When is jealousy justified? When is humility heroic? Such questions come to mind upon rereading the remarkable story of Eldad and Meidad (Numbers 11:26-29) and the conference held between a worked-up Joshua and his implacable master Moses. Eldad and Meidad were apparently among the group of elders summoned by Moses to share his divine inspiration, but for an unspoken reason, they remained behind in camp. While the other elders prophesied and then stopped, Eldad and Meidad prophesied and never ceased. Their continuous access to the divine spirit was obviously destabilizing—wasn’t it enough that Moses was sharing his access to the divine? What would become of his authority if two the prophets kept speaking in God’s name? Would the camp of Israel remain united?
Joshua seems to be justified in his concern over the situation, and the grammar hints at his good sense. The verb to be jealous, מקנא appears in other biblical contexts, sometimes followed by the prefix ב, and sometimes by the prefix ל. In II Samuel 21:2 we are told that King Saul sought to attack the Gibeonites, motivated by his jealousy on behalf of Israel and Judah, בְּקַנֹּאתוֹ לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וִיהוּדָה. In Zechariah 1:14 an angel announces that the Lord of Hosts is extremely jealous on behalf of Jerusalem and Zion, קִנֵּאתִי לִירוּשָׁלִַם וּלְצִיּוֹן קִנְאָה גְדוֹלָה. Rashi says in the Samuel text that these forms of jealousy, like that of Joshua, were positive jealousy. These are altruistic forms of jealousy. In English we might say that the characters are being described as protective, not truly jealous. Ibn Ezra has a grammatical theory—he claims that when the very קנא is followed by the prefix ב, it implies an evil jealousy—to be jealous of another person. But when the verb is followed by the prefix ל, it is an altruistic and honorable form of jealousy, as in the case of Joshua’s concern for his master Moses, and indeed for the cohesion of Israel. So Joshua was justified, but Moses dismissed the concern, expressing his great line, “would that all of the Lord’s people were prophets!” Continue reading