The encounter between God and Elijah at Mt. Horeb is full of intrigue and challenging imagery. The prophet has fled to the wilderness of Sinai, fearing for his life. Jezebel had not looked kindly on his authorized slaughter of the prophets of Baal, and she vowed that within twenty-four hours, he would join these others in death.
He journeyed forty days and nights—an echo of Moses’ sojourn there, and a tithe of the time Israel spent wandering—and arrived exhausted at the mount of God. Suddenly the word of the LORD came to him: “Why are you here, Elijah?” He responds: “Because of my great zeal for the LORD the God of Hosts” (1 Kings 19:10). Elijah goes on to tell the Holy One that he is the only one left who has not bowed the knee to Baal, an admission that God later corrects.
God instructs him to stand on the mount where he might receive divine revelation. Wind, fire, and earthquake came in mighty display, but these were not the media of God’s disclosure, albeit God had used each of these means on other occasions.
Then Elijah heard another intimation of God’s presence, translated variably as “a soft murmuring” (NEB), “a gentle whisper” (NIV) or a “sound of sheer silence” (NRSV). Each rendering of the Hebrew suggests a numinous experience, which transcends the capacity of human language. Prompted for further encounter with God, he listens for guidance for his next moves.
This past Thursday I participated in an interfaith conversation with a Buddhist and a Jew, scholars in their own tradition and widely conversant with the faith practices of others. As we sought to share the heart of our faith, I noticed how our words, even of our sacred texts, could only go so far in describing our understanding of the infinite being. Sheer silence may be most appropriate.
Further, we cannot dictate how, where, or when God will make the divine presence known. God was not “in” the familiar modes, and Elijah waited. So, too, must we wait to learn the myriad ways through which God is drawing near to persons who seek such an encounter. I sensed a great hunger among those who gathered for the lively exchange at Scarritt-Bennett, and I was aware that a triumphalistic approach would sound a bit like Elijah’s complaint to God that he was the only one who remained faithful.
God directs him to return by a different route, anointing new leadership along the way, including Elisha who will succeed him. God assures him that there are 7000 Israelites who have not succumbed to idolatry; rather they embrace the mystery of the unseen LORD.
Living in religious pluralism has always been the challenge and opportunity for people of faith. Embracing mystery instead of easy certitude will surely assist.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares women and men for seeking God, shaping church, and serving humanity.