Would that All the Lord’s People Were Prophets

Recently, I went to the temple with a friend. Since I am excommunicated, I obviously can’t enter the temple proper. But I love the feeling I get when I am close to the temple. In the St. Paul Temple, there’s an attractively furnished lobby just inside the front entrance where I can sit and study the scriptures, pray and meditate. As my friend and I approached the temple, I felt spiritually as though I were approaching the peak of a mountain. There were vistas my spirit was taking in that I couldn’t get in other more mundane places.

We were warmly greeted at the entrance by none other than the Temple President. He seemed delighted that I was there even just to wait outside the temple proper. My friend proceeded inside to do a session, while I headed into the lobby. I had come to the temple that day as the result of a specific prompting. In the previous few weeks, I had been feeling a bit discouraged. Those feelings of discouragement had reminded me of the importance of drawing closer to the Lord, so I had been making a bit more effort to pray with intention, to be attentive to my thought processes, and to rehabilitate my scripture study habits. And one morning as I was meditating and unburdening myself to my Heavenly Father, I received a very clear prompting to go to the temple. I was promised, “I will meet you there and teach you.”

At a certain point, after I had spent some time enjoying the peace and clarity that pervades the entire temple grounds, I felt prompted to pick up my scriptures and read, simply picking up where I had left off in my daily scripture study (currently the Old Testament): Numbers chapter 11. After my friend finished his temple session and rejoined me in the lobby, we discussed what I had read; and that conversation continued over the next couple of days.

 

I recapitulated to my friend the events described in Numbers 11. The people of Israel were complaining bitterly. The Lord became angry with their complaining, and sent fire to burn them, and many people died in the fires, which were quenched only after Moses petitioned the Lord on their behalf. But even then, the people continued to complain. They were sick and tired of eating manna! They wanted the cuisine of Egypt! “Who shall give us flesh to eat?” they cried. “We remember the fish, which we did eat in Egypt freely; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlick” (Numbers 11: 4-5).

Moses was driven to despair by the people’s complaining. He himself began to complain! “Have I conceived all this people? have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers?” Moses was feeling so discouraged and desperate, he literally asked the Lord to end his life! “Kill me, I pray thee… if I have found favour in thy sight” (Numbers 11: 12-15)!

Instead of answering Moses’ pleas to lift these burdens by ending his life, the Lord suggested that Moses gather seventy of the leaders of Israel. He told Moses to bring these seventy to the tabernacle (the temple!), where the Lord would instruct them and endow them with his spirit, so that they could help Moses bear the burdens of the people.

So Moses did as the Lord instructed. He called seventy of the leaders of Israel and gathered them at the tabernacle, where the Lord “came down in a cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders” (Numbers 11: 25).

Now two of the seventy who had been called, by the names of Eldad and Medad, instead of following Moses’ instructions, had remained behind in the camp of Israel. While Moses was gone at the tabernacle with the others of the seventy, they had been “prophesying” in the camp.

A young man in the camp ran to the tabernacle to tell Moses what Eldad and Medad had been doing. Joshua son of Nun, the man who would eventually succeed Moses as leader of the children of Israel, became very upset, and cried, “My lord Moses, forbid them!”

At this point in my conversation with my friend in the lobby of the temple, I ended my recapitulation of the story. I asked him, “What do you think happened next to Eldad and Medad?”

He replied, “Did the Lord burn them up?”

I laughed. “No, not at all!”

Moses responded to Joshua’s outrage, exclaiming: “Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11: 29).

In this intriguing story, two individuals disobeyed instructions that had come to Moses directly from the Lord. But they had done so in response to personal guidance from the Lord that came in the form of an outpouring of the Spirit, leading them to prophesy in the camp of Israel! For some reason, the Lord had given a general instruction to the Prophet, but then gave a seemingly contrary instruction to two individuals. Because these individuals were responding directly to the Lord’s promptings, instead of being punished for disregarding Moses’ general instructions, they were praised. Moses responded to Joshua’s understandable concern by explaining the central purpose of the Exodus: to forge Israel into a nation of prophets. Eldad and Medad, in listening to and obeying the Spirit, were fulfilling that purpose.

At the end of that chapter, the Lord sends quails to satisfy the Israelites’ “lusting” for meat. And the text says, “while the flesh was yet between their teeth, ere it was chewed, the wrath of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord smote the people with a very great plague. And he called the name of that place Kibroth-Hattaavah: because there they buried the people that lusted” (Numbers 11: 33-34).

 

Disobedience and complaining continued to be a problem, and the following chapter (Numbers 12) offers a counterpoint to the principle elucidated in chapter 11 that all the people should be prophets.

In chapter 12, Moses’ siblings, Aaron and Miriam, began to publicly criticize Moses for having taken an Ethiopian wife. Their public criticism included a question that might seem a logical outcome of Moses’ public praise of Eldad and Medad’s prophesying. “Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us?” (Numbers 12: 2).

The Lord took note. The text says, “And the Lord heard it.”

The text tells us that “the man Moses was very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth” (v. 3). Apparently Moses refused to stand up for himself in the face of his siblings’ criticism of his inter-ethnic marriage. So the Lord took up Moses’ defense.

Standing in a pillar of cloud at the door of the tabernacle, the Lord chastised Aaron and Miriam: “If there be a prophet among you, I the Lord will make myself known unto him in a vision, and will speak unto him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so, who is faithful in all mine house. With him will I speak mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the Lord shall he behold: wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (Numbers 12: 6-8).

The Lord smote Miriam with leprosy, a curse which he removed after seven days in response to Aaron and Miriam’s repentance, and in response to Moses’ pleading on Miriam’s behalf.

It seems the Lord deliberately used leprosy as a punishment to make a particular statement. In the text, when Aaron pleads with Moses on behalf of his sister, he describes leprosy as a curse that makes a person “as one dead.” Spiritual death is the curse we all suffer for disobeying God.

These two stories need to be read side by side, I think, in order to understand fully how the Lord leads his people. Yes, the Lord wants us all to be prophets (plural, lower case), to seek and receive direct personal revelation and guidance from him. And, yes, sometimes the Lord gives individuals direct, personal guidance which seems to be out of sync with the general commandments he gives to those appointed to the office of the Prophet (singular, upper case). But no gift of prophesy bestowed by the Lord will lead to contention or criticism of the Lord’s anointed. To use the diversity and generality of gifts of the Spirit as an excuse to criticize and tear down is to misunderstand the nature of those gifts, which all emanate from the same divine source.

 

The doors of the Nauvoo temple were opening just a crack when I took this picture a year ago last spring.

The doors of the Nauvoo temple were opening just a crack when I took this picture a year ago last spring.

These stories in Numbers unfold at the periphery of the temple. Of course, at this point in Israel’s sojourn the text speaks of the “tabernacle,” a portable version of the temple that moves from place to place with the camp of Israel. A more permanent “temple” is not built until the reign of King Solomon. But I call it the “temple” here because “the tabernacle” filled the role of the temple. Like our modern day temples, the tabernacle was the “thin place” between the mundane and the eternal, sanctified and dedicated and appointed by the Lord. It was the place where the Lord set foot on earth and spoke directly to his people.

It was to the doors of the temple that Moses brought the seventy to receive an endowment of the Spirit from the Lord that would enable them to function as leaders of the people. It was at the doors of the temple that the Lord corrected Aaron and Miriam’s criticism of Moses.

I am grateful for “the doors of the temple.” Feeling discouraged, I repaired to there, to the doors.

I am not presently permitted to go beyond those doors. Wrestling with that reality was part of the discouragement I was wrestling with. The Lord sustained the children of Israel in the desert with manna. They got tired of that oily-tasting, seedy-textured, dark brown stuff they had to gather off of the dew every morning (Numbers 11: 6-9). The Lord gives me a kind of manna too. And like the sustenance he gave the children of Israel, the sustenance I receive is miraculous.

Still, I sometimes I forget myself and become ungrateful. And then I get discouraged. And the Lord gently called me to the doors of the temple, where he promised to renew me and give me guidance. And he kept and is keeping his promise.

2 comments for “Would that All the Lord’s People Were Prophets

  1. November 19, 2013 at 8:08 am

    Such a beautiful meditation, John. Thanks for sharing this!

    I now love in the shadow of the Salt Lake temple. I walk by it every day. Rather than feeling oppressed by it—as I thought I might—it nourishes me.

  2. Jerry
    November 19, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    Beautiful contemplation, John. Thank you for feeding my spirit today, which, marks what would have been my father, John’s, 97th birthday.

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