Convergence and Divergence: Moses and Elijah and the “Still Small Voice”

The most grandiose theophany in the Old Testament is arguably the appearance of God on Mount Sinai in Exodus 19, just prior to the giving of the 10 Commandments. In this scene, God uses the forces of nature that were deeply associated with His presence, such as fire, smoke, earthquake, thundering, and billowing clouds. Each element is typically used alone, but Exodus 20 records all of these manifestations at once; even “trumpets [were] thrown in for good measure.”1

While some scholars argue that this event was solely an earthquake and volcanic eruption caused without a true divine presence, the biblical account is sure to let readers know that contextually, the two cannot be separated.2 In Revelation 4:5 “the identical things witnessed on Sinai” are present at God’s throne, thus verifying that God was truly present at Sinai.3

1 Kings 19 documents Elijah’s encounter with God also on His mountain (verse 8). There are notable similarities and differences between the theophanies of Moses and Elijah on Mount Sinai. The description in 1 Kings “speaks of three manifestations[:] the smoke on the whole mountain, the fire which is connected with the descent of Yahweh and the great quaking of the whole mountain.”4 Interestingly, although these same displays take place in Exodus, in Elijah’s account God disassociates His “divine presence from the wind, earthquake, and fire,” perhaps revealing to Elijah that He is more than mere wonders of nature in contrast to Baal who was only known for his association with nature.5 And further, Yahweh may be saying that He is able to communicate to His people in ways that are more personal by being in a “still small voice.”6

The expression “still small voice” comes from the Hebrew phrase qol demamah daqqah. Qol is used 505 times in the Old Testament and is translated as “voice” 383 times. It can also mean “sound,” “noise,” and “thunder,” depending on the context and the intensity of the sound the writer desires to convey (such as in Exodus 19 and 20 where it is translated as “thunder”). Daqqah is used 14 times in the Old Testament and means “small” in each occurrence. Demamah is only used three times and means various things in each context, giving depth to the word. In Job 4:16, this word is used to mean “silence,” while Psalm 107:29 translates it to be “calm.” Lastly, it means “still” in 1 Kings 19:12. In the Septuagint (LXX), demamah is translated twice as calm or calmness.

Gene Rice suggests that this expression in Hebrew has a fuller meaning which conveys a more tangible sense of silence that was still, calming Elijah’s anxious-filled heart.7 This “still small voice” (NKJV), “soft whisper” (CSB), “gentle breeze” (CEV), or calming silence was so powerful that the prophet in 1 Kings 19:13 wraps “his face in a mantle,” similar to Moses’ position when God passed by him in Exodus 33. One commentary notes that “Elijah’s reaction in wrapping his face” is very similar to the way Moses had to stand in order to veil his eyes from the face of God.8

Still, though the beginnings of both theophanies are similar, they end quite differently. Perhaps Moses’ encounter showcases God’s power and fearfulness; whereas God demonstrates to Elijah that He is not dependent on grand outward displays, but can speak “directly to the human heart.”9 Both theophanies were revolutionary events that revealed God’s untouchable power and His personal presence that reaches the deepest part of man’s heart.

Notes & References:

2. Martin Noth, Exodus, trans. J S Bowden (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1959), 159-160.

Chermilyn Pedernal is a third year Religious Studies Major at Burman University, Canada. She loves studying the Bible and plans to be actively involved in ministry in some capacity upon graduation.

Photo by Vlad Kiselov on Unsplash

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Thank you for the wonderful study, Chermilyn–most enlightening. It was especially interesting to learn about the Hebrew words that make up the phrase translated as “still small voice.” (I’ve never studied Hebrew. After one year as a theology major, I switched to an English major in 1977.)

About the parallels between Elijah’s and Moses’s theophanies: When I teach the 1 Kings passage in my Bible as Lit class at Penn State, I put Elijah’s journey to Mt. Sinai (after his successful challenge to idolatry on Mt. Carmel) in the context of the prophet’s desire to replay the dialogue between God and Moses in Exodus 32-34 (in the wake of the Golden Calf incident).

God asks for him to account for his presence on Mt. Sinai ("What are you doing here, Elijah?”), and Elijah lodges a complaint against the people of Israel ("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”). In Elijah’s copy of the script, God is supposed to respond as he did to Moses (“I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation”).

But this theophany is different (“the Lord was not in the wind … the Lord was not in the earthquake … the Lord was not in the fire”), and God asks again for Elijah to account for himself on Sinai (“What are you doing here, Elijah?”). But Elijah has not adjusted his position. Rather than interceding for Israel as Moses did, Elijah again accuses them, apparently still hoping that God will pick up on his cue from Exodus 32.

It’s fascinating to me that Elijah (as I see him) is eager to fashion himself as a new Moses: he goes on a journey of biblical proportions (forty days and forty nights) to spend the night in a cave on Mt. Sinai (as God put Moses in a cleft of the rock) and be there as the Lord passes by. But just as God does not reprise his Exodus 19-20 appearance, he insists on giving Elijah his own assignment. Everyone has his or her own story, and God seldom does the same thing twice.

Thank you so much for sharing your insights, Chermilyn. God bless you as you study and prepare for your own ministry of proclaiming God’s word.

…and along comes Jesus.

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