Friday, October 1, 2010

Call Narratives in The Old Testament

The use of critical methods in the study of the Old Testament has revealed a pattern in the literary accounts of Yahweh's initial communication to various notable biblical figures.  Form criticism has enabled scholars to identify this specific genre as “the call narrative”1 (or call formula).  Though individual stories may display some variation in this pattern, three distinctive elements appear regularly:2
        1. Yahweh calls the person to perform a task (Commission);
        2. The person expresses their unworthiness or inability (Concern);
        3. Yahweh gives the person reassurance (Comfort).
These components will be traced in various examples, following which other unique aspects of the call will be considered.  To begin with, the call narrative will be outlined in the stories of Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah.
Case Studies
In Exodus 3:7-9, Yahweh explains the reason for His appearance to Moses, namely that the Israelites are in great distress at the hands of their enemy, Egypt.  In the verse following (Exod. 3:10), Yahweh commissions Moses to speak to Pharaoh, which constitutes the first part of the call formula, Commission.
In Exodus 3:11, Moses expresses doubt over his ability to perform the task:  “Moses said to God, 'Who am I to go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?'”(New Jerusalem Bible).  Yahweh's response is that He will be with Moses.  Thus we have Concern and Comfort..
Isaiah 6 gives the account of the prophet's vision of the Lord, and though it contains all the elements of the call narrative, they occur out of sequence.  In Isaiah 6:5, the prophet expresses his inadequacy to stand in the presence of the Almighty (Concern).  In verse 7, the Lord reassures him by removing the sin from his mouth (Comfort).  Following this, the Lord asks in verse 8 who will go for Him to speak to Israel.  At Isaiah's classic “hineni”, Yahweh commissions him (verse 9).
The call narrative in Jeremiah follows a linear pattern, beginning in Jeremiah 1:5 with the Commission:  “I appointed you as prophet to the nations” (New Jerusalem Bible).  Jeremiah immediately expresses doubt  in verse 6 (Concern), which is followed by Yahweh's reassurance that He will be with the lad, from verses 7 to 8 (Comfort).
Evolution of the Call
The existence of a call formula does not exclude the possibility that such interaction is characteristic of Yahweh's dealings with prophets.  From the perspective of biblical criticism, however, it points to a particular understanding in the authors about how the Lord spoke with the leaders of the Israelites.
By examining some of the changes in the call formula over the span of the Old Testament, we may be in a better position to see whether there is a progression in the presentation.  To this end, we will look at the calls of Abraham, Samuel and Ezekiel.
In Genesis 12:1-5, we read a rather simple account of Abraham's calling, one in which Yahweh commands and Abraham (or Abram at this point) simply obeys.  There is no dialogue in which the one chosen expresses concerns of inadequacy, or receives words of comfort.  Gonzalez suggests that the call of Abraham is not so much the call of an individual as the call of a nation:  “If there was at one time a personal experience, it was stripped of its personal significance in thepre-literary stages of history, and thus became meaningful for everyone.”3  
The command to go to a land “which I will show you” (Gen12:1, New Jersualem Bible) implies ongoing relationship with this God whose name remains unknown.  Thus Yahweh shows His commitment to His chosen, a theme which permeates the writings of the Israelites.
The calling of Samuel, recounted in 1 Samuel 3:1-14, is also a rather simple event.  Though there is initial confusion as to the source of the voice the boy is hearing, the narrative has little by the way of Concern or Comfort.  The human element of doubt at the call is only a shadow at this stage.  It is noteworthy that in this pre-monarchical account, the first person singular is not yet the standard viewpoint for the portrayal.4   Thus some of the more personal features characteristic of later call narratives are not present.
The call of Ezekiel, which takes place much later than the first two examples, during theexilicperiod, is a more fully developed account of the prophet's vision of Yahweh (Ezek.1-3).  Though Concern is not shown explicitly, the prophet nonetheless falls to the ground (Ezek. 1:28) and is raised to his feet (Ezek. 2:2).  The idea of man's inadequacy and of Yahweh's assistance remains paramount, though it may have evolved past the form typical of the call narrative.
Another development in this call is the idea that Yahweh is not restricted to the land of Israel, since the vision takes place in Babylon.5
In this section the call narratives of Abraham, Samuel and Ezekiel were seen not to fit the formula given earlier of Commission, Concern and Comfort.  The story of Abraham seems rather to form the basis for later call stories, to which were added increasingly personalized accounts.  It also serves as a kind of creed for the call of Israel as a people to be made separate from the world for Yahweh's purposes.  The call of Samuel contains a bit more detail, though it is presented without the first-person perspective characteristic of prophets after the monarchy.  Ezekiel's call, written much later, seems to have evolved past the formulaic to underscore the weakness of man and the transcendence of Yahweh.  Thus an evolution in the call narrative may be discerned, from the primitive self-revelation of a nameless God, to the glorious vision of a sublime creator having a form like a human being (Ezek. 1:26).
Our treatment of the call will continue with a brief study of some common elements found in various narratives, followed by a theological consideration of some major points.
Assorted Parallels
Called by Name
In two specific call narratives we read that Yahweh initially called the prophet by name.  In Exodus 3:4, He calls Moses this way, and in 1 Samuel 3:4, He calls Samuel in the same manner.  The use of a person's name can imply ownership in this context, and may reflect the close personal relationship Yahweh wished to foster with those He chose.  This may be extended to include the vocation of the Israelites as a people set apart unto Yahweh:6   “From you Yahweh will make a people consecrated to Himself...” (Deut. 28:9, New Jerusalem Bible).
This calling of the Israelite people to be a prophetic voice to the nations is a theme often repeated  in the Old Testament (Gen. 12:1-3; Isa. 42:5-7;  Isa. 55:4).
In the call narratives of three prophets, the response to the call is given by the phrase, “Here am I”.  The first is when Yahweh calls Moses from the burning bush in Exodus 3:4; the second is when Yahweh calls Samuel in I Samuel 3:4; the third is when Yahweh calls for someone to go forth in His name to proclaim the message and Isaiah responds with “hineni” in Isaiah 6:8.  This response to the call of Yahweh is immediate and is understood to represent a strong willingness to obey.  The reader of the accounts knew that Yahweh had commended Abraham for his faith in the promises he received from Yahweh.  This form served to reinforce that pattern and emphasized the prophets' virtue in attending to the call.
The Mouth
In several call narratives, attention is given to the prophet's mouth, which is often viewed as an entity in itself, placed at the disposal of Yahweh.7   Moses complains that he is slow of speech, to which Yahweh replies:  “'Who gave a person a mouth?... Now go, I shall help you speak and instruct you what to say.'” (Exod. 4:11-12, New Jerusalem Bible).  In Isaiah 6:7, the prophet is cleansed from his “unclean lips” when a seraph takes a coal from the throne of Yahweh:  “With this it touched my mouth and said:  'Look, this has touched your lips, your guilt has been removed and your sin forgiven” (New Jerusalem Bible).  Again, in Jeremiah 1:9, Yahweh touches the prophet's mouth in an act of formal consecration to the service of His word.  In Ezekiel the theme is taken a step further as the prophet is made to eat a scroll (Ezek. 2:8-3:3).
A common element in the call narrative is the idea of sacrifice.  Abraham is told to leave behind his family and the land he has known, though, as Gonzalez writes:  “The change does not mean privation, since what he receives is greater than what he loses.”8    Other prophets, too, gain through their sacrifice, participation in a greater vision beyond the boundaries of the ego, in Israel's destiny.  When Elijah calls Elisha (1 Kgs. 19:19-21), the latter sacrifices the oxen he was plowing with, later receiving a “double share” of the anointing of the former (2 Kgs. 2).  Amos, suffering rebuke from Amaziah, confessed:  “I am merely a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore-figs, and Yahweh said to me, 'Go and prophesy to my people Israel'” (Amos 7:14-15, New Jerusalem Bible).  Many of the prophets experienced great injury, even death, for the sake of the call, though they persisted, knowing that their reward was with Yahweh.
Physical Distress
Though suffering at the hands of people for the sake of the call was usual for the prophets, sometimes it was also the case that the encounter with Yahweh itself caused physical distress, ranging from shock to illness.9   Ezekiel's experience of the great vision of Yahweh caused him to be struck dumb for several days (Ezek. 3:15).  Daniel also suffered physical distress after receiving a message from an angel:  “At this, I, Daniel, lost consciousness; I was ill for several days” (Dan. 8:27, New Jerusalem Bible).
Theological Aspects of the Call
From the various call narratives that have been examined, certain theological insights may be gained.  These include, and are not limited to, chosenness, sanctification and relationship.
Two ideas come into play here.  The first is the definition of a prophet; the second stems from the first, and has to do with distinguishing the genuine article from the counterfeit.  Hyatt quotesAlbrightin defining the wordnābī'from anAkkadianverb meaning “to call”.10   From this Albright attributes to the word a sense of vocation, of a calling from Yahweh. 
TheElohistwriter referred to Abraham as a prophet in Genesis 20:7 (~8thc. BCE).  Moses is also called a prophet in Deuteronomy 8:14, and again in Deuteronomy 34:10:  “Since then, there has never been such a prophet in Israel as Moses, the man whom Yahweh knew face to face” (New Jerusalem Bible).  The prophetic movement, however, began in Israel around the 11thcentury BCE, with Samuel and Saul.11   In those days, ecstasies were sometimes used to draw near to Yahweh, a ritual perhaps derived from the Canaanites.12   This gradually fell into disrepute, as genuine callings were not initiated by the prophet, but by Yahweh.
Thus from the idea of being called we learn to distinguish the true prophets from the false.  The false prophets attempted to conjure their gods in furious and exhausting performances, such as those carried out by the prophets of Baal, who danced for hours and cut themselves “with swords and spears” (1 Kgs. 18:26-28, New Jerusalem Bible).  The sons of the prophets, with whom Saul prophesied, also used singing and music to accomplish their task of drawing near to Yahweh (1 Sam. 10:9-12), though we are not convinced that their stature as prophets rivals that of more respected figures.
By contrast, the prophets we considered earlier, such as Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel did not even seek Yahweh out- rather, He came to them on His own initiative. Heatonwrites, “Revelation comes not to order butuninvited.”13
This election, as it might be called, was a gift from Yahweh.  There was no way such a calling could be earned or bargained for with rituals or sacrifice.  In the later call narratives, it even became a standard of authenticity, to some extent, that the true prophet not only did not seek Yahweh at the time of his calling, but even protested the same when it took place.  Von Rad suggests that this element of the call narrative was added by the Elohist writer to the account of Moses' reluctance to accept Yahweh's call, in order to bring it into conformity with what was current in his time.14
Thus we do not get a tidy picture of perfect men responding to Yahweh perfectly but more often it is the case that the one called shuns Yahweh's call or shrinks back in fear. The reason the call narrative is presented this way is to accentuate the frailty of man in contrast with theascendancyand power of Yahweh.  It is never so much a hero that is made to conquer by virtue of his own prowess and cunning as an unremarkable and ordinary man who is terrified at the presence of the Almighty.
Some have suggested that the call narratives were written in order to lend authenticity to the prophet's message to his readers, to justify him, in a sense, in the eyes of the people.15   Zimmerli has written that this was not the only reason for the call narrative, given that the traditional formula includes both Concern (weakness, inability or doubt) and Comfort.  He posits that the narrative is given to emphasize the weakness of man before Yahweh.16
Since the people chosen by Yahweh do not possess any great virtue to begin with, they have need of sanctification.  Thus, before they can carry the message of Yahweh, they must undergo personal conversion. Vawterwrites of Isaiah's call that the prophet:  “must first himself experience the redemption in his own life before he can preach it.”17
The idea of being set apart is central to this particular theme.  The call of the prophet requires that he (or she) leave the trees in order to see the condition of the forest.  When Yahweh draws the prophet near to Himself, He allows that person to share in His understanding.  So, climbing the mountain, the prophet is easily able to spot the fires approaching the forest, or to identify violence taking place within it.  This is the case, for example in Jeremiah's call:  “'Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you came to birth I consecrated you; I appointed you as prophet to the nations'” (Jer.1:4-5, New Jerusalem Bible).
Fundamental to the prophet's consecration was a sense of objectivity.  A true calling did not lend itself to the fancy of the court, but gave accurate pronouncements regardless of the consequences.18   In contrast false prophets spoke exactly what the king wanted to hear.  Thus we read of Jehoshaphat's inquiry of the 400 prophets of the court as to whether he should go to war, to which they reply reassuringly (from their ecstasy) that the Lord will give him victory.  But when Micaiah is summoned he predicts defeat, even though he is struck for it and imprisoned (1 Kgs. 22:24-27).
As the prophet is set apart unto Yahweh, so the nation of Israel was called to be separate from the other nations.  As was the case with the individual, so was the case with the people:  to establish a  witness for Yahweh.
When Yahweh called someone to Himself, He was inviting them to participate in a relationship.  This relationship did not consist solely in a one-way absorption of the prophet into the transcendence of Yahweh, nor of a dissolution of the prophet's sense of self, but wascharacterizedrather by a sharing of personalities. Dheillycomments on this aspect of the prophet's call:  “ a land through which runs a river, he is impregnated by it and draws therefrom a wonderful fruitfulness.”19
In the case of Abraham, though Yahweh calls him out from his family, He does not leave him completely bereft of the comforts thereof.  Yahweh does not abandon His elect, rather, He makes a commitment to Abraham to guide him into a new land and to provide for him descendants as numerous as the stars (Gen. 15:5).  Even though Yahweh is not known to Abraham by name in the J tradition, He “appeared to Abraham as a personal Being, in the manner of a man...”20   As the call of Abraham is archetypal for subsequent call narratives and for the call of the nation of Israel, Yahweh's commitment to be with all the prophets and with His people may be summed up in the words of Comfort so familiar to the call formula:  “I shall be with you” (Exod. 3:12, New Jerusalem Bible).
In studying the call narratives of the Old Testament, we have seen several common themes, including the three-part formula of Commission, Concern and Comfort.  We have also traced an evolution in the narrative, from the primitive form of the call given to Abraham and Samuel to the detailed visions experienced by later prophets such as Ezekiel.
We have touched briefly upon various features shared by specific narratives, including the calling of a prophet by name, the importance of the prophet's mouth, and the suffering that the call brings.  These support the idea of a genre specific to the call.
Building on these ideas we considered some theological topics, including chosenness, sanctification and relationship, drawing on the experience of the individual to inform the parallel calling of a people.
The usefulness of critical studies in discerning these common features in the call narrative has been established.  Further evidence of a genre in the literature will require more detailed studies, including a consideration of the source texts. 
1 Dennis Bratcher, “The Prophetic Call Narrative: Commissioning into Service.” prophetcall.html.  Accessed Feb. 5, 2005.
2 E.W. Heaton, The Old Testament Prophets(Baltimore: Penguin, 1961), 52-53.
3 Angel Gonzalez, Abraham: Father of Believers(New York:  Herder and Herder, 1967), 34.
4 Gerhard von Rad, The Message of the Prophets(London:  SCM Press, 1973), 33.
5 James D. Newsome, Jr., The Hebrew Prophets(Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1984), 125.
6 E.W. Heaton, The Old Testament Prophets, 62.
7 Ibid, 53.
8 Gonzalez, Abraham, 30.
9 Von Rad, The Message of theProphets, 39.
10 W. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity(Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Press, 1940), 231-32, in J. P. Hyatt, Prophetic Religion  (Nashville:Abingdon, 1947), 49.
11 Hyatt,  Prophetic Religion,15.
12 Joseph Dheilly, The Prophets,Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism, vol. 66 (New York: Hawthorne, 1960), 57-58.
13 Heaton,  The Old Testament Prophets,39.
14 Von Rad, The Message of the Prophets, 35.
15 Ibid, 34.
16 Walther Zimmerli, The Fiery Throne: The Prophets and Old Testament Theology, translated by K.C. Hanson (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 28.
17 Bruce Vawter, Old Testament Reading Guide(Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1965), 23.
18 Dheilly, The Prophets,41.
19 Ibid, 52.
20 Gonzalez, Abraham, 21.

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