Questioning God’s Call: Moses Versus Gideon
The Bible has many call narratives in which God appears to a human being and sends him on a commission. The classic locale for such narratives is in the later prophets, such as in Isaiah 6, Jeremiah 1, and Ezekiel 1, though such narratives appear in the Torah and former prophets as well.
The similarities between these accounts have led scholars to suggest that these and other such call narratives reflect an early common “call” form. Two call narratives outside the later prophets, that of Moses in Exodus 3–4 and that of Gideon in Judges 6, are particularly similar, inviting comparison between the two.
Moses’ Call Narrative
As the book of Exodus begins, Jacob’s family, ensconced in the land of Egypt, is thriving. However, the new Pharaoh is disturbed by Israel’s growth and seeks to diminish their population with increasingly harsh edicts, including a severe work tax, and eventually infanticide. Israel’s suffering precipitates divine redemption, with Moses as YHWH’s representative and Israel’s appointed leader.
In Exodus 3, while tending his flocks in the Sinai Wilderness, God (or a divine messenger, comp. v. 2 and v. 4) appears to Moses in a fiery bush to relay his redemptive charge. Moses, however, does not immediately accept the task. On the contrary, he responds with a number of misgivings, ranging from his own inadequacy, to Pharaoh’s likely refusal, to Israel’s potential unreceptiveness. Even more, Moses’ increasingly argumentative orientation toward God is reflected in the changing syntax by which Moses relays his misgivings.
An Open Question: Moses Is Inadequate
As soon as Moses is called by God, he poses a question:
שמות ג:יא מִ֣י אָנֹ֔כִי כִּ֥י אֵלֵ֖ךְ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְכִ֥י אוֹצִ֛יא אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃
Exod 3:11 Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?
Moses’ later statement, כְבַד־פֶּ֛ה וּכְבַ֥ד לָשׁ֖וֹן אָנֹֽכִי “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (4:10), exposes his question to be a “loaded” one, by which Moses implies that God knows Moses is not a good candidate because he is unlikely to command the people’s respect.
A sensible response to Moses’ argument, would be to refute his point. God might assure Moses that he is qualified to redeem Israel. In this vein, God might point to attributes that would predict Moses’ success, such as his wisdom, piety or charisma. However, he does not. Instead God assures Moses that he is present with him:
שמות ג:יב כִּֽי־אֶֽהְיֶ֣ה עִמָּ֔ךְ וְזֶה־לְּךָ֣ הָא֔וֹת כִּ֥י אָנֹכִ֖י שְׁלַחְתִּ֑יךָ
Exodus 3:12 I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you.
With this answer, God rejects Moses’ incriminating question as irrelevant. God’s presence, not Moses’ nature, is what ensures his success.
Two Conditional Questions: What If They...
God’s response does not allay Moses’ concerns, for the prophet asks two further questions:
שמות ג:יג הִנֵּ֨ה אָנֹכִ֣י בָא֮ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ וְאָמַרְתִּ֣י לָהֶ֔ם אֱלֹהֵ֥י אֲבוֹתֵיכֶ֖ם שְׁלָחַ֣נִי אֲלֵיכֶ֑ם וְאָֽמְרוּ־לִ֣י מַה־שְּׁמ֔וֹ מָ֥ה אֹמַ֖ר אֲלֵהֶֽם׃
Exod 3:13 When I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is His name?” What shall I say to them? What if they don’t believe me.
שמות ד:א וַיֹּ֔אמֶר וְהֵן֙ לֹֽא־יַאֲמִ֣ינוּ לִ֔י וְלֹ֥א יִשְׁמְע֖וּ בְּקֹלִ֑י כִּ֣י יֹֽאמְר֔וּ לֹֽא־נִרְאָ֥ה אֵלֶ֖יךָ יְ־הוָֽה׃
Exod 4:1 What if they do not believe me and do not listen to me, but say: “YHWH did not appear to you”?
Moses’ questions are conditional, contingent on theoretical realities that have not yet, and may never, occur. The people of Israel have neither asked for God’s name, nor rejected Moses’ claim, nor have they raised any number of other possible protests. Moses’ shift from an open-question form to conditional questions reveals his growing argumentativeness since, in theory, Moses could pose countless “what if” questions to address an infinite number of potential obstacles.
God answers both of Moses’ questions by again reiterating, in different ways, that God is present with him. God answers Moses’ first question by revealing his name:
שמות ג:יד אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה שְׁלָחַ֥נִי אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃
Exodus 3:14 “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” He continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘Ehyeh sent me to you.’”
Regardless of how one might read the imperfect forms of ה.י.ה/ה.ו.י (e.g. I will be; I am), God’s name is a declaration of his presence.
God answers Moses’ second question with signs whose purpose, God explains, is to convince the people that Moses is his true prophet. God turns Moses’ rod into a snake,
שמות ד:ה לְמַ֣עַן יַאֲמִ֔ינוּ כִּֽי־נִרְאָ֥ה אֵלֶ֛יךָ יְ־הֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתָ֑ם אֱלֹהֵ֧י אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִצְחָ֖ק וֵאלֹהֵ֥י יַעֲקֹֽב:
Exod 4:5 So that they [Israel] may believe that YHWH, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, did appear to you.
In a second sign, Moses’ arm is diseased and is then healed. God continues,
שמות ד:ח וְהָיָה֙ אִם־לֹ֣א יַאֲמִ֣ינוּ לָ֔ךְ וְלֹ֣א יִשְׁמְע֔וּ לְקֹ֖ל הָאֹ֣ת הָרִאשׁ֑וֹן וְהֶֽאֱמִ֔ינוּ לְקֹ֖ל הָאֹ֥ת הָאַחֲרֽוֹן:
Exod 4:8 And if they [Israel] do not believe you or pay heed to the first sign, they [Israel] will believe the second.
And the last sign, pouring out Nile water before them which will turn into blood, serves as a contingency in case the previous signs fail to fulfill their aim,
שמות ד:ט וְהָיָ֡ה אִם־לֹ֣א יַאֲמִ֡ינוּ גַּם֩ לִשְׁנֵ֨י הָאֹת֜וֹת הָאֵ֗לֶּה וְלֹ֤א יִשְׁמְעוּן֙ לְקֹלֶ֔ךָ...
Exod 4:9 And if they [Israel] are not convinced by both these signs and still do not heed you….
A Statement: Moses Declares Himself a Poor Speaker
Moses’ anxiety, however, is unassuaged by the signs. Instead, he changes the tenor of his discourse, dispensing with the interrogatives that shape his first three responses, in order to state:
שמות ד:י בִּ֣י אֲדֹנָי֒ לֹא֩ אִ֨ישׁ דְּבָרִ֜ים אָנֹ֗כִי גַּ֤ם מִתְּמוֹל֙ גַּ֣ם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁ֔ם גַּ֛ם מֵאָ֥ז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל־עַבְדֶּ֑ךָ כִּ֧י כְבַד־פֶּ֛ה וּכְבַ֥ד לָשׁ֖וֹן אָנֹֽכִי:
Exod 4:10 Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.
The phrase, בִּי אֲדֹנָי “Please O Lord,” with which Moses opens his response, may be intended to diminish the force of his more candid challenge to God’s plan. Nonetheless, his response is a challenge since, contrary to questions, statements do not invite answers. By shifting his syntax, Moses reveals his unwillingness to be persuaded by any of God’s potential “answers.”
God does not allow Moses to close the conversation. When Moses finally abandons the questions, YHWH takes over for him to restore the dialogue with his own question:
שמות ד:יא מִ֣י שָׂ֣ם פֶּה֮ לָֽאָדָם֒ א֚וֹ מִֽי־יָשׂ֣וּם אִלֵּ֔ם א֣וֹ חֵרֵ֔שׁ א֥וֹ פִקֵּ֖חַ א֣וֹ עִוֵּ֑ר הֲלֹ֥א אָנֹכִ֖י יְ־הוָֽה:
Exod 4:11 Who gave man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, YHWH?
Evoking Moses’ first question, God’s question is rhetorical, similarly demanding a single answer, namely that God gave and continues to give man his capacities of speech and sense. This right answer offers yet another, broader, assertion of God’s presence: Human beings, including Moses, cannot function without the deity.
A Command: Send Someone Else
Moses’ final response, which comes in the form of a directive, is his first and only explicit protest:
שמות ד:יג בִּ֣י אֲדֹנָ֑י שְֽׁלַֽח־נָ֖א בְּיַד־תִּשְׁלָֽח:
Exod 4:13 Please, O Lord, make someone else Your agent.
No longer concealing his objection under the guise of questions or a statement, Moses uses the imperative verb form to command God to alter his plan. It is only now, when Moses explicitly challenges God, that God gets angry, וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֨ף יְ־הוָ֜ה בְּמֹשֶׁ֗ה, “and YHWH became angry with Moses” (4:14).
This statement concerning God’s anger is unique in that it is followed neither by an action nor a threat. God neither punishes Moses nor threatens to do so. Instead, his anger closes their dialogue. Moses may no longer argue his case.
God proceeds with his plan by offering Moses a concession, in the form of Aaron:
שמות ד:טו וְדִבַּרְתָּ֣ אֵלָ֔יו וְשַׂמְתָּ֥ אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֖ים בְּפִ֑יו וְאָנֹכִ֗י אֶֽהְיֶ֤ה עִם־פִּ֙יךָ֙ וְעִם־פִּ֔יהוּ וְהוֹרֵיתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֔ם אֵ֖ת אֲשֶׁ֥ר תַּעֲשֽׂוּן: ד:טז וְדִבֶּר־ה֥וּא לְךָ֖ אֶל־הָעָ֑ם וְהָ֤יָה הוּא֙ יִֽהְיֶה־לְּךָ֣ לְפֶ֔ה וְאַתָּ֖ה תִּֽהְיֶה־לּ֥וֹ לֵֽאלֹהִֽים׃
Exod 4:15 You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth—I will be with you and with him as you speak, and tell both of you what to do—4:16 and he shall speak for you to the people. Thus, he shall serve as your spokesman, with you playing the role of God to him.
Even in offering Aaron, God asserts that God’s own presence, not Aaron’s, determines the success of the mission. Aaron will be able speak the divine words relayed by God through Moses—not because he is particularly eloquent, but because God is with him.
In sum, Moses’ call demonstrates that neither his election by God nor his eventual compliance requires anything approaching perfect faith. Throughout the call, Moses does not absorb the message that his success is wholly determined by God. On the contrary, the syntax of Moses’ responses, which evolves from respectful to commanding, demonstrates that Moses remains firmly unreceptive to this message. In fact, we never see Moses’ doubts allayed. But despite Moses’ want of faith, God does not retract his call, and Moses performs God’s will.
The Book of Judges contains numerous accounts of God responding to Israel’s recurring sins, a theme which marks the outset of the people’s life in the Promised Land. In a typical pericope, the people of Israel commit idolatry, God punishes them by delivering them into the hands of their enemies, the people call out for help, and God delivers them from their enemies by means an appointed military leader, called a Judge. Chapter 6 reflects this pattern.
It begins with an account of Israel’s sins against God, to which God responds by delivering them to the hands of the Midianites (Judg 6:1-3). The oppressed people cry out to God (6:7) and, in turn, a malʾakh (messenger or angel) of YHWH appears to Gideon and tasks him with delivering Israel from the hands of the Midianites (Judg 6:12-14).
When Judges 6 is read on its own, Gideon looks like any other leader or redeemer who is commanded by God to perform a task, is somewhat reticent to do so, but complies anyway. While Gideon’s call functions as a single element of a larger Judges cycle (God’s redemption), it also resembles Moses’ call in Exodus 3–4. When read in this light, Gideon looks like a supremely faithful judge who does not suffer the lack of faith that vexes Moses.
The reader is primed to compare Moses and Gideon even before the two prophets utter a single word. In both of their calls, angelic interlocutors position themselves either near or in a plant (Exod 3:2; Judg 6:12), while the protagonists are distracted by their manual labor (Exod 3:1; Judg 6:11). In both chapters, God uses the root שלח “to send” to relay their commissions (Exod 3:10; Judg 6:14), and in Judges 6, God grooms Gideon by recalling Israel’s redemption from Egypt (Judg 6:8-9).
Moreover, as we shall see below, the accounts share a number of common elements, such as: 1) God’s appearance to an individual, 2) God’s commission, 3) the hero’s objections, 4) divine reassurance, and 5) signs.
When the divine messenger of God first appears to Gideon, he sits underneath a terebinth near where the future redeemer is beating out wheat in a wine press, hiding from Midianite raiders. Incongruously, the divine messenger declares:
שופטים ו:יב יְ־הוָ֥ה עִמְּךָ֖ גִּבּ֥וֹר הֶחָֽיִל.
Judg 6:12 YHWH is with you, valiant warrior.
Gideon responds to this greeting with his first question:
שופטים ו:יג בִּ֣י אֲדֹנִ֔י וְיֵ֤שׁ יְ־הוָה֙ עִמָּ֔נוּ וְלָ֥מָּה מְצָאַ֖תְנוּ כָּל־זֹ֑את וְאַיֵּ֣ה כָֽל־נִפְלְאֹתָ֡יו אֲשֶׁר֩ סִפְּרוּ־לָ֨נוּ אֲבוֹתֵ֜ינוּ לֵאמֹ֗ר הֲלֹ֤א מִמִּצְרַ֙יִם֙ הֶעֱלָ֣נוּ יְ־הוָ֔ה וְעַתָּה֙ נְטָשָׁ֣נוּ יְ־הוָ֔ה וַֽיִּתְּנֵ֖נוּ בְּכַף־מִדְיָֽן.
Judg 6:13 Please, my lord, if YHWH is with us, why has all this befallen us? Where are all His wondrous deeds about which our fathers told us, saying, “Truly YHWH brought us up from Egypt”? Now YHWH has abandoned us and delivered us into the hands of Midian!
As we saw above, Moses asks his first question immediately upon being called, likely as a protest to it. By contrast, Gideon poses this first question before he is called, i.e., it is a free-standing question/complaint and not a response to a calling. Moreover, unlike Moses’ question, which focuses on his inadequacies, Gideon’s question is altruistic. Gideon asks about his community: “If YHWH is with us, why has all this befallen us?” Gideon’s question follows logically from the messenger’s prior assurance. If YHWH is with Gideon, why then is Gideon’s community suffering?
Gideon’s question anticipates his commission, using the key root ש.ל.ח, common in such accounts:
שופטים ו:יד וַיִּ֤פֶן אֵלָיו֙ יְ־הֹוָ֔ה וַיֹּ֗אמֶר לֵ֚ךְ בְּכֹחֲךָ֣ זֶ֔ה וְהוֹשַׁעְתָּ֥ אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מִכַּ֣ף מִדְיָ֑ן הֲלֹ֖א שְׁלַחְתִּֽיךָ:
Judg 6:14 YHWH turned to him and said: “Go in this strength of yours and deliver Israel from the Midianites. I herewith make you My messenger.”
Gideon responds to this call with another question:
שופטים ו:טו בִּ֣י אֲדֹנָ֔י בַּמָּ֥ה אוֹשִׁ֖יעַ אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל הִנֵּ֤ה אַלְפִּי֙ הַדַּ֣ל בִּמְנַשֶּׁ֔ה וְאָנֹכִ֥י הַצָּעִ֖יר בְּבֵ֥ית אָבִֽי:
Judg 6:15 Please, my lord, how can I deliver Israel? Why, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the youngest in my father’s household.
Gideon’s second question resembles Moses’ similar concern about his inadequacy However, Moses’ question, “Who am I…” (4:10) is followed by a statement, “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (4:10), which suggests that Moses’ question is loaded; he already knows that he is inadequate and is therefore not genuinely seeking God’s divine knowledge. By contrast, Gideon’s question seems sincere, as it stands on its own, and remains unqualified. The divine malʾakh has declared that Gideon will rescue the people from Midian by means of his might. It is therefore not unreasonable that Gideon would express wonder at what “might,” exactly, the messenger is seeing.
Nonetheless, Gideon prefaces his first two questions with the respectful phrase,בִּי אֲדֹנָי “Please my Lord.” When considering Moses’ usage of this same phrase, Gideon’s language actually underscores his sincerity. Gideon begins his inquiry with the respectful title, whereas Moses adds it only later, seemingly as a means of diminishing the force of his protest.
YHWH responds to Gideon’s second question, beginning with the same assurance he offers Moses:
שופטים ו:טז כִּ֥י אֶהְיֶ֖ה עִמָּ֑ךְ וְהִכִּיתָ֥ אֶת־מִדְיָ֖ן כְּאִ֥ישׁ אֶחָֽד:
Judg 6:16 But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them.
At this point, Gideon asks for a sign:
שופטים ו:יז וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֵלָ֔יו אִם־נָ֛א מָצָ֥אתִי חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֶ֑יךָ וְעָשִׂ֤יתָ לִּי֙ א֔וֹת שָׁאַתָּ֖ה מְדַבֵּ֥ר עִמִּֽי:
Judg 6:17 And he said to Him, “If I have gained Your favor, give me a sign that it is You who are speaking to me.”
Before the messenger responds, Gideon asks him to wait while he brings a gift or offering (מנחה). Gideon returns with goat meat, unleavened bread, and some broth, and the angel tells him to put the meat and bread on a stone and pour the broth upon it. Gideon does so, and then the messenger touches the meat with his staff and it bursts into flames, which consume the meat and bread, and into which the divine messenger disappears. Thus, Gideon receives his theophanic sign. Upon seeing this, Gideon expresses fear, and YHWH tells him not to worry. Gideon then builds an altar, which he calls YHWH-Peace, and offers a sacrifice, thus beginning his commission.
In stark contrast, Moses’ commission moves in the opposite direction. God first appears to Moses at the burning bush in a theophanic fire, which frightens Moses. YHWH then tells him to remove his shoes because he is on holy ground. Thus from the very beginning, Moses knows he is speaking with YHWH. And yet, when YHWH calls on Moses to redeem the Israelites, Moses’ first reaction is to protest the call.
Comparing the Narratives in a Canonical Reading
It is difficult to determine whether Exodus 3–4 and Judges 6 independently make use of the same “call narrative” motif or form, or whether they reflect a conscious intertextuality. Moreover, if one of these texts were composed in light of the other, the direction of influence remains uncertain (whether a narrator is attempting to link Gideon to Moses or vice versa).
Nonetheless, a canonical reading of these two texts represents Gideon, the later hero, as a legitimate prophet of God, on the model of Moses. Moses and Gideon respond to their commissions in a noticeably similar manner. They both:
- Question God’s rationale by highlighting their own inadequacies (6:15);
- Request signs that their commissions are from the God of Israel (6:17–21);
- Grow frightened when they come to realize they have indeed encountered God (6:22).
Similarities such as these also underscore the notable differences between the two men. Whereas Moses redeems Israel though God’s miraculous signs and wonders, Gideon redeems Israel through military victory, not miracles. Consequently, one could mistakenly ascribe Gideon’s liberation of Israel to the prophet’s military strength, and not to God. A canonical reading, however, argues the opposite, for it underscores that this later hero is, in fact, a legitimate chosen agent of God, on the model of Moses.
In fact, one might argue that Gideon emerges as the more faithful of the two. Moses’ questions to God appear loaded, whereas Gideon’s questions come off as sincere. Moses focuses on himself, whereas Gideon shifts the dialogue toward the community. Regardless, in both texts, heroes express doubts but are nonetheless retained by God to perform the duties of their call. Thus, the calls of Moses and Gideon testify that perfect faith is not a prerequisite for righteous obedience, nor is it a precondition for God’s election.
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January 15, 2020
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Dr. Deena Grant is associate professor of of Jewish Studies at Hartford Seminary. She received her Ph.D. from New York University in Hebrew and Judaic Studies, with a focus on the Hebrew Bible in its ancient Near Eastern setting. Dr. Grant taught at Hofstra University and Drisha. She is the author of Divine Anger in the Hebrew Bible.
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