Resistance to “Calling” (I)

In the previous post on the call of God (http://timwoodroof.com/2010/05/31/a-theology-of-calling-vii/), I described “calling” as a “dance between a God who would lead and someone invited to match his steps to the Lord’s.” True enough. But there are more dancers on the floor to consider, and more people who participate in the dance than the pair. The music and movement of “calling” affect a large number of people, rippling out from the center to touch those connected to the call by proximity.

When God calls and someone answers, others are put in a strange position. Like a black hole, there is a certain “gravitational pull” to the call that changes the orbits of everyone nearby and pulls them toward its center. Will they recognize the call of God in a particular situation?  Will they respect the call of God on a particular person’s life? Will they cooperate with that call or resist it? Is there a willingness to submit to God’s call in the life of another, to submit to the other as he pursues God’s call?

You see evidence of this “gravitational pull” throughout Scripture. Noah received the call (Gen 6), but his family was dramatically affected. His sons spent a good portion of their lives building an ark with their father. His wife and daughters-in-law were subjected to unexpected hardships and the same ridicule doled out to Noah. Abraham pulled his wife and Lot’s family along as he answered the call of God. The judges, prophets, and kings of Israel were called by God at specific times and for specific reasons. But all Israel was influenced by these callings and had to decide how to react both to God’s plan and to God’s anointed. Paul’s calling rippled out to involve Peter and Timothy, Corinth and Jerusalem. God’s call may fall upon a single person, but it has various and radical implications for those caught up in its wake.

Perhaps the calling of Moses illustrates this truth best. First comes the burning bush and the command for Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt (Ex 3). But next, Moses must lay out the case for his calling before the elders of Israel. Moses, in fact, was quite worried about this. One of his principle objections to the call sprang from his concern that the leaders of Israel would not believe in, accept, and submit to his God-given mission. “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you’?” (Ex 4:1). He knew such a bold commission would be met with a matching skepticism and resistance.

Moses may have been the one God called, but Israel had to decide how to react. Would she recognize God’s call on Moses’ life? Would she buy into the difficult and dangerous business of breaking free from Egypt and wandering towards a Promised Land? Would her elders submit themselves to Moses’ leadership?

God, of course, bolstered Moses’ position and calling by giving him certain “proofs”: the secret of his name (“I am”—Ex 3:14); a message from “the God of your fathers” to relate to the Israelites (Ex 3:15); the staff that turned into a serpent (Ex 4:2-5); the hand that turned leprous (Ex 4:6-7); the water that became blood on the ground (Ex 4:9).

These signs were enough to persuade Israel that the call of Moses was genuine and grant him permission to petition Pharoah. “Let my people go!” Moses thundered in the throne room. “Get your own straw!” Pharoah thundered back. He, for one, did not buy Moses’ claims of calling. The signs did not convince him (he had magicians of his own!).  He was not about to give away Egypt’s work force on the slender evidence of a burning bush.

Pharoah’s violent reaction caused Israel to reassess Moses’ call. “May the LORD look upon you and judge you! You have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” Maybe God wasn’t behind the plans of Moses after all. Even Moses questioned his call: “O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people? Is this why you sent me?” (Ex 5:22). In reading the account of the plagues (Ex 6-11), it is evident that the plagues were intended not only to change Pharoah’s mind (“Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh: Because of my mighty hand he will let them go”—Ex 6:1) but also to assure Israel of God’s presence and God’s chosen man (“Say to the Israelites: ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment’”—Ex 6:6). Even so, the promise of plagues was not enough to convince Israel (“Moses reported this to the Israelites, but they did not listen to him because of their discouragement and cruel bondage”—Ex 6:9). It took an experience of the plagues (and their specific exemption from the worst of them) to persuade Israel that God really was with Moses (“Then the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites did just what the LORD commanded Moses and Aaron”—Ex 12:27-28).

Moses marched from Egypt at the head of Israel, his calling and role secure. For a few days. Until they reached the Red Sea. There, with the army of Egypt in hot pursuit, Israel questioned Moses’ calling again. “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” (Ex 14:11-12).

Thus the pattern was established: Moses asserting the genuineness of his calling; the Israelites trusting in the call until difficulties and dangers arose; the Israelites doubting Moses’ call and refusing his leadership; God intervening to prove his calling on Moses’ life once again. Israel grumbled against Moses (e.g., Ex 15:24), quarreled with him (e.g., Ex 17:2), disobeyed his orders (e.g., Num 14:39-45), threatened to turn back (“We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt”—Num 14:4), talked of stoning him (Num 14:10), mutinied (Num 20:2-5; 21:4-5), and questioned his motives. At every turn on the Exodus, Israel blamed Moses for any problem, any privation, any predicament. And behind it all was a willingness, an eagerness, to question his calling.

In order to affirm Moses’ leadership, God was required to show his support of Moses in various and public ways. The Tent of Meeting (Ex 33:7-11) is an obvious example. So too was Moses’ radiant face, evidence of his proximity to the glory of God (Ex 34:29-35). His use of Moses to perform signs and wonders (the parting of the Sea, water from a rock) not only allowed God to provide for Israel’s needs but to bolster Moses’ leadership.

Even these measures, however, proved temporary. Two stories of specific rebellions against Moses underscore how tenuous was Israel’s faith in the call of Moses. The rebellion of Miriam and Aaron is a sobering account of betrayal. “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” (Num 12:2) God’s response was immediate and decisive:

Then the LORD came down in a pillar of cloud; he stood at the entrance to the Tent and summoned Aaron and Miriam. When both of them stepped forward, he said, “Listen to my words: When a prophet of the LORD is among you, I reveal myself to him in visions, I speak to him in dreams. But this is not true of my servant Moses; he is faithful in all my house. With him I speak face to face, clearly and not in riddles; he sees the form of the LORD. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?”

The anger of the LORD burned against them, and he left them.

When the cloud lifted from above the Tent, there stood Miriam—leprous, like snow.

Miriam and Aaron seemed to prefer a more democratic form of government, a form that allowed greater authority for them. “We can prophesy like Moses. We can read a map. We are just as fit to lead God’s people as he!” God begged to differ. Moses was special. Moses was chosen. In questioning Moses’ authority, Miriam and Aaron were, in fact, questioning God and his calling. The proof of that truth was written plainly on Miriam’s skin.

The second rebellion was led by Korah and his companions, using the same objection:

[These men] became insolent and rose up against Moses. With them were 250 Israelite men, well-known community leaders who had been appointed members of the council. They came as a group to oppose Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! The whole community is holy, every one of them, and the LORD is with them. Why then do you set yourselves above the LORD’s assembly?” (Num 16:1-3)

Once again, God’s response was immediate and decisive. He told Moses to gather Israel in assembly, to separate the masses from Korah and his fellow rebels, and to address all Israel with these words:

“This is how you will know that the LORD has sent me to do all these things and that it was not my idea: If these men die a natural death and experience only what usually happens to men, then the LORD has not sent me. But if the LORD brings about something totally new, and the earth opens its mouth and swallows them, with everything that belongs to them, and they go down alive into the grave, then you will know that these men have treated the LORD with contempt.”

 As soon as he finished saying all this, the ground under them split apart and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them, with their households and all Korah’s men and all their possessions. They went down alive into the grave, with everything they owned; the earth closed over them, and they perished and were gone from the community. (Num 16:28-33)

As these two incidents indicate, God is extremely protective of his call and of his chosen leader. To question and doubt that call is a serious matter. To rebel against it is to invite God’s displeasure and punishment. God expected Miriam, Aaron, Korah, and the rest to recognize his call on Moses, respect that call, and conduct themselves accordingly. God has his plans and purposes. He chooses people to accomplish his will. And (at least in the case of Israel and the Exodus) he did not permit anyone else to threaten his plans and his man.

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.