The story of Elijah finding God in the silence is a familiar text. However as we know, when we re-read sometimes we find new insights. I try not to look for “the” single lesson from a text. Stories in the Bible help us learn to see how God has been and continues to be at work in the world and in our lives. I try to notice what is here in the story and let questions arise as they may. Questions can help us see from a new perspective. They can open up the story in new ways, helping us make connections between then and now.
(In this post, the biblical text – 1 Kings 19:1-21-is in the regular font, and my thoughts are interspersed in italics.)
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “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.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there.
But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Elijah is not the only biblical character to feel like this. Moses, Hagar, and Jonah all come to mind. Faithfulness to God can be difficult, discouraging, and dangerous. Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” There’s no discussion or speeches. God doesn’t dismiss how Elijah is feeling. God doesn’t give him a pep talk. God simply provides the basics. Sometimes, when life is difficult, we need to do what Elijah did, sleep and eat. Take a bit of a break and care for your self. If we don’t, “the journey will be too much” for us. He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.
I find these conversations between God and Elijah fascinating. Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” Elijah doesn’t get any thanks or any sympathy from God. We might expect God to praise Elijah for his faithfulness. Or offer some assurance of safety. But instead, this happens…
He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. God didn’t show up in the expected ways, the dramatic ways God had been experienced in the past. Strong wind, earthquakes, fires are all ways God has made them-self known. But this time, the “regular” ways, the expected ways aren’t used. Instead of presence, there what appears to be absence- silence. But the silence isn’t actually absence.
Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” God asks the same question as before, and Elijah gives the same answer. Was God hoping for a different response? Was Elijah? Elijah does not seem to feel any better about things. He is still afraid.
Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”
Once again, Elijah doesn’t get any sympathy. There is no “well done good and faithful servant” here. God just gives Elijah another task. There is still work to do. The future will not be easy and peaceful.
So he set out from there, and found Elisha son of Shaphat, who was plowing. There were twelve yoke of oxen ahead of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle over him. He left the oxen, ran after Elijah, and said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” Then Elijah said to him, “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” He returned from following him, took the yoke of oxen, and slaughtered them; using the equipment from the oxen, he boiled their flesh, and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out and followed Elijah, and became his servant. Is Elisha God’s response to Elijah’s statement, (or is it a complaint)”I alone am left.” ? Elijah is given a companion. Elijah still has work to do, but now he has someone to work alongside him.
This story makes me wonder again, about signs of God’s presence. In this story, God is not found in the dramatic events but in their absence. I suspect that the ancient world was a much quieter place than ours- especially away from towns. While silence might be unusual for us, I wonder how unusual it was in Elijah’s time? What does that suggest about God’s presence? Is it simply that I need to develop a better awareness?
At the same time, this is a nice story about the need to take care of ourselves and to remember that we don’t need to do everything on our own.
What in this story catches your attention, your interest this time?