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If the Museum Won’t Come to the Mountain, Then the Mountain Will Come to the Museum, Pt. 3

Ahab told Jezebel about everything that had taken place. He told her how Elijah had executed all the prophets of Ba’al with a sword, and she became furious. Jezebel sent an urgent message to Elijah. “May the gods kill me and worse, if I haven’t killed you the way you killed their priests by this time tomorrow. Your end is near, Elijah.” Terrified, Elijah quickly ran for his life. He traveled the length of Israel and finally arrived at Beersheba, in Judah. He left his young servant there and then went into the desert another day’s journey. He came to a lone broom tree and collapsed in its shade, wanting to be done with it all—to just die. Elijah cried, “Enough of this, GOD! Take my life—I’m ready to join my ancestors in the grave!” Exhausted, he fell asleep. While he was sleeping, a heavenly messenger came and instructed Elijah to “Get up and eat!” He looked around and, to his surprise, right by his head were a loaf of bread baked on some coals and a jug of water. He ate the meal and went back to sleep. The heavenly messenger visited Elijah again—shaking him awake and saying “Get up and eat some more—you’ve got a long journey ahead of you.” He got up, ate and drank his fill, and set out. Nourished by that meal, he walked forty days and nights, all the way to Mount Horeb—the mountain of GOD. When he got there, he crawled into a cave and went to sleep. Then the word of GOD spoke to him saying, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Elijah answered, “I have been very zealous for GOD—working my heart out—but the people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed your altars, and murdered your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and now they’re trying to kill me.” The ETERNAL ONE responded, “Leave this cave, and go stand on the mountainside in my presence.” Then, a mighty wind separated the mountains and crumbled every stone—but this was not a divine wind, because GOD was not within the wind. After the wind, an earthquake shook the whole earth—but this was not a divine quake, because GOD was not within the earthquake. After the earthquake was over, there was a fire—but this was not a divine fire, because GOD was not within the fire. After the fire, the sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then the word of GOD spoke to him saying, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” Elijah answered, “I have been very zealous for GOD—working my heart out—but the people of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed your altars, and murdered your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and now they’re trying to kill me.” The ETERNAL ONE responded, “Go back through the desert to Damascus. When you get there anoint Elisha son of Shaphat to succeed you as prophet. And, you’re not alone. There are 7,000 Israelites who have not bowed down to Ba’al or kissed his image.”

1 Kings 19:1-18

Following what he thought would surely be a huge win for GOD—a righteous and religious triumph over the prophets of Ba’al and Asherah—Elijah instead finds himself running for his life. He's forced to flee the length of Israel. Going even further into the wilderness, Elijah ultimately collapses under a tree. Exhausted and depressed, he asks GOD to kill him. Incidentally, the symbol for the goddess Asherah was a tree. The Canaanite religious tradition, in which the Israelites comingled, recognized Asherah as the bountiful, sustaining, nourishing mother and tree of life. In a somewhat ironic storytelling twist, after murdering the prophets of Asherah, Elijah collapses, asks to die, and is instead sustained and nourished back to health by a heavenly messenger—

all underneath a tree.

And the allusions don’t stop with Asherah. There are other dots we’re meant to connect. Elijah’s story is filled with details that point to another prophet—one who knew a thing or two about mountains and change—Moses. The storyteller clearly wants to bring Moses to mind. In fact, there are over a dozen parallels connecting the stories of Elijah and Moses.

  • Moses kills an Egyptian and ends up on the run from Pharaoh. Elijah kills Jezebel’s prophets and ends up on the run from the queen.

  • Both Moses and Elijah had people worshiping other gods put to death.

  • Moses flees to the wilderness and stops at a burning bush. Elijah flees to the wilderness and stops at a sustaining tree.

  • Moses spent 40 days and nights on Mount Horeb. Elijah travels 40 days and nights to the same mountain.

  • Both Moses and Elijah end up in a cave or cleft on that mountain.

  • And both Moses and Elijah experience overpowering and forceful displays of nature—storms and wind, earthquakes, and fire.

Friends, these are not small, historically recorded details. These are storytelling clues that are meant to jump off the page or jolt us awake. These clues are flashing lights—telling us to pay attention and watch for the change. That change is in the storms and wind, the earthquakes and fire.

Or rather, it isn’t.

In the curated and conserved tradition of Moses, GOD was in the storms and earthquakes that rattled the earth and the fire that dwelled on the mountain. But here, now, on the same mountain, Elijah experiences the storm, the earthquake, and the fire, and the presence of GOD is in none of it. Three times, the story declares that things have changed. GOD is not in the earthquake. GOD is not in the fire. GOD is not in the storm. GOD is no longer present in these destructive forces. As theologian Walter Brueggemann states, “The bombastic is no longer an adequate vehicle for GOD.” The Canaanite god Ba’al—he was bombastic. Ba’al was the storm god—capable of great destruction and violence. To the Ba’al worshipers that Elijah killed, god was in the destructive forces. Even Moses and the enslaved people delivered from Egypt believed GOD to be in the storm. To all these people, GOD was in the earthquake and the fire. But not here—not for Elijah. Something is different now. Elijah finds GOD—not in the storm—but in “the sound of sheer silence”—what’s often poetically translated as “the still small voice.” The belief that GOD dwells in the destructive force—a belief shared by the prophets of Ba’al and by Elijah—a belief that caused Elijah to kill 850 people in his own bombastic display—no longer fits. GOD is not there. The ETERNAL ONE is in the silence.

GOD is in the stillness—not the bombastic.


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