A wholly other sound.
Wasn’t I surprised to find that the renown “still small voice” wasn’t necessarily the best translation of 1Kings 19:12! In fact there seems to be a wide variety of opinion. (Approximately 40 translations – one click.) The NRSV is a bit different from most of the pack with the sound of “sheer silence.”
Can the sound of “sheer silence” ever be as popular as the “still small voice” in the King James? “I listen to and follow the still small voice within that guides my thoughts, words, and actions.” (Daily Word, January 11, 2010)
Is the voice of God “sheer silence”? I’ll say no. My interpretation is that in the Bible story, the sheer silence is a prelude to hearing the voice of God clearly. If one is not being attentive with a mind free of cluttering, clamoring, clattering, chattering thoughts, then it is difficult to hear anything, let alone the voice of God. Does that mean silence is a prerequisite? I suppose there might be that rare person who is able to still their thoughts and hear complete silence. I believe the goal is not to get complete silence necessarily, but to get the noise down to a dull roar. Just give yourself some space.
Diaphanous might be a better translation than “sheer” because sheer can mean not only “thin” which would be correct (WYC, CEB), but sheer can also mean “absolute” which would not be correct. And absolute is what I took it to mean until I saw “thin” in those two other versions. So diaphanous or transparent silence?? Perhaps the idea of “thin-quiet” simply means one’s mind is approaching nothingness. Or becoming aware of the impermanence and immateriality of all that is material. Or there is a quiet and a thinness where reality can break open and God can enter??
So what does the voice of God actually sound like? Well, that might be the subject of someone else’s post. I don’t plan to expound on it, but if you like, you are free to think of that voice as still and small. I think that would be preferable to hearing something that sounded like thunder.
The “sheer silence” is in a passage in 1Kings 19 that strangely has the god Yahweh repeating himself and Elijah repeating himself.
In the story, Elijah is the last of the prophets and thinks his enemies want to kill him (probably because Elijah has killed so many hundreds of people). The word of the Lord tells him the Lord will pass by. (A “word of the Lord” may be like an angel.) Then there is a strong wind that is splitting mountains, but oddly, Elijah’s mountain is not harmed. Then there is an earthquake, then a fire. Again, no harm to him. The text says the Lord was not in these. Then there is a sound of sheer silence.
Four clues that all these are events in the mind of Elijah: (1) There are enormously violent events but no harm to Elijah. (2) Someone would not stay in a cave in an actual earthquake – they would run out as fast as they could run because of the danger of collapse. Elijah stays put in the cave at that point. (3) When Elijah goes to the entrance of the cave he covers his face with his mantle – not something one would do except in one’s mind, lest one trip on the way. (4) Elijah had been fasting for 40 days and 40 nights – perhaps a prelude to an encounter with the Divine as in Moses receiving the Ten Commandments after fasting 40 days and 40 nights – one might think of this experience of fasting as a vision quest.
So Elijah goes to “Horeb the mount of God” (heaven or expanse of Elijah’s mind) and there encounters “wind, earthquake, and fire” (his fears), and then he hears “sheer silence” (he clears his mind), he “covers” his face (adopts an attitude of respect), and he leaves the “cave” (his inner refuge). It is then that the Lord repeats his question to Elijah and Elijah repeats his answer, but then the Lord speaks with a solution to Elijah’s problem – he should go appoint another prophet in his stead.
In the Elijah story, the change or transformation happens within the individual. It is not that Yahweh forgets he has already asked the same question of Elijah; rather the repetition indicates a change in the mind of the Elijah as he meditates and waits respectfully for a resolution and then gets a different perspective on the problem.
Of course it could be that Yahweh actually does repeat himself because some ancient copyist copied a bit of text into the wrong spot and that duplication got carried forward, but it does seem to me that the iterations are intentional, seeing as how they bookend the struggle with wind, earthquake, and fire, and the experience of the wholly-other sound.
The translators don’t seem to know what is this sound. Some say “voice.” Others say “whisper,” “whistling” (DRA), “breeze,” or “blowing.” Others just say “silence” or “quiet.” The WYC has “hissing of thin wind, or breathing softly.” Anyway, it would seem to be a small, quiet noise of quiet. After comparing different translations, I have to question if any “voice” or “whisper” or “breathing” would be an addition to text and incorrect – just the translator anticipating an actual voice that comes two verses later. I prefer to have the translator translate rather than anticipate. But I can only guess what is going on because I don’t know Hebrew. It is startling to think that one of the best-loved verses in the Bible maybe never was – it was just a King James translator overreaching and penning a guesstimate – “still small voice.”
The very next verse in the King James has also been changed by many translators (19:13); “And it was so,” has been changed to, “And it came to pass” (DARBY), “It happened” (LEB); most just reduce that to “when.” a Is “when” really sufficient to indicate what the biblical author may have intended – a lapse in time?? – the time that passed while Elijah meditated on his fears, then in silence??
It’s inconceivable to me that words and phrases in Hebrew that have been in constant use through the centuries and millennia because the texts have been in constant use, should be disputed, uncertain, or unknown. If such are unknown, then how can any learning be preserved as people forget languages and languages vanish? When I search the NRSV-Anglicized for one of its characteristic footnotes, “meaning of Heb uncertain,” I get 341 resultant verses. b But 1Kings 19:12 does not have such a footnote – no uncertainty is admitted, even while translations differ widely. By comparing different translations one can determine what words or phrases are known with relative certainty by scholars and which are fantasizing.
Those who want to blame a god for the dreadful circumstances of their lives or the condition of our Planet can draw a lesson from the Elijah story. God was not in the violent events normally described as “acts of God.” So you have to find God somewhere else.
The going within, whether to sheer silence or to await a “still small voice” would seem to be the way to further enlightenment and transformation.
The basic pattern of the Elijah story is perhaps taken from an earlier?? tale where Balaam’s donkey talks to him (Numbers 22).
Both these stories share a pattern:
1) It is night
2) God speaks
3) There is a struggle
4) There is a sound from another dimension
5) An attitude of respect is adopted by the listener
6) God speaks again with similar words
7) There is a resolution
8) There is a resultant journey
In the Balaam story, the struggle involves Balaam’s attempts to force his donkey to pass by an angel that only the donkey can see. The temperamental Balaam is incapable even of taking cues from his donkey’s unusually stubborn behavior. Balaam’s struggle ends when his donkey speaks. A clue that this struggle and this very freaky sound of a donkey talking are all in Balaam’s mind is in the donkey’s words, “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all your life to this day?” (Num 22:30) Perhaps the donkey represents someone Balaam has known all his life – his very self?? In modern psycho-babble, his inner child?? It is only by entering within, stilling the storm of the struggle, that Balaam is able to hear this inner voice. Once in touch with himself, he is ready to hear from the Lord.
From the point of view of the reader, it seems that first Yahweh said one thing to Balaam, then caused the struggle with the donkey, then caused the donkey to talk, then through the angel, Yahweh said something only slightly different. From the point of view of Balaam, he thought Yahweh said one thing, and Balaam struggled with it until he found himself in another dimension in his mind where he was able to hear something he had never heard before – himself, and then he was focused enough to be able to clearly discern what Yahweh was saying.
The story has Balaam deciding whether to go with some official emissaries who have come to fetch him. Another clue that the donkey episode is only in Balaam’s mind is that Balaam sets out riding his donkey with two servants, but strangely, while the emissaries are mentioned at the beginning and end of the donkey episode, they are apparently absent and not witnesses to the donkey balking and then talking. If the emissaries were there, you’d think there would be some mention of what they were doing? Did they see the angel? Did they think the donkey’s behavior strange? Balaam’s behavior strange? Did they pass by the angel or wait? Nothing. We don’t expect the servants to react, just serve.
Balaam bows down falling on his face when he finally sees the angel. The inference is that an attitude of respectful attentiveness might be necessary to get to the next step.
It is not that Yahweh changes his mind with Balaam (from “do only what I tell you to do” to “speak only what I tell you to speak”). Rather the change is in the mind of Balaam as he meditates and waits for clarification. The before and after Yahweh statements serve as bookends to what goes on in the mind of Balaam – the struggle and the wholly other sound.
I suppose the story could also be interpreted very negatively with a god of fate thwarting every human plan, arbitrarily changing the rules mid-game, and waylaying to kill; a god whose chief concern is whether he is the most important god. But I prefer a more positive interpretation that with persistence, one can gain illumination to endure or somehow overcome the vagaries of life.
Were the biblical authors troubled by Elijah’s murders (he believes that people with religious views not his own are his enemies and kills them (1Kings 18:19, 19:1)) or by Balaam’s treatment of his donkey? The story suggests that such doings cannot prevent the Divine from speaking or being heard, and one might conclude that even those who possess human nature (don’t we all?) are in communion with the Divine.
Of course I have no idea if I have correctly interpreted these very ancient stories. Maybe I should wait for some sort of other-worldly affirmation before I publish. What would it sound like?
NRSV used in this post.