Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Elijah Meets God on the Mountain

Posted by foryourfaith on March 5, 2012


The taste of victory that Elijah had experienced after the confrontation on Mount Carmel turned to ashes in his mouth. There was one person who was wholly unimpressed and unconvinced by the demonstration of power on the mountain, and that was Ahab’s Phoenician queen, Jezebel. She was as zealous for Baal as Elijah was for Yahweh. The slaughter of Baal’s prophets did not diminish Jezebel’s commitment to Baal; it only fired her wrath toward the prophet of Yahweh. As soon as she heard what had happened, she swore the punishment of death for Elijah because of the murder of the prophets.

The mighty Elijah shrank into suicidal despair. He fled south through the land of Judah toward the Negev desert. In his distress, he cried: “Oh Lord, take away my life; for I am no better than my fathers.” He had apparently expected to gain immediate and total victory for Yahweh after his successful campaign on Mount Carmel. But now, he anticipated utter defeat.

Yet the narrative emphasizes God’s continuing care for his prophet. As Elijah slept under a tree far out in the wilderness, an angelic messenger from God brought him freshly cooked food. Refreshed, he was able to endure a 40-day fast as he traveled into the wilderness to “Horeb the mount of God.” Indeed, the narrative describes “the word of the Lord” as Elijah’s constant guide, and in his anguish, hunger, and defeat it encountered him once more: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

The long march through the wilderness had done nothing to quench he fire of anger, hopelessness, and self-concern that Elijah had felt. The narrator lets his complaint pour forth twice in exactly the same words.

The situation pictured in Elijah’s complaint is dark. Although Elijah had been “very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts,” still the worship of Yahweh seemed to be practically at an end. The people had forsaken the covenant with Yahweh. They had destroyed the altars to the Lord. And they had killed the prophets who spoke the word of Yahweh. Thus, Elijah felt that he was the only faithful individual left, and he was under threat of death.

Thus, the story that unfolds emphasizes similarities between Elijah and Moses, who also experienced the revelation of God on Mount Horeb. Moses too had fasted 40-days and nights when he encountered God. As Moses was sheltered in a rocky cleft, so Elijah stayed in a cave on the mountain. As the people in Elijah’s time had defected to Baal, so in Moses’ day they had worshipped the golden calf. As the revelation to Moses had served to form the people of Israel in their covenant with God, now the revelation to Elijah served to restore Israel to its abandoned allegiance to Yahweh. Elijah moreover felt that he was the only faithful person left – and he was under threat of death. The implication was that by escaping to the wilderness, Elijah believed he was preserving god’s only hope against the complete extinction of his worship.

But Elijah was to perceive that God is both more profound and more mysteriously powerful than even he imagined. As Yahweh passed before Elijah on the mountain, there came the stupendous but not unexpected manifestations of the powers of nature in God’s control – wind strong enough to tear apart mountains, earthquake shaking the foundations of the mountains, consuming fire. The narrator specifies that Yahweh was not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire. These were traditional signs of divine power, signs ascribed likewise to Baal, the Canaanite god of storm winds, and lightning whose voice shook the earth.

But after the fire had passed and still Yahweh had not become manifest, there came another sign, “a still small voice,” literally “a sound of thin silence.” Elijah was prophet enough to know that his was the true spiritual event, the epiphany; wrapping his mantle about his face he went forth to stand before Yahweh.

The mystery of this unique manifestation of God as “a sound of silence” has fascinated interpreters. It is a paradoxical revelation of the awesomeness of God, and some have thought that it pointed to a particularly ethical or gentle and compassionate understanding of the divine, including perhaps a pointed rebuke to the zeal of Elijah and his accusations against Israel. Such an interpretation, however, is not fully supported by the rest of the story.

The striking contrast between the wind, earthquake, and fire and the sound of silence seems to have had its message for Elijah along somewhat different lines. The struggle between Yahweh and Baal was in no sense a struggle between equals. When Yahweh had manifested all those mighty powers that were typically attributed to Baal, he had still not manifested himself. The presence of Yahweh and his power and divinity were on quite a different plane from that of a nature god. The struggle in which Elijah was engaged was not one that could be measured in victories and defeats for the prophet; thus Elijah’s fears and despair for the religion of Yahweh were unfounded. The God who is heard in the sound of silence did not depend on even so zealous a defender as the prophet for his well-being.

The sense of God’s control was directly spelled out in the commission Yahweh gave o Elijah. Elijah was to anoint three men as instruments of judgment on Israel. But like the quiet voice that followed the destructive force of nature, a remnant of those faithful to Yahweh would remain after the punishments inflected by these three: “I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”


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