronstad, The Prophethood of All Believers (New York:  Sheffield Academic Press, 1999), 69.
(5)  Ibid., 70.
(6) Peffier, Vos, and Rea, Wycliffe Bible Dictionary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1975), 1520.

 


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