Almost every morning for the past month I have walked to the top of Mount Carmel. I’m not sure I’ve ever had such a historic commute! Mount Carmel is steeped in mythology and religious significance for several cultures and traditions, but for Jews the story it evokes most strongly is that of Elijah and his showdown with the prophets of Baal as told in the first book of Kings.
Increasingly frustrated with the proliferation of the worship of Baal in the northern Kingdom of Israel ruled by King Ahab, who was himself heavily influenced by his wife Jezebel, Elijah summons 450 prophets of Baal to the altar on Mount Carmel and lays down a challenge. “You will then invoke your god by name, and I will invoke God by name; and let us agree: the god who responds with fire, that one is God” (1 Kings 18:23).
The challenge is accepted and the prophets of Baal make their offering. They dance around, slice their flesh and call out, but there is no response. Elijah mocks them, and then makes his offering, petitioning the God of Israel so that the prophets of Baal should know the true God. In response to Elijah fire descends and consumes the offering, prompting the gathered Israelite witnesses to prostrate themselves and proclaim the name of the God of Israel. With Elijah high on his victory, and despite their proclamations, the prophets are all killed and an enraged Jezebel threatens Elijah. Frightened for his life, Elijah flees. First, he stops in Beersheva and stops under a bush, praying to die. Like Hagar, who was also saved by God under a bush in the wilderness of Beersheva, Elijah is saved by the appearance of water and food and is able to continue on his way.
Elijah continues on for forty days and forty nights until he reaches his destination- Horeb (Sinai) and the cleft in the rock where, according to Rashi, Moses stood. Elijah hasn’t fled just anywhere, he has fled to the seat of revelation, to the place where God revealed Godself. The motivation here would seem self-evident, but nevertheless God asks Elijah, “why are you here?” to which Elijah replies that he has come because he fears for his life and is the only one left fighting for God. Then something strange happens. Elijah is summoned out onto the mountain where he is met by a fierce and howling wind. But God is not in the wind. Then there is an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. Then a fire, but God is not in the fire. Then after the fire, a still small voice.
God again speaks to a presumably even more fearful Elijah. God speaks gently and asks again why he has come and receives the same answer. After hearing this he does not absolve Elijah of his mission, rather he is sent on his way. God is there, in both majestic and gentle form, but there is no solace for Elijah and no respite from his task.
This isn’t the first time in the Tanakh that Sinai is enveloped in smoke and fire when God has a point to make. The original moment, which the imagery in the Elijah story invokes, is contained in Parashat Yitro at the start of the Sinai narrative. In our sedra, the Israelites have reached mount Sinai and are encamped at its base. The situation is described as follows:
“And it came to pass on the third day, when it was morning, that there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of a horn exceeding loud; and all the people that were in the camp trembled.”
Unlike in the Elijah story where God’s pyrotechnics go unexplained, here God tells Moses what he is doing. “Here, I come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you for ever.’”
The fire at Sinai and the fire on Mount Carmel serve a similar role, they are a vivid demonstration of God’s power and though the prophets of Baal and the Israelites are in many ways worlds apart, both need convincing of the role that the God of Israel should play in their lives.
The Israelites are about to enter into covenant with God, it matters that in that moment they are reminded of God’s strength and power. In the moment of revelation the promise of what God will provide for the Israelites is laid out, and the power that is behind God’s side of the covenant is on full display. It’s that covenantal relationship that Elijah is fighting for, answering God when asked why he has come to Sinai with the words, “the children of Israel 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”.
Elijah’s response and the behaviour of the Israelites in his days alerts us to a challenge. In the intervening time between the moment of revelation at Sinai and his time, it has become increasingly difficult to engage the people of Israel with the work of the covenant that gives them their name. Elijah is bitter about this, in some ways similarly to Moses who also complains about the Israelites unfaithfulness. In Moses’ day this doubt and lack of faith begins whilst the Israelites are still at the foot of Sinai. It seems that the theatrical display perhaps didn’t have the lasting impact that was intended.
As I walk up the Carmel each day I am struck by how far this city feels from the place of duelling prophets and firey miracles. Elijah got the fire he asked for on the Carmel, and another display at Sinai that was akin to that which the Israelites had at the moment of revelation, but there was also a subtle difference which Elijah was unable to see.
When Elijah reached Sinai, God asked him why he had come, and responded to Elijah with an illusion to the moment of revelation. But the two moments were not the same, for after the grand display, there was the small voice. The voice asked Elijah the same question but in a different way and he gave the same response, unable to see the difference between what he found at Sinai, and what was once there in the story that we read in this week’s parashah.
In that addition I wonder if there was a message for Elijah, and for us. When he went back to Sinai, Elijah was given a tool in that voice and the way it reached out that could enable him to bring the original Sinai experience to a new era. Grand majestic displays of power that use fear and awe to create faith have had their day. Ours is the age of the still small voice, connecting people to God and to the promise of Sinai through gentle, ordinary acts of reaching out.
Deborah Blausten LBC rabbinic student