The story of Elijah on Mount Horeb, which we hear read at Mass this week-end (the first reading appointed for the 19th Sunday of ordinary time, Year A) is so truncated that much of the intended meaning and significance is lost. On the other hand, the few sentences which we hear read are rich in meaning, for one who makes the effort to understand them and apply them to his or her own spiritual life. Again, I must wonder: How many of our parishioners make this kind of effort? In truth, I do not know, but few usually admit to “hearing the word” in what was read or proclaimed. If we are not attentive to the stirring of the silent Word, how do we tune in to God?
The excerpt is from chapter 19 of I Kings in the Hebrew Scriptures, and is part of the Elijah cycle which has been preserved for many centuries. Although chapter 19 does not stand alone, at least if one reads it closely, one should gain insights into what the anonymous author of the text is trying to communicate to his readers. Indeed, without reading the chapter in the original Hebrew, but in several respectable English translations, much comes across: chapter 19 of I Kings is, among other things, a profound insight into healthy spirituality. At the same time, it eclipses and surpasses the kinds of interpretations that one can receive from the stories of Moses on Mount Sinai. (Note: Sinai and Horeb are the same mountain, as named differently by the two Israelite kingdoms). Or in other words, the story of Elijah on Mount Horeb tells us what is especially significant in the Book of Exodus’ account of Moses on Mount Sinai. In reading the story of the Exodus, it is easy to become fascinated by the spectacular, and miss the “sound of silence,” the darkness and quiet in which God communicates Himself to Moses. It is precisely this kind of communion with the unknown God that comes to the fore in the story of Elijah on Horeb.
The prophet Elijah bears his name meaning “Yahweh is my God.” Elijah is the true successor to Moses—not the kings of Israel and Judah, and not various religious voices and practices that led the Chosen People into worship of false gods. What is at stake is the truth of God and the truth of human existence under and in God. The people have been led astray, deceived by the failed institutions of kingship and priesthood. The prophet Elijah becomes the one place where God breaks in and acts decisively—not a Temple or a king, however exalted. Elijah fled to Horeb, driven by his fear of death as threatened by Queen Jezebel; out of fear Elijah loses sight of his vocation as prophet. So in fear Elijah fled into the wilderness—away from political and priestly institutions—and sat to rest under a broom bush—a reference back to the bush out of which God addressed Moses in “the burning bush.” But now the angel of the LORD sends Elijah on a 40-day journey up to “the Mountain of God,” Horeb / Sinai.
On Mount Sinai / Horeb, Elijah hears the word of the LORD addressing him with the penetrating question:`Why are you here, Elijah?’” The fleeing prophet responds: “I am moved by zeal for Yahweh, the God of Hosts, for the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and put Your prophets to the sword. I alone am left, and they are out to take my life.” “Come out,” Yahweh called, “and stand on the mountain before YHWH.” And then “the LORD passed by,” with mighty wind, earthquake, and fire, but Yahweh was in none of these. “And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound [or, a still, small voice]. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his mantel about his face and went and stood at the entrance of the cave” (I Kgs 19, New JPS translation).