When Peter stepped out of the boat to walk to Jesus on the water, we can be certain that he rocked that boat.

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Big Bazooka or Still Small Voice?

My mother was an LRAM: a Licentiate of the Royal Academy of Music. She filled our lives with music, as you can imagine, and encouraged her children to play instruments and sing. One of the pieces I never tire of is Mendelssohn's dramatic telling of the story of Elijah, for Elijah is one of my great heroes.

The reason for his greatness is that he subjected himself to a complete re-appraisal of his understanding of God and ended by abandoning some of his most cherished beliefs as a result of listening to the living Word that God spoke to him.

Elijah on Mt CarmelIf you remember, he started by condemning the ungodly behaviour of his countrymen and took it upon himself to call down punishment from heaven in the form of a devastating drought. Eventually he concluded this episode by setting up a full dress confrontation with the prophets of Baal who at that time were enjoying the royal patronage of the king's wife Jezebel. The contest involved seeing whose god, Elijah's or the Baal backed by Jezebel, would send down fire and consume an ox slaughtered for sacrifice on an altar. Of course it was Elijah's god who carried the day, and Elijah took advantage of the occasion to slaughter as many of the prophets of Baal as he and his followers could run down.

This is a classic example of the idea of God as Big Bazooka: my god is bigger than your god and he's going to blast your god off the face of the earth. There's plenty of material in the Bible that could be classed as coming from this stable.

Yet what did it achieve, this victory for the bigger bazooka over the lesser bazooka? First of all, Elijah made himself a deadly enemy: Jezebel was not happy to see her prophets slaughtered and she sets the dogs onto Elijah. Far from achieving any kind of supremacy through his great victory on Mount Carmel, within days he is running for his life. Shortly afterwards he is begging God to let him die: he feels himself a complete failure. He has achieved nothing worse than nothing - with his Big Bazooka understanding of the nature of God.

Happily, that is not the end of the story. Terrified and exhausted, Elijah takes refuge on Horeb, the mount of God. Here he is witness to a trioElijah on Mt Horeb of the terrible forces of nature that epitomise naked power, especially destructive power. Yet neither in typhoon, nor earthquake, nor raging fire does he find the presence of God. He finds the presence of God through a still small voice speaking in his heart. That is how God works to change things: the almighty creator of the universe rejects displays of raw power, rejects interfering in the workings of the world by main force and direct interference; instead he works through the agency of individual humans moved by that weakest of forces, the voice of individual conscience.

For this willingness to embrace the counter-intuitive, to re-appraise a view of God that was centuries old in short, to abandon the perfectly serviceable boat of the beliefs with which he was raised I rate Elijah as one of the great men of all time, and I am not surprised that he is one of only two figures said to have been seen in company with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration.

This does raise questions, however, about the parts of the Bible which clearly do understand God as the Big Bazooka. Are we in fact dealing with a book that contains quite contradictory understandings of the nature of God? And if so, how do we react to that?

Take, for example, the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, particularly the way these two cities were destroyed. The Bible portrays it as a direct and mighty interference in the affairs of men by an angry God a Big Bazooka action if ever I saw one. I very much doubt whether Elijah would have understood it that way after his experience on Mt Horeb. More likely he would have put it down to natural phenomena along the lines of the earthquake, fire or tempest that he had so dramatically witnessed himself and found to be devoid of the presence of God. It reinforces what I have said about the need to be rigorously critical in our handling of the Biblical material and to question hard the all-or-nothing argument.


© Hugh de Saram 2014;