Writings

Elijah and the "Still Small Voice"


Elijah and the "Still, Small Voice"


A Desert Reading

©CCAR Journal, Spring 2001
Michael Comins 


Does reading a biblical story in the place it occurred affect one's understanding of the text?

I have had the privilege of guiding groups comprised largely of rabbis and rabbinical students through the central Sinai mountains. With their help, I have repeatedly studied the story of Elijah at Horeb/Sinai while sitting under the shadow of present day Mt. Sinai.[1] The interpretations of this episode in Elijah's life are endless, and none has achieved definitive status. The story, as we shall see, is too complex for that. Each reading leaves a thread or two or three untied, as does the midrash/interpretation offered here. It is my hope that this reading will contribute, quite literally, a new perspective to the discussion: the view from Sinai. 

To understand the climatic chapter of the Elijah narrative, we briefly review his story from the beginning.


 ***

Elijah lives in the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of Ahab, the king who "did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him" (I Kings16:30). Ahab had married a Phoenician princess named Jezebel who established the cult of Ba'al in the palace and persecuted the Israelite prophets of God. Elijah informs Ahab of God's displeasure with a threat; a drought will ensue until Elijah, on God's behalf, announces the coming rain (ch. 17). Elijah, fleeing the king's wrath, hides in a desert canyon above the Jordan valley. There, he is miraculously fed by ravens until the drought dries up his water supply (17:6). He moves to Phoenicia, where he and his household, once again, are fed in supernatural fashion. God finally commands Elijah to return to Israel, where he challenges the prophets of Ba'al to the famous contest on Mt. Carmel (ch.18). King Ahab and the people gather to see whose sacrifice will be accepted, that of Elijah or the prophets of Ba'al. This is Elijah at his best - angry, daring, dramatic. The fire of God descends from the heavens, consuming Elijah's offering. "Adonai, He is God!" shout the people. Under Elijah's command, they slaughter the prophets of Ba'al. Rain falls shortly thereafter. The text tells us that "the hand of the LORD had come upon Elijah" (18:45)[2] and, with supernatural strength, he runs before Ahab's chariot like a racehorse, as the king returns to his palace. It is hard to imagine a more graced or gifted person. Elijah is God's right-hand man, the people's hero and the king's herald.

*** 


Elijah's story continues in chapter 19 of the first Book of Kings.


When Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done and how he had put all the prophets to the sword, Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, "Thus and more may the gods do if by this time tomorrow I have not made you like one of them." Frightened, he fled at once for his life. He came to Beer-sheba, which is in Judah, and left his servant there; he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness (vv. 1-4).


How suddenly Elijah's fortunes have been reversed! God's favorite, the hero of Israel, the worker of miracles who ran before the king's chariot, is now running for his life! Ahab is unwilling or unable to stop his wife, Jezebel. Elijah flees to the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah, and then to its southern border, Beersheba. Not wishing to endanger his servant, he leaves him behind as he flees Jezebel's agents into no-man's land, into the desert.


He came to a broom bush and sat down under it, and prayed that he might die (v. 4).


Elijah repeats Hagar's experience (Gen. 21:14) and learns the bitter truth of desert travel. If you do not know how to navigate the serpentine dry riverbeds, if you get lost amidst the formless dunes, if you cannot find shade and water, your life can end in one, short day.

Perhaps Elijah is not surprised at all. It takes many days to travel to Beersheba. In all that time, God does not communicate with Elijah. After years of literally being fed by God, Elijah feels abandoned, his prophetic mission terminated. Perhaps he loses himself in the desert intentionally!


"Enough!" he cried. "Now, O LORD, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers" (v. 4).


Elijah prepares to die.

On first reading, Elijah is simply saying, "Like my fathers, I too must die." But why these words: "I am no better than my fathers?" Perhaps this phrase betrays what truly bothers Elijah. Before his current troubles, he was better. As we see below in v. 10, Elijah understands his privileged position with God. He has served bravely and knows that he is worthy of God's favor. Yet, he is about to die of thirst, alone and abandoned in a nameless wash. Surely Elijah deserves better.

It is possible that "fathers" refers to the prophets who have preceded him. If so, Elijah's pride is unabashed. "Just as the great men before me have died," he thinks, "so, too, must I."


He lay down and fell asleep under a broom bush. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, "Arise and eat." He looked about; and there, beside 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 and touched him and said, "Arise and eat, or the journey will be too much for you." He arose and ate and drank; and with the strength from that meal he walked forty days and forty nights as far as the mountain of God at Horeb (vv. 5-8).


As usual, the Bible wastes no words. Elijah is the recipient of yet another miracle. Saved from certain death, he is again God's special one. Sustained by divine dispensation, he travels to Horeb - another name for Sinai. The number forty reminds us of Moses' sojourn on the mountain.


There he went into a cave, and there he spent the night.
Then the word of the LORD came to him. He said to him, "Why are you here (ma lekha po), Elijah?" (v. 9).


A shocking question! It is God Who saved Elijah and has presumably brought him to this spot, and now God asks Elijah why he is here! [3]

Elijah can only be annoyed. He has miraculously traveled forty days, the period of revelation, to reach the Mountain of Revelation. According to a midrash quoted by Rashi, the cave he has entered is the very "cleft in the rock" (Ex. 33:22) from which Moses saw God! Can Elijah expect anything less than his own revelation, a meeting with the divine that would even surpass the supernatural miracles that God has performed for him and through him so far? At last, like Moses, his faithful service would be rewarded. He would meet God!

Instead, "Why are you here?"

Elijah is frazzled, then disappointed. And then angry. God is closer now than ever. Never before has God engaged Elijah in dialogue. But this question makes no sense. "Of course God knows how I got here; it was God's idea," he thinks. "So God must really be asking why I ran into the desert."


He replied, "I am moved by zeal for the LORD, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life" (v. 10).


This is the same stiff-necked Elijah we know so well from previous chapters, the Elijah of righteous anger. His response is really a question, "How could You have allowed one who has served You so well to be in so desperate a situation?" Elijah takes God's question to be an attack and replies defensively. "I am here because I have been zealous for You!"

Classical Jewish commentators and modern Bible scholars agree on the above interpretation. Ma lekha po, they claim, is directed at Elijah's faith and trust in God. "Why are you here?" at Sinai, God asks Elijah, when your mission is back in Israel? God did not command Elijah to flee to Beersheba, as God had previously instructed him to the Jordan Valley, to Phoenicia and back to Israel. After all, could God not protect Elijah from Queen Jezebel's troops? Inexplicably, but surely, Elijah has lost his nerve! [4]

To my mind, this interpretation is highly problematic. The reliance on God's miraculous salvation is, perhaps, taken for granted by those who read the Bible in later generations. The same cannot be said for the biblical actors themselves. Nowhere did they choose to place themselves in harm's way, because they trusted that God would save them with supernatural intervention. Even those whom God had directly promised to bless and multiply, such as Jacob, acted as if God might not be there at the crucial moment. Prayer is only one part of Jacob's three-pronged strategy to survive his fateful reunion with Esau, and not the first (Gen. 32:8f). With rare exception, Biblical characters act first and pray later, if at all. Should Elijah have placed himself before Jezebel's archers with the faith that God would cause them all to miss, or have believed that her spies could not bribe enough people to find him?

Even if one were to concede this point, as the Elijah narrative is untypically full of super-natural miracles, this line of interpretation cannot explain Elijah's sudden lack of nerve or supposed loss of faith. On the contrary, Elijah is so sure of God's attention, affection and partnership that it is Elijah who challenges the prophets of Ba'al to meet him at Mt. Carmel. This pivotal contest is initiated by Elijah rather than commanded by God, yet God responds as if Elijah knows the divine will to the letter. Lacking an alternative explanation, however, commentators locate Elijah's sin in his flight from Jezebel. After all, God confronts Elijah with a question that implies his wrong-doing. How else could he have erred? [5]

All agree that God does not accept Elijah's answer, for the question, "ma lekha po?" will be repeated again shortly (vs. 13).

Elijah has responded with the righteous anger that has characterized his prophetic mission. Justifiably so. "Why is God questioning my motives?" he thinks. "I am the same Elijah that God knows so well."

Yes, but is this the same God?


"Come out," He called, "and stand on the mountain before the LORD."
And lo, the LORD passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind - an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake - a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire (vv. 11-12).


"Ah," sighs Elijah as the storm begins. "Now we're getting down to business." At the great revelation to the Jewish people here (Exodus 19:18), the mountain was covered with smoke as God descended in fire. Mt. Sinai trembled and quaked. Not only is this the medium of revelation Elijah expects, it is also reminiscent of the events on Mt. Carmel. God's fire consumed his sacrifice, and then came the storm that ended the drought.

Elijah clings to the cave while God unleashes natural forces far beyond anything Elijah has seen or heard. But even in the midst of the tempest, he realizes that something is terribly wrong. The text announces that God is passing by. The expected natural escorts - wind, earthquake and fire - are present. But as the text repeats to us three times, God is nowhere to be found!


And after the fire - a soft, murmuring sound (qol dmamah daqah, v. 12).


The "still, small voice." [6]


When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantle about his face and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave (v. 13).


Nature's upheaval over, Elijah is now able to stand at the entrance of the cave as Moses did before him. Finally, he will see God! So he hides his face in his cloak, for everyone knows that no one can see God directly and live (Ex. 33:20).


Then a voice (qol) addressed him: "Why are you here (ma lekha po), Elijah?" (v. 13).


The revelation to Elijah is not an answer, but a question, the same question he heard before. Now, he must confront it again. "Why are you here, Elijah?" If Elijah was annoyed the first time, we can only imagine his exasperation now.

What does God want from Elijah?

*** 

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," [7] "the sound of a light whisper" [8] or the JPS' profoundly unpoetic "a soft murmuring sound." [9] Simon and Garfunkel notwithstanding, critical scholarship does not entertain the "sound of silence." [10]

Nevertheless, I prefer to follow Rashi (ad loc) and Abraham Joshua Heschel's literal rendering of qol dmamah, "a voice of silence." [11] 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.

I propose, then, a metaphorical but grammatically strict translation. Qol dmamah daqah: the "voice of fragile silence." [12]

The idea of a "fragile" silence may seem strange to one sitting in an urban library, especially since daqah means "fine" or "thin." [13]

Try reading in the desert!

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.

From this desert silence come words that Elijah hears with his inner ear.
The voice asks, "ma lekha po, Elijah?" Literally, the sentence reads, "What is for you here, Elijah?" But scholars translate this sentence as an expression, "Why are you here, Elijah?" or "What are you doing here, Elijah?" [14] The reason is clear. For them, the context is "Sinai-that-is-not-Carmel." Why did you come here Elijah when your people need you back in Israel?

But what if God has a different message for Elijah? What if the context is right here, right now, "Sinai-in-the-desert?"

***

What is for you here, Elijah, in the desert?

No God-sent fire as on Mt. Carmel; no crowds to applaud your courage and your miracles. What is here for you in the desert where your righteous anger, so justifiable, gets you nothing? Where you would rather lie down and die than give up your pride, your belief that you really are better or more deserving than your peers and, perhaps, even your fathers. And what is here for you on Mt. Sinai, Elijah, when the wind, earthquake and fire bring no revelation? When you are left befuddled in desert silence - expecting to see God's glory, hearing a silent voice; waiting for an affirming answer, getting a shattering question.

If I were to translate ma lekha po as an expression - in accord with the context of the desert - I would write, "Who are you, here, Elijah?"

Who are you in the desert, where your previous understanding of how God communicates with you no longer applies; where your past experience misleads you; where your great accomplishments will not help you?

Who are you Elijah, here, in the desert?

***

If we stop to listen in the stillness, [15] this is a question any of us can hear, anytime we walk the desert.

Who am I, when my achievements, titles and bank account are left behind? When all that really matters is whether I can find shade and shelter. When the more possessions I carry on my back, the less chance I have of finding water. 

Who am I, when my achievements, titles and bank account are left behind? When all that really matters is whether I can find shade and shelter. When the more possessions I carry on my back, the less chance I have of finding water. Who am I, when the person I have become is a burden I can no longer carry, and the self-image and personality habits I have worked so hard to cultivate in the past, are precisely what might lead me to my death now?
When everything nonessential has been shed like a snake's skin, who am I?"

***

Prophecy has changed for Elijah. [16] No more dramatic miracles, no more thunderbolts and earthquakes. No Ten Commandments either. Elijah must now learn his role-model Moses' greatest virtue - humility. The zealous warrior is given his most difficult mission, to confront his pride and see himself as he truly is.

What is for you here, Elijah?

Just silence.

Silence in which God has never been so close.



(1) While the location of biblical Mt. Sinai is uncertain, the Sinai high mountains provide an inspiring and compelling desert setting. There is, I believe, enough similarity with the biblical description of Mt. Sinai to shed light on the Elijah narrative.

(2) Unless otherwise noted, this and all other biblical quotations are from the JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh: the traditional Hebrew text and the new JPS translation, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1999).

(3) Although it is possible that Elijah decided to journey to Horeb himself, the intervention of angels and the number 40 show that God is directly involved. Elijah, it seems, was intent on sleeping.

(4) See Radak (ad loc); Psikta Rabati, parshah daled; Yalqut Meam Loez (ad loc); Shir HaShirim Rabah 1:39. For Israeli scholarship, see 'olam Hatanakh, Kings, (Tel Aviv: Davidson, 1993,1995), pp. 182-3. Other contemporary scholarship: Alan J.Hauser, "Yahweh Versus Death - The Real Struggle in I Kings 17 - 19," in Alan J. Hauser, ed., From Carmel to Horeb, Elijah in Crisis (Sheffield: The Almond Press, 1990), pp. 71, 73-5; Russell Gregory, "Irony and the Unmasking of Elijah," in Alan J. Hauser, ed., ibid., pp. 102-3, 106, 109-10, 112, 124, 145; Simon J. De Vries, World Bible Commentary, I Kings (Waco: Word, 1985), pp.236-7.

(5) See note 4. Others are silent on this issue. To the best of my knowledge, this is the only reading that tries to account for the accusatory tone of ma lekha po without faulting Elijah for fleeing Jezebel.

(6) The JPS translation footnotes this rendering - the traditional, English translation from the King James Bible.

(7) The New American Bible (NAB), copyright 1970 by the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C.

(8) The Harper Collins Study Bible, Wayne A. Meeks, general editor, (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1989). (

9) Although it is not the concern of most scholars, this reading lends itself to great spiritual interpretation. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches that Elijah heard the barely audible sound of his own breath, which corresponds to the aleph of anokhi, the first word of the decalogue. See The River of Light (Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights, 1981, 1990), p. 62.

(10) A significant exception is the NSRV, which translates, "the sound of sheer silence" (New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA).

(11) Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1955), p. 186. Based on the context or perhaps his knowledge of the modern critical view (but not what he considers a correct, literal reading), Heschel qualifies his translation later in the same paragraph to "almost stillness."

(12) Though this reading is a midrash rather than a critical study, I would like to argue that this rendering of qol dmamah daqah is at least plausible by critical standards.
The lack of concensus among contemporary translations suggests that the issues involved are anything but clear-cut. These include:

  • "a gentle whisper" (Holy Bible, New International Version [NIV], copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by the International Bible Society);

  • "a tiny whispering sound" (NAB);
· "the sound of a light whisper" (The Harper Collins Study Bible);

  • "a gentle little breeze" (The Harper Collins Study Bible);

  • "the sound of sheer silence" (New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. [NSRV] Copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA);

  • "a soft murmuring sound" (JPS).

Dmamah appears only three times in the Bible, twice in contrast to a storm. In Job (4:16), dmamah is subject to the verb "to hear." This implies that dmamah is indeed an audible sound - the dying wind of the tempest - and well explains the possessive relationship of the two nouns in our verse. Qol dmamah literally means "the sound of the storm's last wind," in brief, a "whisper."

This evidence is compelling, but it does not rule out alternative readings such as the NSRV above ("the sound of sheer silence"). The root of dmamah, daled-mem-mem, means "stillness." In the third occurrence, yaqem s'arah l'dmamah (Psalms 107:29), dmamah could just as easily read "silence" or "stillness," which makes the contrasting of opposites more effective. It is so translated (sheqet) in the Even-Shoshan Concordance on the verse (Even-Shoshan, Avraham, A New Concordance of the Bible [Jerusalem: "Kiryat Sefer" Publishing House, 1988], pg. 269), and "silence" appears as an alternative translation in the BDB Lexicon (Brown, Driver, Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament [Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1907, 1955], p. 199). The same contrasting of opposites, in our case a deliberate oxymoron used for poetic effect, is at work in our verse.


The question of whether to translate qol as "sound" or "voice," it seems to me, depends on how one views the repetition of qol in verses 12 and 14. The later occurrence, hineh aleiv qol vayomer, is universally translated as "voice," so if the two are, in fact, one and the same, the qol of qol dmamah daqah must also be a "voice." The argument against it is that hineh aleiv signifies the introduction of something new; otherwise it is superfluous and this smooth text becomes stylistically bumpy. The case for the identification of the two as one "voice" is that there is no need for qol in verse 12 if it is not a "voice." If Elijah exited the cave because he heard the silence (or whisper) and knew it was safe, it would have been enough to say vaahar haesh, dmamah daqah. Elijah hides his face in his mantle because despite God's absence in the wind, quake and fire, the text had announced, "And lo, the LORD passed by," (vs. 11). Whether a silence or a whisper, God's presence is in the dmamah. At least Elijah thinks so. What is the character of that presence? This is not the mystical "God in all things." The ensuing dialogue in vs. 14 makes it clear that here God expresses God's self as another, through the voice that asks, ma leckha po, Elijah? It is common sense to assume that God's presence is manifest in the same way a moment earlier. I believe that Elijah hears the silence, and so he leaves the cave that protects him. Possibly - probably - he already senses the divine in the dmamah. But he can only "hear" the words with his inner ear when he opens himself to the spacious silence of the desert.

(13) As for my translation of daqah as "fragile," the word refers to either (1) sand, dust and incense, and means "fine" in the sense of ground to tiny particles, or (2) hair, sheaves or the cows in Pharoah's dream, and means "thin." The one exception is our verse, the only time daqah is used as a metaphor. Accordingly, it has been translated with great variety: gentle, tiny, light, little, sheer, soft (see footnote 12). There is no specific word for "fragile" in Biblical Hebrew, but surely the concept was not foreign to their day. My translation is based on the experience of desert silence as fragile, and while daqah is not the only candidate for "fragile" ('adinah might also fit), it works well thematically and poetically.

(14) So translated in the NRSV and the NIV. The verb "to do" is not in the verse.

(15) As one must where silence is fragile.

(16) And the Jewish people as well. This is the last instance in the Bible where a direct dialogue between God and a human being is recorded.