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1 Kings 19

The Elijah story in 1 Kings 19 is at once both a troubling text and a tremendous one.

It is troubling if we pay attention to the traditions it is made out of; it is tremendous if we pay attention to what has been made out of them.

The troubling aspect is worth attention briefly. First, in 1 Kings 18, Elijah was at odds with King Ahab, brought Israel to emphatic commitment to YHWH (18:39), and killed the 450 prophets of Baal (cf. 18:40); in 1 Kings 19, Elijah is at odds with Queen Jezebel, Israel has forsaken YHWH (19:10, 14), and all YHWH’s prophets have been killed except Elijah (19:10, 14).

Second, Elijah leaves his servant in Beer-sheba, in the south (19:3); on his return ‘from there’, Elijah takes on Elisha as his servant (19:21). But, as far as we know, Elisha was a northerner. The sequence is possible, but odd.

Third, at Horeb ‘the mount of God’ (Mt Sinai) Elijah is commissioned by YHWH to go to Damascus and anoint Hazael as king of Syria, to anoint Jehu as king of Israel, and to anoint Elisha as his successor (cf. 19:15-16). In the text that follows Elijah does none of these things. Odd.

The troubling aspect gives special value to the tremendous aspect of the text that has been crafted out of such recalcitrant materials. Above all, the juxtaposition of triumph and despair, of success and failure, touches the core of Israel’s life—and ours. Christian faith juxtaposes the Cross and the Resurrection; Christian experience interweaves them.

In chapter 18, Elijah was on top of the world; he could run half way across Israel before the king’s chariot (18:46). In chapter 19, Elijah ‘asked that he might die’; he was on the run for his life before the death threat from Queen Jezebel (19:2-3).

Despite his suicidal despair, he found strength to go on. The biblical text has an angel wake him up twice for a feed (19:5-8). The food was nothing special, ‘a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water’; the journey he managed on the strength of it was very special. Elijah went ‘in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God’ (19:8).

Horeb, another name for Mt Sinai, was the prime location of Israel’s encounter with God. There, Moses talked with God face to face; there, Israel committed themselves to faith in God. When Elijah’s faith hit rock bottom, the text has him go back to the basic source experience—Sinai.

Two things are fascinating about Elijah’s Sinai experience. The first we all know; it touches on the utter intangibility of God. Elijah was told to stand on the mountain, for God was about to pass by. A great wind, an earthquake, and a fire; and God wasn’t in any of them. Then three words in Hebrew: voice/sound—stillness— fine/thin—and Elijah knew it was God.

Understandably, the words have driven translators to distraction: ‘a sound of sheer silence’ (NRSV); ‘the sound of a gentle breeze’ (JB); ‘a tiny whispering sound’ (NAB); ‘a low murmuring sound’ (NEB); ‘a still small voice’ (RSV). How do you put the invisibility and intangibility of the transcendent God into words?

Only after this did Elijah do what he had been told, leave the cave (with its security?) and stand at its entrance with his face veiled. Elijah met his God.

The second fascinating factor is that this extraordinary encounter left Elijah apparently unchanged. Before the encounter, he is in despair (cf. 19:10). After the encounter, the words are identical; he is still in despair (cf. 19:14).

You’d think that meeting your God face to veiled face would make a difference. Ancient Israel’s theologians were too close to life to make it easy. Steep yourself in the source; yet know that life is not a pushover.