Carmel in the World
2005. Volume XLIV, Number 3

  • Dedication
  • In his Footsteps
  • On the Petrine Ministry
  • Roma Apostolica
  • Elijah on Horeb (below)
  • Emmaus
  • The Garden Enclosed – Cloistered Carmel
  • Dixie Carmelites
  • Mary in the Church – Review Article
  • Carmel around the World
  • Letters

Elijah On Horeb

Craig Morrison, O.Carm. Reprinted, with slight alterations by the author, with permission from The Bible Today 41:6 (November, 2003), 354-358, published by the Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota 56321 U.S.A.

Had the American philosopher-psychologist William James met the prophet Elijah, it is likely he would have been intrigued by the “sound” that Elijah heard on Mount Horeb after the wind, earthquake, and fire passed him by. “Can you describe, Elijah, what you felt when the ‘sound of thin silence’ came to you?” he might have inquired. At the height of his career, James delivered a series of twenty lectures at the University of Edinburgh on the psychology of religion, which would eventually appear under the now famous title, The Varieties of Religious Experience. He delayed until his sixteenth lecture a presentation on “mysticism” where, in order to dispel numerous spurious notions, he delineated four cardinal characteristics of a mystical experience. The first of these characteristics he labeled “ineffability.”
Anyone who has had a religious experience would most likely agree with James — it is, at its core, ineffable. However this property has not prevented mystics from struggling, despite the inadequacies of language, to recount their experience to others. Nor did it prevent the biblical author from trying to relate Elijah’s experience to us. 1 Kings 19:12 reports that Elijah heard a qôl démåmâ daqqâ, literally, “a sound of thin silence.” Elijah’s ineffable experience had found expression in an oxymoron that has, for centuries, frustrated exegetes as much as it has delighted mystics. What does silence sound like? And thin silence at that! More importantly, was God present in that “sound” or not?

The Journey to Horeb
In the first three chapters of the Elijah Cycle (1 Kings 17-19) the “Man of God” undertakes four journeys. The first three are initiated by the “coming of the word of the Lord,” while the fourth journey, to Horeb, is Elijah’s own idea. His travels begin in 1 Kings 17:2-3 when “the word of the Lord” comes to him, bidding him to go eastward and hide by the Wadi Cherith. The biblical narrator observes that Elijah obeyed (1 Kings 17:5): “He went and acted according to the word of the Lord.” Elijah remains in the wadi until the word of the Lord comes to him again, and it does so in 1 Kings 17:8-9: “Get up and go to Zarephath.” Elijah’s obedient response triggers the marvellous events that occur in the widow’s home: an ever-flowing jar of oil and an ill son returned to health. In 1 Kings 18:1 the Lord speaks to Elijah yet again, pointing him toward his third destination: “Go, appear before Ahab.” This journey brings on the confrontation with Ahab, the contest on Mount Carmel, and the sighting of a small cloud rising over the Mediterranean that will bring to an end the drought announced in 17:1.
In 1 Kings 19 the tone becomes ominous as Jezebel’s threat initiates Elijah’s fourth journey. The “word of the Lord” that on previous occasions had announced Elijah’s next destination is now conspicuously silent. Elijah winds up in the wilderness where, but for an angel who awakes him and directs him to eat, he would have died. He then journeys to the place where his ancestors first encountered the Lord, to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God (also known as Mount Sinai). But the “word of the Lord” has not yet spoken.
Upon his arrival at Horeb the “word of the Lord” finally breaks its silence: “What are you doing here Elijah?” At first glance, the question may seem odd. This is where God first spoke to Moses from the burning bush in Exodus 3:1. It was here that Moses passed forty days and forty nights, entering into the cloud of the Lord’s glory that rested on this mountain. Should God be surprised that Elijah has come to this holy site?
But this journey is, in fact, quite different from the previous three. Elijah’s presence at the Wadi Cherith, at Zarephath, and before Ahab, had been mandated by the word of the Lord.” But what mandate brought him to Horeb? It was Jezebel’s word that brought him here. Her threat had taken the place of the “word of the Lord” in Elijah’s life, and in the process God’s emissary to Israel had become a frightened fugitive. How was God going to get Elijah back on track?

The “sound” at Horeb
Elijah attempts to explain his presence at Horeb: “The Israelites have abandoned your covenant and are now seeking my life.” God changes the subject: “Go and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” Three natural phenomena pass by Elijah – wind, earthquake and fire – and each could properly be interpreted as a theophany. (As recently as 1 Kgs 18:38 the fire of the Lord had descended upon Elijah’s sacrifice on Mount Carmel, and wind and tremors heralded the divine presence on Sinai/Horeb in Exodus 19:16-19). But the narrator pronounces on each one: the Lord was not in any of them.
Then comes a “sound of thin silence.” The reader rightfully expects the narrator to pronounce on it as well. But the text is silent. Was the Lord in that “sound” or not? Elijah wraps his face in his cloak, imitating Moses’ reaction to the divine presence at the burning bush in Exodus 3:6. But why didn’t the narrator just tell us whether God was present in that “sound”?
The phrase itself offers few clues for penetrating its meaning and a study of the individual words only brings into relief the paradox they contain; “a sound of thin silence.” It is ‘without parallel in’ the Bible. Its inscrutability has generated’ a multiplicity of English translations. I know of at least twenty different ones, including: “a thin petrifying sound,” “a roaring and thunderous voice,” “a sound of a gentle breeze,” and “a sound of sheer silence” (my favourite for its alliteration).

Earliest interpretations
The Bible’s earliest interpreters, namely, its first translators, could not allow this enigmatic phrase to appear in their translations. Though they were the most conservative of all interpreters, faithful to their Hebrew text, their translations had to make sense for their audience. They also recognized the centrality of the coming of the “sound” to Elijah within the series of events on Mount Horeb. They had to make it intelligible!
The most ancient of these translations is that in Greek, known as the Septuagint, composed in the third century B.C. It renders the Hebrew phrase “a sound of thin silence” into Greek with “a sound of a gentle breeze.” But then the translator adds: “The Lord was there.” The Greek translator must have sensed the imbalance in the rhythm of the Hebrew text: first came the wind, but no divine presence, then the earthquake, but no divine presence, then fire, and again no divine presence. Finally, there came a sound. Well? So the translator added: “the Lord was there!” It is just what we expected to hear from the narrator in the Hebrew Bible.
After the Greek, the second most important translation of the Hebrew Bible is known as the Peshitta, a translation into Syriac (eastern Aramaic) made before the end of the second century A.D. It translates the “sound of thin silence” as “a voice of gentle speaking.” The translator borrowed this expression from Deuteronomy 4:12 where Moses, while exhorting the Israelites, announced: “The Lord spoke to you from the midst of the fire and you heard a sound of words but you did not see any form, there was only a voice.” The Peshitta in Deuteronomy 4:12 rendered the Hebrew phrase, “a sound of words,” with “a sound of speaking” and the Syriac translator of 1 Kings 19:12 lifted that phrase out of Deuteronomy 4:12 to translate the “sound of thin silence.”
This solution reveals that the Peshitta translator of I Kings 19:12 recognized that Elijah’s presence at Mount Horeb parallels that of Moses (as many modern exegetes would agree). So, when perplexed by the phrase “a sound of thin silence,” the translator associated this event with the theophany on Mount Horeb reported in Deuteronomy 4:12. Both verses refer to fire (though in Deuteronomy 4:12 God is present in the fire), both occur on Mount Horeb, and both mention a voice. This clever interpretation informs the Peshitta’s audience that the sound that came to Elijah on Mount Horeb was the same voice that instructed Moses and the Israelites in Deuteronomy 4:12. This divine voice now speaks to Elijah.

Elijah after the sound of thin silence
The intuition of these ancient translators on the meaning and import of the “sound of thin silence” is confirmed by the events that ensue in the story. Elijah had fled to Horeb ready to give up and die. The extraordinary events in the home of the widow of Zarephath and on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 17-18) seemed long forgotten. But after the “sound of thin silence” Elijah moved outside the cave. “Why are you here?” God repeated, and Elijah again pleaded his cause. But then, without warning, new orders are announced and a new destination is given (1 Kgs 19:15): “Go back on your way to the wilderness of Damascus...” Even more surprising, Elijah responds immediately, setting out to fulfil the Lord’s command, just as he had in 1 Kings 17:5; 17:10 and 18:2. Where is the fugitive who ran away from Jezebel’s threat? That ineffable “sound of thin silence,” whatever it was, had set him back on his prophetic course.

A provocative oxymoron
The possibility that Elijah enjoyed a mystical encounter with God on Mount Horeb summons our curiosity. We want to know its details. But William James’ sober approach reminds us that such encounters are inherently “ineffable.” Human language is simply too inadequate to plummet the depths of a religious experience. Perhaps we wish the biblical narrator had been a bit more generous in reporting on Elijah’s experience of that “sound.” But to do so could have infringed on its ineffability. Instead, by teasing us with the oxymoron, “a sound of thin silence,” the biblical author provoked centuries of reflection.
Though the most ancient Bible translators clarified its meaning for their audiences—God had indeed been present in it—the “sound of thin silence” will remain an enigmatic phrase for modern Bible readers. But Elijah knew what it meant! Having heard that “sound,” our despairing hero was restored to the fiery prophet we once knew and would soon be on his way to a new destination. The plowing Elisha was about to meet his master.

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