The Sound of Sheer Silence

The traditional reading of 1 Kings 19 makes it the story of Elijah’s trip to Mt. Horeb to renew his commission as a prophet. There are, however, significant indications that rather than renewing his commitment, Elijah goes to resign it. Interestingly enough, the GD lesson manual also takes the later approach, at least insofar as it admits that Elijah is “discouraged” and in need of comfort (p. 137).

The story of Elijah’s journey is divided into individual sections by the report of a series of movements in vv. 4, 8, 19, and 21b. The story opens in Ahab’s Samarian capital, Jezreel. Despite the overwhelming defeat of Baal and his prophets in chapter 18, Jezebel still feels bold enough to threaten Elijah and Elijah still feels vulnerable enough to flee with his servant.

His flight is related with a series of verbs that reflect breathless haste: “he feared, rose, and fled.” The next geographical marker is Beersheba. Leaving his servant there, Elijah continues another day’s journey into the wilderness. Elijah has fled from the north to the south, from civilization to the wilderness, and from human companionship to solitude. That’s not a good sign in anybody, and it’s especially ominous in a prophet.

Once out in the wilderness, Elijah stops moving and sits under one broom tree. A broom tree is not really a tree, but a bush, and it does not normally occur in isolation. In this seclusion, Elijah prays “Enough! Now, Lord, take my life! For I am no better than my fathers.” Elijah, it seems, has also made a spiritual journey. He’s deep in himself, quite a distance from the prophet who intervened on behalf of the widow’s son, or who stood to reclaim Israel on Mt. Carmel.

Elijah’s disillusionment is easy to understand. After the victory on Mt. Carmel, Ahab’s indifference and Jezebel’s continuing threats suggest that his efforts will have little or no lasting impact on the people they lead. His final words, however, are more puzzling. What did Elijah mean by motivating his request to die with a phrase indicating that he is “no better than his fathers?”

This expression is probably best read as a challenge to God. God expected Elijah to single-handedly turn both king and nation to repentance. Elijah’s failure is really God’s because God has asked too much of him. If God acts on Elijah’s petition, Elijah is free of his burden and God has admitted his demands were too great. If God does not take Elijah’s life, then he must address Elijah’s concerns and get more involved in dealing with Israel. In either case, Elijah is absolved of responsibility for the situation.

Having settled things to his satisfaction, Elijah lays down and sleeps – under “one broom tree,” naturally!

Elijah’s isolation does not last, however. An angel wakes him with a command to eat a cake (‛ūgâ) he finds by his head and drink from a nearby jug (sappahat) of water. The links with the miraculous provision of food by the ravens, and in particular the cake (‛ūgâ) and the jug (sappahat) of oil associated with the widow of Zarapheth, make it clear that God is not accepting Elijah’s proposition.

Elijah’s response is expressed in five verbs: he looked, ate, drank, returned, and lay down. Elijah is nothing if not stubborn.

But so is God. Just as Elijah returned, so too the “angel of the Lord” returns, touches Elijah, commands that he eat and drink and then adds “for the journey is more than enough for you.” This repetition of the word “enough,” the word with which Elijah opened his prayer for death, makes it clear that God has refused his request and is now sending him on his way.

Elijah arises, eats, drinks, and sets out for “Horeb, the mountain of God.” Is this where the angel told him to go? Hmmm….

After 40 days, Elijah arrives at Mt. Horeb and spends the night in a cave. Rather than an angel, this time the word of the Lord comes to him, in the form of a question (v. 9): “What are you doing here, Elijah? The emphasis on “here” indicates that Elijah’s location is unexpected, another sign of Elijah’s refusal to continue serving as a prophet.

Elijah’s answer in v. 10:

“I have been most zealous for the Lord God of the hosts, but the sons of Israel have left your covenant, your altars they have torn down and your prophets they have killed by the sword, and I, alone am left, and they sought my life, to take it”

contains quite a number of things that also make you go “Hmmm…,” including:

1) Elijah has just described his zealousness with precisely the word God uses to describe his feelings (AV = jealousy) about Israel.

2) The Israelites had left the covenant, torn down altars and killed prophets, but recently they seem to have given all that up.

3) Elijah is not the only one left, either as a prophet or a follower of God. Obadiah had a hundred prophets in caves. And if Elijah has a problem with prophets lurking in caves…

This is, like Elijah’s prayer in v. 4, a challenge to God. Elijah is painting a picture in which he himself is the last person standing between Baal and total victory. God must intervene, smite some folks who desperately need to be smitten, or accept defeat. This picture is, however, rather different from reality. What will God do with his prophet?

(Okay, intermission. This is where things get long and tough. Now is a good time for a short break, some brain food, and a 20 oz Mt. Dew. Those of you who like to carefully distinguish between direct discourse and narration should have more brain food and another Dew.)

God responds to Elijah with one of the most famous theophanies in the Bible. Since Hebrew has no quotation marks, deciding whether this theophany is told as direct discourse, as a narrative description of what is to come, or as some sort of a combination of both is a challenge. Suffice it to say that however it is presented, the scene goes like this:

And [the Lord] said, Go, stand on the mountain before the Lord. And the look! the Lord is passing by and a great, strong wind tears the mountain and shatters the crags before the Lord – but the Lord is not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake – but the Lord is not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, a fire – but the Lord is not in the fire. And after the fire, a qôl dĕmāmâ daqqâ.

Wind, earthquake, and fire are the traditional manifestations of the presence of God. This narrative does not deny them their traditional role, but it does make it clear that they do not somehow contain God. The presence of God is not part of nature, but is instead qôl dĕmāmâ daqqâ.

If you can decipher those goofy little marks about the vowels, you can hear the rich vocalization of this phrase. You can also see the chiastic arrangement of consonants: q-d-m / m-d-q. The translation, however, is quite another matter.

The first word, qôl is a noun meaning either “sound” or “voice.” The second word, dĕmāmâ, means “calm” (in the sense of the cessation of a strong movement of air) or a vibrant silence. The third word, daqqâ, breaks with the aural connections of the first two words. It comes from the realm of the tactile senses and means something like “thin,” “fine,” or “small.”

The point of this conflation of sound and not-sound with touch is the deliberate creation of a paradox. The divine is beyond a concrete description and human comprehension. It is “a sound of sheer silence” as the NRSV translates it.

When Elijah “hears” all this, he veils his eyes and goes to the mouth of the cave. The Lord questions him a second time, “Elijah, why are you here?” This time, the “here” is a reference to the fact that Elijah is not standing where he had been told to stand, “outside, on the mountain, before the Lord.”

Elijah’s answer is to repeat verbatim his words in v. 10. This suggests that all that noise and shaking, followed by that palpable, incomprehensible, silence, had no real effect on him.

God makes Elijah a counter-offer. He gives him three jobs, one of which, to designate his successor, is a compromise of sorts. He is to anoint Hazael king of Aram, Jehu king of Israel, and Elisha as a prophet to succeed him. The first is especially interesting because it involves politics outside of Israel and the last is curious because there are no other instances of a prophet being anointed, or of a prophet designating his successor.

For some reason, this is enough for Elijah. He sets out on his journey, but actually does none of the above. Instead of anointing Elisha to take his place, Elijah tosses his mantle over him and takes him as a servant. In turn, it is Elisha who eventually sees to the anointing of the kings.

What to make of all this? Once again, I lean toward a primary focus that is theological rather than anthropological. God is faithful, providing food and support for Elijah. God is also patient in the face of Elijah’s obsessive focus on himself, even when Elijah rejects a definitive self-revelation. But God is also tenacious and without pity for self-pity.

Finally, the fact that Elijah gets moving again after the introduction of Elisha but fails to yield his office to him suggests that Elisha’s presence as a divinely-appointed “buddy” in God’s demanding work was what Elijah needed. The qôl dĕmāmâ daqqâ must be a great experience, but finding God and God’s love in our day-to-day companions might actually be what we really need. And what we need to realize that we really need.