Section 3: The Cave

Word Of God - Word of Earth
by B. Davie Napier

Section 3: The Cave

Virtually all modern scholars in all the surviving biblical faiths (except, of course, those of essentially fundamentalist persuasion) are agreed that the four primary Elijah narratives (1 Kings 17-19,21) have suffered intrusion, alteration, and expansion in the long centuries of transmission before they became unalterably fixed in the early years of our own Common Era.

Here is the narrative of the Cave (1 Kings 19) as it may first have come to form, oral or written, still in Elijah's own century. The reading is reconstructed from the present Hebrew text in consultation with other primary versions and translations, and out of respect for the critical judgments of major scholars of this century. At the same time, I hope it is not necessary for me to say I do not believe that this or any other comparable effort may lay claim to the precisely literal recovery of the text as it was first given determinative form by the genius of the original Elijah narrator(s). This, one knows, is an achievement that may never be.

It is, however, clear that the story is now disfigured, not only by would-be "improvers" of the textual tradition but also by an indiscriminate fusion in the popular mind of the Elijah and Elisha images and narratives. One has only to compare the two literary parallels (there are no more) in the two cycles of stories -- those of the flour and oil, and of the widow's son -- to be aware of the historical and conceptual chasm that separates them. The Elisha parallels are a rank and, of course, insubstantial imitation -- one has to say, again in quotes, "improvement" -- of the Elijah episodes, designed to represent Elisha as the greater miracle worker. Indeed, even subsequent Elijah traditionists have touched the narratives here and there so as to say to the rival Elisha people, "But you see, our prophet too was quite a miracle worker!"

In the four chapters of 1 Kings that are in the main the creation of the Elijah narrator, we meet a highly gifted verbalist, who is given to the use of unique words, forms, and structures; who is relatively sophisticated; who, as compared with the Elisha narrators, for example, appears to be notably disinterested in miracle for the sake of miracle; and who shares with Elijah himself a kind of precognition of the substance of classical prophetism.

His work ranks with the finest classical Hebrew prose to be found anywhere in the Old Testament, displaying a phenomenal verbal/literary technique in the use of humor and irony, in subtle, sensitive character portrayal, and in effective, varied appeal to human emotion. And in the reconstruction and/or creation of dialogue, the Elijah narrator is unsurpassed.

Here, then, a critical reconstruction of the narrative of the Cave.


On the Way to the Cave: Kings 19:2-6a, 8

2. Now Jezebel sent this word to Elijah: "If you are Elijah, I am

3. Jezebel!" Frightened for his life, he ran away; and when he got to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there and went on

4. himself for a day into the wilderness; until at last he sat down under a broom tree and prayed that he might die. "I've had it Yahweh," he said. "Take my life: I'm no better than those

5. who've gone before me." He lay down there and went to sleep, until suddenly someone touched him and said, "Wake up and

6a. eat." He looked about -- and there at his head was a stone- 8. baked biscuit and a jar of water. So he ate and drank and then,

on the strength of that nourishment, he went on to Horeb.

The Stay at the Cave: 1 Kings 19:9a, 11b, 12-15, 18

9a. Coming there to a cave, he spent the night.

11b. And there was a mighty wind

Not in the wind was Yahweh

And after the wind, earthquake

Not in the earthquake was Yahweh

12. And after the earthquake, fire

Not in the fire was Yahweh

And after the fire --

A sound of gentle silence.

13. Upon hearing this, Elijah covered his face with his robe and went out to take his position at the mouth of the cave. It was only now that the Word of Yahweh was: "What are you doing

14. here, Elijah?" Elijah replied: "I have been passionately devoted to Yahweh, Cod of hosts, even while the people of Israel have abandoned you. Your altars they have destroyed, your prophets they have put to death with the sword. I am left now,

15a. myself, alone; and they are after me to take my life!" But Yahweh answered him, "Go back the way you have come;

18. because there are still seven thousand left in Israel whose knees have never bent to Baal, nor whose lips have kissed him!"

The Way Back from the Cave: 1 Kings 19:19-21

19. Leaving that place (Elijah) came upon Elisha son of Shaphat plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him, and he with the twelfth. As Elijah passed by, he tossed his robe over him.

20. leaving the oxen, (Elisha) ran after Elijah and said, "Let me give my father and mother a farewell kiss; then I will follow you." Elijah said to him, "Go on back: what claim have I got

21. over you?" Leaving him, Elisha went back, took the pair of oxen, slaughtered them, used the implements (of plowing) to cook their flesh, and gave (it) to the people to eat. Then he left to follow Elijah, and he became his disciple.

It is, of course, our story: the threat, real or simply paranoid; the flight in terror through the wilderness of despair; the wonder of sustenance in the desert; the darkness, the stillness, the strangely comforting loneliness of the cave in which we spend a night or a week or however long it takes for the noise and fury of our hell to subside; the perception of the gift, now, of gentle silence; the miracle, then, of the discovery anew of the "isness" of the Word, but the immediate, bitter protest against it because it will not let us stay in this place of haven from storm, this realm of the silence of gentleness, because it sends us back again, and because it rebukes the pride of our paranoia, our monumental sense of absolutely unique commitment and persecution; and finally our return, to call an Elisha on the way and to resume the work of ministry to Word of God and word of earth, renewed by the whole kaleidoscopic experience of the trip to the Cave.



(V.2) Now Jezebel sent this word to Elijah: "If you are Elijah, I am Jezebel!"

This is verse 2 of the chapter. With very considerable critical support, verse 1 is omitted as a secondary and artificial link between chapters 17-18 and chapter 19. The present verse I reports that Ahab told the whole Carmel story to Jezebel. I don't protest the order of the chapters but suspect, along with a lot of others who've worked this through, that this Cave narrative was originally independent of the sequences of the drought in 17-18. And Jezebel's message is as it is preserved in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of Hebrew scripture completed in the closing centuries of the preChristian era. That text presupposes the magnificent and, one suspects, authentic Hebrew line: "If you are Elijah, then I am Jezebel"; you may be a prophet, but I am royalty; your name may mean "God is Yahweh," but as long as I'm here neither you nor Yahweh will stand in the kingdom of this royal house!

Make your own appropriations. Here are some of mine. It's a beautiful Saturday morning in Nanking. I'm attending Hillcrest American School and boarding with a missionary couple near retirement, their kids long since grown. It's a matter of dispute between them and me whether I'm supposed to practice the piano on Saturday. I haven't this morning. I've gone out to play. I'm ten years old. Mrs. Wilson, furious, calls me into the house. "If you are Davie, I am Mrs. Wilson." My parents are summoned from Chinkiang, two hours by rail down the Yangtze, and I am put to bed on bread and water for the rest of the weekend. (I am devastated for Saturday, but secretly I do not mind missing the long Sunday in church.) The trip to the Cave was real, but short.

Years later, 1939. I am in seminary, third year, Christmas vacation near. Failing vision in my left eye; detachment of the retina; immediate operation at Johns Hopkins and possible abandonment of projected Ph.D. program in Old Testament. "If you are Davie, I am Adversity." The trip to the Cave was longer.

It is the late 1940s. I am the teaching chaplain at the University of Georgia. It is, of course, before the Supreme Court decision of 1954 and the Martin Luther King era of the 1960s. My wife, lay, and I host a seminar of mine -- all white, of course -- for dinner and, as it turned out, a very long evening's discussion with three black Morehouse faculty, George Kelsey in Christian Ethics, A. E. Jones in French, and Ed Williams in Economics. An influential university colleague learns of it and confronts me in fury: "You ate with niggers? I'll have you fired if it's the last thing I do!" If you are Davie, I am Bill. (Even, then, he couldn't do it: Dr. Harmon CaldwelI, then president, stood firm and, for the time, courageously in my support.)

Now it is the 1950s. I am on the faculty of the Yale Divinity School, collaborating with a colleague at another seminary on what is to be a jointly written introduction to the Old Testament. Suddenly in the midst of the venture he writes, in effect, Your stuff is too inferior to mine to be published with it. "If you are Davie, I am (shall we say) Egbert." On that one too I went to the Cave, where the Word, and my wife, Joy, and my colleague, Richard Niebuhr, sent me back to publish that same stuff in my first book, From Faith to Faith.

It is 1967. I am an outspoken university chaplain and I have offended the university's conservative constituency, including the president. The very simple message: "If you are the chaplain, I am the president." The issue then centered in Vietnam, the bitter opposition to it and its effects by the vast majority of students, and the role of the chapel as the center of the resistance. Years later, when he was no longer president and I was on my way elsewhere, but US personnel were still waging the war, he dropped by my office, fell glumly into a chair, and said, "Davie, what are we going to do about this damned war?"

This is to illustrate, autobiographically, something of the variety of the form of the trauma, Elijah/Jezebel, that may send us, running for life as it were, through the desert to the cave.

(Vs. 3-4) Frightened for his life, he (Elijah) ran away; and when he got to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there and went on himself for a day into the wilderness; until at last he sat down under a broom tree and prayed that he might die. "I've had it, Yahweh," he said. "Take my life: I'm no better than those who've gone before me."

Elijah: God person, Yahweh prophet, drought manager, theological persuader -- this Elijah is terrified, literally scared out of his wits and running for his life. It is interesting and understandable that in the history of Elijah tradition, "fear" was changed to "awareness" -- a simple alteration in vowels in Hebrew -- so that the mighty prophet is represented as running away not because he is frightened but because he "sees"; he is prudently aware of Jezebel's implicit threat. Elijah's fear only serves to bring him closer to us. Our being in ministry -- as Elijah and his narrators know very well -- provides us in the faith with neither doubtlessness nor fearlessness, and our total ministry, like Elijah's, is enhanced by our acknowledgment of full susceptibility to all the natural shocks that flesh and faith are heir to.

Some suggest that Elijah is suicidal.(1) I wonder. There may well be a little Semitic-Oriental hyperbole here, as also in the Moses saga, when Moses says, If this is the way it is to be, then take my life.(2) Elijah is devastated, in despair, and shattered. He knows the not uncharacteristic prophetic wish, then and now, to be derobed, demantled, defrocked. You can have the whole thing, Yahweh, he says. Carry on, Yahweh-but count me out. Go ahead with your fight, but ohne mich. And dear God, don't we all know this! So let's get it out, with a proper prayer, not a conventionally pious prayer like, you know, "O Lord, I'm courageous; only help thou mine uncourage." We ought to be able to say, "Yahweh, eternal God, Lord of my Lord Jesus Christ, I've had all of Jezebel I can stand! Get her off my back! And if you can't do that, then I say the whole deal stinks, and I want out! I've had it, Yahweh. I'm no better than my mothers, my fathers, my ancestors, those who have gone before me. It is enough.... Take my life, since, God knows, I am not better than they."

(VV. 5,6a,8) He lay down there and went to sleep; until suddenly someone touched him and said, "Wake up and eat." He looked about -- and there at his head was a stone-baked biscuit and a jar of water. So he ate and drank and then, on the strength of that nourishment, he went on to Horeb.

The present text reads, by later insertion, that Elijah went "forty days and forty nights" to Horeb. This is a well-meaning but bungling and imprecise transfer from the saga of Moses, who spent forty days and forty nights on the sacred mountain.(3) This notice nevertheless testifies to the judgment of tradition that Elijah is in rank comparable to Moses.

Here we go again. Improbable ravens improbably feed us in the wadi of a dying stream. Preposterously, we are sustained in the home of a widow, herself and her son on the verge of death by starvation. How perverse of us, dearly beloved, that we are, as we are, in terror! And now, in this desert of despair, despondent enough to be at least talking suicide, someone -- thank God for someone -- who was it, and who told this someone of my presence here, and of my deathlike discouragement? -- someone touched me, woke me out of my dreams of desertion and death, spoke to me face to face, voice to ear, person to person, and gave me food and drink. Someone. Thank God for someone!

It is a fact of our condition in ministry, indeed a fact of the condition of faith, that we will be sustained in ways all but incredible -- no, really incredible -- even in our flight in terror through the wilderness of despair.

And it is "someone"; not, as the later, present expansion of the text would have it, "someone, an angel." This appositional intrusion of orthodox piety enters the text at verse 5 some time after the simple, grace-full mystery of the original narrative had already been "clarified" with the addition of verses 6b and 7. These lines are added far the sake of the role of the angel and to accord the proper deference due this prophetic patriarch. According to this insertion, Elijah goes back to sleep again, to be awakened a second time not by an indefinite "someone" but by an angel of Yahweh; and this time the prophet is not only fed but verbally, sentimentally, romantically soothed: Eat now, sweet prophet, because you've got to make it all the way to the Cave! If we know what it is to live on raven food and widow fare, we can accept gracefully the grace of God from any "someone" who proffers it. The "someone" of the original text in any case makes a better angel.

Consistently now, the fare of ministry-in-crisis is or ought to be simple, modest, perhaps even frugal -- although how many of us can lay claim to that? Here, it is water to drink; and to eat, a biscuit, a scone, a small piece of dough baked on the hot stones. The Hebrew word is 'ugah, and we get same notion of its meagerness when Hosea denounces Ephraim as a little piece of dough cooked on only one side; literally, a half-baked 'ugah.(4)

It is, of course, the profound point of this scene of the narrative that on the strength, if need be in crisis, only of a little bread and water, Elijah and we go on to Horeb.

THE STAY AT THE CAVE: VV. 9a, 11b, 12-15a, 18

(V.9a) Coming there (Mount Horeb) to a cave, he spent the night.

If we may presume now to clear away editorial additions from subsequent traditionists whose spontaneous but misconceived aim it was to enhance the splendor of the theophany and bring it into conformity with Mosaic saga, (5) then we have before us a description that is incomparably eloquent by virtue precisely of economy, simplicity, and, in all of biblical literature, stark singularity. Time stands quite still. It is a moment of crisis majestically detached from all known and common ways, and it is recounted in Hebrew without the use of a single verb to sap the naked power of static, substantive words. We can get by in English using only the imperfect of the verb "to be," but the Hebrew remains starker, barer, more powerful, more arresting:

(V. 11b) There was a mighty wind

Not in the wind was Yahweh

And after the wind earthquake

Not in the earthquake was yahweh

(V. 12) And after the earthquake fire

Not in the fire was Yahweh

And after the fire --

A sound of gentle silence.

This reading omits, again with nearly unanimous critical support, verses 9b-10, an almost identical duplication of verses 13b-14. The question "What are you doing here, Elijah?" and his response are appropriate only after he emerges from the cave. The command of 11a to "stand before Yahweh" is also premature; and what immediately follows in 11a, the notice that "Yahweh passed by," is an import from Mosaic theophanies where Yahweh manifests himself in these very physical phenomena:

Now at daybreak on the third day there were peals of thunder on the mountain and lightning flashes, a dense cloud, and a loud trumpet blast. . . The mountain (of Sinai (-- Horeb)) was entirely wrapped in smoke, because Yahweh had descended on it in the form of fire. Like smoke from a furnace the smoke went up, and the whole mountain shook violently. . . . Moses spoke, and God answered with peals of thunder.

(Again) Moses said, "Show me your glory, I beg you." And (Yahweh) said, "I will let all my splendour pass in front of you. . . . You cannot see my face . . . for (one) cannot see me and live. . . . (But) here is a place beside me. You must stand on the rock, and when my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with my hand while I pass by. Then I will take my hand away and you shall see the back of me; but my face is not to be seen."(6)

The command to Elijah to stand before Yahweh while Yahweh passes by, as well as the phrases which enhance the violence of the wind in verse 11, are accretions all but irresistibly motivated by the fact of the coincidence of the Sinai-Horeb theophanies and by tradition's firm establishment of a kind of Moses-Elijah parity.

But all this serves only to create a contradiction in the narrative of Elijah, where we have to do not with a cleft in the rock but with the Cave, and where it is the emphatic point of the Elijah narrative, the precise point, that in the violent physical phenomena of wind, earthquake, and fire, Yahweh is not only not passing by but that in no sense whatsoever is he even present in these phenomena. One suspects that the narrative stands as a splendid rebuke to all of those (or any of us) nature worshipers who are episodically disposed to make a theophany out of natural phenomena from sex to sunset, mountain to sea, rose to artichoke.(7)

Alas, dear hearts. it is not even the still, small voice. When the deafening sound of the awe-full violence of nature is past and there is that sudden, contrasting gentleness of quiet, that audible voice of silence, it is the Word of Yahweh (preserved in verse 9a) that is, that comes, that occurs, that happens, that is articulate and apprehendable. Since a theophany is "a physical presentation or manifestation of deity ... a brief appearance of deity,"(8) it is a question whether Elijah's experience on the sacred mountain is a theophany at all. Yahweh was not in wind, earthquake, or fire; and after all of these, there was a sound of gentle silence.

(V.13) Upon hearing this, Elijah covered his face with his robe and went out to take his position at the mouth of the cave. It was only now that the World of Yahweh was (that is, that it came, that it occurred, that it happened, that it was articulate and apprehendable): "What are you doing here, Elijah?"

Mab-lecha poh 'elyahu?

Elijah replied.

Now watch the defense mechanism come into play. Elijah is of course taken aback. He is affronted. What kind of Yahweh Word is this, this implicit rebuff? Doesn't he understand that it's this damned prophetic role of his that brings me here to the Cave, shattered, exhausted, running and hiding far my very life? I don't need this critical-interrogating Word; I need the healing Word, the affirming Word, the stroking Word.

(V.14) Elijah replied (to that seemingly uninformed, unsympathetic Word, Elijah replied testily): "I have been passionately devoted to Yahweh, God of hosts, even while the people of Israel have abandoned you. Your altars they have destroyed, your prophets they have put to death with the sword. I am left now, myself, alone; and they are after me to talse my life!"

One can hear it on occasion from any parish minister in the land: Yahweh's Lone Ranger... Horatio at the Bridge... Hans Brinker with his silver skates and his finger in the dike (or was that somebody else?) . .. the last single remaining bastion of theological and prophetic integrity... and, for background music, the Tannhauser Overture. Don't you understand: they are after me!

(V. 15a) But Yahweh answered (Elijah): "Go back the way you have come....

I'm omitting verses 15b, 16, and 17, the tri-commission to anoint two kings and a prophet: Hazael over Syria, Jehu over Israel, and Elisha to succeed Elijah himself. The late Prof. James Montgomery, whose commentary on Kings published post-humously in 1951 under the editorship of Henry Gehman was the last volume in the distinguished series, The International Critical Commentary, writes of these verses and the commission:

This sequel remains a standing puzzle. Elijah did not anoint Hazael and Jehu; it was Elisha (who) suggested to Hazael the murder of his predecessor (II Kings 8:7ff.), and who indirectly anointed Jehu (9:lff.). The alleged commission to Elijah appears to be a case of transfer from the Elisha legend.(9)

To which I would simply add that even the commission to "anoint" Elisha is spurious: aside from the single instance of Isaiah 61:1, where the reference is probably only metaphorical,(10) there is no evidence whatsoever that the practice of anointing prophets existed in Old Testament Israel.

(VV. 15a, 18) Yahweh answered (Elijah): "Go back the way you have come.. .. Retrace your steps; return to where and what you were because there are still seven thousand left in Israel (the number is no census count but a round number, "thousands upon thousands") whose knees have never bent to Baal, nor whose lips have kissed him!"

The way to the cave or, to broaden the metaphor, the ways to the caves are as crowded these US years as roads to the beaches on Labor Day weekend. Why have we become a generation of cave-seekers? Well, if Elijah is legion, then so is Jezebel; and if Jezebel is legion, so is the cave.

As the flight to the cave is undertaken by vast numbers for a vast range of reasons, so too the nature of the cave varies vastly and appropriately. Nevertheless, every search for the cave represents the more or less desperate craving of the searcher for relief from coping with the seemingly uncopeable. The cave is the womb.

A few of the obvious drives that pack us off, daily or weekly or episodically or, for some, in hope, permanently, are fear or even terror in the particular given set of circumstances; the sheer discouragement and exhaustion of facing questions without answer; profound disillusionment -- it takes many forms -- with the pertinent, prevailing system or systems; deep and bitter contempt for one’s own society, bred of the abysmal failure to attain in consistent practice even a semblance of the justice professed and acclaimed; despair -- so it was with the college generation of the late sixties -- over the formidable obduracy of a political establishment in going its merciless way quite apparently deaf to the cries of anguish of its empathetic and real victims, victims by the tens of millions here and around the world. The Brazilian bishop Dam Helder Camara, in that same Harvard address from which I quoted in the preceding chapter, tells us to "beware of escape mechanisms, conscious or not." And then he calls attention to what is surely in potential one of our most disastrous forms of cavism:

Beware, especially, of a very serious sign -- and here I think, above all, of the admirable youth of today's world: the danger that after the enthusiasm, the dedication without limits, the commitment during university days, they will reach the phase of installation in life, of conformism, of bourgeoisie-ism, of the death of ideals.11

"What are you doing here, Elijah?"

The traffic to the cave may embrace us all, rich and poor, royalty and commoner, black and white, free and slave, female and male, peasant and landowner, exploiter and oppressed-and all of us bent an exchanging what we deem to be an unremediable, intolerable, essentially uninhabitable situation for peace -- or even the illusion of peace. And the range of caves runs from the old standbys of sex and alcohol and other drugs to TA (Transactional Analysis), TM (Transcendental Meditation), TV (before whom, on an average, we stand, sit, lie, eat, and drink an unconscionable and unbelievable number of adult hours per week), TF (touchy-feely in dual or group encounters), TZ (try Zen), TS (take Sominex), or even, in some circles, TJ (take Jesus - in this sense an icon distantly derived from Jesus Christ), and literally scores of others.

And one more cave in the "T" series, TB -- turn back; turn back to the past; if we can't hold it intact in every present we can return to it. I'm told -- I don't know this -- that the most popular song surviving from the Beatles era is "Yesterday." "I believe in yesterday." It is possible to go even farther back into the cave. A San Francisco columnist, writing within days of President Ford's accession, said of him, "He likes things to be the way they were the day before yesterday."


Now, it is not my intention to say that the cave has no legitimate function. Elijah came back from the cave revived, renewed. Although the Word of Yahweh appears to have been absent and silent in the cave, the experience of the cave, the recapitulation of the womb, the distance and perspective afforded by the cave from and upon Baalism and Jezebel and Israel -- all this was and is a legitimate gift of the legitimate and essential cave trip. It maybe given to us, to all Elijahs, to return from the cave with fear and terror, if not allayed, at least in control; with new resources given to face unanswerable questions with courage and endurance; with disillusionment transformed to fresh determination; with societal contempt converted again to sorrow, compassion, and resolution; and with despair turning back once more to prophetic passion.

I hope it is unnecessary to say that both the church and the seminary suffer erosion of authenticity in proportion to the measure of their acquiescence in institutional cave-playing. Many, lay and clergy, would make the church the cave, the escape, the refuge, the womb. The resources of faith, which by the grace of God are imparted to the church as gifts to be given and proclaimed, are themselves such, properly dispensed, as to render infrequent or unnecessary the trip to the cave. But the church itself may not be the cave, except at the cost of losing both the Word of God and the word of earth.

So, too, the seminary, where we must look harder and more critically than we have in the past at applicants who are clearly seeking not a theological education but in fact the cave. Dr. John Kildahl, a practicing New York psychoanalyst and an adjunct seminary instructor, believes that we in the seminaries have been admitting too many theological students with high dependency needs and with consequently sustained and often serious psychological problems. He calls for the admission not of unturbulent people but of men and women, in his words, "who see the ministry more as a mission than (as) a haven.(12) It remains a fact of contemporary seminary existence in North America that too many of our students (and faculty) demand of the theological institution that it be the cave, and remain bitterly and vocally critical of it when and as it declines so to function.

For all the legitimacy of the cave trip, the Word that comes when we emerge from the cave where alone the Word is accessible to us-the Word that comes is always the same: "What are you doing here? Do you know what you are doing here? And, if you know why you have come, then go back to what and where and who you were."

Paulo Freire says that we "are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection." And in a note on that statement he comments:

I obviously do not refer to the silence of profound meditation [could we say, the cave), in which (one) only apparently leaves the world, withdrawing from it in order to consider it in its totality, and thus remaining with it. But this type of retreat is only authentic when the meditator is "bathed" in reality; not when the retreat signifies . . . flight from (the world), in a type of "historical schizophrenia."(13)

At a 1974 meeting of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches in West Berlin the chairman, Dr. M. M. Thomas, said almost wistfully, at the conclusion of an address insisting (these were not his terms) on the inseparability of the Word of God and the word of earth: "I sometimes wish . . . that we could interpret (the theme) 'Christ only' as withdrawal from these many worlds and many responsibilities. But we cannot, because in and through Christ God renews all (persons) and all things."

In the same address he had earlier said:

As both a temporal and spiritual being, (one cannot) be involved in a purely "horizontal" or purely "vertical" activity; the horizontal/vertical, the social/spiritual dimensions meet in human nature and in all human aspirations and activities. . . . Living theology is a dialogue between the gospel of Christ and the self-understanding of men and women in concrete situations.. .. (So) evangelistic witness must be related to the deepest concerns of men and women.(14)

 "What are you doing here, Elijah?" You may stay overnight, as it were, in the cave; but you may not stay in the cave, shut off from the word of earth, and so from Word of God. This is the very Word of God: Go back now, to hear and heed the word of earth!

Do we understand in church and seminary what Freire is talking about when he says that people "cannot save themselves (no matter how one understands 'salvation'), either as individuals or as an oppressor class. Salvation can be achieved only with others."? (15)

And it is Rosemary Ruether who suggests that there are two ways falsely to appropriate the transcendent. One is to domesticate it; the other is to separate it, isolate the Word, cut it away from the whole of human life. "Both the establishment (domestication) of Christianity and the segregation of the sacred to a sphere removed from the midst of life are equally ways of abolishing the presence of the Holy Spirit, so that the world of the powers and principalities can go on as before.(16)

Domestication is the double altar. It is Baalism. The attempt at sustained separation is cavism, tolerable, acceptable, even therapeutic as temporary expedient, but quickly self-defeating since word of earth and, in consequence, Word of God are shut away.

"What are you doing here, Elijah?. . . Go back the way you have come; because there are still seven thousand (thousands upon thousands, a multitude, vast throngs) ... whose knees have never bent to Baal, nor whose lips have kissed him!"


It is possible, as an occasional textual critic has suggested, and as The Jerusalem Bible footnotes, that the closing verses of 1 Kings 19 are transferred or borrowed from the Elisha cycle of stories. Be that as it may, these lines offer a sharply appropriate climax to the narrative of the Cave.

(VV. 19-21) Leaving that place. . Leaving the cave....(Elijah) came upon Elisha son of Shaphat plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him, and he with the twelfth. As Elijah passed by, he tossed his robe over him. Leaving the oxen . .

The Hebrew term may be stronger than this. "Leaving" suggests that Elisha may momentarily return. But the verb probably connotes the act of forswearing, of abandonment of all that is represented in habaqar the oxen or, better, the cattle, as the symbol of the life and work from which now Elisha means to separate himself, permanently and with finality. His very brief return, in a moment, is a ritual performance of that intention.

Leaving the oxen, (Elisha) ran after Elijah and said, "Let me give my father and mother a farewell kiss; then I will follow you." Elijah said to him, "Go on back: what claim have I got aver you?" Leaving him, Elisha went hack, took the pair of oxen, slaughtered them, used the implements (of plowing) to cook their flesh, and gave (it) to the people to eat. Then he left to follow Elijah, and he became his disciple.

Don't misunderstand me; which may only be a way of saying to myself, Don't let me misunderstand me. The cave may be good, recreative, restorative, and therefore essential; but not cavism, which would institutionalize the cave. Cave, si; cavism, no! The cave gives shelter when the furies without and within are raging beyond all control, and the Word comes more easily and distinctly after the grateful sound of gentle silence and our emergence from this place of isolation and security. It is now that we know, in the Word of God and the word of earth, that we are not alone, that we are surrounded in fact by clouds of living witnesses, that there is the work of the kingdom to be done, and disciples and colleagues, intimate Elishas, with whom to be doing the work.

Go back. Always go back; and on the way, always on the way, find, commission, enlist, and inspire Elisha and Elisha and Elisha. Go -- with the Word of God and the word of earth.

Go, with Elijah and Elisha. Go, with Gustavo Gutierrez, who would bid us be mindful of that great company of anonymous Christians who, unable for compelling reasons to name the name of Yahweh/Christ, are nevertheless among the thousands who have not and will not bow down to Baal; and who reminds us that, in Christ, God has "irreversibly committed himself to the present moment of mankind (he means, of course, every present moment) to carry it to its fulfillment."(17)

Go with Elijah and Elisha.

Go with Dam Helder Camara, who, on rare and intimate terms with the bitter word of Brazilian earth as well as with the Word of God, is nevertheless able to declare:

I believe in a Creator and Father, who desired man [and woman] as co-Creators and who gave (them) intelligence and a creative imagination to dominate the universe and to complete the Creation .......and he constantly sends his Spirit to make the human mind fruitful, even as he made the waters fertile at the beginning of Creation.(18)

Go with Elijah and Elisha -- and with Paulo Freire, who, against odds much greater than we see or know, affirms his trust, as he says simply, "in the people," and his faith "in the creation of a world in which it will be easier to love."(19)

Go with Rainer Maria Rilke, too, who on August 12, 1904 wrote from Sweden to a young poet he never met (what a good Elijah person he was!):

We must assume our existence as broadly as we in any way can: everything, even the unheard of, must be possible in it. That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter. That mankind has in this sense been cowardly has done life endless harm; the experiences that are called "vision," the whole so-called "spirit-world," death, all those things that are so closely akin to us, have by daily parrying been so crowded out of life that the senses with which we could have grasped them are atrophied. To say nothing of God. (20)

In the same letter he writes, "We have no reason to mistrust our world, for it is not against us (Rilke too has heard the rebuke at the mouth of the Cave). If it has terrors, they are our terrors; if it has abysses, those abysses belong to us; (and) if there are dangers at hand, we must try to love them."(21)

Go with Elijah and Elisha. Go with all these. Go even with Gary MacEoin's conscientized Latin-American priests who choose to stay within the church and who do not, he writes, "see themselves as conduits of grace to tens of thousands of people. They are satisfied if they can create a few small islands of Christian life, leaving the future radiation to the Holy Spirit."(22)

We will go to the cave as we may and must when the time and place of our present moment become unendurable, when, in whatever way, we hear the terrifying word of threatened, unqualified disaster: If you are Elijah, I am Jezebel! But we will take only temporary lodging there. We will resist the drift or the drive toward cavism in ourselves, in the church and in seminary, and in the life of faith. On our way, always on our way in the earth, we will bring Elisha with us to the work of the Word of God and the word of earth; if we cannot do more -- it is enough -- we will create islands of authentic Christian life, and we will be content in faith to leave the future radiation to the Holy Spirit


Study Guide

1.Circle the statement that best summarizes the presentation:

A. No minister should ever run away and hide from her/his critics.

B. God will always take care of you, so you need not be afraid of anything.

C. It is all right to go to the cave when things get too rough and frightening, so long as you don't stay there.

D. The role of the church is to be a cave.

2. What are some of the Jezebel experiences in our time that threaten and frighten?

3. What are the caves in which the people of our time seek to escape?

4. In what ways are our churches caves?

5. Dr. Napier says, "For all the legitimacy of the cave trip, the word that comes when we emerge from the cave where alone the Word is accessible to us -- the Word is always the same: What are you doing here? Do you know what you are doing here? And, if you know why you have come, then go back to what and where and who you were." What does this say to you personally? To your church?





1 E.g., Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology, trans. D. M. C. Stalker (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), vol.11, p.19.

2. Numbers 11:15.

3. Cf. Exodus 24:18 and 34:28, and Deuteronomy 9:9-11, 18 and 10:10.

4. Hosea 7:8. The term is uncommon, appearing only seven times in the Old Testament.

5. Cf. Exodus 19:18, 33:22, and 34:6.

6. Exodus 19:16, 18-19; 33:18-23, Jo.

7. Of all these, and of all that these may represent, sex in love surely has the best claim. Rosemary Ruether in an essay on Judaism and Christianity tells us that "far from despising sexuality, the rabbis even declared that, since the destruction of the temple, the presence of God existed in two places: in the rabbinic houses of study, and when a man lies beside his wife." Ruether, Liberation Theology (New York: Paulist-Newman, 1972), p.70. Copyright @ 1972 by The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle in the State of New York. Used by permission of Paulist Press.

8. Webster's Third New International Dictionary (Springfield:Merriam Company, 1965), italics mine.

9. Montgomery, The Book of Kings (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1951), pp. 314f.

10. Skinner, Isaiah, The International Critical Commentary, p.205.

11. See Christianity and Crisis, August 5, 1974, p.177.

12. The Continuing Quest, ed. Tames B. Hofrenning (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1970), p.38.

13. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: Herder & Herder, 1970), p.76, text and footnote.

14. See This Month, Ecumenical Press Service, World Council of Churches, Geneva, September 1974, pp. 4f.

15. Freire, op. cit., p.142 (italics his).

16. Ruether, op. cit., p.33.

17. Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation, trans. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1972), pp.71 and 76, and 15.

18. Camara, reprinted from the August 5, 1974 issue of Christianity and Crisis, p. 176. Copyright © 1974 by Christianity and Crisis, Inc. Used by permission.

19. Freire, op. cit., p.24.

20. Rilke, Let ters to a Young Poet, trans. M. D. Herter Norton (New York: W. W. Norton, 1954, 1962), p.67.

21. Ibid., p.69.

22. Gary MacEnin, Revolution Next Door (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971), p.129.