After this the Lord appointed seventy[-two] others whom he sent ahead of him in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit. He said to them, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest. Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves. Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals; and greet no one along the way. Into whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this household.’ If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him; but if not, it will return to you. Stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered to you, for the laborer deserves his payment. Do not move about from one house to another. Whatever town you enter and they welcome you, eat what is set before you, cure the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God is at hand for you.’ Whatever town you enter and they do not receive you, go out into the streets and say, ‘The dust of your town that clings to our feet, even that we shake off against you.’ Yet know this: the kingdom of God is at hand. I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom on that day than for that town.Luke 10:1-12
Seventy or seventy-two? The New American Bible (Revised Edition) brackets off the [-two] in its text with this explanation:
Seventy[-two]: important representatives of the Alexandrian and Caesarean text types read “seventy,” while other important Alexandrian texts and Western readings have “seventy-two.”
Both readings come from authoritative manuscripts. Commentators find significance in the number seventy for three reasons:
1. The spirit of prophecy was given to seventy elders to assist Moses in his work.
Then the Lord said to Moses: Assemble for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be elders and authorities among the people, and bring them to the tent of meeting. When they are in place beside you, I will come down and speak with you there. I will also take some of the spirit that is on you and will confer it on them, that they may share the burden of the people with you. You will then not have to bear it by yourself.Numbers 11:16-17
2. The number seventy evokes the Sanhedrin, consisting of seventy or seventy-one elders or councilors, the highest authoritative assembly in Jerusalem. Historians distinguish between a political and a religious Sanhedrin, but the tradition of a supreme magistrate of seventy originated in the Mosaic period.
3. Seventy had mystical significance as representing the number of the nations (Genesis 10; 46:27; Exodus 1:5; see the NABRE footnote to Genesis 10:1).
Seventy and seventy-two may have equal authoritative weight in the manuscripts for another reason: the rabbinic tradition debated whether Eldad and Medad were among the seventy elders called by Moses, or two additional men upon whom the spirit of prophecy fell.
So Moses went out and told the people what the Lord had said. Gathering seventy elders of the people, he had them stand around the tent. The Lord then came down in the cloud and spoke to Moses. Taking some of the spirit that was on Moses, he bestowed it on the seventy elders; and as the spirit came to rest on them, they prophesied but did not continue.Numbers 11:24-29
Now two men, one named Eldad and the other Medad, had remained in the camp, yet the spirit came to rest on them also. They too had been on the list, but had not gone out to the tent; and so they prophesied in the camp. So, when a young man ran and reported to Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp,” Joshua, son of Nun, who from his youth had been Moses’ aide, said, “My lord, Moses, stop them.” But Moses answered him, “Are you jealous for my sake? If only all the people of the Lord were prophets! If only the Lord would bestow his spirit on them!”
According to the 13th century French rabbi and Bible commentator, Hizkuni/Chizkuni (Hezekiah ben Manoah), Eldad and Medad were not part of the original seventy, but received the spirit in the camp for mysterious reasons known only to God. The text leaves room for speculation because verse 24 states that Moses gathered seventy elders around the tent. Yet verse 26 states that Eldad and Medad were “on the list” or “enrolled in the list,” which leaves a logical gap.
Another French rabbi, Rashbam (Samuel ben Meir, 1085-1158), on the contrary, believed that Eldad and Medad were numbered among the seventy, but did not join the others at the tent of meeting out of humility. God’s spirit nevertheless pursued them to fulfill the divine plan.
Dr. Rabbi David Frankel, a contemporary biblical commentator, offers the interesting perspective that Eldad and Medad were holy rebels among the seventy, who nonetheless received the spirit of prophecy despite having disobeyed Moses’ command to go to the tent of meeting. For Dr. Rabbi Frankel, this episode manifests the divine freedom to diffuse its spirit beyond the confines of institutionalized religion. See his essay, Eldad and Medad Prophesied in the Camp.1
Missing data and manuscript variations leave room for scholarly speculation, but symbols draw details and divergences into one holistic vision.
The mission of the seventy[-two] and the mission of the Twelve reinforce each other. Both numbers are symbolic, recalling the seventy elders of Moses and the twelve tribes of Israel— the union and communion of all nations in the Body of Christ.
1 Dr. Rabbi David Frankel’s intuition of a need for personal freedom within religious communities stimulates further reflection in light of the revelation of the Trinity. Pluralism is usually seen as a threat to institutions, but divine diversity in the perichoresis of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit always respects the dignity of persons and draws them together in love. For God is Love (1 John 4:8). The simultaneity of personal plurality and oneness within the Body of Christ will always be a labor of love in this earthly pilgrimage. Blessed diversity bears the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).