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What You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know about the “Still Small Voice” Could Fill A Blog Post

blm40Today we have a recently engaged guest Blogger. John Donnelly is a Biblical Literacy Ministries Educator, Church Planter, & Part-year missionary to India. John has a Master’s in Old Testament Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and is nearly finished with a Masters degree in New Testament studies from the same.

Have you ever read something in the Bible and thought that it makes no sense? Or had a hard time picturing it? Sometimes it can be hard to get the story details to jive in your mind.

The problem often lies in the fact that we have preconceived pictures in our mind from years of Bible studies or even Sunday school lessons (Curse those flannel graphs and cartoon coloring pages!!!) and no matter what the details are in the text or known history the picture is unshakable because that’s what we’ve locked onto mentally and emotionally.

Unfortunately, those pictures are not shared by the inspired writer. Between his world and his story and our world and our reading of this story there stands gulfs. Gulfs like time, history, language and culture must be bridged in order for us in our world to understand the communication of him in his world.

Today I want to look at a text that most Christians have heard or read many times over the course of their lives. And that is the text containing the phrase “a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) in many of our English translations including the King James which made it so popular for the English readers over the last 400 years.

I would venture that the still small voice is many Christian’s favorite phrases… God coming to us in the quiet of our souls, whispering to us inwardly, nudging us so gently in the direction we should take. It’s touching, really. The question is whether this is what’s actually happening in the story, or whether something totally other is being misconstrued for us by others.

We will have to take a look at some Hebrew words and grammar in order to understand what the author of this verse is actually trying to communicate, but first, let’s take a look at what is happening in the life of the prophet that brings him to this moment when God apparently speaks to him in a still small voice on a mountain a long way from his home.

Elijah has just had an incredible encounter with God and with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. In a contest of divine power, the God of Israel has shown Himself mighty and Baal has shown himself not at all. The outcome is that the Prophets are slaughtered and YHWH is seen as victor and more powerful then Baal by all the people present that day.[1]

Jezebel the wife of the King of Israel becomes enraged at this and searches for Elijah to have him killed, for she was a worshiper of Baal. Elijah unexpectedly fears for his life (unexpected by me anyway) and flees into the wilderness and cries out to God that he is all alone in Israel and only he obeys the Lord. God then commands him to go to the mountain in the south.

At the mountain, something akin to a storm theophany occurs[2] as God rips the mountain to pieces with powerful winds, earthquake and fire (lightening?) and thereafter speaks to Elijah ” a still small voice.” (1 Kings 19:12). Elijah’s reaction to hearing this voice is to cover his face and to go out to meet with God. God tells Elijah to go back to the North anoint some kings and Elisha to essentially follow in his footsteps to finish off the rest of the child-murdering Baal worshipers. He also promises Elijah that he is not, in point of fact, alone. God has 7000 faithful servants who have not polluted themselves with pagan worship.

Elijah does as he is commanded and within a few chapters he is taken from the earth in a whirlwind and snatched away like Enoch apparently was. (Genesis 5:24)

Okay, so, there’s a broad look at the context of our supposed “still small voice.”

So my question for us is, “Does this make sense in context—A “still small voice” in a storm theophany leading to a judgment against Israel and end of ministry instructions, followed by a replacement (possible judgement of Elijah) and snatching away?”

No, not to me at least. I see Elijah’s reaction to this voice as one of fear and trembling, covering his face, which is consistent with all other storm theophanies. In fact, it makes so little sense to me, that I wasn’t surprised to learn that the translation of the Hebrew behind the KJV “still small voice” is highly questionable, if not completely misleading.

So what’s the issue?

Well to cut right to it without all the technical jargon which can be found in several other places,[3] the issue has to do with the meaning of a few words in 1 Kings 19:12.

First off, the word voice in Hebrew can be understood and translated as Voice, Thunder, or Sound… not often appealed to for quiet conversation.

Secondly, the word behind “still,” here, can mean either “quiet” or “wailing.” Weird, I know, but that’s the beauty of language in the Ancient near east. Then again, we say BAD and mean either, well…. bad, or super awesome cool. We in New England have phrases like wicked good. So who are we to complain.

Thirdly, the Hebrew word behind “small,” here, can mean, “to make small” or “to crush grind or pound.”

So, given that 1. this event happens during a storm theophany 2. causes Elijah to cover his face before venturing out, and 3. results in a judgment of the land for murderous pagan worship… which would be a more likely rendition in English of this Hebrew Phrase?

Still small voice?

Or something quite possible grammatically which is consistent with what we see happening on the mountain. Fire, wind, earthquake… “A wailing crushing voice.”

This is, certainly, a Mt- Sinai-like experience for Elijah, and the author is letting us know that. There are many parallels in this story with Moses that we should be picking up. In a future post we will look in more depth at these Mosaic associations and their meaning. Stay tuned and thanks for reading.


[1] Don’t pity them too badly, they were mass murderers all. “One may question that those ancient enemies of Israel were as evil as the Bible claims that they were, but even a superficial glance at Canaanite religion alone ably demonstrates their iniquity. Base sex worship was prevalent, and religious prostitution even commanded; human sacrifice was common; and it was a frequent practice–in an effort to placate their gods–to kill young children and bury them in the foundations of a house or public building at the time of construction. Howard E. Vos, “An Introduction To Bible Archaeology” Revised ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1953) pp. 17-19.

[2] A theophany is anytime God appears in any form. A storm theophany is when God appears enshrouded in storm, like on the day he comes down on Mount Sinai in Exodus.

[3] Geoffrey Niehaus, God at Sinai, pp. 247-248.

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