The Sound of Sheer Silence

The traditional reading of 1 Kings 19 makes it the story of Elijah’s trip to Mt. Horeb to renew his commission as a prophet. There are, however, significant indications that rather than renewing his commitment, Elijah goes to resign it. Interestingly enough, the GD lesson manual also takes the later approach, at least insofar as it admits that Elijah is “discouraged” and in need of comfort (p. 137).

The story of Elijah’s journey is divided into individual sections by the report of a series of movements in vv. 4, 8, 19, and 21b. The story opens in Ahab’s Samarian capital, Jezreel. Despite the overwhelming defeat of Baal and his prophets in chapter 18, Jezebel still feels bold enough to threaten Elijah and Elijah still feels vulnerable enough to flee with his servant.

His flight is related with a series of verbs that reflect breathless haste: “he feared, rose, and fled.” The next geographical marker is Beersheba. Leaving his servant there, Elijah continues another day’s journey into the wilderness. Elijah has fled from the north to the south, from civilization to the wilderness, and from human companionship to solitude. That’s not a good sign in anybody, and it’s especially ominous in a prophet.

Once out in the wilderness, Elijah stops moving and sits under one broom tree. A broom tree is not really a tree, but a bush, and it does not normally occur in isolation. In this seclusion, Elijah prays “Enough! Now, Lord, take my life! For I am no better than my fathers.” Elijah, it seems, has also made a spiritual journey. He’s deep in himself, quite a distance from the prophet who intervened on behalf of the widow’s son, or who stood to reclaim Israel on Mt. Carmel.

Elijah’s disillusionment is easy to understand. After the victory on Mt. Carmel, Ahab’s indifference and Jezebel’s continuing threats suggest that his efforts will have little or no lasting impact on the people they lead. His final words, however, are more puzzling. What did Elijah mean by motivating his request to die with a phrase indicating that he is “no better than his fathers?”

This expression is probably best read as a challenge to God. God expected Elijah to single-handedly turn both king and nation to repentance. Elijah’s failure is really God’s because God has asked too much of him. If God acts on Elijah’s petition, Elijah is free of his burden and God has admitted his demands were too great. If God does not take Elijah’s life, then he must address Elijah’s concerns and get more involved in dealing with Israel. In either case, Elijah is absolved of responsibility for the situation.

Having settled things to his satisfaction, Elijah lays down and sleeps – under “one broom tree,” naturally!

Elijah’s isolation does not last, however. An angel wakes him with a command to eat a cake (‛ūgâ) he finds by his head and drink from a nearby jug (sappahat) of water. The links with the miraculous provision of food by the ravens, and in particular the cake (‛ūgâ) and the jug (sappahat) of oil associated with the widow of Zarapheth, make it clear that God is not accepting Elijah’s proposition.

Elijah’s response is expressed in five verbs: he looked, ate, drank, returned, and lay down. Elijah is nothing if not stubborn.

But so is God. Just as Elijah returned, so too the “angel of the Lord” returns, touches Elijah, commands that he eat and drink and then adds “for the journey is more than enough for you.” This repetition of the word “enough,” the word with which Elijah opened his prayer for death, makes it clear that God has refused his request and is now sending him on his way.

Elijah arises, eats, drinks, and sets out for “Horeb, the mountain of God.” Is this where the angel told him to go? Hmmm….

After 40 days, Elijah arrives at Mt. Horeb and spends the night in a cave. Rather than an angel, this time the word of the Lord comes to him, in the form of a question (v. 9): “What are you doing here, Elijah? The emphasis on “here” indicates that Elijah’s location is unexpected, another sign of Elijah’s refusal to continue serving as a prophet.

Elijah’s answer in v. 10:

“I have been most zealous for the Lord God of the hosts, but the sons of Israel have left your covenant, your altars they have torn down and your prophets they have killed by the sword, and I, alone am left, and they sought my life, to take it”

contains quite a number of things that also make you go “Hmmm…,” including:

1) Elijah has just described his zealousness with precisely the word God uses to describe his feelings (AV = jealousy) about Israel.

2) The Israelites had left the covenant, torn down altars and killed prophets, but recently they seem to have given all that up.

3) Elijah is not the only one left, either as a prophet or a follower of God. Obadiah had a hundred prophets in caves. And if Elijah has a problem with prophets lurking in caves…

This is, like Elijah’s prayer in v. 4, a challenge to God. Elijah is painting a picture in which he himself is the last person standing between Baal and total victory. God must intervene, smite some folks who desperately need to be smitten, or accept defeat. This picture is, however, rather different from reality. What will God do with his prophet?

(Okay, intermission. This is where things get long and tough. Now is a good time for a short break, some brain food, and a 20 oz Mt. Dew. Those of you who like to carefully distinguish between direct discourse and narration should have more brain food and another Dew.)

God responds to Elijah with one of the most famous theophanies in the Bible. Since Hebrew has no quotation marks, deciding whether this theophany is told as direct discourse, as a narrative description of what is to come, or as some sort of a combination of both is a challenge. Suffice it to say that however it is presented, the scene goes like this:

And [the Lord] said, Go, stand on the mountain before the Lord. And the look! the Lord is passing by and a great, strong wind tears the mountain and shatters the crags before the Lord – but the Lord is not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake – but the Lord is not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, a fire – but the Lord is not in the fire. And after the fire, a qôl dĕmāmâ daqqâ.

Wind, earthquake, and fire are the traditional manifestations of the presence of God. This narrative does not deny them their traditional role, but it does make it clear that they do not somehow contain God. The presence of God is not part of nature, but is instead qôl dĕmāmâ daqqâ.

If you can decipher those goofy little marks about the vowels, you can hear the rich vocalization of this phrase. You can also see the chiastic arrangement of consonants: q-d-m / m-d-q. The translation, however, is quite another matter.

The first word, qôl is a noun meaning either “sound” or “voice.” The second word, dĕmāmâ, means “calm” (in the sense of the cessation of a strong movement of air) or a vibrant silence. The third word, daqqâ, breaks with the aural connections of the first two words. It comes from the realm of the tactile senses and means something like “thin,” “fine,” or “small.”

The point of this conflation of sound and not-sound with touch is the deliberate creation of a paradox. The divine is beyond a concrete description and human comprehension. It is “a sound of sheer silence” as the NRSV translates it.

When Elijah “hears” all this, he veils his eyes and goes to the mouth of the cave. The Lord questions him a second time, “Elijah, why are you here?” This time, the “here” is a reference to the fact that Elijah is not standing where he had been told to stand, “outside, on the mountain, before the Lord.”

Elijah’s answer is to repeat verbatim his words in v. 10. This suggests that all that noise and shaking, followed by that palpable, incomprehensible, silence, had no real effect on him.

God makes Elijah a counter-offer. He gives him three jobs, one of which, to designate his successor, is a compromise of sorts. He is to anoint Hazael king of Aram, Jehu king of Israel, and Elisha as a prophet to succeed him. The first is especially interesting because it involves politics outside of Israel and the last is curious because there are no other instances of a prophet being anointed, or of a prophet designating his successor.

For some reason, this is enough for Elijah. He sets out on his journey, but actually does none of the above. Instead of anointing Elisha to take his place, Elijah tosses his mantle over him and takes him as a servant. In turn, it is Elisha who eventually sees to the anointing of the kings.

What to make of all this? Once again, I lean toward a primary focus that is theological rather than anthropological. God is faithful, providing food and support for Elijah. God is also patient in the face of Elijah’s obsessive focus on himself, even when Elijah rejects a definitive self-revelation. But God is also tenacious and without pity for self-pity.

Finally, the fact that Elijah gets moving again after the introduction of Elisha but fails to yield his office to him suggests that Elisha’s presence as a divinely-appointed “buddy” in God’s demanding work was what Elijah needed. The qôl dĕmāmâ daqqâ must be a great experience, but finding God and God’s love in our day-to-day companions might actually be what we really need. And what we need to realize that we really need.

18 Replies to “The Sound of Sheer Silence”

  1. “Elijah is nothing if not stubborn”

    How about depressed and despondent? If someone said “I wish I were dead” and laid down on the floor and refused to eat or do anything but sleep, he would labeled “suicidal” today. But that is precisely what Elijah is saying and doing. He tried to incite a political revolution and failed, so he goes off depressed and his shortcomings, wishing he was dead (v. 4). He failed at being a prophet, or so he thought.

    The Lesson the Lord teaches Elijah is that miracles do not convert people, only the still small voice of the Holy Spirit does, and that is why he failed in his mission. He tried some grandiose miracle in a highly public and controversial way to convince Israel to repent and they didnt. That isnt the Lord’s way of doing things. Hence the divine interview in the mountain.

    Mogget, as you point out, at the mountain, ELijah’s statements are verbatim repeats. The first time Elijah is bitter and despondent, the second time he wraps the shawl around his face as a symbol of humility and he repeats the same thing, only the second time he is humbled and educated as to the correct way the Lord expects him to act in his prophetic calling.

  2. NRSV = New Revised Standard Version

    In case anyone actually makes it through that exceeding long and detailed post, the way to read this passage as a renewal rather than a partial rejection is as follows:

    1) read Elijah’s first answer in v. 10 as addressed to someone other than God.

    2) this makes the theophany a prelude to the real audience with God.

    3) in the question/answer session following the theophany, read Elijah’s repetition as him making his case directly to God.

    4) when Elijah’s actions differ from his instructions, read them as prophetic initiative in cooperation with a flexible God.

    Only one more post on Elijah after this one, ok? Ha! I hear sighs of relief all over the Nacle. Well, it’s a great story and it is never really confronted in our rush to assure ourselves that a life of obedience is a life without serious complications.

  3. Wow, Mogget. Very cool. I wonder about the interpretation you are giving to the events once Elijah returned to the cave. Let me think it over and I’ll see if I can make any serious objections.

  4. Awesome. It’s amazing what one can deduce by reading a text for what it’s worth instead of solely trying to Christianize (read: Mormonize) it. Thanks Mog!

  5. As usual, I cannot claim originality except in certain details. Elijah is a powerful, complex, story. In its own sphere it is probably almost the equal of the Joseph cycle.


    I thought about this, but it seems too strong. Elijah doesn’t try to kill himself, but asks God to. In addition, he does eat. Since this is the OT, you can commit suicide by blasphemy, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

    still small voice

    I’ve thought some about this, as well. I think that it’s probably not wise to inject the Third Person here, for several reasons:

    1) The qôl dĕmāmâ daqqâ doesn’t communicate anything. Unlike the wind, quaking, and fire, it does contain the Presence. It’s probably better to just leave it there.

    2) God should be “free” to reveal himself in any fashion he chooses. There is no need for him to have revealed himself to Elijah as he does to us, or vice versa.

    3) We should allow the authors of scripture the freedom to express their apprehension of God in the language and style they deem appropriate.

    To me, this is roughly equivalent to approaching these texts initially with the idea that the authors of the OT/NT were capable, sensitive, articulate writers who did their job well.

    As for the rest of the story, hey, there’s lots of ways to read it. To me, the crux is the question of what gets Elijah moving again and why he never anoints Elisha.

  6. why he never anoints Elisha


    All good points.

    How restricted are we in our usage of “anoint” (Heb. mashach — sorry, I don’t have the time to figure out the transliterated vowel pointing) here? I mean, Cyrus is called “the anointed one” (or, “messiah”) in Isaiah 45:1, but we know that the oil of the Israelite horn probably never dripped upon his head. Could Elisha still be considered “anointed” even if he never received an anointing per se (ala Cyrus)?

    I just checked a lexicon (Holladay’s abbreviated version of HALOT) and he doesn’t list this usage of mashach in the way I’m asking about it here, but I think there might be room for this usage of it (ie, one of election or chosen-ness, despite the lack of oil and/or ritual) based upon the Isa. 45:1 usage, which is clearly metaphorical.


  7. Yeah, and there’s the even stranger anointing of the Anointed One…

    And I don’t think anyone really anointed President Truman, either, but they did call him “Cyrus” for recognizing Israel as a state in 1948.

    More seriously:

    The only real reason I can think of to require a literal anointing is the fact that the others on his To Do list were literal anointings.

    However, there’s the compliance formulae. Usually, you get verbatim repetition in an announcement that whoever did whatever God directed (see Gen 6:18; 7:7). No such thing here.

    Then there’s the business of the mantle. In 19, he hides his eyes with it, then throws it over Elisha. At his ascension, it passes to Elisha. So there’s no doubt that Elisha is his “anointed” successor. But when?

    And if you get a chance, take a look at the word translated as “mantle” (trd’). It has lots of different connotations including a robe of state or an official robe and even an adjectival use as “glory” or “majesty.”

    Then there’s the different word used to describe Elisha’s status as servant, srt. It’s not the same word used of the servant in v. 3.

    So you know, there are many odd things about this story. I think the absence of an anointing is deliberate, allowing Elijah to carry on as prophet for a few more years. But that could be just me.

  8. absence of an anointing is deliberate, allowing Elijah to carry on as prophet for a few more years,

    OOOOOooooooooooh, Mog I like that. That would explain, then, Malachi’s usage of Elijah and also the NT connections with John and Jesus — like a continuing hope of his influence or something. Very nice. It would seem, following this reasoning, that the cloak which Elijah left to Elisha would be a way for the author to perhaps appease the reader’s worries concerning who is in charge now that Elijah is transported by way of the cloak transfer, but also allow the reader the notion of believing that Elijah is still active, if only behind the scenes.

    Well, then you have the very name, “Elijah,” which might actually be made up. The author might be suggesting that “hey, since this guy has the most pious name in all Israel, let’s keep his tradition alive — beyond the grave even! But how can I allow his influence to continue? Let’s see… Hmmmm…. No, not like that… Hmmmm… Maybe…. no, that’s not it either… Hmmm… I know! HE’LL BE TRANSPORTED TO GOD, AND WE WON’T MENTION ANY FORMAL TYPE OF TRANSITION BETWEEN HIM AND ELISHA! That should do it! He’ll just give his coat to Elisha and we’ll call it a day! Brilliant! Mordecai, bring me my quill!” Who knows.

  9. LOL. That’s pretty funny. I was just thinking about the time between Elisha’s mantling and Elijah’s ascension.

    Actually, the leap from Elijah taken up into heaven to Elijah returning to restore something very much interests my pointed little head. It has a proto-apocalyptic feel about it.

    Erase, for a second, your LDS ideas of what was restored, and think about it.

    If the idea of “turning the hearts” is read the way the NT does, as a call to repentance, then Elijah is still reforming Israel.

    And another thing:

    Were the Elijah verses in Malachi written at the same time the rest of the book was? Or are they a later addition, explaining the identity of “my messenger” in Mal 3:1 who’s going to return the priesthood to its original purity…

    I think it’s a very rich field for further investigation.

    And another thing:

    When did the qôl dĕmāmâ daqqâ become the Third Person? Because I don’t see it anywhere in the NT. It surely sounds like a post-Chalcedon innovation to me.

    I’m always interested in the doctrine we retain that comes from the later church councils rather than the OT/NT. It would be interesting to catalogue it and then see where JS “found it” in the Bible.

  10. Erase, for a second, your LDS ideas of what was restored, and think about it.

    No problem! I do this every time I go to church.

    Elijah is still reforming Israel.

    Busy guy, he is. Wouldn’t the turning of the hearts also serve as a reminder for them to look back to the patriarchal covenant with “the fathers,” ie A, I, & J?

    Or are they a later addition

    Oh, totally. The verses are almost a hiccough, and don’t flow well with the rest of the book. Kind of like the last two or three verses of Ruth, which are terribly redundant and quite easily reveal themselves as a later addition (or, a naughty little pro-monarchic editor thought he could have his way with the text in order to plug his own agenda). The end of Malachi seems like a Maccabbean thing to me. Honestly, weren’t the Maccabbeans über-critical of the Hellenistic sympathyzers? It would seem that Malachi’s plight to “cook the world like an oven” and “turn the hearts to the fathers” fits right in with Maccabbean motives and thought. To me, anyway.

    I’m always interested in the doctrine we retain that comes from the later church councils rather than the OT/NT

    Amen and amen. I am so totally amazed when I read the BofM as a 19th century document. If JS wrote it (I’m not saying I think this), you have a pretty good polemic which stands against (catholic) orthodoxy, Calvinism, paedobaptism, the anti-Masonic movement of the 1820s, etc. etc. Frankly, if one really wants to see where a lot of “other people’s stuff” creeped in, take a look at the Campbellite movement and you’ll be amazed how much of our theology “leans” that way… Or at least the vocabulary that we employ. Silly Sidney!

  11. Oh, J. Stapley, we’re glad you like our little exercise is total geekdom…

    a reminder for them to look back to the patriarchal covenant with “the fathers,” ie A, I, & J?

    That’s another good point. What did the Maccabees think of AIJ? How did they relate them to Moses? I don’t know much about ’em, but the general thrust of the entire intertestamental corpus seems to me to be a back-to-Moses movement. I wonder how the intertestamentals used the phrase “the fathers.” I need to know more about them / it in order to have a decent idea about this whole thing.

    read the BofM

    Yeah, I don’t know enough about 19th century theological speculation to read it that way. I do know that it very effectively plugs some of the “gaps” in the NT. For example, it gives an explanation of why Christ had to be baptized that’s far superior to Matthew’s “to fulfill all righteousness.” And it begins to integrate the American continent into Christian eschatology, as well.

    Very interesting stuff, here. Too little time.

  12. God also tells him that there are ten thousand men who have not bent the knee — he tells him that he is not alone, that there is hope for the future, that all is not wasted.

    I admit I read this story as one of the depressed and despondent rather than stubborness.

  13. I think the word I used was disillusioned. Depressed and despondent also, I think, work. Elijah’s stubborn in the sense that even cake and water delivered by an angel do not get him moving again. It takes a second visit.

    And yes, at the end God does tell him that there are 7,000 who have “not bent the knee.” I’m thinking that that’s the response to Elijah’s insistence he alone remains. His report does not match reality.

  14. The pattern of prophets / servants getting worn out, frustrated and wishing to be taken is a pretty common one in the Old Testament. For example, Isaiah 49:

    Listen, O isles, unto me; and hearken, ye people, from far; The LORD hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name. And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me, and made me a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he hid me;
    And said unto me, Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified.
    Then I said, I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain: yet surely my judgment is with the LORD, and my work with my God.
    (Isa 49:1-4)

    Jonah of course is a classic example, although his frustration was for entirely the wrong reasons. Imagine, a people repenting, such that sore destruction no longer needs to come upon them:

    But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry. And he prayed unto the LORD, and said, I pray thee, O LORD, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.
    Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live

    Then Jonah goes and camps outside the city, waiting for the Lord to repent of his “repentance”. And of course it gets hot, and the Lord raises up a gourd to shade Jonah, and then sends a worm to “smite” the gourd, and Jonah is angry:

    And it came to pass, when the sun did arise, that God prepared a vehement east wind; and the sun beat upon the head of Jonah, that he fainted, and wished in himself to die, and said, It is better for me to die than to live.

    And God said to Jonah, Doest thou well to be angry for the gourd? And he said, I do well to be angry, even unto death.

    Then said the LORD, Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:
    And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand; and also much cattle?
    (Jonah 4:8-11)

    I like the part about the Ninevites not knowing the difference between their right hand and their left, i.e. they were not perfect, but they apparently did not know enough to be held to the standard Jonah expected of them. i.e. he probably did not think they were righteous enough.

    Job is a better example. He starts out with an excellent attitude, but then later his afflictions clearly start to get to him:

    And Job spake, and said,
    Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said, There is a man child conceived.
    Let that day be darkness; let not God regard it from above, neither let the light shine upon it.
    Let darkness and the shadow of death stain it; let a cloud dwell upon it; let the blackness of the day terrify it.
    (Job 3:2-5)

    Of course he develops a better attitude even in severe affliction, and after a time the Lord turns his captivity.

    Hezekiah is a very interesting counter example – one who wants to live longer than the Lord apparently originally intended.

    The irony / parallelism between deserved and undeserved affliction is pretty strong in a lot of places, e.g. Jeremiah 30:

    Why criest thou for thine affliction? thy sorrow is incurable for the multitude of thine iniquity: because thy sins were increased, I have done these things unto thee.

    For I will restore health unto thee, and I will heal thee of thy wounds, saith the LORD; because they called thee an Outcast, saying, This is Zion, whom no man seeketh after.
    (Jer 30:15-17)

  15. I’ll just add that the closest parallel may well be Moses in Numbers, but even there Moses manages to stay focused on his leadership responsibilities.

    Elijah, on the other hand, has successfully made good the enemy of perfect.

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