A Still Small Voice?

In 1 Kings 19:12, the story of the mighty Yahweh speaking to His prophet Elijah in a “still small voice” in the aftermath of a great storm has stirred the imaginations of squishy clergy of all traditions. Much has been made of the contrast between the gentle God quelling Elijah’s fears on Mr.Horeb, with the imposing God revealing himself to Israel on the same mountain. But to some, what is literary contrast is inconsistency and, where not explained, triggers skepticism. And nowhere, in neither the verse nor its context is this inconsistent view of God explained. Why does the divine author portray God as speaking in a “still small voice” contra everywhere else in the Bible?  Unexplained, the story has become an empty vessel into which countless clergy, Bible study teachers, and readers have poured their own meaning into the story.

Let’s take a closer look at this verse, 1 Kings 19:12, and see what’s really going on. The RSV translates the verse as follows:

and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice

First some context. In this verse, the prophet Elijah is hiding in a cave hoping to escape Queen Jezebel who is out to kill him. Upon hearing the voice in the cave, Elijah runs to the entrance of the cave where God asks, “What are you here for, Elijah?” Elijah answers that he is hiding because his “zealousness for the LORD” has angered Queen Jezebel and much of Israel who now seek his death.

But is this how God intended this text to be understood? Does He really want to leave us with the impression that He sometimes presents Himself quietly, modestly, with subtlety. Here is the Hebrew from which “a still small voice” is translated,

  ק֖וֹל דְּמָמָ֥ה דַקָּֽה (qol d’mamah daqqah)

A closer look at the translation of this verse is problematic, to say the least. Consider:

  1. While the Hebrew word ‘qol’ can mean ‘voice’ or ‘sound’, it can also mean ‘thunder’ or ‘thunderous voice’ depending on context. When qol is used elsewhere in the Bible, notably in the context of a storm theophany (God appearing during a storm) qol is always translated as “thunderous voice” or “roaring sound”. (e.g., Exodus 19:16). How reasonable is it that this text, a direct parallel to the storm theophany of Exodus, be translated as “small or quiet”?
  2. What about the other words? The Hebrew word mamah, translated as ‘quiet’, ‘whisper’, or ‘still’ actually stems from the Hebrew word damim meaning ‘roared’. Likewise daqqah is often interpreted figuratively to mean small. But, the literal meaning of daqqah is to crush – which, of course, is a way of making big things small.

With these facts in mind, a better translation should surely suggest images of thunder, roaring, and crushing – anything but still, small, or quiet!  So, instead of “a still small voice“, I would argue that the divine author more likely meant for us to understand that upon hearing a roaring, thunderous voice Elijah covered his head in fear and ran out of the cave (1 Kings 19:13).  Here, now, is the new translation:

“and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a roaring, thunderous voice.”

But, if this is all there is, so what? What theological difference does this make?

In this story, Elijah is (was) competing with the worshippers of Baal.  Where Baal speaks thunder, i.e., his voice is the thunder, God speaks thunderous words. The divine author is drawing a very clear, sharp contrast between Baal (thunder) and God (the maker of thunder). Where Baal was (is) the storm, God is the maker of the storm. Storms and fire and earthquake are gods to the worshippers of Baal, but these ‘gods’ are depicted in the Bible, and here in 1 Kings, as preceding our God. Moreover, our God speaks words and we listen, learn, and obey. Baal is simply thunder from which we flee or take cover. What a difference between worshipping the storm and the Maker of the storm – between worshipping the creature and the Creator!

NOTE: Genesis 3:8 is similarly misunderstood in much the same way. Take some time and read my tanslation and commentary here.

Now, go and study

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