When people in the Hebrew Bible see a manifestation of God, they nearly always see either fire (from the flames in the burning bush to the sparks of fire in the pillar or cloud), or something human (from Abraham’s guest to the feet on the sapphire pavement).
When they hear a manifestation of God, they usually hear words. I have found only two exceptions in the Hebrew Bible. One is in the book of Exodus, when God descends upon Mount Sinai, and all the Israelites hear (and see, perhaps through synesthesia) thunder and the sound of a shofar (a loud wind instrument made from an animal’s horn). The cracks of thunder and the increasing volume of the shofar blasts would make the sound of God unbearably loud.
The other exception is in this week’s haftarah, when the prophet Elijah hears God as what the King James translation calls “a still, small voice”.
A haftarah is the reading from the prophets that accompanies the week’s Torah portion. This week’s haftarah, from the first book of Kings, opens with the prophet Elijah running before the chariot of King Ahab.
In the scene just before, Elijah had staged a dramatic contest on Mount Carmel, where there were altars to both Baal and the God of Israel. King Ahab (who was away from his wife Jezebel at the time) summoned all the people to the mountaintop as witnesses. Elijah invited 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah to call on their gods, while he alone would call on the God of Israel. (The prophets of Asherah did not show up, but the contest proceeded anyway.) A bull was killed and laid over wood at each altar, but nobody was allowed to bring fire to burn the offerings. Elijah said:
You will call your gods by name, and I, I will call God by name. And it will be the god that answers with fire, that one is the god. And all the people answered, and they said: It is good! (1 Kings 18:14)
Elijah increased the drama by giving the prophets of Baal all day to work themselves into an ecstatic frenzy, and by pouring water all over the God of Israel’s altar. No fire ever appeared on Baal’s altar. In the evening, when water was dripping into the trench around God’s altar, Elijah called on God by name.
And the fire of God fell, and it consumed the rising-offering and the wood and the stones and the dirt, and it licked up the water that was in the trench. And all the people saw, and they fell on their faces, and they said: That god is the god! That god is the god! (1 Kings 18:38-39)
The Israelites helped Elijah kill all 450 prophets of Baal. A three-year drought ended. And Elijah ran as an honor guard before King Ahab’s chariot as they returned to the king’s nearest palace, in the fortress of Jezreel.
Haftarat Pinchas begins with this triumphal run. Then Ahab’s wife Jezebel, the real ruler of the kingdom, nixes the mass conversion and threatens to kill Elijah.
The prophet flees, lies down in the wilderness to die, then gets up again at the request of an angel and walks all the way to Mount Horev (another name for Mount Sinai). There God speaks to him—first in words, as usual.
Then the word of God [came] to him, and it said to him: Why are you here, Elijah?
And he said: I was very zealous for God, the God of Armies, because the Children of Israel had abandoned your covenant, and pulled down your altars, and killed your prophets by the sword. And only I was left, and they tried to take my life. (1 Kings 19:9-10)
Elijah is in despair because Queen Jezebel won. He forgets that the Israelites fell on their faces, shouted that the God of Israel is the only god, and killed Baal’s prophets. He either does not believe, or does not care, that the people’s feelings about God have changed. All that matters to him is that he lost the contest with Queen Jezebel for political power. Her gods, and the rest of her prophets, will remain in the kingdom of Israel whether the people support them or not.
God tells Elijah to stand up, and then gives him a wordless demonstration.
And hey! God was passing by, and a big and strong wind was tearing off mountains of rocks in front of God; but God was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake, fire; but God was not in the fire. And after the fire, kol demamah dakkah. And when Elijah heard, he wrapped his face with his robe, and he went out and stood at the entrance of the cave; and hey!—a voice [came] to him, and it said: Why are you here, Elijah? (1 Kings 19:11-13)
kol (קוֹל) = voice; sound.
demamah (דְּמָמָה) = quiet (without much movement or sound); stillness; silence.
dakkah (דַקָּה) = very thin; finely ground, powdery.
kol demamah dakkah = “a still, small voice” (King James translation); “a soft murmuring sound” (Jewish Publication Society translation); a “sound of thin silence” (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg translation); a faint sound of quietness (my translation).
Elijah hears the sound of quietness, steps out to the mouth of the cave, and covers his face. That means he knows God is in the quietness, since God told Moses no one may see God from the front.
Then God asks him the same question: Why are you here, Elijah? And Elijah gives the same reply, word for word—as if he had learned nothing. So God tells him he must anoint a young man named Elisha to be a prophet in his place.
I agree with the many commentators who concluded that Elijah is too impatient in his zeal; he wants the spectacle of fire (or, presumably, windstorm or earthquake) to turn Israel back to God all at once. He is not interested in a quiet, gradual approach. And that is why God decides to retire Elijah and try a new prophet.
But I also wonder about the three ways of hearing God: as ear-splitting blasts and booms, as spoken words, and as a faint sound of quietness.
We are only human. When we want to plan, or communicate, or understand something complicated, we turn to language. Even musicians and visual artists who are working alone must think in words when they address other aspects of their lives. Our brains automatically translate much of our experience into words and language.
Maybe one difference between a prophet and an ordinary person is that a prophet can easily translate experiences of God into words. So for them, God manifests as spoken words.
For the rest of us, our occasional numinous experiences are hard to understand, hard to put into words. A shaft of sunlight or a haunting bird call might trigger an awareness of something greater—but we struggle just to describe it. Our brains do not translate these evanescent and ineffable experiences into direct speech from God.
In the book of Exodus, God manifests to all the non-prophets at Mount Sinai as unbearably loud noise. The people are terrified, and beg for God to speak only to Moses; their prophet can then translate what God says into words spoken at a reasonable decibel level.
But in the book of Elijah, when the prophet hears God ask him a question in words—Why are you here, Elijah?—he answers defensively, stuck in a repetitive loop of his own words, his own story about himself. Any further insight from God cannot get through. So God resorts to non-verbal communication.
Elijah hears the windstorm, the earthquake, and the fire. Then he hears God in the “still, small voice,” the faint sound of quietness. But he does not understand.
Does God manifest to us, sometimes, as quietness?
Can we understand?