At the mountain of God, Horeb, Elijah came to a cave where he took shelter. Then the LORD said to him, “Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by.” A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD — but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake — but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire — but the LORD was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound. When he heard this, Elijah hid his face in his cloak and went and stood at the entrance of the cave. — 1 Kings 19:9a, 11-13a
How does God speak to us? In this account from first book of Kings, God doesn’t speak to Elijah in a hurricane or in an earthquake or in a roaring fire. But in “a tiny whispering sound.”
You know you’re onto something special when biblical translators can’t agree on a particular phrase. In this case — “a tiny whispering sound” — they’re all over the map. Depending on the translation, God speaks to Elijah in “a gentle breeze” or in “the soft whisper of a voice” or in “a hissing of thin wind, or breathing softly” or in “a whistling of a gentle air” or in “a still, small voice.”
Of these, I’ve always liked “a still, small voice.” The stillness of the voice requires me as a listener to be still as well. The smallness of the voice requires me to pay utmost attention. “Small voice” is also what children use in their most vulnerable moments and most intimate communications to express contentment or fear or delight. There’s a lot to be said for listening to God as we listen to little children.
Even so, another, totally unauthorized translation came to me as I pondered this verse. Perhaps a good way to render the biblical phrase to is say that God speaks in “a scratching sound.” At night, in the deep dark, if I hear a scratching sound, I perk up my ears. I listen with all my intensity to determine what the scratching means. Is it an animal? A branch scraping against the bricks? A person?
I like “scratching” because, like “a hissing of thin wind” or “a gentle breeze,” there are no words involved. Whatever communication occurs is visceral. Also, another way to think of “scratching” is as an itch. God as an itch? That image works for me.
Patrick T. Reardon