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.
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.