1 Kings 19:11-13 (NRSV) [The word of the Lord] 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?”
Sunday’s lectionary reading from the Old Testament (for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost) includes one of my favorite passages of scripture. It’s the one where the Lord appears to the prophet Elijah in the wind, an earthquake, a fire and — finally — in a still, small voice. So I volunteered to read it aloud in our midweek bible study session on Zoom.
I don’t usually like to read aloud, but I was doing fine all the way through the wind, earthquake and fire. Then — what’s this? — something about a “sound of sheer silence.” I tripped over the words, recovered and made it through the pericope — even making a credible stab at Jehu, son of Nimshi; and Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah.
As we tossed it back and forth on Zoom I realized, as usual, there was more to the story than I’d thought. And there was also more than we were able to cover in a few minutes over Zoom. A perfect opportunity for me to try some more lectio divina, a spiritual practice I’ve neglected since the COVID-19 pandemic hit turned my life upside down in March. (I never got quite comfortable with it, anyway. So, if you’ll forgive the pun, practice makes perfect practice.)
At this point in my spiritual journey, I’m relying for direction on an article by James Martin SJ titled “Read, Think, Pray, Act: ‘Lectio Divina’ in Four Easy Steps” to give it some structure and keep me from going off on too many tangents. It is, as Martin says, both accessible and understandable.
Read. Sunday’s reading tells of Elijah’s encounter with God at Mount Horeb, another name for the mountain in the Sinai desert where Moses received the Ten Commandments. But the backstory of how Elijah got there is crucial to my understanding what’s going on at the foot of the mountain.
Elijah is far from home. He’s fled the northern kingdom of Israel, where he was in bitter conflict with King Ahab and his wife Jezebel, a Phoenician princess who promoted the worship of Ba’al. Elijah was a prophet and a miracle worker but he wasn’t exactly what we would now consider a model of good ecumenical relations. When he bested 450 prophets of Ba’al in what amounts to a miraculous fire-lighting contest, he had them slaughtered.
This infuriates Ahab and Jezebel, so Elijah flees to Beersheba, across the rival kingdom of Judah on the edge of the Sinai desert. There an angel gives him bread and water, and directs him to travel 40 days and 40 nights into the desert. When he reaches Mount Horeb, he spends the night in a cave. In the morning, “the word of the Lord” speaks to him.
“What are you doing here, Elijah?” says the word.
When I was reading it aloud, I got this wrong. I made it sound like what’cha doin’, Elijah? But I should have put the emphasis on “here.” More like, hey, pal, what in blue blazes are you doing all the way down here? Aren’t you supposed to be doing the Lord’s work back in Israel?
Elijah answers. ““I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts …” Hey, man, I’ve been trying. I really have. (I’m paraphrasing freely here.) He’s almost whining, and I didn’t catch that nuance with the matter-of-fact way I read it. “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.”
So the word of the Lord — or the voice, as I’m interpreting it — tells him to step outside, the Lord is about to pass by.
Elijah does, and the Lord conjures up the wind, the earthquake, the fire and then — and then, what I remembered as the “still, small voice” of the King James translation of the English bible. The New Revised Standard Version, which we use for lectionary readings in ELCA churches, has “a sound of sheer silence.”
That’s what tripped me up. I was expecting the language of the King James version. This “sound of sheer silence” business was new, and it takes some getting used to.
(Besides, it reminds me of Simon and Garfunkel, which isn’t always helpful. Hello darkness, my old friend? No, at least not in this case.)
But Rabbi Mike Comins of Plano, Texas, a yeshiva graduate and licensed Israeli desert guide who studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has an interesting explanation of the original Hebrew that makes me feel better about it. He likes the King James version too, but he doesn’t stop there. He compares it with the Jewish Publication Society’s version of the Tanakh, the Jewish canon that Christians call the Old Testament, and others, beginning with the Hebrew:
Qol dmamah daqah, the “still, small voice.” To my mind, this translation from the King James Bible is still among the better, English versions. Modern translations, however, render qol as a physical sound rather than a metaphorical voice, such as “a tiny whispering sound,” “the sound of a light whisper” or the JPS’ profoundly unpoetic “a soft murmuring sound.” Simon and Garfunkel notwithstanding, critical scholarship does not entertain the “sound of silence.”
In a footnote, Comins notes the NRSV’s translation as a “significant exception.” He continues, citing the 11th-century Jewish sage Rashi’s commentary on the passage:
Nevertheless, I prefer to follow Rashi and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s literal rendering of qol dmamah, “a voice of silence.” Precedent for such a reading can be found in the book of Genesis, where God says to Cain, “the voice of your brother’s blood calls out to me” (Gen. 4:10). Here qol is a silent voice rather than an audible sound. And that, I believe, is precisely what Elijah hears: a voice without sound.
Comins translates it as “sound of fragile silence.” His image doesn’t do much for me, but I’ll defer to his experience, as he describes it on his website, of “leading many trekkers—often rabbis, rabbinical students and students for the ministry—on spiritual journeys through Israel’s deserts and the Sinai mountains.” He says the silence of the desert can be silent indeed:
Not all silences are alike. Put in earplugs or enter a soundproof room and the silence is muggy and oppressive. Silence in a forested, mountain wilderness is rare. The wind howls, leaves rustle, birds chirp, insects buzz, creeks “sing.” True silence, perhaps on a peak when the wind stops, is actually quite rare. It hits suddenly, with dramatic impact.
In Israel’s deserts and the Sinai, where the wind is usually still for at least half the day, the silence is vastly different. If you are in the desert now, close your eyes and wait for the wind to stop. This silence is total, yet light and natural – even embracing.
And precious. The smallest movement of an insect or the slightest breeze registers audibly. You hear the ruffling of your sleeve, or the call of a raven miles away. This is desert silence. Easily disturbed. A fragile silence.
Out of this silence, the voice of the Lord again asks, ““What are you doing here, Elijah?” And the prophet again answers, ““I have been very zealous for the Lord …” and so on. We’ve heard it before — apparently he hasn’t learned anything from the divine pyrotechnics.
So the Lord gets down to cases with Elijah: “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.” And the other ancients whose names I tripped over when I was reading aloud, including Elisha who was to succeed him as prophet of Israel.
If what comes next were left up to me, I would call for an ecumenical conference where the prophets of Yahweh and Ba’al could sort things out, seek points of agreement and maybe come out with a Call to Common Witness. But that’s not how things were done in the ninth century BCE. The voice of the Lord is very precise about that: “Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
In other words, the Lord tells Elijah to quit bellyaching and get back to work.
Think. At this point in lectio divina, says Fr. Martin, “you ask whether there is something that God might want to reveal to you through this passage. Often, it might connect with something in your life.” Well, we can rule out Elijah’s troubles with King Ahab and Jezebel. I’m a great believer in ecumenical relations, but I don’t think there are any prophets of Ba’al left to have an interfaith dialog with. So they don’t quite connect with my life. Nor does Elijah’s animosity toward them. I generally skim over that stuff the same way I try to overlook St. John’s animosity toward “the Jews” or, for that matter, what Martin Luther said about 16th-century Jews and the pope. I’d like to hope we’ve learned something in the last 500 to 10,000 years.
But there’s something in Elijah’s dialog with the word of the Lord that does speak to me.
Or in the silence. Since the word speaks to me out of silence.
You don’t have to be in the desert to experience the sound of silence. (Nor are you going to hear it, I’ve got to add, by listening to Simon and Garfunkel. It’s a nice song, but it’s about something totally different. At least to me. At least right now.) Luther’s doctrine of Deus Absconditus (the hidden God) is more like what I feel. (That term doesn’t mean God absconded with anything, by the way. It’s just a Latin word for secret or hidden.) According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Luther insisted we find God in scripture — sola scriptura — and not by exercising our own reason. “The God revealed in and through the cross is not the God of philosophy but the God of revelation.” But it is based in scripture and the “revelation must be indirect and concealed.” It takes study, in other words.
We also know that Luther, like so many of us, went through periods when he didn’t feel like he could get through to God. Or God to him.
In the course of a sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, Reformation history professor Timothy J. Wengert of Philadelphia’s Lutheran Theological Seminary recalls a vignette from Luther’s Table Talk when conversation around the Luthers’ dinner table turned to a passage in the gospel of St. Matthew where Jesus expounds on the power of prayer:
One of Luther’s students once asked him about this verse [“ask and it will be given to you”] after dinner. He had had some of Katie’s beer, I suppose. “When we ask God, he slinks off somewhere, so you have to search him out. And when you find him, he goes and hides in a closet, so you have to knock. When the knocking is loud enough, he opens up and asks, ‘What do you want?’ ‘Well, Lord, I want this or that.’ ‘Well, go ahead and have it.’ You have to keep at it.”
You have to keep at it, indeed.
When I study the story of the prophet Ezekiel and the still, small voice of silence at the foot of Mount Horeb, I intuit two things. Neither one of which I can directly pinpoint (nor would I want to). One is that God tends to speak to me, when God speaks to me at all, quietly or by indirection. I’m more likely to notice little coincidences that point me in the right direction. Around the tables in 12-step recovery groups, we like to say that coincidence is what happens when God prefers to maintain God’s anonymity.
That works for me, as we say around the tables, if I work it.
Or, more commonly, I’ll look at something in a new light that’s been there all along … and wonder if maybe God’s calling attention to it. And the more tentative I am about it, the more likely I am to think God is somehow behind this discovery that isn’t really a discovery because it was always there.
The other thing I notice from the story is that when the Lord speaks to Ezekiel, the Lord tells Ezekiel to quit complaining and get back to work.
I’ve heard that message before, too.
Pray. “What do I want to say to God about the text?” asks Fr. Martin. I think maybe, recalling Luther’s table talk, I’d like to ask God to come out of that closet and just tell me, already, what God wants me to do.
But I know how that’s going to turn out. So I’m content to wait in the silence.
Act. “What do I want to do,” says Fr. Martin, “based on my prayer? Finally, you act.” Always, you act. I think Luther’s idea of vocation fits in here, too. “Work is … a calling, a vocation,” says Robert Benne of Roanoke College in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia. “It is a summons from God. Vocation is also where the Spirit sanctifies the Christian’s life, not in a self-centered quest for perfection, but rather in humble service to the neighbor.”
I don’t know if I’ve been summoned to do anything. That seems pretty dramatic for a second-generation Norwegian in a small-town metro area in the Midwest. But I like the part about “humble service,” with maybe a little more stress on the humble part.
What can I do? What’s been lying around that I can look at with new eyes, in light of Elijah’s encounter with God at Mount Horeb?
Well, for one thing Ezekiel stood up against King Ahab and Jezebel when they promoted the worship of Ba’al in Israel. And today we have rulers who have been credibly accused of promoting the worship of Mammon, if not yet Moloch (although reopening the schools prematurely during a global pandemic may change that). I’ve been writing letters to the editor in support of the Democratic Party’s challenger to one of President Ahab’s minions in Congress, and I’m about due for another letter. Time to get to work?
So there is that, and it is humble. Not all of my neighbors would think it’s of service, but I hope 50 percent plus one of them will on election day.
And it’s getting about time for me to get back to work on my presentation for the Illinois History Conference in October. Again, I don’t know if it’s exactly a vocation in Luther’s sense of the word, but I think he’d approve of the topic. It deals with how immigrant pastors in Swedish-American Lutheran churches dealt with the wholly different approach to the sacraments they found in Chicago and the Mississippi valley frontier in the 1850s, and how they squared them with Lutheran theology. I think it’s a story worth retelling as we debate our attitudes toward immigration in the 21st century.
So maybe that’s the answer to my prayer. No wind, no fire, no earthquake. Get back to work. That’s all. And that’s enough. Finally, as Fr. Martin says, you act. Always, you act.
[Aug. 12, 2020]
Works Cited (and Links)
Robert Benne, “Martin Luther on the Vocations of the Christian,” Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Aug. 2016 https://oxfordre.com/religion/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199340378.001.0001/acrefore-9780199340378-e-363.
David Colton, “Puzzled by Christians’ Support of Trump,” News Leader, Staunton, Va., June 25, 2020 https://www.newsleader.com/story/opinion/readers/2020/06/25/puzzled-christians-support-trump-letter-to-editor-waynesboro/3235535001/.
Mike Comins, “Elijah and the ‘Still, Small Voice’: A Desert Reading,” CCAR Journal, Spring 2001, reprinted on Comins’ personal website https://www.rabbimikecomins.com/elijah-and-the-still-small-voice.html.
Caleb Ecarma, “Pastor Behind Trump’s ‘Civil War’ Tweet Says Democrats Worship Moloch, the Pagan God of Child Sacrifice,” Mediaite, Oct. 2, 2019 https://www.mediaite.com/trump/pastor-behind-trumps-civil-war-tweet-says-democrats-worship-moloch-the-pagan-god-of-child-sacrifice/.
John MacDougall, “Coincidences are God’s Way of Remaining Anonymous,” The Next Step. A Blog, Sept. 23, 2015 https://blog.theretreat.org/coincidences-are-gods-way-of-remaining-anonymous.
Timothy Wengert, “A Sermon on Prayer,” Lutheran Quarterly, Online Features http://www.lutheranquarterly.com/preaching.html.
David M. Whitford, “Martin Luther (1483—1546),” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://iep.utm.edu/luther/.