Schechter Logo for Print

Who is a Prophet? All the People of God? Find the Answer in Beha’alotecha

Why do the Children of Israel renege on each one becoming a prophet?  Prof. Moshe Benovitz answers this question. 

One of the most beautiful verses in the Torah – in my view, at least – appears in this week’s parashah, Beha’alotecha.

God tells Moses that he will relieve the burden of his leadership somewhat by inspiring seventy elders with the divine spirit that he had imbued in Moses. In order to do so Moses and the elders are to congregate at the entrance to the tent of meeting. Two of the elders, however, remain in the camp of the Israelites, and they are found prophesying there. Joshua tells Moses to shut them up, literally or figuratively. Moses answers him: “Are you jealous on my behalf?” adding the beautiful sentence: “Would that all of the people of the Lord were prophets, the Lord having imbued them with His spirit!” (Numbers 11:29).

The entire people heard God speak on Mount Sinai, and apparently the original idea was that each and every individual Israelite was to be a prophet, hearing the word of God and interpreting it for him- or herself. That is why just before the revelation God tells Moses to tell the Israelites that he brought them to his abode on the “mountain of God” on the wings of eagles, in order to make them into a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

The commentator Ibn Ezra sees the journey to Mount Sinai to experience God firsthand and worship him as the primary goal of the Exodus, while the commentator Nahmanides sees it as a mere stop on the way to the promised land. But even in the promised land God’s ideal was to rule the people directly according to the prophet Samuel, or to shepherd them and husband them firsthand, according the prophet Hosea. No king or judge, prophet or priest, is needed as an intermediary.

It is in this light that the seventeenth-century philosopher Benedict Spinoza (Tractatus Theologico-Politicus XVII) interprets a conversation between Moses and the people following the revelation at Mount Sinai, reported in both the book of Exodus and the book of Deuteronomy. According to Exodus (20:18-19), “when the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not let God speak to us or we will die’.” Moses tries to talk them out of it, telling them there is nothing to fear. But according to Deuteronomy (5:24), God approved their request, and elsewhere in the book of Deuteronomy (18:18) it is stated that God subsequently spoke to the people through prophets, the first of whom was Moses, because of this request. Moses himself, however, is clearly disturbed by the ease with which the people give up their direct experience of God and his word, giving up the consequent validity of their own individual interpretations of his word as well.

Spinoza sees the delegation of spiritual authority by the people to prophets and priests as nothing less than tragic.

The twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides considered prophecy the highest level of intellectual attainment, reached in full only by the original Moses. But the original Moses himself, the “humblest man on the face of the earth” according to another verse in this week’s parashah (Numbers 12:3), disagreed. He did not consider prophecy an elitist vocation. He was happy to hear that Eldad and Medad, the elders left in the camp, were experiencing God and sharing their experience with those around them, as prophets do. Moses would have been happy to have all Israelites experience God constantly and directly, each in his or her own way, and devote themselves collectively to sharing this experience.

Would that it were so!



Moshe Benovitz is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kol Nidre: Studies in the Development of Rabbinic Votive Institutions (Atlanta 1998) and several volumes of comprehensive critical commentary on sections of the Talmud, as well as numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Talmudic scholarship and rabbinic history, including oaths and vows, liturgy, and Jewish festivals.

Join our mailing list

Sign up to our newsletter for the newest articles, events and updates.

    * We hate spam too! And will never share or sell your email or contact information with anyone