by M.E. Stortz—
I was elated to find time in a busy day. A canceled meeting? I could make a grocery store run. If I walked quickly, I could get there and back in time for my next appointment. I hit the streets. A few blocks into my walk, someone called my name. I turned toward the voice and found myself in the embrace of a friend. I gave myself over to conversation. After the conversation ended, I slowly retraced my steps. Gone were the things I had hoped to accomplish: the trip to the store, the grocery list, the rush from getting things done. In its place, a friendship refreshed—all because of a voice.
What happens when the voice calling is God’s? From the stories of biblical figures who track the voice of God, surprising insights emerge:
1. To hear the voice of God, you have to believe that God is still speaking.
2. To hear anything, you first have to listen….
ONE: STILL SPEAKING
To hear the voice of God, you have to believe that God is still speaking. Jesus entered a world where people were hungry for God’s voice. For centuries there had been no prophets, and even though the Hebrew people had chafed under the prophets’ nagging, it was evidence of divine concern. When the voice of the prophets went silent, did it mean that God no longer cared about them? By the time of Jesus, people were hungry for any sort of divine communication. In the preaching of John the Baptist, they heard prophecy return to Israel; they jumped on Jesus as if he were someone like the prophet Elijah; they even speculated about the return of Elijah, who had not died but had been swept up into the heavens (Mark 8:28).
Later, rabbinic sources report the frequent interruption of “the daughter of a voice” (Bat Kol in Hebrew, meaning “divine communication” in Jewish mystical thought), when rabbis disputed a textual or scriptural interpretation. The voice could not be summoned, but always offered the needed insight. Even later, they speculated that the “daughter of a voice” came on a daily basis and entered into ordinary people’s lives.1
That “daughter of a voice” has different registers. Even with a brisk pace and a laser focus on shopping, I recognized my friend’s voice. God’s voice is harder to discern. To date, no scientist or theologian has yet presented a single definitive biometric voiceprint. God’s voice registers differently depending on the occasion.
Disciples have only the consolation of Samuel (1 Samuel 3:2-14). When the prophet was a boy, God called him by name. Not recognizing God’s voice, Samuel presented himself to his master, Eli, saying: “Here I am, for you called me.” Eli sent the boy away, but after the third time, Eli understood that God was calling. He told the boy how to respond: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” The fourth time, Samuel knew who was calling. Samuel’s consolation is the persistence of God: God called until the boy finally answered.
TWO: LISTEN FIRST
To hear anything, you first have to listen, which is a more complicated proposition than it seems. Suppose I’d set out on my walk, wired into my favorite podcasts. Earbuds in, volume up, I would not have even heard my friend’s voice, much less turned toward it. When I’m lost in my own soundtrack, the white noise of work and deadlines and family fills my head. God could be yelling, and I wouldn’t notice.
Distraction plagued the ancient world as well. Biblical scholars note the distinctive call-and-response format of the Psalms, which symbolizes the conversation between God and humans. The word “hearken” appears everywhere. The people “hearken” to God; God “hearkens” to the people. The word sounds respectful, but “Listen up!” or even “Hey, you!” would be better translations. The Hebrew scriptures are a record of mutual hearkening, as the people beg for God’s attention, and God begs for theirs. Even without all of today’s glitzy technologies of distraction, the ancients, too, had a hard time listening.
M. E. Stortz is Bernhard M. Christensen Professor of Religion and Vocation at Augsburg University in Minneapolis.
This article is excerpted from the July/August 2019 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.