Lesson 28: “After the Fire a Still Small Voice” #BCCSundaySchool2018

This lesson takes up the stories of Elijah from 1 Kings 17-19: the drought, God feeding him in the wilderness, his meeting with the Widow of Zarephath and her son, his encounter with the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel, and his encounter with Yahweh at Mount Horeb. Elijah is something of a paradigmatic prophet, so I’ll focus the discussion (somewhat in the spirit of Abraham Joshua Heschel) on questions of what these texts can teach us about a prophet’s relationship to God—and, crucially, what kind of relationship these prophetic stories call us to have with God.

I’ve long loved the story of God sending ravens to feed Elijah in the wilderness, even as the available water source dried up. This could be a good opportunity for class members to discuss their experiences of God’s faithfulness to them in hard times. You might ask who the ravens were that God sent, and how we might put ourselves in position to be those ravens for others.

The story of the widow of Zarephath rests on the ethically tricky nature of Elijah’s proposition. I’d urge sitting with the ethical dilemma before rushing on to the inevitable conclusion of how great it was that she had enough faith to follow the prophet. The story works out in the end, but the widow couldn’t have known that at first. Her life, and the life of her child, are at stake: Elijah is, on the surface, asking them to choose between staving death off for one more day or accepting death now. This is not a light request. It’s easy for us to read this story from a place of smug self-congratulation: of course I have the faith to follow the prophet when the prophet says challenging things that happen to align with my political ideology, while those schmucks over there are just lousy cafeteria Mormons who don’t have the faith to make sacrifices when the prophet demands something that runs counter to what they think.

A deeper, more troubling issue is the facility with which this text can be leveraged to abusive ends and used to urge sacrifice on those who cannot afford it while protecting the comfort of those who might more easily bear the cost. Elijah was also on the point of starvation when he approached the widow’s door; he had even less than she did. He was testing her hospitality, that core value of the ancient world. I’d suggest that following her example has more to do with our willingness to help the stranger in need, no matter our circumstances, than with obedience to prophets. Elijah was not playing mind-games with her about his own authority; rather, he was calling her to live into what is arguably the central ethical demand of the Hebrew scriptures. This is a story about charity more than it is about obedience. It’s the kind of thing that Paul might have had in mind when he wrote in Romans 13 about love fulfilling the law.

If this reading of mine has any weight, it raises the question of how prophetic authority works. I’d argue that reading the story as primarily being about a test of her willingness to honor prophetic authority misconstrues it. Elijah does offer the prophetic promise that her flour and oil will not run out, but the question is whether she’ll trust God more than whether she’ll trust him. After all, Elijah is appealing to an ethic—hospitality—that she can be expected to know: she mentions God before Elijah does. Elijah is a prophet because of the way that he helps her live into what she already believes, even though it seems impossible, not because he makes impossible demands to test her fidelity. The hard demand here came from God first and only secondarily from him.

The lesson title emphasizes the “still small voice” of Elijah’s encounter with God at Horeb, and the lesson manual suggests that God communicates more often by quiet means than by spectacular displays of power. Even so, today’s readings contain one of the most famous displays of divine power in scripture. What purpose do such displays serve, given that they are not the norm (in my experience, at least)? What are our motives now in telling such stories? Perhaps in addressing this question it might be useful to focus on Elijah’s mockery of the priests of Baal in 1 Kings 18:27. It’s a complex moment. One the one hand, well, Yahweh is God and Baal isn’t. On the other hand, ridiculing people who believe differently than we do once again risks complacency and noxious self-congratulation. I’m not saying that Elijah is complacent here; only that we risk being so in the way that we take up this text. I mean, who doesn’t love watching “the other side” take a drubbing? I’d favor using class discussion of this story to examine our tendency to cheer for whatever team we perceive ourselves to be on while disparaging others. Can we be right without being jerks about it?

And can we talk about Elijah killing the priests of Baal? I don’t have much to say other than registering my discomfort. Still, there’s a sharp contrast between Elijah’s intervening to save the lives of the widow and her son in the previous chapter and the wholesale slaughter in this one. I’m not saying that we should just bluntly dismiss the violence here as the product of an outdated morality, but we shouldn’t be too hasty to justify it either. So, I’m advocating that we sit with the discomfort.

Finally, let’s talk about that “still small voice,” or “a sound of sheer silence,” as the NRSV renders it. Notwithstanding the manual’s articulation of Mormonism’s normative expectation that spiritual communication will be quiet rather than spectacular, I think it’s safe to say that Mormonism doesn’t have much of a developed contemplative tradition. We tend to privilege action: reading scriptures, saying prayers, attending the temple, obeying the commandments. Each of these practices has contemplative components, or at least can, and I suspect that we often enjoin them for contemplative reasons, even though we don’t really say as much. I’d invite the class to discuss their own contemplative practices. Finding quiet in our lives in 2018 can be hard, with the incessant buzzing of smartphones, the call of another great show to binge-watch on Netflix, and 10,000 other features of our modern world. Still, it’s not like this is a new problem. St. Benedict fled Rome in search of quiet some 1500 years ago, and many Desert Fathers and Mothers preceded him. Jesus himself moved back and forth between the wilderness and the city. What are we doing now, and what else could we do, to keep that still small voice part of our lives?

Returning to the question of what this story says about prophetic authority, it’s fairly commonplace to perceive a tension between prophetic speech in the current institutional vein and the vagaries of private revelation. Overvaluing institutional speech risks turning the Holy Ghost—a member of the Godhead, after all—into a rubber stamp. But, as a friend of mine once said, the Holy Ghost doesn’t drive a minivan. Or, as Jesus said, the Spirit blows where it lists. Who are we to presume limitations on what the Spirit can reveal to us? That said, I think that this lesson goes some way toward resolving that tension, especially if we read prophetic authority less as an end unto itself than as the byproduct of what happens when someone calls us to live more fully into our relationship with God and our fellow human beings. In that sense, I’ll echo Moses in saying: “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!” (Numbers 11:29).

Related BCC content

LaShawn Williams-Schultz, “Are We Listening?”

Steve Evans, “Tesserae of My Faith”

Jason K., “Simple Gifts”

Jason K., Kurosawa’s Guidebook to the Bureaucratic Church

Comments

  1. Before we ascribe too much injustice to the killing of the priests of Baal, remember that Jezebel had been killing the prophets of the Lord, probably at the behest of, but certainly for the benefit of, those priests of Baal. We might think tit-for-tat is revenge, but that’s what justice was in the Mosaic law.

    I like the thoughts on contemplation, but Elijah had had years of time to contemplate, both by the brook being fed by ravens and at the widows home. I interpret the story of the “still small voice” to be demonstrating that the hearts of mankind can only be turned through the promptings of the Holy Ghost, to which they must be receptive. Elijah’s converts from the miracle he performed weren’t greatly changed — or at least, they certainly weren’t going to protect him when Jezebel sought to kill him. Miracles alone don’t convert. It sounds like Elijah thought himself a failure and he was shortly replaced by Elisha. I’ve always wondered what was accomplished at the big showdown. Maybe the miracle shocked some of the people out of complacency enough that it gave the Holy Spirit an opportunity to start working on them.

  2. Justice under the Law of Moses was never just the lex talionis, but also included care for the poor, the widow, and the stranger. I mean, Jesus was quoting Leviticus when he told us to love our neighbors as ourselves. All I’m saying is that we should sit with this tension before making peace too readily with mass slaughter.

    I like the idea that Elijah considered himself a failure. I can relate to that.

  3. Not a Cougar says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong but wasn’t Zarephath outside the borders of Israel? If so, doesn’t that give the story an extra bit of weird flavor? Imagine a GA asking a Baptist to sacrifice something serious for the GA’s direct benefit.

  4. Ryan Mullen says:

    I love the stories of Elijah, particularly the abundant connections between Elijah’s contest and the Canaanite pantheon. Elijah dramatically demonstrates that Yahweh is greater than El (the bull), Asherah (the wood), Yam (the water), Mot (death), and Baal (lightning).

    But the stories of Elijah do little for me devotionally. I do not expect God to send ravens to feed me, or lightning to start my fires. Your post sparked the thought that perhaps I am not supposed to read myself into Elijah’s role, but rather into the ways that Elijah receives aid. I can give food to the hungry like the ravens. I can provide comfort to the lonely like the 7,000. I can validate faith like the lightning. I can multiply the efforts of others like the flour and oil.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post in a great series.

  5. Geoff - Aus says:

    Thanks for the work you put into these lessons.

  6. You’re welcome.

  7. This was great, Jason. A thought-provoking take on some of my favorite old testament passages.