A few years ago I read a story in the bible that I had come across many times before.
As I read it this time, I began to see things I had never seen before.
The story was different to the one I had seen and heard.
It was deeper,
it was more profound,
It was just more.
This is the best thing about the bible - you can see things a certain way, read a story a certain way for such a long time and then one day you realise that there is a hidden depth there that you hadn’t seen before that takes you into a new world of understanding.
Call it Spirit,
call it revelation,
call it what you want.
I am so grateful when it happens, and it happens a lot.
This particular story is from a book called Kings and it’s the story of the prophet Elijah. It’s a story that had dominated sermons when I was growing up, and for good reasons. It’s epic, loud and powerful. It’s a story where God shows up in a big way.
In this story Elijah is in a grand face-off with his enemies, the prophets of Ba’al, and their idolatrous King, Ahab. Ahab was once a person of faith but had been wooed away from the one true God by his hot wife and now he – and with him most of the nation – had turned to worship other gods.
This made Elijah feel pretty isolated, and angry,
and so he challenged Ahab and his prophets to a cosmic duel.
A cosmic duel.
The bible is the gift that keeps on giving.
The rules are simple: two altars, one for each God. Each team will pray to their respective god/s and the one that answers with a fireball from the sky is real.
The story then follows that the prophets of Ba’al, of which there were hundreds, prayed all day with no results. They tried many different methods of prayer: shouting, dancing, screaming, even cutting themselves and offering their blood as appeasement, just to try and get god to hear them.
Then Elijah steps up,
cocky walk, smirk on his face.
He not only offers a very short prayer but he’s audacious enough to throw water all over his altar first, just to make it a little more challenging.
Then guess what happens?
God answers his prayers, the altar is burned, and all of the prophets who prayed to other gods fall on their knees declaring to Elijah, “your God, is the one true living God.”
It’s a cool story, right?
I had heard it told many times, by many people, each time there was a similar theme:
our God is the one true God,
our God is powerful,
ask and you shall receive,
God will prove himself.
Our. God. Won.
In order to see this story afresh, to glean that new perspective from it that shook my world, I employed a complex reading strategy that has been passed down from the ancients:
I just kept on reading.
Sometimes we finish the stories before they have actually finished because it makes them easier to tell.
We prayed and our friend’s sickness went away.
Our business was on the brink and then someone gifted us some money.
He was on the edge of a cliff, but someone said something kind that changed his mind.
Elijah prayed and God answered by fire.
Sometimes these stories are the full story and they are wonderful and moving and profound in all of the best ways. But sometimes they represent only a part of the story. The bit we understood. The rest, well, it’s much more confusing.
The sickness did go away, but then it came back.
The gift got us through for a while, but things got harder and the business went under.
Those kinds words were meaningful but not enough to heal all of the inner turmoil.
These are tragic moments that we often don’t know how to make sense of, but they are also part of the story and so we must find a way to embrace them.
God did answer Elijah’s prayer.
God did send a fireball from heaven.
The people did turn and declare that Elijah’s God was the one true God.
And then this happened:
Elijah commanded them, “Seize the prophets of Baal. Don’t let anyone get away!” They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there.
The people who had just fallen to their knees in surrender were now dead.
Elijah won the contest, and then slaughtered those that lost.
I’ve talked with a lot of people about this particular moment and their response is usually predictable. They will say something like:
it was a different time back then; or
that’s just how things happened; or if they’re really strange
these people were idol worshippers and that’s what God commands.
God wants Elijah to kill everyone that disagrees?
He feels so wildly insecure about that, that it’s not enough to turn their hearts to him but he must also command his prophets to
Not only does this seem like a strangely insecure thing to do but it also seems to go against the bigger arc (sometimes we call it a metanarrative) of scripture.
God seems to go to great lengths to show us that he is the God who enters in to our messy and broken story to show us how much he loves us. Not that he is waiting for us to get it right or he will destroy you.
Not only did the way this story end not sit well with me, it also seemed to be missing from all of those sermons I had heard, and books I had read (which is a good indication that it also didn’t sit well with all those preachers. When in doubt, omit…)
and so I decided to keep reading.
And it kept going.
Once all the slaughtering was done, Ahab runs to his wife (Jezebel – she’s pretty terrifying) and tells her what happened. She’s mad and so she makes a promise to kill Elijah within the day.
Now, to be honest, if I’m Elijah I would be feeling pretty confident. You literally just summoned fire from heaven and slaughtered hundreds of idol worshippers. Can this one woman really get under your skin?
The answer is yes.
Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.
What was he afraid of?
Sure, it’s pretty scary to have someone threaten you like that but surely if you had the confidence of a God who sent fireballs from heaven you wouldn’t worry too much about it.
Just click your fingers and send a tsunami,
or something like that.
Maybe Elijah had run out of energy, maybe his confidence was waning, maybe he wasn’t entirely convinced that what he had done was the right thing. Whatever was going through his head the most dominant feeling was fear, and so he ran. He ran up a mountain.
The first story – the fireball story – takes place on the top of a mountain, Mt. Carmel. The second part of the story also takes place on the top of a mountain, Mt Horeb. If we know anything about the stories in the bible, we know to pay attention to these kinds of parallels.
Two stories, side by side.
Two mountains, one after the other.
We know what happens on the first mountain,
What happens on the second?
After what sounds like a gruelling journey to Horeb, where Elijah enters into a state of depression and has to be coaxed with food and divinations, he arrives at the mountain. Interestingly enough this mountain – Horeb – is the mountain where Moses first encountered God. For those reading this story in context that would have been very significant.
This is the mountain where Moses met God.
This is the mountain where God revealed himself to Moses.
This is the mountain where God reveals himself.
This is the mountain where we hear the name of God.
It can be confusing, because we just saw God revealing himself, didn’t we?
Isn’t that what the fireball was all about?
How much more revealing do we need?
Elijah hears God on this mountain and goes out to the edge searching for something.
Elijah, what are you doing here?
That’s a strange question for God to ask.
Shouldn’t it go something like:
G: Great job, buddy. We really showed them.
E: I know. Nice work with the fireball by the way. Really Impressive.
G: Thanks. It just came to me. I went with it.
Instead, God asks,
what are you doing here?
Have you ever wondered that question for yourself?
What am I doing here?
I find myself asking this question a lot, usually during moments of transition or liminality. When a part of my life is shifting from one space to another, or when something I thought so deeply somehow becomes unhooked. That’s when I find myself wondering what on earth I am doing here.
I love Elijah’s response, because it’s exactly how I would respond:
I am very passionate about you God
I have done everything right,
everyone else has done everything wrong,
they turned away and worshipped other gods,
I am LITERALLY the only one left who follows you (properly)
and they are trying to KILL me!
(subtly leaving out the part about slaughtering hundreds of people…)
Elijah stands there before God with a list of his strengths, his qualifications, his…justifications.
What happens next is another well versed moment in the bible but strangely, it very rarely comes as part of the story that came before.
God asks Elijah to stand at the edge of the mountain because he is going to pass by.
The parallels to Moses are uncanny, and not unintentional.
Horeb is where you encounter God,
because it is where God reveals himself,
this is where you understand who God really is.
Elijah sees a fierce wind come by and shatter the rocks in front of him.
But God was not in the wind.
Then an earthquake came and tore the ground apart.
But God was not in the earthquake.
Then came the fire.
Hang on, haven’t we just seen the fire?
Fire, that must be it, that must be how God reveals himself.
But God was not in the fire.
God was not in the fire.
Can you imagine how confusing that must have been to a man who had just used a fireball from God to justify the slaughter of hundreds of prophets who had already declared that the LORD was the one true living God?
God was not in the fire.
How can that be?
It was so obvious, so real,
After the fire came a gentle whisper,
A small, quiet, voice.
What are you doing here Elijah?
The God-who-is-not-in-the-fire speaks only in a whisper, and begins to break Elijah down. All of the claims that Elijah was making are shown to be untrue. In a reasonably anti-climactic end to the story God tells Elijah to head back down the mountain – to meet the other prophets there (turns out there are a few thousand more), to anoint a new king, and to fade into the background as a new path is forged.
You see, this still small voice says much more than we think it does.
It says things like,
It’s not about the fire.
I am not a rival to the gods of those prophets,
I am not like them at all.
A man I respect greatly says that:
“Elijah, when he entered into rivalry with the prophets of Ba’al became one of them.”
He became one of them.
The slaughter on the first mountain is Elijah’s deceiving.
The encounter of the second mountain is Elijah’s undeceiving.
If you dare to read these two stories together, the story of two mountains, you realise that what happens on the second mountain is the undoing of what happened on the first. It’s also the process that we all go through, constantly, throughout our lives.
We look to the first mountain because it’s impressive.
We think it’s about prayer,
What it’s actually about is how faithful God is, but also how quickly we can turn that faithfulness into sanctified violence. We feel right, and we need others to know how right we are. We are so eager to turn our rightness against others and use God’s actions as a justification for our own behaviour.
I’ve seen this,
I’ve done this.
When we feel as if we know the truth we feel compelled to tell others how wrong they are. When we feel like God is on our side we feel justified in acting against those that we assume God is therefore against.
We forget however, that the biggest mistake we can make is to assume that just because God is on our side, that means he is not on their side as well.
What God seems to be doing on the second mountain is collapsing all of the sacred visions that Elijah had, that had allowed him to engage in the actions that so violated God’s character.
Elijah, I was on your side.
But I was also on theirs.
I was on their side so much that I sent a fireball from heaven to show them what they needed to see.
And it worked.
And then you killed them all.
It wasn’t that God didn’t send a fireball,
It was that he didn’t need Elijah to use that to slaughter all of his enemies.
No wonder Elijah was so terrified.
You see, we know how to worship a God who sends a fireball.
We worship the fireball God,
So get yourselves in line otherwise we’ll use that force against you.
It’s much harder to worship the God of the still, small voice.
In the words of Elijah,
How do we be zealous for the God of the whisper?
The God who isn’t into fierce winds, or earthquakes, or fireballs.
The second mountain is important for us because it represents the sacred undoing of all of the things we thought we knew about God.
The second mountain is a painful and terrifying place to be.
It makes you feel isolated,
It makes you feel confused,
It makes you feel weak.
But it’s also the place we all come to at some point. Standing on the edge of the mountain hearing the whisper that says
what are you doing here?
Some people call this a deconstruction,
Others a crisis of faith or a crisis of confidence.
I call it
The undoing that comes from encountering God on the second mountain makes way for a newness that is inconceivable on the first. This story is not just found in the book of Kings, it is woven through both the story of scripture and the structure of life itself.
For something new to grow,
something else must fade.
Death isn’t just the end of life it’s also the beginning.