All God’s People Prophets

Photo by Katherine Brown*

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. 

Numbers 11:24-25; excerpt from 11:24-30; alternate lectionary for Pentecost Sunday, 5.31.20

Sundays I get up and start coffee and check church email early, to learn any changes to the order of worship before we’re all logged on to Zoom.  Last Sunday morning I saw a message that my church and another, about four blocks up Georgia Avenue, planned to line the road on either side for a COVID-appropriately masked and distanced demonstration in support of racial justice.  I read the email and my first reaction was an almost wild frustration:  I already have plans, I don’t have time for this, I have things that I need to do.  My second reaction — nearly coincident with the first save that nanosecond’s difference that requires me to admit the order in which they came — was a deep shame that as a white woman I could choose to avoid dealing with this issue when so many others have no choice in the matter.  That shame came with an accompanying conviction — welling up swiftly, as if in flood, and overwhelming me with its power — that the fact that I can choose to abstain is the very reason why I cannot choose to abstain.   I found a piece of cardboard, and I crayoned on my phrase*, and Sunday evening I joined several hundred standing along both sides of the road, holding up to oncoming traffic the words that had hauled us from our homes and plans and required of us presence, and statement.  The light was clear; the air was mild; the breeze was sweet.

‘When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again.’  

Numbers 11 had held me already a week by then, as the news turned from a primary focus on the COVID-pandemic to the nation convulsed with a fresh recognition of racism’s horrifically persistent and destructive pervasiveness.  (Periodically we toy with renewing this recognition. When will we move on to true reckoning and transformation?)  I lived that turn through this text.  Reading its telling of 70 elders and the spirit.  Reading news stories of deaths — Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd only the most recently famous — of demonstrations and riot police and photo ops.  Reading text, and reading context, and reading each reading each other the while. 

‘When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again.’  

The LORD puts spirit on the elders, and they are caught in its power, carried out of themselves and into a frenzy. That’s what it is to prophesy in the Bible:  to be overcome with the power of the LORD (1 Sam 10:5-13).  The encounter knocks you flat then pulls you standing (Ezek 1:26-2:5).  Even when the work is described in terms of speech rather than ecstasy, it is a word that burns and cannot be contained, a flame that must be shouted aloud (Jer 20:8-9).  To prophesy is to be subject to the power of the spirit, to be the word’s servant rather than its master.  One does not grab the word and hold it aloft.  One is grabbed by the word, held by the hair, lifted up and away (Ezek 8:1-4).

‘When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again.’  

The seventy elders have been gathered for this encounter because the community in the wilderness is convulsed with a fresh set of complaining, ‘strong craving’ and weeping (Num 11:1-9).  Moses himself is ‘displeased’ and angry with God.  I didn’t conceive or bear or birth this people, Moses argues, ‘I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me’ (Num 11:10-15).  God responds and directs Moses to gather seventy elders who will share the work of leading the people through the wilderness.  This is the backdrop to the elders’ experience of the spirit and their however-brief/however-timeless frenzy of possession. 

This context of a people riven by strife and the need for leaders to ‘bear the burden of the people’ (Num 11:16-18) revises my idea of what is what is at stake in the elders’ experience.  What I had thought mattered so that the community would see that these seventy were God’s appointed leaders, I now realize mattered so that the seventy themselves would have had this direct and destabilizing encounter with the LORD.

The LORD who sees and hears and knows the sufferings of the oppressed, who does not stand far off but comes down to deliver (Exod 3:6-10).  ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Exod 34:6-7).  The LORD who is ‘God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing’ (Deut 10:17-18).  

The elders need to be overwhelmed by that awareness and alignment and commitment so that — initiating prophetic frenzy past — they can lead the people as God wills.  Attuned to the oppressed.  Executing justice for the vulnerable.  Extending love beyond kin, beyond neighbor, until even the ‘stranger’ is fed and clothed and fully folded into the whole.  The elders’ experience of the spirit was necessary not as an end in itself but as a means of giving that glimpse of God’s end for them all.

Last Sunday was a hundred years ago.  Every day since, there has been news of another protest, summons to another rally.  Yesterday (Friday) at 5 p.m. communities of faith lined 16th Street from Dupont Circle in Washington D.C. up until and beyond the district line.  We stood in vigil holding signs near the end of 16th Street, just before 16th curves and joins Georgia Avenue.  Cars and vans and buses passed; many honked or flashed lights in support.  About 5:45, the rain started.  It came down in buckets, soaking through signs and clothes and shoes.  Still we stood, signs held high, heads bowed against the sky’s crashing sobs.  We stood until the lightning and thunder came together, then we fled back to our cars through rainwater rivers running swift down the sides of the streets.

‘When the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.  But they did not do so again.’   The nation continues to convulse.  I pray it is a birth, not another false labor.  I pray that our encounter with the spirit’s compulsion persists even after the frenzy of protests and rallies and vigils is past.  It should pass.  The summons to protest is not an end in itself but a necessary stage along the way.  May this spell of God-sight guide us into and through the spiritual and social and legislative work of reckoning, repentance, and reconciliation.  

‘Would that all the LORD’S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!’ (Num 11:29).

*My daughter pointed out that the Bible verses written in ink on my sign would not be legible to passing traffic. I replied that the verses were written there for me; these were the words that required me to get up and go. The sign made for Sunday was soaked through by Friday’s rain. The crayon letters remain on the now-dried and oddly twisted cardboard but the ink was washed away. No matter. The words remain written in this image and remain written in my heart.

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