Exodus: The Resisted Call

Moses does not want the call he receives from God. He tries to evade it.

Exodus, chapters 3 and 4, recount the experience when God calls Moses to leave his shepherding in Midian and return to Egypt to free the Israelites from Pharaoh’s bondage. What may surprise us as readers is how strenuously Moses resists that call. 

The account of Moses’ call parallels the experience of other Old Testament prophets. The classic example is the call of Jeremiah as recounted in Jeremiah 1:4-9. His call comes when he is a young man just beginning his adult life. He, too, tries to evade it by telling God how unqualified his youth makes him for the job. God does not accept his request for deferment.

Isaiah, when he is called by God, pleads his total unsuitability by claiming the impurity of his speech and the environment in which he lives (Isaiah 6:1-5).

God has a big, audacious plan. To accomplish it he does not need to have shrinking violets who are going to be afraid of every shadow. He needs persons of spirit and courage.

The most extreme example of a prophet resisting his call comes with Jonah. He tries to evade it by sailing to the farthest edge of the world as he knew it (Jonah 1). 

The prophets have good reasons for trying to escape their call. Time after time the prophets are called upon to deliver messages of judgment to the nation, especially to the nation’s leaders. This garners them scorn, social ostracism, reputation smearing, and sometimes physical abuse and imprisonment. All too often the nation’s populace regard them as mad. It is not a job anyone should crave.

The Call of Moses

The most extensive account of a prophet trying to argue his way out of God’s call is the account of Moses’ call. The account begins with God attracting Moses’ attention with a bush that is flaming, but not burning up. Curious, Moses steps aside from his shepherding to investigate this peculiarity. 

Moses at the burning bush, icon in St. Catherine’s monastery, Sinai, 12th century.

God speaks to Moses out the bush and tells him that he, God, has taken notice of the suffering of the Israelites in their Egyptian bondage and plans to set them free. The human agent he will use to accomplish this purpose is Moses.

Moses shows no enthusiasm for the role. He offers five successive arguments that God is making a mistake. 

The first argument is the shortest. Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt? (Exodus 3:11). As the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, he knows first-hand the power structure of Pharaoh and his administration. As a criminal who fled justice, Moses knows he has no power base to challenge the autocracy of Pharaoh. 

God dismisses this argument by telling Moses that he, God, will be with him. The sign of that will be the fact that after the liberation, Israel will worship God on this very mountain. The guarantee of God’s promise lies not in the present, but in the future. Moses will have to operate out of faith in God’s promise, not out of certainty in the present.

Next Moses raises the issue of God’s name. When he appears before the Israelites with his message of liberation, the Israelites are rightly going to want to know which god is sending him. All Moses has to offer them is the vague phrase the God of your ancestors.” Moses wants something more specific…and compelling.

His request leads God into revealing his name, the name YHWH (translated into English as the LORD). Israel’s liberation is going to lead the Israelites into an intimacy with God that they have not had before. That intimacy will be manifest in the privilege that they of all the nations of the world will know God’s proper name. (Note: There are so many dimensions to this particular monologue that I will devote my next posting to them.)

Despite the promises, God reiterates to Moses that God will exercise great power, to bring Israel out of Egypt and into its own land, Moses is obsessed that the Israelites will not believe him when he announces God’s intentions. He seeks something more persuasive when he speaks. 

God then gives him two miraculous signs to perform before both Pharaoh and the people. As we will learn later, they are hardly above the level of magical tricks. In the end, they accomplish nothing in impressing Pharaoh, despite Moses’ desperate need for some kind of sign to back up his words. 

The gift of these signs does not apparently satisfy Moses’ anxiety, so he raises another objection. He is not an eloquent speaker. He tells God, I am slow of speech and slow of tongue (Exodus 4:10). He seems to think this disqualifies him from the task for which God is calling him. A liberator must be a powerful orator. God reminds him that he is the one who gives speech to mortals, and he will empower Moses’ in his speech.

Even this is not enough to calm Moses’ anxieties. His last objection is the boldest of all. He asks God to select someone else for the job. He does not want it. This objection pushes God to the limit. He responds in anger, telling Moses he is sending his brother Aaron to assist him. Aaron will speak the words that God gives to Moses. He also gives Moses a rod, a sign of his authority.

Moses as God’s Man

Moses runs out of his objections and concedes to God’s call. We might speculate he does so reluctantly. But the battle is over. God will not let his plan be thwarted by Moses’ fears and anxieties. Moses must learn that his personal welfare and comfort are subordinate to God’s greater plan. It must have been a very humbling experience, one which reinforced the humility that he was later to exhibit, a humility that so impressed all who met him.

What I find so amazing about this story is not that God gets his way in the end, but that Moses conducts such an unflattering dialogue with God and that God responds patiently to each objection. I would have thought that God would have turned away in disgust. Quibbling Moses was clearly not the fearless leader God sought. But God does not. 

Moses does not come across as a craven slave before God. Rather he is a man of spirit and boldness, a boldness that dares to argue with God. One thinks of a similar character in the Bible: Job. 

God has a big, audacious plan. To accomplish it he does not need to have shrinking violets who are going to be afraid of every shadow. He needs persons of spirit and courage. In the boldness of Moses’ dialogue with God, we get a first glimpse that insofar as the exodus project is concerned, God has found in Moses just his man. 

Exodus: Moses’ Silent Years

A gap in the story does not mean nothing important was happening.

Moses defending the daughters of Jethro. Painting by Nicolaas Verkolje, 18th century.

Exodus, chapter 2, tells us that Moses was 40 years old when he murdered an Egyptian overseer. He fled to Midian to save his life. He lived there for another 40 years within the household of Jethro. He married Jethro’s daughter, fathered two sons, and shepherded Jethro’s flocks.

That is all we are told about those 40 years. They are the silent years of Moses’ life. 

Possible Influences of Midian Experiences on Moses’ Character

We would like to know what was happening to Moses during this time. What experiences shaped his life and attitudes? How did his life circumstances shape his developing character? How was he acquiring the skills of leadership that would be so evident later in his role as Israel’s leader? We are given no clue. Yet I can’t help but believe that things were happening in those years that would be decisive to his future. But I can only speculate.

For one, it is important to note that his employment was that of a shepherd. In the ancient world, the role of kings was often described as a kind of shepherding. Kings were shepherds of their people. Israelite kings were certainly seen in that light. When Nathan the prophet confronted King David over his abuse of power, he expressed his criticism through a parable about a rich man stealing a poor man’s sheep (2 Samuel 12). In Psalm 23 God himself is portrayed as the good shepherd.

… Moses’ years shepherding were possibly cultivating skills in leadership without his or anyone else’s noticing. 

So Moses’ years shepherding were possibly cultivating skills in leadership without his or anyone else’s noticing. 

Moses had fled to Midian as a prince of Egypt. In Midian he would have had to accommodate himself to a life of obscurity and non-privilege. Midian would then have become his training ground in humility. This was an essential quality he would need to be an effective leader of Israel in its wilderness. Numbers 12:3 tells us that Moses was regarded as the humblest of men, despite his exalted position. 

Where and how did he acquire that distinctive quality of character? One wonders if it was not during those years he lived in obscurity in the tents of Midian. He would have had to shed the trappings of privilege he brought from Egypt and accustom himself to a life that may have seemed to him a frustration of all the dreams and expectations he had acquired in the palace of Pharaoh’s daughter. 

In Midian, too, Moses as a husband and father was experiencing the joys and the anxieties of family life. When he came later to assume his role as leader of Israel, he did so not as a celibate priest but as one acquainted with the realities of family life. 

There may have been other important things happening in the shaping of Moses’ character in those silent years. We just do not know. But what I do notice is that there is this long gap of silence in Moses’ biography. 

A Parallel in the Life of Jesus

I take note of that because we find something parallel in the life of Jesus. The gospels tell us some stories about Jesus’ birth and one story about an incident in the temple when Jesus was 12 years old (Luke 2:41-51). They remain silent, however, about the rest of Jesus’ childhood, youth, and early adult years. 

Tradition says that Jesus was about 30 years old when he began his public ministry. What was happening in the 29 years before that? The gospels remain resolutely silent. And yet, as in the case of Moses, I cannot help but believe that the humble, obscure activities and interactions that Jesus was engaged in in those silent years were shaping his character and sharpening his skills and deepening his insights. He would draw upon them in his public ministry.

This is the dynamic of sainthood. It takes a process to grow a saint.

One evidence for that is the parables Jesus would tell. They are often told in the dress of ordinary life, especially the activities of farming. They show an acute observation of the peculiarities of people in ordinary living. Where did Jesus acquire that awareness? It had to be during those silent years when Jesus was working and walking around and engaging in commerce with the people of Nazareth and its neighborhoods?

Judging Our Lives from a False Platform

Both the life of Moses and the life of Jesus demonstrate an important truth about the spiritual life. Times of seemingly obscure ordinary life and times of patient silence play an essential role in our spiritual journeys. We may feel that nothing important is happening in our lives. We may feel a frustration over dreams that remain unfulfilled or over career goals that remain unrealized. We may come to feel a sense of resentment about the life we feel we have never lived.

But our platform of judgment may be far off base. Sometimes we are blind to the important ways our years of obscurity were or are preparing us for some important work we shall be called upon to do. They were important years of preparation. 

Emily Dickinson

In other cases we are blind to the extraordinary things we were doing in our ordinary life, things we never see as extraordinary at all. One of my favorite examples is the poet Emily Dickinson. She wrote several thousands of poems. 

In her lifetime, only a handful were published. Most she stuffed away in boxes and desk drawers. They were written on scraps of paper. She instructed her sister-in-law to burn them all after her death. Her sister-in-law disobeyed her instructions. 

When the poems were published, America discovered that in her withdrawn life as the spinster of Amherst, Emily Dickinson was developing into one of the most extraordinary poets of American literature. Her poetry significantly redirected the writing of poetry in the 20th century. 

In one of her most famous poems, she begins:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Dont tell! they’d advertise – you know!

Apparently Emily was not able to rightly judge the value of her own obscure life and worth.  

An Important Theme in the Contemplative Prayer Tradition

The importance of times of silence, not only daily but also over the course of years, is a very important theme in the contemplative prayer tradition. That tradition is all about the process of personal and spiritual transformation. 

What is demonstrated over and over again not only in the lives of publicized saints, but also in the lives of ordinary saints that each and every one of us knows is that their beauty of character is not a product of a spiritual flash in the pan. 

The cultivation of character is a process, a process which scriptural writers see as parallel to the process of growth in nature. The glorious oak tree is the product of the acorn. But the tree does not emerge from the seed as full-grown tree overnight. It emerges through a slow process of growth, first emerging as a tiny sapling, then steadily growing in height and girth until it towers over its landscape. During those early years of growth, the tree is not impressive. It looks like other young trees around it. Only in maturity is its full beauty apparent.

This is the dynamic of sainthood. It takes a process to grow a saint. As the spiritual writer Jonathan R. Bailey has put it: Christlike character is not something we get; we grow into it.*

Years of obscurity and patient waiting may play an essential role. It is in the daily rounds of ordinary life when we seek to faithfully fulfill our duties and responsibilities to family, work, and community that we are developing those exemplary traits of character that we associate with the saints. Sometimes they are training us for some important mission ahead. But in others they are polishing us to shine as creatures of beauty in God’s world.


* Jonathan R. Bailey, The Eternal Journey: Daily Meditations on the Stages of Transformation. Renovaré, 2020. Page 6.

Poem by Emily Dickinson: Used by Permission of Harvard University Press. THE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1951, 1955 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.  Copyright © renewed 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1914, 1918, 1919, 1924, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1935, 1937, 1942, by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Copyright © 1952, 1957, 1958, 1963, 1965, by Mary L. Hampson.