Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

The story of Elijah told in 1 Kings 19 is both comically tragic and awesomely powerful.

June 20, 2010

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Commentary on 1 Kings 19:1-4 [5-7] 8-15a

The story of Elijah told in 1 Kings 19 is both comically tragic and awesomely powerful.

Elijah has just bested four hundred prophets of Baal on the summit of Mt. Carmel and has one-upped Ahab by outrunning the king’s chariots on their return journey to Jezreel (1 Kings 18:20-46). But then Ahab tells Jezebel of Elijah’s exploits, and she becomes enraged and declares against Elijah (in the typical words of an ancient Near Eastern oath), “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow” (1 Kings 19:2). In other words, “May the gods take my life if I have not taken yours by this time tomorrow.” 

When Elijah heard Jezebel’s words, he “was afraid; he got up and fled for his life” (1 Kings 19:3). While the story of 1 Kings 19 focuses on Elijah, the reader is left to wonder at the imposing power of Jezebel. This Elijah, the prophet who confronted Ahab with news of an impending drought (1 Kings 17:1) and who destroyed four hundred prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, fled from the scene the moment Jezebel threatened his life.

Elijah’s journey was not a short one. He traveled from Jezreel, located in the valley that lies between Mt. Carmel and the Sea of Galilee, to the southern city of Beersheba, a distance of about one hundred miles. While that distance does not seem all that great to today’s reader (I regularly drive that distance round-trip–and and sometimes one-way–to guest preach in churches), it was an enormous undertaking in a world of foot-travel with the occasional lift on a donkey’s back. It seems very apparent that Elijah was afraid for his very life.

When he arrived in Beersheba, Elijah left his servant and “went a day’s journey into the wilderness” (1 Kings 19:3-4). There he implored God and argued with God about the futility of life (1 Kings 19:4), but God aroused him, fed him, and urged him to continue on his journey (1 Kings 19:5-7). After “forty days and forty nights,” Elijah arrived at Mt. Horeb “the mount of God” (1 Kings 19:8). There, God confronted Elijah with words of admonition and commission. God asked, “What are you doing here?” (1 Kings 19:9) and then says, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by” (1 Kings 19:11).

Thus begins a story that theologians and preachers and teachers have puzzled over for millennia. God revealed God’s-self to Elijah in a manner very different from the ways in which God had revealed God’s-self at other points in Israel’s history.

An appearance, a manifestation, of God to humanity is called a theophany, a moment when the sovereign God physically interacts with the human realm. In the Old Testament text, God interacts with humans in dreams (Abraham: Genesis 15; Jacob: Genesis 28); in seemingly human form (Abraham: Genesis 18; Gideon: Judges 6); in fire and smoke (Moses: Exodus 3; Sinai: Exodus 19); in wind and earthquake and unexplainable phenomena (Sinai: Exodus 19; Isaiah: Isaiah 6; Ezekiel: Ezekiel 1).

In 1 Kings 19, Elijah experienced a great wind (verse 11), but God was not in the wind; an earthquake (verse 11), but God was not in the earthquake; a fire (verse 12), but God was not in the fire. Finally, Elijah heard, according to the NRSV, “the sound of sheer silence.” The Hebrew words translated “the sound of sheer silence” are qol damamah daqqah. Qol can be translated as “voice or sound.” Damamah comes from a verbal root that means “to be silent, to be motionless,” and daqqah from a root that means “small or thin.” Various translations have been offered: “a sound of a gentle blowing” (NASB); “a gentle whisper” (NIV); “a still small voice” (KJV). What did Elijah hear? Silence, a whisper, a gentle wind? Whatever it was, it got his attention. And then a voice asked, “What are you doing here?” God had more work for Elijah to do, so he left the wilderness and returned to Israel.

The close reader of the Elijah narrative is struck by the parallels between Elijah’s life and Moses’:
•Moses flees for his life after killing an Egyptian taskmaster (Exodus 2:11-15); Elijah flees for his life after killing the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 19:1-3).
•Moses encounters God in the form of a burning bush at Mt. Horeb and God calls him to a specific task (Exodus 3); Elijah encounters God in the form of “sheer silence” at Mt. Horeb and God calls him to a specific task (1 Kings 19).
•Moses out-performs the signs and wonders of the wise men and sorcerers in Egypt (Exodus 7:1-14); Elijah out-performs the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:20-39).
•Moses parts the waters of the Red Sea (Exodus 14); Elijah parts the waters of the Jordan River (2 Kings 2:8).
•God provides food for Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 16); God provides food for Elijah and for the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:6-16; 1 Kings 19:5-8).
•Moses and the Israelites spend forty years wandering in the wilderness (Exodus-Numbers); Elijah spent forty days and forty nights in the wilderness (1 Kings 19:8).
•Moses appoints Aaron as successor to himself (Numbers 27:12-23; Deuteronomy 31:14-23); Elijah appoints Elisha as his successor (2 Kings 2).
•Moses dies in the presence of God at the top of Mt. Nebo, God buries him, and no one knows his burial place “to this day” (Deuteronomy 34:1-7); Elijah is taken by God in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11-12).

Elijah’s connection with Moses establishes his connection with and his continuity within the great prophetic tradition of ancient Israel. The prophet Malachi states that God will, at some future time, send to the people “the prophet Elijah . . . who will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents” (Malachi 4:5-6), and so many who heard John the Baptist thought he was Elijah. At the Transfiguration scene in the New Testament (Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-9; Luke 9:28-37), Moses and Elijah appear and converse with Jesus. Elijah is a powerful figure in the Old Testament, called by God to confront the faithlessness of his day and show people what a new relationship with God could look like.