I can’t read this story and not be transported back three years ago to August 8, 2014. It had been three weeks since Kaitlin and I had moved to Erbil, Iraq, to serve with Mennonite Central Committee. We were living with the couple whose place we were going to take—Jim and Deb. Jim and Deb were trying to show us the ropes of work and everyday life, all at a time when ISIS had taken over large swathes of the country and everyone and everything was in crisis mode. On August 7, 2014, ISIS had pushed out of Mosul and taken over dozens of towns and villages on the Nineveh Plains, displacing hundreds of thousands of people—mostly minority groups like Christians and Yazidis. That day, August 7, tens of thousands of displaced Christians poured into our town seeking shelter in relatives’ houses, church yards, and simply in any scrap of shade they could find, to shield themselves from the intense, 115-degree, August heat. The next day, with ISIS threatening Erbil itself, Obama ordered the beginning of American airstrikes against ISIS.
That evening we went to an English Mass at Mar Elia church—Saint Elijah church. The Old Testament text for the day was this one: Elijah on the mountain. As I sat in the pew, my mind clouded with fear and confusion, I heard these words in a new way. I’d always heard, “God was not in the fire, wind, or earthquake, but God was in the sound of sheer silence, the still, small voice.” God comes to us and comforts us in the silence. On August 8 I sat in the pew feeling afraid, feeling obligated to do something, but unsure of what or how, and feeling guilty, guilty about feeling grateful for US airstrikes. As the text was read I realized, God is not in the silence either. The text denies that God was in the earthquake and fire and wind, but it doesn’t affirm that God was in the silence. All we have here is a random series of events, none of which contain God. In that moment, sitting there in my confusion, the story seemed to me to be far more about God’s absence than God’s presence. And it’s not just that God’s absent—the whole story seems like a series of events that just don’t fit together. The plot seems mismatched and jumbled. God’s questions and answers don’t align with Elijah’s. It isn’t clear what God even wants with Elijah in the encounter. Is it a judgement on Elijah? Is it a merciful revelation of who God is? On the surface, none of it makes sense.
As we were walking home from that Mass, we met a woman who had been displaced from Qaraqosh, the biggest town on the Nineveh Plains. Seeing that we were Westerners, she came up to us and asked for help getting out of the country. Jim told her we were trying to support the Iraqi church in its efforts to care for the displaced, and he expressed some hope that she would be able to go home soon. As she turned away, clearly unhappy with this response, she said, “our neighbors don’t want us.” In other words, Muslim neighbors from surrounding villages had welcomed the departure of their Christian neighbors. Her words of judgment hung in the air. “Our neighbors don’t want us.” Those words, together with God’s incomprehensible silence in this story have haunted me in the three years since then.
What is God doing on Mount Horeb? Is God judging Elijah or showing mercy to him? I don’t want to be disingenuous, so I’ll say right now: I think it’s both. God’s judgment and mercy appear together for Elijah, as they do for us. That’s why the story is so strange. And I think that in this story and in our lives, those two things, mercy and judgment, are connected always with how we love God’s people.
Let’ back up for some context. Two weeks ago we heard about Samuel anointing David as king over the people of Israel—despite God’s warnings against kingship. Since then, things have only gone downhill. The corruption and tyranny of the monarchy finally provoked civil war during the reign of David’s grandson, Rehoboam. Most of Israel broke off and formed its own kingdom, which was called Israel. Judah continued on under the kings of David’s line. In both kingdoms, but especially in Israel, people worshipped Baal off and on. Baal was a Phoenician God. (Baal is probably best understood here as a god whom we can control and use. We might trace an analogy between Baal worship in the text and our own temptations to domination and control—individually and politically.) Just before our reading, the King of Israel—Ahab—had, along with his Phoenician queen, Jezebel, instituted Baal worship in the land. There’s a drought, there are prophetic warnings from Elijah, who starts his appearance here, and then there’s a climactic confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel. Elijah demonstrates the power of God, and the people all declare, “Yahweh, he is our God!” Then Elijah, by himself and without any divine instruction, slaughters all the priests of Baal.
On to our story today, with all its strange silences and confusions. Queen Jezebel threatens retaliation against Elijah and he flees. He is suicidal and depressed. “Take away my life for I am no better than my ancestors.” Why? He’s on the run, but he did win. Perhaps the blood on his hands—barely dry—has driven him to the brink. God prods him to eat, to get up, to keep moving. Forty days and nights of travel go on like this, and we are reminded of the forty-day trials of Jesus, and Noah, and Moses, and of Israel’s forty years in the dessert. And then Elijah goes to Mt. Horeb. Horeb is another name for Mt. Sinai. Horeb is where God met Moses, where the Torah first came down to the people of Israel. But God hadn’t told him to go to Horeb—another gap, another silence. Like returning to the scene of some traumatic and deeply formative event, Elijah comes back to the mountain of God, the heart of Jewish identity, to…give up?… argue? seek comfort?
God asks him, “What are you doing here?” What are you doing here? Standing in the place of Moses. What makes you think you deserve that same honor? Standing on the mountain and speaking directly with God? “What are you doing here?” Elijah’s response drips with desperate, exhausted, pride. “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” But that’s all nearly exactly wrong. Elijah won. The priests of Baal were slaughtered with the sword. He’s on the run, sure, but how can he claim to be the only one left? The gaps and failures of direct communication continue; God doesn’t even respond to Elijah’s claim. God just tells him to watch as God passes by, just as God told Moses to watch as his glory passed by on the mountain all those years ago. And when it’s done, and the thunderous roaring and the empty sound of silence have both faded away, Elijah comes forth, face veiled against the glory of God. But all God does is repeat the question. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Like a broken record, Elijah simply repeats himself word for word. “I’ve been zealous for you. I’m alone. No one else is faithful.” In essence “I resign. I’m finished. I’m burnt out and done with this cause. But I’m still here and I’m the only one left.” Again God doesn’t answer directly. In what seems like yet more strange miscommunication, God just tells him to go to Damascus, and then anoint two different kings and a new prophet, Elisha. And there will be more killing. Now, though, it seems that God is the one whose words don’t match reality. These things do not literally happen later in the rest of 1st and 2nd Kings. Elijah never anoints Hazael or Jehu. He does allow Elisha to be his student, but he doesn’t anoint him—prophets are never anointed in the Old Testament. And while Hazael and Jehu go on to kill plenty of people, Elisha never does. What does this mean? How is any of this an answer to Elijah?
The final verse of our reading seems clearer. “I will leave 7000 in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” This is a direct rebuke. You think you are the only one. You blaspheme the faithfulness of my people. And you are wrong. There will be seven thousand others—a number we ought to read simply as “enough.”
When Moses stood on the mountain with God, he argued on behalf of God’s people against God and God’s wrath which was boiling over after the golden calf incident. Now Elijah stands on the mountain and the roles are reversed. He curses God’s people (“the Israelites have forsaken your covenant”) and God argues back (‘my people are faithful’).
“Our neighbors don’t want us.” I can’t help but remember my encounter with that desperate woman on the street outside Mar Elia church. We alone are left. “Our neighbors don’t want us.” Iraqi Christians, in my three years there, were almost uniformly dismissive of Iraqi Muslims. The cord of trust was broken. They believed they were the only sane ones left in Iraq. The woman in the street, like Elijah, wanted out.
Elijah has an afterlife. The prophet Malachi says, at the end of our Old Testament, that Elijah will come again, before the Messiah. In the New Testament, John the Baptist is the new Elijah. And in the Transfiguration, Jesus stands flanked by Moses and Elijah, the Messiah is confirmed by the law and the prophets. Jews who didn’t believe Jesus was that Messiah continued to venerate Elijah and tell stories about him. By orthodox Jewish tradition, at every circumcision ceremony (like every Seder meal) a seat is left empty for Elijah. The Zohar, the Jewish book of mysticism, fills in some of the gaps of Elijah’s conversation with God on Mt. Horeb. God says, “because of excessive zeal for me you have brought charges against Israel that they have forsaken my covenant; therefore you shall have to be present at every circumcision ceremony.” In other words, you who blasphemed against my people, saying that you were the only righteous one, you will watch as each member of the male half of my people is given the sign of my covenant. It’s weird, I admit, but it sounds a lot like restorative justice. Because it is a punishment, in a way (I wouldn’t want to do that for all eternity) but it’s one that turns Elijah into a witness of the faithfulness of the Jews. And so in Jewish folk traditions, Elijah becomes a wandering miracle worker who pops up in dreams and visions, always sticking up for the Jewish people against their oppressors and also sticking up for the poor among the Jews against the rich. These Jewish memories of Elijah demonstrate, in a wonderful way, that that prophet who cursed God’s people is, by God’s grace, redeemed in memory by God’s people. God judges Elijah, and that judgment is a mercy, a mercy that links him back forever (in hope!) with the people he maligned.
“Our neighbors don’t want us.” In Iraq, I never knew what to say to that. How could I respond to a cry of anger born of suffering which was so much deeper than anything I have ever known. But in my silence, I did judge Iraqi Christians for their categorical hostility to Muslims. And so, like the woman in the street, I too am a figure of Elijah in this story because I presumed to judge the faithfulness of Iraqi Christians and I found them lacking. “I alone am left.” That judgment was a sin against God’s people, a sin against which God stands, in judgement. This is not to say God’s people are blameless in and of themselves—that’s never true. Many of the Israelites were worshipping Baal. But to stand in this kind of judgment against God’s people—to say “nothing good can come from these people”—is to put ourselves in the place of God. As Paul says in Romans, “you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others, for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself.” (Romans 2:1) How are we judging God’s people? How are we blaspheming against our sisters or our brothers?
The good news is that God’s judgement is always enacted with and is indeed indistinguishable from, God’s mercy. Elijah comes to Horeb exhausted, traumatized, angry. The struggle has been too much. His violent zeal has been too hot and he’s burnt out. He gives up. He speaks his despair and complaint against God. Standing in the place of Moses, he is judged and found lacking. God will use Elisha, a different prophet.
But that’s not the end. There’s a strange and wonderful resonance here at the end of the story with the story of Jesus, and that resonance helps us find God’s mercy for Elijah. I’m thinking of Jesus’s words to Peter at the end of the gospel of John, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It’s the first time Peter has seen Jesus since the crucifixion and resurrection—since Peter denied him three times. Now Jesus eats with him and asks him “do you love me”—three times. I hear echoes here of God asking Elijah, “what are you doing here?” Here. On the prophet’s mountain. Are you my prophet? Twice God asks, twice Elijah says ‘yes’ “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of Israel, and…” With Peter—standing in the morning sun by the man he loves—the scene is more poignant. With Elijah, by himself on the mountain top, the loneliness almost overwhelms. God’s judgment is the question. Do you love me? What are you doing here? And there is no answer from our lips that can satisfy, no answer from Peter or Elijah that will be a meaningful response. The words can’t possibly match up or make sense. So the question comes again, but no matter how many layers of our own pride or despair we peel back, we’re still just rattling off our own litany. The only answer that comes, comes from God. “Feed my sheep,” Jesus says to Peter. “Go anoint Elisha,” God says to Elijah. You are not alone. You are not alone. That is both our judgment and our salvation.
All of this is said in another way—transposed into praise—by today’s Psalm: “O give thanks to the Lord for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the east and west and north and south….Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. For he satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things.”
 Zohar, Genesis, 93a.