What Are You Doing Here? Reflections on 1 Kings 19:1-4, 8-15a

Elijah's response to the divine question is a veritable tumble of words, in a certain way "answering" the query, but in other ways revealing much about Elijah himself.

I have been very zealous for YHWH, God of battles; because the Israelites have abandoned your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they want my life to take it away (1 Kgs. 19:10).

Note the flurry of first-person pronouns. Note the reference to prophets being killed by swords, interesting in the light of those Baal prophets and their murder by Elijah himself with a sword. Note the reference to altars thrown down, right after Elijah's altar had been obliterated by the lightning and fire of YHWH on Carmel. This is prophetic self-defense, a whining cry for protection against enemies, the demand of a child for safety against bullies. In other words, all those great deeds of power, the victory at the altar, the slaying of the prophets, the supposed prophetic triumph on Carmel, have led to fear and alienation and demands for divine protection.

YHWH's response to this speech is telling. "Stand on the mountain before YHWH, because YHWH is about to show up" (1 Kgs. 19:11). In three acts of great divine power, Elijah is shown wind, earthquake, and fire, but each time is told that "YHWH was not in them." This is particularly surprising since the story of 1 Kings 18 implies quite specifically that YHWH sends the fire on the altar at Carmel. Now we hear that YHWH was not in that fire. Where, then, is YHWH? After the drama of natural events, there is "the sound of sheer silence" (1 Kgs. 19:12). At last, the NRSV has translated this phrase correctly. The traditional, and now clichéd "still, small voice" is plainly not what the text says. YHWH appears here in the silence.

As Elijah hears the silence (yes, silence may be heard), he wraps his face in his robe, and exits the cave, the better to await a further word from his God. But YHWH repeats word for word what YHWH said earlier, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" (1 Kgs. 19:13). And Elijah responds word for word, precisely what he said earlier at 1 Kings 19:10. Despite historical critics, devoid of literary skills, who insist that there is a poor editor here who foolishly repeats the text, I completely disagree. YHWH expects Elijah to have learned something from the divine display of wind, earthquake, and fire, followed by the silence, but the prophet has learned precisely nothing! He repeats his same self-defense, because he still does not know just who YHWH is for him.

YHWH rejects Elijah's repetitious nonsense completely at 1 Kings 19:15 by uttering the word "Go!" Go back to Damascus; return to the work for which I called you (1 Kgs. 19:15-17). And YHWH adds one more thing that we all need to remember. Elijah is far from alone and neither are we. "I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him" (1 Kgs. 19:18).

So the next time we get the feeling that we are the last of the just, the only ones left who are doing the real work of God, the final prophet in a land of the lost, let us remember Elijah, let us listen to the silence in the midst of the world's clamor, and let us get about the work that God has sent us to do.

6/16/2013 4:00:00 AM
  • Progressive Christian
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  • John Holbert
    About John Holbert
    John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.
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