Updated: Feb 27, 2020
This week's Bible word is the Hebrew word hineni (הִנֵּ֑נִי). This word appears in the first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, on the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Lectionary year A (Isa 58:7-10), where it is translated as “I am here”.
My thanks to Canon John Udris, for permission to use some of his material in this article.
The Hebrew word hineni derives from the words hinneh or hen, meaning “behold”, and ani which means “I” or “me”. So literally, hineni is “Behold I” or “Behold me” – from which we get the meaning “I am here” or “here I am”. There is also a variant hinni, which can also mean “here I am”, or in other places in the Hebrew Scriptures, hinni prefaces personal action (in other words, “behold, I am going to [do a certain thing]”).
Hinneh can be paired not only with ani, but with other personal pronouns (we, you, he, they) to form various compound words, including hinenu or hinnu (“behold, we”), hinneka (“behold, you”) and hinnam (“behold, they”). Also, very frequently (over 550 times), hinneh or hen are used alone, to draw attention to a statement or an action, translated in English (particularly in the King James Version) as “behold” or “lo”.
So we can see that hineni contains a sense of acknowledging someone’s personal presence, especially in response to a call – though hineni expresses far more than geographical location or physical presence. There are a number of stories in the Hebrew Scriptures which use hineni in a way that has a particular intensity, indicating readiness, alertness and a willingness to serve. Let's take a look at some of these hineni episodes.
The first occurrence of the word hineni in the Bible, is in the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22:1-18).
God calls Abraham by name, and Abraham’s response (Gen 22:1) is hineni: here I am. We can assume that God knows where Abraham is, and that Abraham himself knows that God does not need any help finding Abraham. So Abraham’s hineni is a response of a servant to his master, just as Abraham has already responded several times in faith earlier in Genesis: to leave his home and go where God sends him (Gen 12:1), and to trust in God’s promises (Gen 12:2-3; Gen 15, Gen 17 and Gen 18). But note that Abraham makes this first hineni response to God in chapter 22, before he knows what the Lord wants of him.
Abraham’s second hineni is in response to his son Isaac, as they are on the journey towards the mountain where Isaac is to be sacrificed. Isaac addresses Abraham as “my father”, and Abraham responds “hineni, my son” (Gen 22:7). This hineni is the loving response of a father to his son’s call, even more poignant as we know that Abraham is being asked to sacrifice his beloved son, his “only son” (Gen 22:2).
Abraham’s third and final hineni comes when the angel of the Lord intervenes, just as Abraham is about to kill his son. The angel calls his name twice: “Abraham, Abraham”, and Abraham responds: hineni (Gen 22:11). Abraham’s third hineni is once again the response of a servant, but from a deeper place, both emotionally and spiritually, from his first two “hineni”s. We may say that his first hineni comes out of awe, the second from love, and the third from his suffering. And therefore hineni implies not just readiness, not just service, but also surrender and taking responsibility – even being ready to change course if that’s what the Lord asks us to do.
Other hineni episodes are also associated with characters who are presented with a moment of profound change or crisis – and their hineni becomes a turning point in their life.
They include Moses, whose hineni responds to the Lord’s call from the burning bush, to free the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt (Exod 3:4). There's also Samuel, who at first does not know it is the Lord calling his name, and responds hineni (or hinni) to Eli, before Eli tells Samuel how to respond to the Lord’s call (1 Sam 3:4, 5, 6 and 8). And the prophet Isaiah responds “hinni; send me!” to the Lord’s question: “Whom shall I send?” (Isa 6:8).
These hineni episodes have a common pattern – which give us a clue about how we may offer our own hineni response to the Lord, by recognising how He has called to others in the past:
Hineni episodes are often a response to a call from God; God, therefore, initiates the contact.
The supernatural encounter may start in a mundane or at least routine setting: Moses has been shepherding Jethro’s sheep; Samuel is asleep in the Temple, where he works each day with Eli.
God usually addresses His servant by name: Abraham, Moses, Samuel (though not in Isaiah’s case). And, at the climactic moment, the Lord uses the name twice - as if to say, “I want you and only you”.
As we saw with Abraham, and also with Moses, Samuel and even Isaiah, the servant’s hineni response may show that they are ready and willing, even without their knowing exactly what the Lord will ask of them.
And in each case, the servant’s positive hineni response allows God to reveal His plan to His servant, in which the servant will be assigned a specific task to help fulfil the Lord’s plan.
To briefly review other Biblical characters who say hineni:
Some respond to the Lord, as Jacob does directly in Gen 31:11 and Gen 46:2; elsewhere David promises that is ready to serve the Lord, whatever the Lord will think of him – he uses the word hinni in 2 Sam 15:26.
Others’ hineni is a respectful response of availability to a human superior, either to a father (Esau to Jacob in Gen 27:1, Joseph to Jacob in Gen 37:13), or to a master (Samuel to Eli in 1 Sam 3:16, and Ahimelech and the Amalekite young man to King Saul in 1 Sam 22:12 and 2 Sam 1:7 respectively).
Hineni is not only spoken by God's servants. The Lord Himself uses the word hineni on three separate occasions in the prophet Isaiah, to promise His enduring presence and support:
In Isaiah 58:9 (which is the first reading of the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Lectionary year A), God assures His people through the prophet, that He will respond to their cry: “Call, and He will say ‘I am here’ [hineni]”.
In Isaiah 52:6, the Lord says that His people will know that “I am the One who is speaking, here I am [hineni]”.
In Isaiah 65:1, he says “hineni, hineni” (note the emphasis of the repetition of the word) to “a nation which did not call on my name” – in other words, the Lord promises to be always available to His people, even when they do not have the trust to cry for His help. He is seeking us, even when we are not seeking Him.
The Bible also gives us sad examples of where God’s servants fail to make a positive hineni response, even though the Lord hopes for one:
After Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit, the Lord asks Adam, “where are you?” (Gen 3:9). God is not looking for Adam’s geographical location, rather God was searching Adam’s heart, longing for him to say, hineni. Instead, Adam says he was afraid at the sound of God’s voice and hid. His inadequate reply leads to a further disappointing response, in his poor excuse for his transgression, shifting responsibility to Eve.
Worse still, when God asks Cain “where is your brother?” (Gen 4:9), Cain’s response is a long way away from hineni; instead, it is insolent and evasive: “I do not know... Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Because the language of the New Testament is Greek, there are no episodes where the Hebrew hineni is used explicitly. However, there are a couple of notable characters who make a positive “here I am” response to the Lord’s call. They both use the Greek word idou (meaning “behold” or literally “look!”); idou is part of the phrase idou ego (literally “behold I”) which is the most common translation of hineni in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures which was produced between the 3rd and 2nd centuries before Christ).
Ananias (in Acts 9:10) is called by name by the Lord, and he responds idou ego, before the Lord gives Him his command, to find the blind Saul of Tarsus, and heal him.
Mary’s whole life was a hineni: as Pope Benedict XVI said, she is “the woman of the full and complete ‘here I am’ to the Divine will”. When the angel of the Lord announces God’s plan to her, she responds “behold [idou], the handmaiden of the Lord” (Lk 1:38). The medieval mystic Julian of Norwich imagined Mary’s response as “Lo me here”, which wonderfully evokes the literal, as well as the spiritual sense, of hineni.
For every priest and deacon, hineni recalls the first word they said at their ordination: when their name was called; they responded “present”; in Latin the word is adsum (“I am here”). This word expresses a commitment to a life of service to the Lord; it is fully in the spirit of scriptural hineni.
Earlier we mentioned that the Lord Himself speaks hineni to reassure His people. We could say that in a sense, hineni is the very identity of God: He is here with us, not just now, but all through the past, and at every point of our future. This ever-presence is suggested in God’s response to Moses, after the latter’s hineni response in Exodus chapter 3 (Exod 3:14). God tells Moses to refer to the Lord as Ehyeh asher ehyeh – which is almost impossible to translate, but we may get the sense of “I am (or will be) Who/What I am (or will be)”.
And the most perfect expression of the Lord’s hineni is Jesus, “Emmanuel…God with us” (Mt 1:23, quoting Isa 7:14). Jesus tells us 17 times in John’s gospel “I am” or “It is I” (Jn 4:26; 6:20; 6:35, 41, 48, 51; 8:12; 8:58; 10:7, 9; 10:11, 14; 11:25; 13:19; 14:6; 15:1, 5). And Jesus assures us “I am with you always, yes, to the end of time” (Mt 28:20).
God’s hineni is eternally present; our hineni, in response, can only be in the present moment – but that is all the Lord desires of us: a giving of ourselves “now, here, now, always”, as TS Eliot says in the poem Four Quartets (Little Gidding, V, 254)
So, what does all of this mean for us?
Well, it can be summed up in the question: are we living a hineni life?
1. First, are we ready and alert to hear the Lord’s call? Are we regularly listening for the Lord calling our name, in prayer? When He calls, will we respond with a hineni – send me? Even when we’re not sure exactly where that call might lead us – or when His call may involve difficulty and suffering? What great things may the Lord do through us, if only we can answer hineni?
2. Second, will we take responsibility, to say hineni to family, friends – or to anyone who needs our full attention? Can we provide that person with the gift of our whole presence, not distracted by the smartphone, or the TV, or with half our mind on the next task we need to do? Can we change our plans when the Lord calls our name, especially when He appears in the stranger, or when someone in need calls at an inconvenient time? The angel of the Lord appeared just in time for Abraham (Gen 22:11-12); will we make sure that we don’t miss our hineni moment?
3. Finally, do we trust that when we cry to the Lord, He will respond hineni? Hineni is always a spirit of humility: we can do nothing without the Lord’s help (Jn 15:5). But the Bible also assures us that “the Lord is an ever‑present help” (Ps 46:1). He is waiting as a father, for us to cry out to Him, and He longs to say hineni in response to our call. So, what are we waiting for?