He said: Go out, establish yourself in the mountain toward the face(s) of the God Whose Name is Mercy. Look: the God Whose Name is Mercy crossing over: and a breath, great and mighty, tearing away the mountains shattering cliffs toward the face(s) of the God Whose Name is Mercy. Not in the breath, the God Whose Name is Mercy. Behind the breath: earthquake. Not in earthquake, the God Whose Name is Mercy. Behind the earthquake: fire. Not in fire, the God Whose Name is Mercy. Behind the fire: voice of sudden silence, crushed to dust.
A few short comments on Elijah and the God whose voice is sudden crushing silence. These comments come from a book I am writing: No, God Did Not Have a Plan To Kill My Sister with ALS.
Listen slowly to the story of Elijah hiding in the cave. The triumph over the prophets of Ba’al ended in headlong flight. Not what you might have expected. Shouldn’t such a clear demonstration of Divine activity have settled the matter? Apparently not. And now Elijah, that prototypical speaker for God (prophet, nabi), sits abandoned, hiding in a cave. Wind there was, and earthquake, and fire. For all the destructive power of those forces of nature, God was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. And then comes a translation problem. The usual English texts say next there came a “still, small voice.” It is a lovely phrase, and I am glad that a translator composed it.
But that is not what the Hebrew says. The Hebrew is, to my eye, difficult to render. There is a voice (qol) in the text. And there is silence, in fact, a “thin silence,” whatever that means. This is hard to translate. I do not know what a “thin silence” might be, but I love what it suggests: this is not a pregnant pause, full of poignance. It is thin and empty.
But the word for “thin” also means “small” (hence the still [silent] SMALL voice). But it means “small” as in “crushed into tiny pieces.” That opens the door to a translation that hears only a crushing silence. Again, this is a powerful image. There are thunderous silences in the world. The absence of sound can be deafening. And it can crush you.
But the problems go further: the “smallness” can also imply “suddenness,” as in “the silence erupted immediately, after a space of time too small to measure.” As before, we know such moments, when everyone, and everything, becomes, not deaf, but speechless.
And the task of proper translating is to somehow catch all of this. Original audiences, having learned Hebrew from their mother’s lullabies, would have heard these notes in Elijah’s silent scene. When I translate this scene, I render it as a “voice of sudden silence, crushed to dust.” I don’t know for sure what that means, but I recognize how it feels. And I think it renders how Elijah feels.
Even though the Divine Voice has never rattled human eardrums, God’s durable silence is a problem. We find ways to fill the silence.No, God Did Not Have a Plan to Kill My Sister with ALS, Richard W. Swanson (in process)
We should think about our need to find ways to fill the silence that is God’s voice. We should think about our need because our discomfort with the actual silence of God is significant. It is always a good thing to recognize, name, and track our discomfort because discomfort makes us do things that are sometimes destructive, or at least unhelpful. We should think about our need because our discomfort leads us to invent a very noisy God who is as uncomfortable in actual silence as we are.
And because we are inventing this God, we invent a God who says exactly what we want God to say. That God says exactly what we would say, perhaps with a more resonant voice, and with a certainty that we wish we ourselves had.
That God rushes and thunders and roasts. On cue. In directions and with outcomes we would choose.
In these days after the death of John Lewis, a man who dared to stand up in the silence that preceded the snarls of police dogs and the sirens and the crack of police batons, we would do well to imagine the silence he heard just before the violence was unleashed. If, in our discomfort, we fill that silence with the clear and easily-heard voice of God, we misunderstand both Lewis’s courage and ours.
Lewis stood in the silence, and crossed the bridge that was named for a man twice a traitor to his country, once by joining the Confederacy, and again by serving as grand dragon of the KKK. Lewis’s skull was fractured that day, Bloody Sunday, in 1965. Read about that day, and the silence that required courage here: https://www.archives.gov/exhibits/eyewitness/html.php?section=2
Our current silent moment requires courage, as well. I am bright enough not to imagine that I know the silence in which you stand, but I am a good enough reader of stories to expect that both Lewis and Elijah have something to teach us.