The curious tale of Eldad and Medad: or, how to give away your ministry!

One of the counter-intuitive things about leadership is that leaders don’t actually become less as they share leadership with others. being counter-intuitive, of course, means that we can be slow to grasp this.

Numbers 11 is an important chapter for leaders. In terms of the narrative, it gives us an insight into the pressure that Moses faced – pressure that almost caused him to throw in the towel. But it also gives us an illustration of the value, and the challenge, of shared leadership.

God’s answer to Moses’ crisis is to share some of the Spirit that was on Moses with seventy of the community elders. The elders prophesy and now at least, Moses will not have to carry the responsibility alone.

As is sometimes the case, however, the solution to one problem can lead to other problems. So it is that the narrative that follows the sharing of the Spirit goes on to touch on some of the challenges of shared leadership: what happens when you are no longer totally in control? Or, as the next chapter illustrates, what happens if a plurality of leadership brings a set of relational issues such as jealousy and resentment?

Immediately after the sharing of the Spirit there are two men – Eldad and Medad – who have not left the camp to gather with the others and with Moses. Yet they too were empowered by the Spirit, and like the others, they prophesied. Jewish writer Norman Cohen points out that, like Miriam and Aaron (chapter 12), Eldad and Medad receive their calling directly from God and not from Moses.

How leaders respond when people start to operate outside their control is a test of wisdom. It’s a mark of maturity when a leader can give away power to others without fearing a loss of their own power or position. Similarly, it’s a sign of deepening maturity when a leader is able to take genuine delight in the success or fruitfulness of someone else’s ministry: others are viewed not as rivals, but as co-workers, serving the same kingdom.

There is a striking contrast between the reaction of Moses and Joshua at the news of Eldad and Medad, and in some ways the contrast highlights something of the journey of maturity that a spiritual leader needs to navigate. Joshua, Moses’ assistant and future successor, urges Moses to stop them. The text highlights the fact that Joshua had been Moses’ assistant since his youth: doubtless he had a keen sense of loyalty, and for two people from outside Moses’ immediate sphere to have some kind of independent ministry seemed like a betrayal of his mentor: Moses really ought to tell them to stop.

Moses’ response was to dismiss any need for Joshua to feel jealous on his account. This is not about Moses, it’s about the welfare of the people of God. ‘I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them.’

Perhaps you have come across the statement that has sometimes been attributed to American President Harry Truman: ‘It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.’ Even if the sentiment is inspiring, the attribution appears to be inaccurate: apparently a 19th century Jesuit priest called Father Strickland may have been the first to express the idea when he wrote that ‘a man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it.’

If that’s true generally, how much more fruitful might our spiritual leadership be if we were free from the need to receive credit or to jealously guard our achievements as badges of honour that set us above others!

Ultimately Moses’ prayer was answered on the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit was given, not to a few but to many, without distinction of age or gender: the work of ministry would no longer be the preserve of a select handful.

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