A man of blood, a man of steel

* This hymn is inspired by the story of God’s calling and commissioning Moses at the burning bush.


A man of blood, a man of zeal.midi

When I worked on a French building site in 1958, MARJOLAINE was a recently best-selling release, and my work-mates kept singing it all day long. Singers might find a rhythmic accompaniment helpful.


Exodus 3.1-15, from which this hymn is composed, has been identified by several scholars as ‘a prophetic call narrative’. The passage contains all six of the elements that are typically included in such a call throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, and the hymn is constructed on a frame of these elements. They are

  • o the divine confrontation (3.1-4a)
  • o the introductory word   (3.4b-9)
  • o the commission             (3.10)
  • o the objection                 (3.11 and 3.13)
  • o the reassurance             (3.12a)
  • o the sign                        (3.12b)

The style of the hymn is an expressive paraphrasing of the Exodus narrative, and the form contains a refrain consisting of the commission that lies at the heart of the story.

At the time of this story Moses was ‘A man of blood … with killer hands’, a homicide on the run from Egyptian justice.

The name of Moses is not mentioned, partly for dramatic effect, and partly so as to make a space in which worshippers might hear God’s call for themselves. The story is in any case not so much about Moses as about The One who is with Moses. Many of us would readily sympathise with his objection to the commission laid upon him, for to be treated badly can be preferable to being ridiculed, as Moses is sure he will be. What’s more, it’s hard to believe in the efficacy of the commission when the apparent likely outcome of trying to do so is likely to worsen the situation that needs to be improved. Yet I AM is unmoved by objections, and God’s way will triumph regardless.

The sixth stanza of the hymn offers an interpretation of 3.12b, the unfolding sign of God’s presence. ‘When all is done, your task achieved, my people all from sin relieved …’ Perhaps ‘sin’ is not the ideal word to describe the oppression under which the people suffered. Yet many members of oppressed groups testify that for oppression to be effective as oppression, a certain collusion is required on the part of those who suffer; and that collusion, which is so ingrained as to be below conscious awareness, may be characterised as sin. A famous epigram illustrates this: Moses succeeded in bringing the Israelites out of Egypt, but he did not manage to bring Egypt out of Israelite hearts. The work of becoming free from internalised oppression is probably even harder than breaking free from external constraint.

Nevertheless, ‘When … my people (are) all from sin relieved, this holy fire will light their face: with hearts and hands they’ll worship in this place.’ In this story the sign of God’s presence is not a visible standard, talisman, or mascot: it is that faithfully responding to the call and discharging the received commission deepens the people’s desire to worship the Divine Presence. For those of us who habitually venture little or nothing in response to God, this sign can inspire new zeal for the well-being of all creatures, new visions for the liberation of all. The promise that we shall worship together on ground consecrated by God’s being known there is perhaps the only thing that can inspire people to keep on working for relationships of freedom with justice.

The hymn was written to a French song that was popular in the 1950s. Some may question whether the piece really does constitute a hymn, for nowhere is any kind of explicit response made to God’s call. The music, moreover, seems jaunty, not at all in the style of Anglican (at least) Divine Service.

Yet the music was chosen in order that the lyric should be terse and economical in expression; nothing should be allowed to intrude on the dialogue which the story records. The music is intended to make the piece highly accessible (it is easily learned) and memorable. Its memorability, may I suggest, consists in the space offered for worshippers to articulate their individual and collective response to God’s un-refusable call.

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