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The Prophetic "Call" Narrative:
Commissioning into Service

Dennis Bratcher

The Genre of Commissioning

In the past, biblical passages that recounted a commissioning into the service of God, whether a prophet or leader, were usually understood to be very personal and autobiographical, a report from the prophet themselves of an inner, somewhat mystical experience with God.  This reflected a concern to see the biblical material in almost exclusively historical categories, a feature of biblical study dominant since the Enlightenment.  It also more likely expressed certain conceptions and theologies of how various groups thought God worked with human beings rather than reflecting the actual background of the biblical text.  There may well be some "testimony" to personal experience involved in these commissioning narratives.  And certainly the concern with a historical context and background for the biblical text is important and valid since the self-revelation of God in human history is an important aspect of biblical faith. 

Yet, more recently scholars have recognized a similarity between biblical accounts that report commissioning into the service of God that suggests a common shared literary form (genre, pronounced JAHN-ruh) behind these accounts (the comparison of accounts to discern common structure or form is called form criticism or genre analysis; for an example of form analysis in the Psalms, see Patterns for Life: Structure, Genre, and Theology in Psalms).  This observation does not discount any aspect of the person's commissioning into divine service.  But it does serve to shift the focus from historical concerns to the elements of the common literary structure and what that structure might say as a theological confession in its own right, even apart form the content of the account. 

To say this another way, the form likely developed as a standard way to express certain theological confessions about how the Israelites understood God to be at work in their leaders and prophets, and thereby their community, rather than simply as a vehicle to report history or personal experience.  This suggests that the commissioning narratives should be read as the community's theological commentary on leadership.   Even as personal experiences, the accounts need to be viewed within that shared theological context of the role of leaders.

The primary Old Testament commissioning accounts include Moses, Gideon, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, as well as Micaiah, and in modified form, Amos and Jonah.   Interestingly enough, Luke creatively uses part of the Samuel story and adapts the commissioning narrative as the framework in which to present the birth of Jesus, likewise a significant theological confession.

While there are variations in structure and some scholars make further distinctions based on these differences, there are normally five basic elements of these accounts:

1) a situation of distress or crisis in which God confronts the person
2) the commissioning of the person for some action or message
3) objections raised by the person in the form of inadequacy for the task
4) assurance of God’s help, often in the formula "I will be with you"
5) a sign to confirm the commission, often with the content of the commission

Elements Moses
(1 Sam)
(1 Kg)
Confrontation 3:7-9 6:11-13 3:2-10 6:1-7 [1:3] 2:1-2, 3:12-15, 22-24 22:19
Commission 3:10 6:14 3:11-14 6:8-13 1:4-5 2:3-8a, 3:4-11, 16-21, 25-27 22:20-21
Objections 3:11,13, 4:1,10, 13 6:15     1:6    
Assurance 3:12, 14-22, 4:2-9, 11-12, 14-17 6:16     1:7-10, 17-19    
Sign [4:2-9, 17] 6:17-24     1:11-16 2:8b-3:3

The most well developed of these narratives is in Exodus 3-4, where Moses voices a series of five questions or objections to God, all expressing his hesitancy to accept the task of leading God’s people out of Egypt: "Who am I that I should go?" (3:11); "What shall I say to them?" (3:12); "What if they do not listen?" (4:1); "I am slow of speech." (4:10); "Send someone else." (4:13). In various ways, God’s response to each of these objections is: "I will be with you."  Likewise in Ezekiel, there are a series of five commissionings paired with five calls to attention, with the confirming sign, a vision, following the first commissioning.

Even a cursory examination of this structure reveals that the narratives of Moses, Gideon, and Jeremiah share more common features, while the narratives of Samuel, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Michiah only exhibit abbreviated versions of the form.  Some scholars (for example, Walter Zimmerli) have noted that in the case of the latter group, there is emphasis on a Divine Assembly, a Heavenly Council, or a vision of the transcendent (to use modern philosophical categories) that gives shape to the commissioning.  In this case, the encounter with the divine provides its own assurance and alleviates the questions or objections before they can be spoken.

It is possible that this emphasis on the divine activity of God reveals a more priestly perspective, but this connection is far from certain.  What seems more certain is that this emphasis on the side of God with little or no response from the person suggests a perspective that wants to emphasize leadership as grounded in God's revelatory activity in the world.  That is, leadership of God's people is a response to an understanding of God as he reveals himself to human beings.  The use of this form of the commissioning narrative would emphasize that God is active in the world, that he is at work in unfolding historical events, and that leadership of God's people must be grounded in an understanding of that activity of God in the world (the prophetic phrase "stand in the council of God" carries the same theological implication, for example, Jer. 23:18-22).

In the longer structure, exemplified in the Moses narrative, there is incorporated a standardized reluctance or opposition to the commission, answered by God's reassurance to the person of his active presence to enable them to carry out the commission.  While it has been common practice to try to psychologize this reluctance or objections, this feature is more an expression of the community's theology  than it is a character flaw or human frailty.  While the previous structure focused on God, here the confession of inadequacy that forms the heart of the objection serves to focus on the inability of the human agent to accomplish the commission.  In response, the assurance in the formulaic "I will be with you" emphasizes the commitment of God to the human agent in spite of his/her inability or reluctance to accomplish the task.

The use of this fuller form in the commissioning narrative would serve two purposes.   First, it  serves to highlight the conviction that leaders would not be able to succeed because of their own skill or knowledge.  They are not being commissioned because they have the ability to succeed, but because they are willing to acknowledge their inability.  As a theological commentary on leadership, this affirms that true leaders are not those who think they have the skill to lead or who seek leadership. Rather, they are those who are reluctant because they understand how inadequate they are for the task, yet are willing to depend upon God for guidance and empowerment.  This concept of the reluctant and inadequate leader who can be used by God to do great things is reinforced by other rhetorical techniques in Scripture, such as the choosing of the younger son (David, Joseph) or a childless couple (Abraham, Hannah, Manoah, Elizabeth).

A second purpose of using this fuller form is to emphasize the role of God and his faithfulness in guiding the people, even through leaders who on the surface might be inadequate for the task (note the comment about David in 1 Kings 1 Sam 16:7).  The confession of inadequacy is always followed by assurance of God's presence.  "Who am I that I should go?"  is always answered by "I will be with you" (Ex 3:11).  Finally, the task does not depend on the leader's ability, but on the leader depending on God.  It is the leader going in the name of God, and God's power at work through him/her that brings success.

All of these dimensions of the commissioning narrative serve to eliminate any basis for arrogance or self-sufficiency on the part of the leaders.  They are simply a vehicle through which God can work and reveal himself in the world.  On one level, the commissioning narrative serves to legitimate the leader as God's leader. Some scholars (for example, Reventlow) have even suggested that this form reflects a public ordination service.   While that may perhaps move a little too far into modern categories and liturgy, there is some truth to the observation.  This form clearly presents the leader as commissioned by God for a specific task in the world.

On another level, the commissioning narrative serves to authenticate the message or action of the leader, both from the perspective of its divine origin and its human agent.   As such, it is easier to acknowledge that the commissioning narrative may have its origin as a literary form in the community of faith in affirming the authenticity of the leader's action and message from the perspective of a later time in history when the leader's activity had confirmed by history.  That does not imply that the traditions about the "call" do not originate with the leaders themselves, only that the specific literary form of commissioning narrative may be more the vehicle for a theological confession about the leader than it is testimony from the leaders themselves.

Theology of the Commissioning Narratives

Two major theological ideas emerge from either form of these commissioning narratives. First, leadership of God’s people is not something to be sought and cannot be accomplished by the skills and strengths of the individual. The great leaders of the Bible did not campaign for the position; they were placed there by God, by the community, or by situations in which they sought counsel from God.  Not a single leader of the Old Testament is portrayed as having in themselves the abilities to be a great leader. Even with figures that are remembered as having great personal skills (Joseph, David, Solomon, Nehemiah, or New Testament leaders like Peter or Paul), the biblical record is careful to attribute their "success" to God’s presence in their lives, their faithful response to Him, and their understanding of their role in the service of God, not to their personal proficiency or charisma.

In fact, a careful examination of the narratives reveal that often God chooses leaders that are totally outside the accepted power structures: the youngest child (David), a woman (Deborah), a wandering Aramean (Abraham), a scheming liar (Jacob), a coward (Gideon), a simple fisherman (Peter), a teenage girl from a remote country village (Mary). There is far more than romantic imagery in the birth of Jesus in the stable of a relatively unimportant Judean village to poor peasant parents, and in the fact that the first worshippers of the Christ were shepherds.  Such details of the narrative, which may well be grounded in historical events, go beyond historical reality and reveal a deliberate theological confession about service to God.

Second, leadership does not directly relate to what skills a person possesses, because ultimately it is not the power structures, the connectedness, the oratory, the management expertise, the personal flair, or the intellect that makes the difference. In another context, to another leader (Zerubbabel), a prophet declares "not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit [presence], declares the Lord." (Zech 4:6).  This is the basic idea that is expressed in all of these narratives. The questions or objections in the commissioning narratives serve to confess the inability of the person on their own to carry out the task. It is a way to say, "I cannot possibly do this." That kind of humility before the task of leadership is understood to be a crucial element of good leaders in Scripture.  The same purpose is accomplished in the narratives in which the commissioning is grounded in an encounter with God "high and lofty" (Isa 6:1) that leads to the confession "Woe is me . . . for I am unclean" (v. 5).

And yet, the promise is always, "I will be with you."  The promise of God to divinely commissioned leaders is that, while they cannot lead God’s people in their own strength, He will be with them to enable and empower them through His strength. It is only when they realize that they cannot adequately lead God’s people, are willing to confess that inadequacy, and are willing to defer to someone else, that they are in a position to hear and accept the promise of God’s presence. And that acknowledgement of the power and presence of God active in the world is enough to sustain the leader.

Paul declares, "We have this treasure [of the Gospel] in earthen vessels that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God, and not of ourselves" (2 Cor 4:7). This follows closely his statement: "For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake" (4:5).   Paul’s favorite term for himself was "slave" or "servant," both of God and of the people. But he also affirmed, relating to his task as leader, "I can do all things through him who gives me strength" (Phil 4:13).

That same idea echoed as a warning to Israel throughout the Old Testament, the temptation to assume that success was the result of human effort and skill (Deut 8:11-20, Josh 7:3). The fact that it is repeated so often, in both Testaments, should itself be a significant warning to us, and to potential leaders.  In this sense, the commissioning narrative, even as a culturally shaped literary structure, becomes a significant theological confession.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2018, Dennis Bratcher - All Rights Reserved
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