Who speaks for God?


On hot-button issues like same-sex marriage, Americans are used to hearing religious and political leaders make public pronunciations that their position is the one that is endorsed by God. These self-appointed spokesmen and spokeswomen for God are quick to cite verses and passages from scripture to back up their claims. However, careful readers of religious texts will notice that the claims are all based on interpretation. Different people can come to fair judgments on what the Bible suggests about current issues, but – despite what some might claim – the Bible does not make any clear and indisputable statements about the issues that grab today’s headlines. 

So, how can anyone claim to speak for God?

It is an important religious issue. All religions must deal with the question of who has the authority to speak for God and tell us what God wants. Who gets to play the prophet?

This week’s Torah portion (Beha’alotecha) takes on the issue of religious authority. It offers a rather surprising answer to the question.

In the Torah portion, God instructed Moses to select 70 elders of Israel to be present to see God appear in the Tent of Meeting. When God’s presence appeared, God took some of Moses’ spirit “put it upon the seventy elders.” The elders then began to “speak in ecstasy.” According to rabbinic tradition, they began to speak prophecies. 

Two of the men who had been selected as elders, Eldad and Medad, did not go to the Tent of Meeting. Just at the moment when the other elders began to speak their prophecies, Eldad and Medad also spoke ecstatically among the Israelites in the camp. 

Now, in modern times, when somebody begins speaking wild and ecstatic prophecies in a public place, they are likely to spend some time soon thereafter in the psychiatric unit of a local hospital (and we wish speedy healing for those with mental illnesses and blessing upon the professionals who care for them). In ancient times, it was not much different. Eldad and Medad caused alarm in the camp and, the Torah records, a youth ran out to tell Moses, “Eldad and Medad are playing the prophet in the camp!” Joshua, Moses’ first lieutenant, urged Moses to restrain the two men. Perhaps, Joshua feared that they were a threat to Moses’ authority as the sole spokesperson for God in the Israelite camp.

Moses, however, was not so alarmed. He asked, “Are you upset on my behalf? Who has the power to make all of the Lord’s people into prophets? It is the Lord who has placed God’s spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:16-17; 25-29).

Moses made it clear that the authority to speak for God did not necessarily flow from him or from any human authority. If we believe that God has the power to make the divine will known through human beings, God has the power to choose the agents of prophecy without regard to human institutions.

You may notice that there is an interesting ambiguity in the story. Why did Eldad and Medad not come to the Tent of Meeting if they were among the elders chosen by Moses? Why does the text say that God took some of Moses’ spirit and “put it upon the seventy elders”? If Eldad and Medad were missing, should the text not have said only 68?

There is a beautiful midrash on this story that explains the seeming inconsistency and explains the merit by which Eldad and Medad were considered true prophets (Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 15:19). According to the midrash, Moses had a problem with the number of elders that God had specified. There were 12 tribes and each tribe would want to have equal representation among the elders, but 70 is not equally divisible by 12. Two tribes would only have five representatives and the other 10 would have six.

In attempting to solve the numerical problem, Moses took the liberty of interpretation. He instituted a lottery in which 72 pieces of paper were placed in a jar. Seventy pieces had the word “elder” written on them; two pieces were left blank. Moses chose six representatives from each of the 12 tribes and asked each of the 72 to draw a piece of paper from the jar. Only those who drew the word “elder” would be invited to join Moses in the Tent of Meeting.

Eldad and Medad were two of the 72 representatives chosen by Moses, but they withdrew before the lottery was held because they did not believe themselves to be worthy of the honor. The midrash says that, because of their modesty, they were deemed to be the most worthy of all the elders. God rewarded them with the greatest prophetic gift, allowing them to see events 40 years into the future.

According to the midrash, this is the reason Joshua asked Moses to silence them. Eldad and Medad were the first to prophesize that Moses would die in the wilderness and that Joshua would be the one to bring the Israelites into the Land of Israel. It would not be the last time that someone tried to silence a prophet for telling the truth.

Who gets to speak for God? Who gets to play the prophet?

According to our tradition, it is not only those who have been elected and chosen by human beings. Sometimes, the voice of God has to come to us from outside the chain of command. Sometimes, prophets need to be able to say things that are not so welcome by the powers that be. It takes leaders of true wisdom to listen to God’s voice coming from outside official channels. It takes leaders of true modesty to overcome the tendency to hear those words as a threat to their authority.

In America today, there are plenty of people who have appointed themselves to be authorities and God’s mouthpieces. They use their offices and credentials to defend the comfortable and expected positions of old – regardless of the needs of our times and regardless of the people whose rights and whose dignity are damaged by their positions. But there is a strong tradition in Judaism that says that the true prophetic voice is not the one that just reaffirms the status quo. The biblical prophets – men like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Zechariah – held up the cause of the oppressed over the objections of the religious authorities of their day.

The challenge today is to listen to the modest voices outside the chain of command that urge us to consider what is not popular and what is not expected. It is God, not human beings, who has the power to make each one of us into a prophet. Rather than depending on “traditional” and “time-honored” interpretations, it is our duty to listen to the ethical voice within ourselves to discover our own ability to hear the voice of God. It does not come from human-appointed politicians or preachers, but as a growing presence within our own lives.

RABBI JEFFREY GOLDWASSER is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai in Cranston. He writes the blog “Reb Jeff” at www.rebjeff.com.