On Silence: A Midrash of Elijah

Most of us are familiar with the story of the prophet Elijah, who is particularly famous for his dramatic confrontation with the priests of Baal.  My favorite part of Elijah’s story comes after that, though, when he realizes that not much changed as a result of his demonstration of God’s power–the people are still worshiping idols, and the wife of the king has promised to assassinate him.  Elijah, despairing and suicidal, travels to Mt. Horeb (more famously known as Sinai, the same mountain on which the Lord appeared to Moses) and waits.  The voice of the Lord then comes to him and asks him a simple question:  “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

It’s easy to sense some frustration and anger in Elijah’s answer.  “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  Elijah is despondent, and wants to die.

Elijah is told then that the Lord is about to pass by.  Elijah looks out from the mountain and sees a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire.  God, we are told, is not in any of those, but is in the “still, small voice” that follows. This phrase, “the still, small voice” is used a lot in our common LDS discourse, everywhere from conference talks to hymns to testimony meetings.  We generally use it to refer to the subtle “pricking” of our hearts that signifies the influence of the Holy Ghost.  As the children’s songbook says, “Through a still small voice, the Spirit speaks to me; To guide me, to save me from the evil I may see.” I think this is indeed how the Spirit feels to us sometimes.

But I think there can be an even deeper and more interesting meaning in Elijah’s story, particularly if we consider alternative translations.  Consider how the NRSV renders this passage:

11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces 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; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (emphasis mine)

“A sound of sheer silence.”  It’s a strange sort of paradoxical statement, but one that is kind of fun to play with.  Elijah heard God’s silent speech.  The silence was God speaking to Elijah.

Silence is not always comfortable.  As any serious meditator will tell you, sitting in silence for an extended period of time is hard, sometimes brutally hard work.  The first time I tried to conduct a silent meditation exercise with teenagers, it was only about 30 seconds before I thought they were all going to jump out of their skins.  I remember when I was in graduate school, a professor of mine noticed (as she was observing me in session with a client) my propensity to fill moments of silence with nervous conversation, advice, or reassurance.  “Stop rescuing people from silence!” she admonished me.  I’ve come to realize the wisdom of that advice in the years since, even as I still struggle with it.  As modern-day humans, we often try to relieve the anxiety of silence with noise or shopping or the internet or other distractions.  It is in those times of silence, however, where we are left to wrestle with the reality of who we are, and what we really desire.  This is not a comfortable process, for most people, but I think it is a necessary one.

As for Elijah, we are left to wonder what he experienced in this moment, but we can imagine.  What I imagine God saying through the voice of silence is this:

What is for you here, Elijah, when all of your preconceived notions of who God is or how He speaks are torn to shreds?  Who are you here in the desert, when your sarcasm and righteous anger mean nothing, and where, unlike with Moses, the wind and fire and earthquake are empty?  Who will you be, in the absence of adoring crowds to praise your miracles? Is your pride so strong that you are truly willing to lay down and die, rather than give up this story you have of yourself as a prophet and miracle-worker?

And in those moments of God-infused silence in our own lives, I wonder if we might hear echos of the same questions.  Who are we, when we are left alone with our fears, our hopes, our desires, and all our worldly accomplishments mean nothing? Who are we when God’s presence seems to provide no comfort or direction? What is for us here, in the place where our stories of how we should be cut us off from what God would make of us?

Who are we in the silence?

15 comments for “On Silence: A Midrash of Elijah

  1. Clark Goble
    June 26, 2017 at 12:04 pm

    Great post. That always reminds me of the silence in 3 Nephi 10:1 where there’s this silence for hours after Christ speaks. (Admittedly despite strong similarities to the Elijah passage the inverting of the speaking/silence probably is significant)

    There is a bit of controversy on how to translate that phrase. The NIV for instance give “a gentle whisper” or NASB “a gentle blowing.” I think many prefer the latter due to its connection to John 3:8 “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (NRSV)

    But I think you highlight well a part that doesn’t get mentioned when people use this to start talking about the Holy Ghost as the still small voice. It’s not the silence or whisper that is the message. It’s after that noise/silence that Elijah then hear’s God’s voice. The whisper or silence leads Elijah to wrap his face and go to the cave entrance to hear God.

  2. June 26, 2017 at 12:43 pm

    Very nice and interesting post!

    I’ve been working for a year now at a Quaker university and I love love love their focus on silence, and the norm in deliberative meetings to try to not repeat what has said before, and to allow for long pauses between speakers (to gather your thoughts and say something only if it adds to the conversation, and to say it in a clear, concise, considerate, and impactful way, etc., etc.)

  3. Marc Bohn
    June 26, 2017 at 12:46 pm

    Beautiful post. Strongly brought to mind Mother Teresa’s struggle with silence revealed in: Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta: “[But] as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see,–Listen and do not hear–the tongue moves [in prayer] but does not speak … I want you to pray for me–that I let Him have [a] free hand.”

  4. James C. Olsen
    June 26, 2017 at 5:14 pm

    Brought to mind three things:
    1. Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, which portrays silence as a positive phenomenon of language. Silence speaks volumes, just as words do.
    2. Working with faculty across disciplines, one of the most difficult things to do is develop an ability to wield silence as a tool. Silence is both epistemically and socially productive in part because it’s psychologically so hard to bear.
    3. All the great songs about silence (Silence is Golden, The Sounds of Silence, Enjoy the Silence, etc.).

  5. Gary
    June 26, 2017 at 11:00 pm

    An insightful post and a provocative closing question. I have been thinking about this all day. I am still not sure how to answer but maybe that was your point. Thank you.

  6. DavidH
    June 27, 2017 at 1:16 am

    The silence of God was something Pope Benedict has spoken on more than once. http://www.trappists.org/pope-benedict-xvi-teachings-silence

  7. Bryan in VA
    June 27, 2017 at 5:15 am

    Several years ago I took a two-day negotiating skills class through my employer. The instructor mentioned that it is known internationally that Americans are uncomfortable with silence during negotiations and will therefore not respond immediately during a negotiating session with American counterparts, in the hopes of creating an uncomfortable lull. The desire would be that the American side will divulge additional details during the silent pause.

  8. Moss
    June 27, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    Thank you, Michelle.

  9. June 27, 2017 at 2:23 pm

    Reminds me of an Anechoic Chamber. Basically a room that absorbs sound so well that it can drive you mad.

  10. June 28, 2017 at 5:24 pm

    A few months ago I found myself sitting in silence in a Buddhist temple within the Ajanta Cave Complex in India. I was with a delightful guide named Kavi who had us sit in silence and darkness for several moments, then she asked us “Do you hear the silence?” There was an ambient sound within the cave, and I nodded yes. She smiled and replied “It is said that enlightenment happens when you can hear the silence of God.”

  11. June 29, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    I recall that one of my best sales managers used to tell us, “Say your piece and shut up. First one to speak loses.” Crude and adversarial as that sounds, there’s some truth to it, similar to what Michelle’s professor told her; we all occasionally need silence – and we need to give others some silence – to be able to process thoughts and let the Spirit work with us. (I dare not say “ponderize” with this audience! :) )

  12. Ben H
    July 3, 2017 at 11:40 pm

    I love your reading of this passage, Michelle. Elijah clearly had some soul-searching to do, even as far as he already had come in his faith and so on. The silence confronts him in a way that all the big action may conceal.

    This is one of my favorite passages too. Maybe you’ll enjoy a post I did thinking about it a few years back.

  13. Clark Goble
    July 4, 2017 at 8:41 pm

    James, not just Heidegger but semiotics in general. The classic example is Sherlock Holmes’ observation about the dog that didn’t bark. It comes up in lots of weird places.

  14. Joe N
    July 9, 2017 at 6:41 pm

    Michelle, you rock. I enjoyed reading this. I love me some Old Testament. I find it impressive that he did find God in the silence. That’s a tough ask.

  15. July 9, 2017 at 10:43 pm

    Nice post that puts lots of hmmmmm into the minds of your readers. At least mine. Everytime I read something about Elijah I can’t help but think of Thomas Brodie’s incredible analysis of how so much of the New Testament paradigm of Jesus is due to the influence of the Old Testament literary materials in the Elijah-Elishah stories. “The Birthing of the New Testament,” is one of the more significant texts of Brodie’s works discussing how important Elijah was to the creation of the New Testament images of Jesus. The other thing that entered my mind was Diarmaid MacCulloch’s “Silence A Christian History,” a provocative book on both the good and bad in silence throughout history. The good when one remains quiet to get to understand God better, the other bad if one is silent over evil. I enjoyed reading your post, thank you.

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