“Here I Am”: An Old Testament Theology of Call
Exodus 3-4 is one of the most breathtaking passages in the Bible. God calls to Moses from a burning bush. Moses’ initial response assumes a submissive posture, “Here I am” (the Hebrew word is hineni). However, upon hearing God’s request that he go to Egypt to deliver the Israelites from slavery to Pharaoh, Moses doubts God’s choice. Even after seeing multiple miraculous signs from God confirming the call, Moses makes excuses for himself, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue” (4:10; NIV). Moses requests that the Lord excuse him and send someone else in his stead to rescue his people. The conclusion of this narrative points out God’s anger burning against Moses as he reprimands him. While Moses never verbally assents to the God’s command, he clearly obeys because chapter 5 picks up with him carrying out his divine mission.
There’s a pattern in the story. First, a commission from God. Then, there is resistance in the form of an objection (or series of objections) from the one who is called. God shows a sign of some sort affirming the call, and then finally, there is submission to the divine command.
The importance of Moses in the Hebrew religion cannot be understated. While Abraham was the forefather of the Jewish nation, the promises of nationhood for Israel were realized under Moses’ watch. Throughout the Old Testament, he’s considered one of the most authoritative figures in the history of Israel, since God relayed the Law through him. By the time of Jesus, many believed he actually interceded on their behalf, in a similar manner those of us who identify as catholic believe Mary and the other saints are praying for us.
Many other important call narratives in the Hebrew Bible utilize the Moses as a template. In Judges 6, God tells Gideon he will be an instrument to deliver Israel from the hands of Midian. Gideon’s objection comes in the form of doubt about his own pedigree: “How can I save Israel?” he asks, “My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.” Gideon requires a sign (using his fleece) before he submits.
The first call narrative in Isaiah has the prophet called in a magnificent vision of heaven, and his objection is that he is a “man of unclean lips” (Isa 6:5). The sign is an act of atonement in which a Seraphim touches his lips with a coal. When the Lord subsequently asks, “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah responds “Here am I [hineni]. Send me!” Not only does Isaiah need a sign, his response is clearly based on Moses’ from Exodus 3-4.
Isaiah has a second call narrative in chapter 40. The prophet, known as Deutero-Isaiah, is commissioned to “comfort, comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed.” The prophet struggles with what he’s supposed to say because “the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.” He is painfully aware of the contrast between the glorious, eternal Lord and temporal flesh. While there is no miraculous sign here, there is a reassurance. The Lord tells the prophet to go up on a high mountain and proclaim the coming of God. In fact, this impending advent will be the sign.
In Jeremiah 1, the Lord calls Jeremiah to be a prophet by saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (1:5). Jeremiah responds with the objection, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.” The Lord also touches his lips to symbolically place his words in the prophet’s mouth and shows him a series of visions.
The original authorial intent of these passages was most likely to legitimize the message of the figure they’re depicting in the eyes of the people of Israel. By strongly alluding to the Mosaic call, the hearers would have connected the two accounts. This would lend credibility and authority to the prophet. However, the consistency of the pattern reveals important theological implications.
First, calls can come at times when they aren’t expected. Moses was just tending his father-in-law’s flocks. Gideon was threshing wheat. We’re not sure what either of the Isaiahs were doing. Jeremiah must have been a young man, at a time in life where he wouldn’t have been expecting to be called. God’s call is rarely convenient. We can’t control our circumstances but we can decide whether or not we trust the Lord enough to submit to him.
Second, calls can come to the people who least expect them. Perhaps each of the objections made by the called in the above examples are feigning humility but it seems reasonable to take them at their words. What we learn is that God calls the weak so he can work through them. This principle is consistent with the New Testament witness, particularly 2 Corinthians 12 where Paul proclaims, “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” It’s not the people who are called who end up doing the work. It’s God who does the work through them.
Oftentimes, it’s easy for us to get caught up in our own plans. We like to think we have everything all figured out based on our interests and strengths. But the one thing we see in these texts is that the Lord has a habit of disrupting lives in unexpected ways. He probably hasn’t appeared to most of us in a burning bush or a heavenly vision, but he has ways of getting our attention. Nevertheless, when we are commissioned for a task by him, there is only one response: “Here I am.”