For those who want a change from the Gospel
Pentecost – Numbers 11:24-30
Once again our lectionary compilers have given us Daily Breadcrumbs here, with only half the story and no context, so let’s begin with the whole chapter (always a good idea) and try to put it in context. The Israelites have just left Sinai after around a year camped there, and almost immediately there is trouble. The people start complaining again, causing God to send fire on them, which only abates when Moses intercedes (again!). Then off they go again, moaning not about their unspecified hardships as in v.1, but this time about the manna which God has graciously provided for them, to the point where they wish they were back in Egypt because they used to have melons and garlic. Moses hears the wailing, and so does God, who decides to act to help Moses with the lonely and heartbreaking job of leadership, a job which has made him ask God just to kill him and get it over with.
So God promises in v.16-18 to ease Moses’ burden by giving him other leaders to work with him. In the meantime God provides quail for the people to help with their monotonous diet of manna, but then we come to our passage, the fulfilment of the promise given earlier. 70 elders are called out and equipped with the Spirit of God, the same Spirit who dwelt within Moses. The result was a one-off prophetic ministry.
It is not easy to understand how this actually helped Moses, however. There is no record of the elders doing much more in terms of working with Moses to deal with his miserable people, and the fact that they ‘prophesied’ probably means something very different from either the work of the canonical OT prophets or current prophecy within the charismatic movement. It probably simply refers to some kind of ecstatic state which was believed to demonstrate the fact that the Spirit had been received, and we can only imagine what that kind of behaviour might have looked like. The non-attendance of Eldad and Medad seems merely to function as a set-up for the punch-line of this passage: ‘I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!’ (v.29)
So is this passage more than a set-up for Pentecost? The more common OT reading from Joel 2 looks forward to a time when all God’s people would have the Spirit on them, and in his speech Peter deliberately emphasises the universality of the gift of the Holy Spirit, quoting Joel as he does so. Or are we perhaps meant to notice the differences between Acts 2 and the OT work of the Spirit? Moses wishes that all God’s people could receive the Spirit, but they don’t, only 70 of them. They get worked up into a prophetic frenzy, but only once. And very little seems to happen after the initial experience of receiving the Spirit. There is jealously and the desire to protect the Spirit from those who don’t quite keep the rules, or maybe to protect them from the Spirit! And the whole event comes at a time of great disaster, when Moses has been brought to the point of suicide.
In Acts 2 we see a very different story. The disciples are filled with joy at the resurrection, ascension and promise of Jesus. The Spirit comes, and the result is visible and audible, as it always is when the Spirit comes on people in the NT, but the fruit is more than clear to see: 3,000 converts, followed by healings, deliverance, and even raising from the dead. And anyone can receive this Spirit, not just leaders or elders. Still today many are hesitant, and regard the power of the Holy Spirit as like a bare electricity wire from which we do well to keep as far away as possible. Yet in the NT we see Moses’ wish and Joel’s prophecy being fulfilled. Will we celebrate Pentecost on Sunday with great joy? Will we be there, or would we prefer to stay indoors? And will the celebration of the festival allow more effective ministry and more exuberant joy in the Church? We can only pray for the latter, for all God’s people without exception.