It’s certainly understandable that Christians, in both private scripture study and public worship services, tend to focus on the New Testament. However, there is much to value in the “other” testament, whether you call it the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament. It can take a little unpacking. Case in point is the prophet Elijah.
If Elijah’s dramatic confrontation with 850 priests of Baal and Asherah on Mount Carmel was meant to be the high point in his prophetic ministry it certainly didn’t work out that way. No sooner had the priests been defeated–and killed in one of the Bible’s more significant mass murders–than Queen Jezebel vowed to get even. Elijah must have surmised that she meant business because he immediately high-tailed it out of town:
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.”
Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.”
So much for the great and mighty prophet of God! We now glimpse a very different view of this “man of God” than we find anywhere else in First Kings. Elijah’s humanity is but the first memorable take-away from this week’s lectionary passage. Not that this new image negates all the other views of the prophet Elijah; perhaps it completes them. The biblical writer continues:
He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus…. –1 Kings 19:1-15a NRSV
There on the same mountain where Moses encountered God Elijah hid in a cave. Some of the Bible translations indicate that the voice that came to the prophet (“What are you doing here, Elijah?”) came from inside the cave. It would appear that God was already inside waiting for him to arrive. Still, Elijah didn’t quite catch the significance so the voice told him the Lord would be passing by outside, therefore he would need to stand by the entrance.
What happens next is a small replay of God’s expected manifestations. One would think that God would arrive in big, bold ways. This is, after all, the creator of the universe, so why not?
But the Lord was not in the mighty wind or the earthquake or even the fire. After all that, there came the sound of utter silence. Just think about that: What does “utter silence” sound like? Have you ever experienced it? If you live in the city or suburbs, imagine all the sounds of traffic, construction, maybe a police siren or a wailing firetruck or ambulance. There are trains and planes, and perhaps neighbors talking and children playing. In the countryside there’s birds and other animals, farm machinery, or maybe just the howling wind.
Can you imagine a day when you don’t encounter somebody wearing earbuds connected to an MP3 player or pass somebody with a Bluetooth device stuck in their earlobe–or just talking/texting with a smartphone. Does anybody ever really experience silence anymore?
Certainly the technology was radically different in Elijah’s time, but he still wasn’t used to utter silence. He wrapped his mantle around him and there at the cave entrance came a still, small voice piercing the silence. It wouldn’t need to be loud to overcome the lack of any other sound: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Elijah must have realized at that moment that he wasn’t just running away from Queen Jezebel’s army. He actually was running away from God and his divinely appointed mission as God’s prophet.
This time the Voice whispered, “Go, return….”
Prophets are human beings, and so they are subject to all the failings the rest of us are. Like Elijah we might want God to show up in big, dramatic, powerful ways–so much so that everybody will be impressed. But, of course, it doesn’t work that way. Yes, God can be in the wind and the earthquake and the fire and amazing contests like the one Elijah had engaged in on Mount Carmel with 850 priests of Baal and Asherah. More likely, though, we’ll encounter a still, small voice that calls us to go, return, and engage the tasks and challenges to which we’ve been called as an individual disciple or maybe as a prophetic people.
Be open to the utter silence.
& My most recent book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use. My previous book What Was Paul Thinking? is also available on Amazon in both print and Kindle e-book editions.</emnbsp;