Still, Small Voice

What is this story doing in the book of Kings?

Psalm 23
"Psalm 23," John August Swanson. Used by permission from the artist. Image © by John August Swanson.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

November 3, 2013

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Commentary on 1 Kings 19:1-18

What is this story doing in the book of Kings?

When the contemporary person reads the title “Kings,” one might think that it is about kings. As the Tanak, the Hebrew Bible designates the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings as the former prophets (the Neviim). The story of the state, that is kings, is interpreted through the stories and visions of prophets.

Another aspect to consider is the relationship between the prophets in Hebrew narrative and those in the prophetic books. Elijah cast the largest shadow in the narrative of Kings. Likewise, he is ensconced in Judaism in the Passover Haggadah. The Elijah cycle begins its prophetic career in hiding (1 Kings 17:3).

Chapter 18 describes the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Ultimately, the God of Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:1-46). However, after the victory came consequences. Ahab reported to Jezebel. She made a cursing vow that obligated her to have Elijah killed in twenty-four hours. The belligerent Elijah of the contest on Mount Carmel gives way to the hunted and frightened Elijah of chapter 19. He fled to Beersheba. We estimate it to be about one hundred miles from Mount Carmel to Beersheba, over mountainous and then hostile desert terrain. There in Beersheba he left his servant.

As if to emphasize the remoteness of Elijah’s location, the writer tells us that he went another day’s journey into the wilderness. When Elijah arrives in the area around Beersheba, he sits under a solitary broom tree and falls asleep. The writer paints a picture of a bleak desert with a single tree. We do not know much about the broom tree. The visual imagery conveys a sense of starkness. It occurs in this chapter and in Micah 1:13. We can see the picture of the dejected Elijah under the solitary broom tree, and the caption reads, “Elijah requests that he might die.” Then he lies down to sleep, praying that he will die before he wakes.

We now have a new character, the messenger of God. Sometimes this is translated as angel. The angel touched Elijah and gave him simple instructions, “Get up and eat” (19:5b). Elijah found fresh baked bread and a jar of water by his head. Elijah followed the instructions — he ate and drank — but then he went to sleep again. We can but assume that the desire for death was still in play. This was not the first feeding story in the Elijah cycle. The early Elijah cycle also contained feeding stories. First Elijah is fed by the ravens (1 Kings 17:6), and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:9-16) gave him the last of her food and drink.

The messenger of God returned. A second touch and a call to “rise and eat.” Often, contemporary readers get so focused on the message that we forget the role of touch in the story. On the second encounter the writer provides an explanation: without the sustenance, the journey will be too much for Elijah. Bread and journey have been metaphors appropriated by contemporary culture.

The angel’s advice worked. Elijah arose, ate and drank. Then in the power of that sustenance he was able to go forty days and forty nights. He went on to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. It is often connected with the burning bush story as well as the giving of the Ten Commandments. There Elijah came to a cave and spent the night.

The angel disappears, and in 1 Kings 19:9b we encounter the prophetic formula, “Then the Word of the Lord,” presses Elijah, “What are you doing here?” Elijah defends his record as “zealous for the Lord the God of Hosts,” but weak and vulnerable. The dialogue between the angel of the Lord and Elijah gives way to Elijah’s apology.

Elijah’s apology does not elicit reassurance but rather a new command. Nancy DeClaissé Walford observed the connection between Moses and Elijah in her commentary on 1 Kings 19. Both Moses and Elijah encounter God at Mount Horeb (see Exodus 3). Later, Moses requests a theophany so he could see the glory of God (Exodus 33:17-23). Elijah is mandated for his theophany. The writer described traditional theophanies, earthquake and breaking rocks, wind, and even fire. God was not found in the traditional theophany vehicles but in the rare sound of sheer silence.

This theophany sets up a repeat of the question, “What are you doing here Elijah?” Again Elijah makes the same defense. The writer signals no change of heart. It follows Elijah’s speech with a new mandate from God, “Go, return.” And Elijah obeys.

Often readers approach 1 Kings 19 from a typological or figural perspective; often folks will interpret it as a psychological piece on the importance of following the inner voice. However, the literary context makes clear that the implications of Elijah’s work changed the history of the region. He played a vital role in the Aramean conflicts of the ninth century.

The Arameans, a Semitic nation, played a significant role in the coalition of small vassals, including Israel in the battle of Qarqar in 853 B.C.E. that repelled the Assyrian threat Shalmaneser III. This alliance was short lived. Usually Aram and Israel both vied for superiority. The audience recognized the irony that Elijah is anointed Hazael, who, in 842, reignited hostilities between Aram/Damascus and Israel. Elisha is to oversee a changing of the guard with the figures Hazael, Jehu, and Elisha. Hazael and Jehu will launch the region into violent chaos. Despite political chaos, the anti-syncretistic message remains the same. Those who have not shifted loyalty to Baal shall be spared the coming carnage.



Powerful God,
Although you can make your presence known in a mighty wind, or an earthquake, or a fire, you often speak to us in the sound of sheer silence. Help us to hear. Amen.


For all the saints   ELW 422, H82 287, UMH 711, NCH 299
I sing a song of the saints of God H82 293, UMH 712, NCH 295
Now the silence   ELW 460


Holy is the true light, William Harris
Give us the wings of faith, Ernest Bullock