Eldad and Medad are the protagonists of a cryptic episode in the portion of Behaalotecha:

Now two men remained in the camp; the name of one was Eldad and the name of the second was Medad, and the spirit rested upon them. They were among those written, but they did not go out to the tent, but prophesied in the camp.

The lad [Gershom, son of Moses1] ran and told Moses, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!"

Joshua, the son of Nun, Moses' servant from his youth, answered and said, “Moses, my master, imprison them2!”

Moses said to him, "Are you zealous for my sake? If only all the L‑rd's people were prophets, that the L‑rd would bestow His spirit upon them!"3

This story demands context (when and how did this episode take place?), biographical information (who were Eldad and Medad?), and explanation (what they were prophesying?), which will help us understand Joshua’s frantic reaction.

Context: The Appointment of the 70 Elders

After the desert-weary Jews complained twice in quick succession about their travels and travails, Moses turned to G‑d and cried out: “Alone I cannot carry this entire people, for it is too hard for me.”4

G‑d then told Moses that he would now share the load of leading the nation:

Assemble for Me 70 men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the people's elders and officers, and you shall take them to the Tent of Meeting, and they shall stand there with You. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will increase the spirit that is upon you and bestow it upon them. Then they will bear the burden of the people with you so that you need not bear it alone.5

The Talmud tells us what happened next (we’ll paraphrase):

When G‑d said to Moses, “Gather for Me 70 men of the Elders of Israel,” Moses responded, “How shall I do it? If I select six from each of the 12 tribes, there will be a total of 72, which will total to two extra. But if I select five from each tribe, there will be a total of 60, lacking 10. However, if I select 6 from this tribe and five from that tribe, I will bring about envy between the tribes!”

What did he do? He selected six from each tribe and he brought 72 slips. On 70 of them he wrote “Elder,” and he left two slips blank. He mixed them and placed them in the box. He then said to the 72 chosen candidates: ”Come and draw your slips.” Everyone whose hand drew up a slip that said “Elder” was now appointed as one of the 70 sages.

During this whole saga, Eldad and Medad, who were chosen by their tribes to represent them, didn’t come forward, as they said: “We are not fitting for that level of greatness; we are not worthy of being appointed for that level of greatness; we are not deserving of being appointed among the Elders.”

G‑d said: “Since you have made yourselves humble, I will add greatness to your greatness.”

And what is the greatness that He added to them? asks the Talmud. All the other elders who were given prophecy at that time prophesied for a period of time and then stopped, but Eldad and Medad prophesied and did not stop.6

But when these two humble sages suddenly started spewing prophecy around the Jewish camp, Moses’ loyal student Joshua suggested to Moses that they be locked up. What could they have possibly been saying that would cause such a reaction?

What Was Their Prophecy?

The Talmud brings three traditions:

  1. They said that “Moses will die, and Joshua will bring the Jewish people into Land of Yisrael.”
  2. They prophesied about the story of the quail that followed immediately after this episode, saying, ”Arise quail, arise quail,” and indeed then the quail came.7
  3. They were prophesying regarding the war of Gog and Magog, which will precede the arrival of Moshiach.

The commentary of Yonatan ben Uziel tells us that each one shared a separate prophecy.8 Eldad shared the prophecy that Moses would die and Joshua would lead the nation to the Holy Land, whereas Medad said that the quail would arise and overtake the Jewish camp and cause havoc, as we indeed read later on in the chapter.9 They both prophesied together regarding the war of Gog and Magod and the End of Days.

Who Were They?

Who were these two mysterious figures and what was their lineage?

The Midrash10 says that their real names were Elidad,11 the son of Chislon, chieftain of the tribe of Benjamin,12 and Kemuel, the son of Shiphtan, chieftain of the tribe of Ephraim.13 These two figures ended up leading their respective tribes into the Holy Land. Unlike the rest of the 70 sages, who passed on before entering the land, these two sages merited to see the land due to their humility.14

Yonatan ben Uziel15 tells us that when Moses’ father, Amram, divorced his mother, Yocheved,16 she married a man named Elizaphan ben Parnach, Nasi of the tribe of Zevulun. They had two children together, Eldad and Medad, after which she remarried her first husband17 and went on to have her youngest son Moses. In short, Moses shared a mother with Eldad and Medad.

The biblical commentator the Rosh18 agrees that they were Moses’ half-brothers, but he argues that they shared a father, not a mother.19

Moses’ Response

Based on all the above, we now have a greater appreciation for Moses’ piety and lofty nature when he told Joshua, "Are you zealous for my sake? If only all the L‑rd's people were prophets, that the L‑rd would bestow His spirit upon them!" Even though these prophecies (at least according to the first opinion) were hurtful to him, he nevertheless wished prophecy upon all the nation, and allowed them to continue prophesying around the camp.

Our sages tell us that this wish of Moses for all the Jews to become prophets will be realized in the messianic era.20 In the words of the prophet Joel, “I will pour My Spirit upon all flesh. Your sons and daughters will prophesy.”21

May this be materialized in our time, amen!