Some time ago I published a post on a very intriguing question that comes up frequently in scripture. I’ve been thinking about an answer to that question that also comes up frequently, and that is equally instructive. Few words, lots of meaning – I’m really beginning to appreciate the Hebrew language.
As a brief recursive, the question is “Where art thou?” and it’s a layered question that has nothing to do with geography and everything to do with relationships. The underlying theme is that there are two places to be: either with Him, or against Him. So it’s: “What’s happening with you?” but also “Where do you stand?” Before God speaks to people, informs and educates and prepares them, He often asks this question, searching the depth of their commitment, asking whose side they will end up on.
A 6-year-old boy answered the question. Lying in his bed in the temple, Hannah’s consecrated gift-son sat up when he heard it and simply said, “Here am I.” Hineni. If one merely wanted to verify one’s attendance, one’s ability to hear one’s name called, one would answer po ani. But hineni means, “Here I am: ready, willing, and able.” It is the answer to a God who is calling someone to do something important and difficult, and it means that we will do all in our power, without reservation, even before we know the length and breadth of it, because we are on His side.
On Yom Kippur there’s a prayer called “Hineni” that, translated, begins “Here I am in deep humility …” and continues by acknowledging one’s limitations but validating one’s willingness, offering oneself to do what needs done and asking to be consecrated to be enough. Sometimes called The Cantor’s Prayer, it is the prayer offered by one who leads, pleading for mercy on behalf of the people he or she leads.
There is another layer to hineni as well. “Here I stand.” It implies, “Here I make my stand, understanding that it will be difficult, accepting all that comes with my commitment. I will not be moved.” It is much, much more than a head-raised, arms-folded, principled shout. It is quiet, head-bowed, listening advocacy of pure integrity – absolutely binding and covenantal.
It was Abraham’s answer. When God called him to a test – the sacrifice of his son – Abraham answered, hineni: unsurprised, receptive, fearless, committed. “Yes, here I am; I’m ready.” It was his response to Isaac, “I am here for you; the Lord will provide,” and it was also his response to the Lord’s intercession when the willingness to sacrifice was enough, “I am still here.” It was Jacob’s response to God when he was promised protection from Laban’s treachery, “I will trust you.” It was later his response when called to go to Egypt with his family despite the danger, “I will go.”
It was Moses’ answer when God called from the burning bush: “Here am I,” with a willingness to encounter the eternal, even not yet knowing what that would entail, as is consistent with all of the instances in which the Lord calls. It is instructive that hineni was not used by Adam when God searched for him. Another meaning is “I am completely here, hiding nothing,” an attitude Abraham demonstrated by being fully present with both God and Isaac. Instead, Adam’s response was to honestly state that he was afraid and he hid because he was naked (a beautiful metaphor for being overwhelmed by our inadequacies.) Four millennia later when the Lord gives the parable of the talents, we hear the human worry of everyman again when the one talent was buried out of fearful feelings of inadequacy.
As our everyman, Adam respresents each of us, whom God searches out with care and offers the opportunity to choose how we connect with Him. Adam reveals himself not out of trust, but out of fear, then allows himself the opportunity to grow in trust, to be taught, and to eventually say, “I am glad for this life.” Even if we have first hidden, we can eventually learn to respond, hineni.
What a gift, then, that the Lord would call! The opportunity to answer hineni when the Lord asks “Where art thou,” is the opportunity to take a quantum leap, because He is saying, “Listen! I have something important to say! Something important is happening and I want to equip you!” It is the herald that a giant step forward is about to occur in one’s life. It is the proffered opportunity that the timing is perfect to invest our small leap of faith and reap an unbelievable reward if we are focused, open, aware, and devoted.
Two interesting uses of hineni in Genesis are instructive for their contrast. Isaac calls to his favored son, Esau, who answers hineni out of genuine adoration for his father – his firstborn son using the phrase with him just as his father Abraham had with him – but Esau’s life was not in line with his words: he wasn’t living obediently with God, and the quantum leap did not occur for him. Because he did not chose to align his life with God’s call and develop trust in God, unlike Adam, he was not tutored by God, and he lost the blessing.
In an even more striking reversal, Jacob calls to his father (while disguised as the favored son), who answers hineni, “I am here and will give to you all you righteously desire,” opening the possibility that we can avail ourselves of the offer to take a quantum leap forward, even when it is not offered first to us. The power of a profound desire to serve God can bring the blessing to us. Once again, this parallels Abraham’s response to Isaac, but it is without his father’s true sight. Physically and metaphorically, Isaac was blind, but God’s purposes were still fulfilled. Forever after, God’s people were called after Jacob – Israel. He was not the leader-son by birth or even by his mortal father’s preference, but the blessing was not denied him.
In Isaiah, it is used finally of the 10 or so times it appears in our Old Testament, when, after describing a proper fast, God states that we will call and he will answer, hineni. “Here I am,” like God speaking to Abraham on behalf of Isaac: “It is enough what you have offered to me – I am here for you.” If we will come to him in humility, our hearts fully turned to him, filled with faith, hope, and charity for those around us who suffer, willing to work with what we have and let it be enough, he will answer with all the devotion to us of a loving father to his favored son Israel or his only son Isaac, with the commitment and willingness to do all for our care that a God brings to that covenantal affirmation: attentive and focused. In our fast, our wilderness, humbly lived, our own hineni, He will respond with His.
These turning points, requiring decision, action, and resolution, are what constitute a transition to leadership. What we are asked to do, as with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is less important than how we respond, and that we remain responsive in case the task changes. (Are we listening, even as the knife is raised? Do we grow blind?) Leadership isn’t a job; it’s a calling, not solely for the obvious person but often for the willing person. (Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, Isaiah – none were obvious choices for leadership, but they answered.) Principles lived aren’t fists-raised pronouncements steeped in profound self-confidence, but humble covenanting to serve in all ways required, despite our inadequacy.
What needs to change so we can answer hineni?