While studying the Elijah narrative in school last semester, and now once again for Sunday School, I was impressed with the literary flavor the book displays. There are many literary devices and tools by which an author may express him or herself. Some of these devices are given various names. Some use causation as a way of moving a story forward (“Because you have sinned against Yahweh, then…”), others use comparison (“consider the lillies of the field”), etc. etc.
The author of 1 Kings uses the literary device of contrast in both subtle and overt ways. Here are couple of examples I noticed:
1 Kings 17:1-7 compared to 17:8-24. In the first section, Yahweh informs Elijah that he will send a famine upon the land, but that Elijah should be miraculously spared. The ravens (NRSV) feed Elijah. So there’s a little contrast already, albeit subtle. Famine for everyone, except for Elijah.
Then in verses 8-24, Elijah is sent unto Zarephath where a widow was commanded to feed him, which might sound a bit silly because Elijah was already being fed by the ravens. That aside, the contrast begins to grow. This famine was severe, and was sparing no one (except Elijah). We encounter a widow who has a small child and cannot escape her own hunger and has embraced her death. Yahweh’s famine does not even spare the most destitute of the Israelites — a poor widow and her son. So the son dies and Elijah comes to the scene. Now the contrast. The famine brought despair and death, and Elijah brings hope and life. He “revives” her son, they miraculously eat, and the famine is assuaged for the time being. Everybody’s happy. The author sets up the dilemma via contrast, and resolves it. Moving on…
18:20-29. This section we know as the bout between Elijah and the priests of Baal (another contrast). A little bit of background knowledge helps with this section or we might otherwise overlook some of the intricacies within the greater contrast. Baal was to the Canaanites, among other things, typically associated with storms and meteorological fury. Setting up an altar and calling down fire should have been something Baal could have easily accomplished. Baal was a bad, bad dude, and fire was probably one of his favorite weapons in the arsenal. But nothing happened. The verbage is very interesting in 18:29b – “there was no voice, no answer, and no response” (NRSV).
The author then begins a new paragraph at verse 30. In order to present the contrast between the true god of Israel, Yahweh, and the Baals, Elijah constructs a new altar in what may be viewed as a war of deities (another contrast). But he doesn’t stop there. In what should have been an easy task for Baal in sending down fire,* Elijah makes sure that the altar Yawheh would consume is drenched in water, which we know wins the day over fire (v. 36-40). The contrast here is quite overt — that the god(s) of Canaan failed, and that Yahweh did not.
One last contrast (there are many others in the story). If the fire that was utilized to consume Elijah’s altar was indeed brought by lightning (see note below), we can see the contrast between that event and the event in 19:11-12. It doesn’t require us to go back in time and think of ourselves as Israelites in order to understand how loud thunder and lightning can be, especially if the lightning strikes just a few feet away. (I personally have been knocked over while backpacking in the Smokie Mountains by a lightning strike that hit about 50 feet away.) Thunder is LOUD. Remember that the priests of Baal tried their darndest to get Baal to manifest himself, but “there was no voice**, no answer, and no response” (18:29). Yahweh did manifest himself to the priests of Baal through meteorological means, and probably did so with the volume knob turned up all the way (turned up to 11, of course).*** But now, the contrast shows up. This isn’t how Yahweh reveals himself when he is alone with Elijah. He contrasts the manifestation of his power with the altar scene, and with all the noise up on top of the mountain (19:11-12a). The author goes to great lengths to mention how devasting (and noisy?) the wind and earthquakes and all the other stuff must have been. Elijah is even struck with fear. But God manifested himself that day in “the sound of sheer silence.” Contradictory phrasing? Maybe. But it does make a beautiful contrast between the noisy hustle-and-bustle of what we would assume is the typical self-disclosure of Baal and the self-disclosure of Yahweh.
* The Hebrew word for fire, ‘esh, might also connote “lightning” in this instance, which makes more sense given A) Baal was a storm god, and B) lightning comes down from the sky and leaves fire on the ground. The only problem with my hypothesis here, however, is that there is a distinct word for “lightning” (baqar) in the Hebrew.
** As Mogget pointed out last week, the word for “sound” and “voice” use the same Hebrew word, qol. I don’t necessarily believe they can be interchanged at the (casual) whim of the interpreter, but in this instance, I believe the NRSV should probably have left the word qol in 18:29 as “sound” in order to facilitate the contrast I present here.
*** This comment is only amusing if you’ve ever seen the film Spinal Tap.