Sunday, 22 October 2017

The Still Small Voice

The Still Small Voice

"Go out and stand before me on top of the mountain," the LORD said to him. Then the LORD passed by and sent a furious wind that split the hills and shattered the rocks---but the LORD was not in the wind. The wind stopped blowing, and then there was an earthquake---but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire---but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the soft whisper of a voice. When Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. A voice said to him, "Elijah, what are you doing here?"

The story of Elijah at Hebron is a fascinating one. Elijah has just defeated the priests of Baal in a contest on Mount Carmel, where they work themselves into a frenzy but no fire comes. Elijah prays and a fire appears and consumes the sacrifice. But far from victory, he is hounded by the Queen, his arrest is ordered, and he takes refuge in a cave on Mount Horeb.

In Greek mythology, the god Aiolos was the king of the winds. He was appointed by Zeus to guard the storm winds which he kept locked away inside the floating island of Aeolia, releasing them at the request of the gods to wreak their havoc. Poseidon, as well as the god of the sea, was known for causing major catastrophic events, such as floods and  earthquakes, seen as signs of his wrath. Hephaestus was the god of fire and volcanoes.

The Greeks were not alone. Most of the ancient mythologies of gods and goddesses have similar analogues. The wrath of the gods and goddesses was to be avoided, and it was best not to anger them. Rituals and sacrifices could placate them.

By contrast, in this story, quite deliberately, God is not found in the violent savagery of nature, rending the land, but in the silence afterwards, the soft whisper of the voice. 

The story of Elijah is an attack on those who see the hand of deity, even the Jewish God, in the power of nature. That, the text indicates, is a form of idolatry, of giving over power to things which are outside out control; of trying to make sense of what may often seem random and senseless by putting it into a framework where we can control it by our understanding - by somehow placating the deity by prayers or fasts or sacrifices.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments on how the story negates the triumphalistic tone of the earlier part of the story:

“In effect, God was saying to Elijah: false prophets believe in power. At Mount Carmel you showed that I am a greater power. You defeated idolatry on its own terms. That may be fine for those tempted by idolatry, but that is not who I am. The supreme power cares for the powerless. The creator of life loves life. The voice that summoned the universe into being is still and small, hardly louder than a whisper. To hear God you have to listen.”

“God is not in the fire, or the whirlwind, or the earthquake. Zealotry wins the battle but not the war. It creates fear, not love. It risks desecrating the very cause it seeks to sanctify. Faith speaks in an altogether different voice, urging us, in Robert Kennedy’s fine phrase, to ‘tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world’.”

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