Call to Ministry Series: #7 What in the World Did You Say?

Call to Ministry Series: #7 What in the World Did You Say?

June 27, 2012

Four times Moses raises objections to the call of the Lord in Exodus 3-4.  God does not cut him off or chastise him for raising questions, even questions that are disguising objections.  Instead, he provides answers to every objection.

Many call narratives include objections to what God asks the person to do.  In conferences on God's call I have found lots of people worried about their questions or issues with what God might be saying to them.  This response by Moses appears normal.  God's willingness to answer his queries should also be seen as normal.  God is gracious.

It may prove helpful to look carefully at Moses' objections and questions to gain a perspective on the person raising the objection and God who answers.

Exodus 3:11

But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?"

Who Am I? The first objection is a personal one for Moses.  At the time of his call he was a shepherd living in the wilderness of Midian far from his people, Israel, because he had murdered an Egyptian taskmaster.  But his history began quite differently.

Moses was born to a Levite couple (Ex 2:1).  The implication in 2:2 is that this is the first "son," but we find an older sister in verse 4 and later learn that Aaron is also older (7:7).  Perhaps they were married and had the older children before the decree.  Moses' birth comes after the decree of Pharaoh requiring every Hebrew male child be killed, thrown into the river (1:22).  Narrative purpose disregards the first children to focus on the important one for the account.

At three months of age, perhaps when his cry could not be hidden easily, the child is placed in a waterproof reed box and set in the river (2:3).  Crocodiles resided on the river and may be the reason the handmaidens of the daughter of Pharaoh walked beside the river when she came down to bathe.  They ensured the safety of the daughter of Pharaoh.  They see the box and fetch it to see what is inside.

Pharaoh's daughter identifies the child as a Hebrew (2:6).  The rabbinical midrash on this passage says she saw he was circumcised in contrast to the Egyptians, but Egyptian texts and pictures depict Egyptian men as circumcised, too.  Perhaps his clothing or features or skin color marked him as a Hebrew.  Of course, the decree pertained to the Hebrews and those circumstances alone may have led her to conclude he was a Hebrew.  She evidently has the power to go against the command of Pharaoh for she takes the baby into her care.  The baby's sister suggests a Hebrew wet nurse who turns out to be his own mother (2:7-8).  Obviously Pharaoh's daughter is concerned for the welfare of the child.  When the child is weaned he returns to the care of the daughter of Pharaoh (2:10).  His name becomes "Moses," probably an Egyptian name although the explanation claims to derive from Hebrew.

For forty years he lives in the Egyptian aristocracy.  He retains an emotional attachment to his people and visits them at least once (see Exodus 2:11).  At one point he witnesses a beating of one of his kinsman by an Egyptian and later murders the Egyptian when he thinks no one is around to witness the deed (2:12).

Moses flees for his life, landing in Midian where he becomes the son-in-law to a Midianite priest, Reuel, also named Jethro, marrying one of his seven daughters, Zipporah.  The next forty years drag by as he chases sheep looking for pasturage in the desert.  In the biblical account the time is jumped over to get to the focus of the story.

Now God wants to use me, Moses says.  Who am I that I should deliver my people?  He has spent more years in other people's homes than with his own people.  He has been spared and prepared for this day, but from a human perspective he would not be the first choice to lead a deliverance of Israel from Egyptian oppression.  The stage was set for deliverance in Exodus 2 with a human agent and divine initiative, but the hoped for resolution is diverted by the zeal of the hero, the deliverer.

Who is he?  He is a "nothing," a "no one," one who started strong but now was the least likely candidate for what God wants.

God answers the first question of Moses with two divine assurances (3:12).  God's first response is to emphasize that he will be with Moses.  In Hebrew the sentence opens with a strong particle that I would translate as the word "indeed."  Note, indeed, that I will be with you, Moses.  Moses will be God's agent so his presence and authority will go with him.

God's second word of assurance is marked as a "sign": "This will be to you a sign that I have sent you."  Something is to be a sign of assurance to Moses.  What that sign is has baffled interpreters.  Most English translations assume that the sign is Moses bringing the Israelites out of Egypt to worship God on the mountain (NAB, NEB, NASB, RSV, NRSV, and NIV).  As a sign to Moses' immediate question, who am I, this event would be at least a year off and although it may reflect a larger intention than the exodus event alone, as a word of assurance to Moses in a desolate place, this interpretation lacks a lot of strength.

Some interpreters suppose that something has dropped out of the verse and is irrecoverable (see JB translation; M. Noth, Exodus. OTL.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1962).  I think the answer may lie with the near demonstrative, "this."  It points to a close antecedent.  The closest thing in the context is the non-consumed burning bush.  As an immediate demonstration of assurance and God's ability and presence it would help Moses and his doubts.  Ramban, a rabbinical interpreter, understood the sign this way (See discussion in B. Childs, The Book of Exodus. OTL.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974.  56-60).

If the bush is the sign, then we need to punctuate verse 12 differently than the translations have done.  Either interpretation takes nothing away from the Lord responding quickly with assurance to Moses' initial question.  God's answer promises that Moses will not be alone.

Exodus 3:13

But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?"

Moses' second objection comes in verse 13.  It is a deeper question than a surface reading indicates.  So I will save the answer for the next blog entry (#8).