Quoth the King James:
1Kin 19:9And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah?I’m sort of on hiatus at church from teaching – I’m sitting in on a small group with my wife which is lead by a friend of the family who is, frankly, a very straightforward bible teacher. He doesn’t really teach verse-by-verse, but he does teach passage by passage, and the passage he was on this weekend was the above section if 1Kings.
10And he said, I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.
11And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks 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:
12And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
13And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And, behold, there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?
Now, as we were reading this passage, I realized something: nobody in the class was using the KJV. That’s not a crime, but in the NIV verse 12 reads thus:
After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.Not much of a difference, is it? Yeah, probably not. But in the NASB it reads thus:
After the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of a gentle blowing.And the ESV renders it thus:
And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.And the accompanying note says the low whisper could be “Or a sound, a thin silence”.
Now, if that’s not enough (and for most normal people, that’s plenty), the “Baptists” who produced the Holman Christian Standard Bible render the passage in this way:
And after the fire there was a voice, a soft whisper.So it drives a blogger to wonder: what’s up with that?
Let’s be honest: the Hebrew word that’s getting interpreted here is, by a longshot, most often used to connote “voice” – Like in Genesis 3:8, or Exodus 4:1, or Psalm 81:11. But there’s an interesting use of the word which is also common, like you find in Psalm 77:18 – “The voice of thy thunder [was] in the heaven; the lightnings lightened the world; the earth trembled and shook.” Or Psalm 93:3-4 (which you can view in the pop-up window). That is, it’s the use of “voice” to mean “sound” or “murmuring” – as the ESV points out.
And as astute readers of TeamPyro, I am sure you are asking by this point, “yeah, so what? Point?”
My point is this: beware of the still, small voice translation. I’m going to go out on a limb here as say that many of you think of this verse in the KJV rendering, and when you think of where Elijah knew the Lord was present, you think of him hearing a “still, small voice” which all decent Baptists grow up thinking is the voice of conscience, or an internal voice of reason.
That interpretation of this passage is complete fiddle-faddle.
Look: we have to read what the Bible actually says and not what we’d like it to say. And in 1 Kings 19, Elijah is on the mountain of God, and God speaks to him, asking him, “What doest thou here, Elijah?” Not “what doth thou here” but “What doo-est thou here, Elijah?” What are you doing here?
See: Elijah is fleeing from Jezebel who has threatened his life – running away from this woman whose prophets he has slain and whose god Elijah has made into a mockery. But she has threatened to kill him for being so bold for God’s sake, and Elijah turned tail and ran.
Let’s be fair: he ran to God on God’s mountain and didn’t do what Jonah did, but he ran in the face of danger. And God wants to know what the prophet – who has seen the fire come down out of heaven, and has seen the rain come after 3 years, and has just run faster than a chariot – is doing hiding in the mountain. Or rather, what he thinks he is doing here.
And Elijah’s a little snippy, if you ask me. He says, “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”(ESV) That is, “I did what you told me to do, and not only did it amount to nothing, but now the people you were trying to save are trying to kill me.” The implicit subtext is, “thanks a lot, Yahweh Lord of Hosts.”
But to show Elijah what’s going on, God says, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” Personally, I wouldn’t have done it because after snarking God Almighty, I’d be afraid that he’d snuff me out like a bug because I deserved it, then he’d find a new prophet with a little more bone than butter for a spine. But Elijah goes out and he sees a series of natural disasters coming before the LORD: there’s a wind like a tornado, and an earthquake, and then a fire – but God wasn’t in any of them.
Let me repeat: God wasn’t in any of the IMAX-like catastrophes Elijah witnessed. God was in what came next – which the KJV and many of these other translations render as a “still, small voice”.
Before I explain why the “voice” translation here is bad on its face, let’s consider something: should we think about the writers of Scripture as literary hacks or as fellas who were at least moderately-literate writers? I’m sure that anyone reading this might say, just to be ornery, “I have no idea, cent: God can use anybody to write His word since it’s His word they’re writing.”
Well, OK, if you want to play that way, do you then think that God Himself is a hack writer, or is God at least aware of the basics of how language works? Yeah, I thought so: in reading the Bible, we ought to assume that the author is at least a moderately literate person.
Why is that important? Because, unlike me, a moderately-literate person doesn’t mix up his metaphors. Here’s what I mean: in what God is showing Elijah here, God has constructed a metaphor for the problem(s) Elijah perceives in the way things are turning out.
Elijah is able to see the gale-force wind of Jezebel’s threats, right? They’re very scary – she’s a lot like Yzma in the Emperor’s New Groove except she’s a little more efficient, and when she intends to have someone (Elijah) killed, she’s not going to send Kronk out to do it. And Elijah is able to see the cataclysm in the destruction of the holy places by Israel – that this kind of turning away from God is an earth-shattering development for the sons of Jacob. And the fire of infidelity to the covenant of God – Elijah sees that. But where is God?
Isn’t that man’s question all the time: “Where are you, God? This stuff that I see: it’s scary and it stinks, and I feel like you are abandoning me even though I’m your guy.” And we think to ourselves: “What have you done for me lately, God, if in fact that is your name?”
But God comes in this thing the KJV renders “a still small voice” – which I suggest to you is better rendered (due to the literary consideration that God is here dealing in natural events and not a puppet show) – “a still small sound”. Not a thunderclap; not the roar of an earthquake; not the crackling of a great fire: a still, small sound.
That is: the work of God is not always rendered in Panavision by Cecil B. DeMille – the work of God is what it is, and can be manifest in the smallest things, and we must be faithful to “get it” when it finally comes to full fruit.
Because look at the rest of 1 Kings 12 - God hasn’t forsaken Israel. The prophet has to go and anoint a new king for Syria, and a new king for Israel, and a new prophet to replace himself – all to pronounce judgment on the wickedness Elijah has witnessed.
What Elijah witnesses from the cave is not a prophetic voice in the still, small sound: he has witnessed that God does not have to be rendered in 72pt caps to still be in control of things.
The point of this passage in not “God is with us in our consciences”: the point of this passage is “God is in control all the time, even when he doesn’t do what we would have done.” You like the rendering “voice” better? You might – it has a certain flavor. But then you have to read the rest of the chapter and explain to the rest of us why God would express this object lesson to Elijah as if he didn’t know how to say what he intended to say.