Elijah meets God in Goldilocks’ Universe

The Biblical narratives include themes with cosmic dimensions, but don’t expect them to be told in the terminology of modern and current science. The Biblical worldview invites us to adopt a perspective that includes astrophysics and yet goes beyond even that. What else would you expect in a stance significantly informed by God’s point of view?

11 And he said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.[or a sound, a thin silence.] 13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” 15 And the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. 16 And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. 17 And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. 18 Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.”

1 Kings 19: 11-18 ESV

The rolling news media showed us huge fires in California and even more massive conflagrations of forests- well, of everything– in Australia in very recent months; I assume you know this. Now we hear there is severe flooding in some of the same neighbourhoods where the recently vanished vegetation used to retain water in the soil, adding further destruction. Disasters on an ever-increasing scale are occurring with rising regularity, in places on the planet that are not used to being seen on the TV for these sorts of reasons. “That stuff only happens in Africa,” they said. More and more folk that have been accustomed to living in a picture postcard environment are finding their creature comforts severely curtailed.

Composite image of our Earth- the watery ‘Blue dot’ in orbit around our star, the Sun. Not to scale- OK?! Our Sun is 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) from Earth, but since it is so massive, that is just as well. The Sun’s volume is equal to 1.3 million Earths. Life is thriving here because we are close enough to the Sun to receive ample heat and light- not too close to get cooked, or too far away to freeze. You might see the tiny black disc of Venus passing across the top left of the Sun.

We know a lot more about our world and where it is in the big scheme of things than the writers of 1&2 Kings did. We now call that sort of knowledge ‘science’ and ‘geology’ and ‘meteorology.’ We can also make machines to take cameras into space and capture rather nice photos of what’s out there. And ‘selfies’ of our beautiful planet. We can now appreciate how our planet relies completely on a tiny fraction of the massive energy output of the sun to drive the water cycle and photosynthesis and, well, all the life we know of. The Sun is a mind-bogglingly enormous ball of gas collapsing under its own gravity and exploding by a nuclear fusion reaction all at once. That makes it nice and shiny and VERY HOT. Walk outside on any day without cloud cover and even in the UK you can feel the heat reaching your skin directly from 96 million miles away. That’s such a considerable distance it takes light eight minutes to get here.

A colourful solar system chart from The Twentieth Century Atlas of Popular Astronomy (1908), by Thomas Heath BA (1861-1940). Digitally enhanced from a chromolithographic plate.

This rather splendid poster transports us to a vantage point outside the limits of the solar system as understood in the early 1900s. Neptune was officially discovered in 1846, though Galileo had in fact seen it through his telescope in 1612. He mistakenly classified that particular dot of light as a star in his notebook. If he had kept focused on it for a few more nights, he might have reached even more radical worldview-changing conclusions than the ones that got him into trouble with Pope Urban VIII.

Light moves at 8 million metres per second, so sunlight takes 250 minutes (4.15 hours!) to reach Neptune, where the temperature only reaches -201C.

Could there be life anywhere else in our solar system? There was a great deal of public speculation about that question even before 1900, but as the scale diagram above hints at, its a really really long way from the Sun to Neptune. It took a while to realise that the intensity of sunlight reaching a planet significantly determines whether life could be sustained there. Too far from the sun means not enough heat, while too close means too much. So it turns out that there is a narrow band of tolerance for a planet to safely harbour life based on liquid water. This band is shown in blue in the diagram below.

We can see distant solar systems elsewhere in the Milky Way galaxy with ever-more powerful telescopes like ‘Kepler’, though the presence of planets does not tell us whether there could be life there. For starters, we must ask, ‘Is the size and orbit of the planet, relative to the size of the star, appropriate to put in in the ‘habitable region’? – cutely described as the ‘Goldilocks zone.’

Remember Goldilocks? An early version of the fairy tale featured an ‘antisocial’ old woman who was kicked out of house and home by her family: she rocks up in the woods looking for someone else’s stuff to ‘borrow’, conveniently finding the three bears have just popped out while their breakfast porridge cools down. There were too many awkward social justice and colonial issues in that version- it quickly got changed to be more ‘child-friendly,’ with an innocent and vulnerable girl now seeking shelter in the forest, and so Providence smiles on her. She is simply clumsy, so while furniture is broken, various bowls of porridge are sampled, and bed sheets ruffled, we are amused rather than outraged. We are comforted by the idea that our own preferences can be satisfied in finding a bowl of porridge that is neither too hot nor too cold; its ‘just right’, even generously provided by a reluctantly tolerant neighbour.

Our Earth boasts a great number of ‘Goldilocks’ features, but this idea also applies on a galactic scale, as shown by the following graphic. Planets suitable for life to evolve and develop won’t be found around many of the billions of stars in the Milky Way- too close to the galactic centre means very frequent gamma ray bursts from closely packed and short lived stars. DNA could not survive intact for long enough. Yet stellar explosions are absolutely necessary to generate all the elements heavier than hydrogen and helium. The outer rim of a galaxy doesn’t produce enough of these elements for life, or even for rocky planets with a liquid core. A lot of heat is needed to cook the bears’ porridge, but then it must be left to cool before trying to eat it. In the same way, several rounds of stellar evolution were required to brew up the molecular kit for our construction- both of planet and people, but the hottest and most dramatic of those remains unseen in the long distant past.

A hot liquid core is vital for our Earth, as it drives tectonism to cycle life-sustaining minerals in the planetary crust, while also generating a magnetic field to shelter our atmosphere and any nascent life from cosmic radiation. Mars used to have such a liquid core, but as that planet is much smaller than our Earth, it has cooled and (probably) solidified, thus loosing its protective field and then nearly all its atmosphere. NASA rover ‘Perseverance’ has just landed there, surely finding what can, at best, only be evidence of extinct simple life forms. Yet Mars lies just beyond the ‘habitable zone’ in the diagram we saw earlier, which is not usually pointed out.

Our night sky is not as star spangled as the photo above. It might seem boring in this part of the galaxy, but that’s really a good thing. Especially in the centre of galaxies, many stars have exploded, collapsed and coalesced , forming ‘black holes’, fearsome wells of gravity which consume everything within their reach without hope of escape. There is likely a supermassive black hole at the centre of most galaxies; a not-at-all desirable neighbour.

I expect you are familiar with another curious feature of our Earth, which is its 23.5 degree axial tilt. This remains fixed though our annual orbit, so the heat from the Sun is spread far more widely and predictably over the surface, giving us the cycle of seasons, thus extending the habitable areas of the planet very considerably. In so many ways then, we find that the ‘temperature’ here on Earth is ‘just right.’ Until we significantly raised the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the Industrial Revolution to the present day.

After the astronomy lesson, its now time for big geology. I’ve hinted at some of this already, but even if this is familiar to you, please pause with me to reflect on how MINDBLOWING this is. We build things out of stones because they stay the same shape. We dig foundations for our buildings because rocks don’t move. Tiny earthquakes do happen in my neighbourhood near London- we heard that some chimney pots fell nearby in Folkestone when there was a rare and brief tremor. There have been much more serious earthquakes in far away places, including Iran and Japan in just the last few weeks. Such events are concentrated along particular lines on the Earth’s surface- and so are the 500 or so volcanoes that have been active within recorded human history. When people are living adjacent to where an earthquake strikes or volcano erupts, the consequences are often catastrophic. But at our short lived and brief human scale, we’ve been oblivious to the deeper and much larger reality. An imaginative chap called Alfred Wegener suggested in print in 1912 that the well-known fact that the shape of the continents match like a jigsaw is because they’ve were joined up and then moved apart; albeit really slowly. He got laughed at for 18 years and then he died. The mockers kept laughing for another two decades. Now we teach school children, in a very matter-of-fact manner, that the continents float around on soft rock as the liquid mantle moves around underneath them, carrying these platforms of solid rock around like boats on flood water. At maybe 8cm per year. So 180 million years ago, this is what part of the atlas looked like:

Gondwanaland from 550 to 180 million years ago. The coloured bands show where fossils of the same types of organisms have been found bridging the continental borders in ways that can’t be explained by some animals swimming across the sea. Nor, come to that, can the distribution of such fossils explained by a universal flood.

We really shouldn’t be glib about this. Our everyday experience of what rock is like does not equip us to understand what rock is actually capable of. The more science we learn, the more often I get this feeling- that reality is really stranger than fiction! The fluid mechanics of tectonic drift are not yet fully understood, but good science is like that. Any current big theory is a ‘best fit’ with a great deal of different sorts of evidence contributing to it, so we can proceed with growing confidence, despite knowing that the scientific account is not by any means complete. There is room for awe in this sort of science- the attitude that combines rational satisfaction with having discovered what is going on and how it is happening- with wonder at the extraordinary things that we have partial insight into. I mean they are extraordinary because they are different in kind to what we learn from our small-scale human experience. Rock is hard: try falling on one! But squeezed deep under the crust, and heated by radioactive decay from the liquid core: there it is transformed into a material on which lumps of continent, thousands of miles across, and hundreds deep can move. As my students say far too often, ‘That’s weird.’ I agree with them! Iceland enlarges by splitting through the middle and adding new lava between the plates moving away from each other, eastward and westward. This phenomenon also underlines the scope of deep geological time. The Atlantic is a big ocean. The breakup of Gondwanaland began a long time ago. Do the division calculation, and you find that moving 2.6 centimetres a year stretches out the Atlantic from Senegal in Africa to the Bahamas on the other side of the ocean in 180 million years. Wegener’s imaginative leap remains one of extraordinary intellectual courage, while the sceptical opposition of the orthodox continues to warrant respect. Nevertheless, the evidence continued to accumulate, and Wegener has been proved right, though long after his death. Now, in geology, as well as in astronomy, we teach that the earth does indeed move.

Inside Kilauea Volcano on Hawaii. On a small scale the lava forms and reforms shapes like the tectonic plates, moving about over the surface of the liquefied rock beneath. I would really rather like to see this up close, but that may be a dumb thing to wish for!
Iceland straddles the Mid-Atlantic Spreading ridge which you see marked in the yellow map shown previously. In some places the crack between the two continental plates is very visible and you can walk in it in perfectly safely, just at the moment. See the cars at the Thingvellir National Park? (L) This week an eruption has broken through in an uninhabited region just south of Reykjavik (red dot above) for the first time in some 800 years. The news reports there were 40,000 modest earthquakes recorded in the last month before the eruption started.
L: Astronaut Ricky Arnold, from aboard the International Space Station, shared this image of Hurricane Florence on Sept. 10 2018, taken as the orbiting laboratory flew over the massive storm. NASA. R: This is an image composite of two different Hubble observations. The auroras were photographed during a series of Hubble Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph far-ultraviolet-light observations taking place as NASA’s Juno spacecraft arrived to orbit Jupiter in 2016.

Though our scripture passage begins with a wind, I’ve come to it now, because wind, like tectonics, is also a function of the uneven distribution of heat. More of the sun’s energy is absorbed by the atmosphere in one place than another, so that bit warms and becomes less dense. That region of air rises, as nearby cooler and denser air pushes down and across, displacing the warmer air upwards- and now you’ve got wind! This very simple physics results in enormous weather. Over the oceans, certain large areas of water are warmer than others, so the area of atmosphere above them that gets heated gets bigger, and much more water evaporates and collects in the sky, and BOOM, you’ve got a hurricane. In recent years we’ve started naming these, as climate change has created more such systems, with greater regularity. The Caribbean and Florida coast are assaulted by storms of increasing severity each summer, and more remnants reach the UK with significant impacts. We heard about even more devastating tropical cyclones in the Pacific, such as typhoon ‘Yolanda/Haiyan’ that hit the Philippines in 2013. Some 6300 souls were lost there.

Which way these storms move, and so who exactly is impacted by them, is a much more complex affair. Despite the fact that our atmosphere is only about 60 miles thick, and you need an oxygen mask on Everest, which is 3 miles in altitude, like an international jet plane, the air does not all mix up randomly or equally. Its in layers, and high above the cloud layers are circulating currents snaking around the globe as it spins. UK forecasters frequently explain to us that their weather predictions also depend on the changing direction of the ‘jet stream,’ which none of us can see. Alfred Wegener was mainly a weather scientist- a meteorologist- and this was another major discovery he made significant contributions to.

If we venture out away from our Earth, there is even bigger weather to be found. Next to the picture of Hurricane Florence above is a fabulous shot of Jupiter, a planet so large that it is bigger than all the rest of the solar system put together, apart from the Sun. At Jupiter’s north pole you can see its own aurora, generated by the stupendous magnetic field of this gas giant planet, and beneath it, the Great Red Spot, a permanent anticyclone weather system that is one and a third times the diameter of planet Earth, with permanent winds of some 400km/h (270mph).

According to the poster of the solar system above, between us and Jupiter are a few asteroids and Mars, and that appears to be it. If your spacecraft blows up, no-one will hear a sound, as there is no air to transmit it. No wind.

Silence.

Space is a vacuum, pretty much, with perhaps four hydrogen molecules per cubic meter- that’s not even ‘thin.’ But following Alfred Wegener, we’ve learned to observe at different scales, and since we orbit a star, the story isn’t over yet. As hydrogen is transmuted into helium, there is a wind of sorts thrown off from the Sun, mostly up and down, fortunately. But some comes sideways towards us- a plasma of separated protons and electrons and helium nuclei (alpha particles). There aren’t many of them, but as their energy is considerable, they are a real hazard. Our moon has no protection, but Earth’s liquid core generates a handy magnetic field to deflect most of the rays/particles around us, away into the dark, inky blackness of space. At the poles the magnetic field lines come down towards the ground, and so do just some of the cosmic rays, giving us the most beautiful aurora borealis at northern latitudes. Even here, however, the high energy bombardment is largely neutralised before all of Earth’s lifeforms, including humans, are exposed to unsustainable levels of gene-disrupting and cancer-inducing rays. Below is a photo out the window of the International Space Station, also showing meteors burning up in the atmosphere. What a fantastic sight! Such beauty results from our being successfully protected from certain destruction.

As the graphic shows, the solar wind spreads out through the whole system until it bumps into the collective ‘wind’ of the rest of the galaxy, made of mostly the same things. There are yet some further mysteries in the cosmic radiation, which new measurements from 2017 are starting to quantify.

As I have described the phenomena of fire and earthquakes and winds on earth and far beyond, I think we are drawn to a marvellous conclusion. As we find ourselves suspended in motion in the universe; though surrounded by a number of significant hazards, we discover that our place in the cosmos is nevertheless remarkably convenient. Some of the planetary ‘chairs’ are not at all suitable for us to sit on- but one is! Some of the ‘porridge’ is very hot- far too hot to handle. Some is frozen solid! But one bowl is just right. It can be very windy, or more often, there’s no air at all that is suitable. But we find ourselves at home, in a sheltered place to sleep soundly. We’d better be looking after it.

Our perspectives on our place in our environment are now quite different to that presented in 1 Kings 19. I wonder if you are reconsidering your own viewpoint on the cosmos as you absorb these paragraphs. As I read 1 Kings 19:11-12, I realise that the idea of highlighting wind or fire or earthquake as signs of divine Presence stands in contrast to the worldview of science and technology that I am employed to promote as a teacher of teenagers. Maybe we are not so objective as that. If confronted with these experiences, we so-called ‘modern thinking folk’ could more readily admit to considering both our own mortality and whether Someone is attracting our attention. I am not claiming that I understand exactly how the ancient Hebrews viewed them at their time of writing, though I am speculating that mention of wind and earthquake and fire is an allusion to a pre-scientific classification of matter. Are these somewhat equivalent to earth, air and fire later proposed as basic elements or building blocks of the world by Empedocles in Greece in the 5th century BC? If so, then why is water not mentioned? Two thoughts occur to me. The first is that God has promised Noah that He will not destroy the earth by means of water, so God will not be seen to toy with this earnest assurance. The second is that just previously in 1 Kings 18, we see that God used Elijah to purposely control the water cycle, initially suspending the seasonal cycle of rain, and then very deliberately and precisely overseeing its return. So -quite extraordinarily- we see that Elijah is working in active partnership with Jehovah God directing one of the elemental forces of nature. Israel’s neighbours were not clear about God’s nature and identity. Could humans confuse ‘God’ with the source of rain? Ahab and/or Jezebel may have thought in that way. Elijah has already shown us the answer, very unambiguously.

Please see note below before referencing this in your coursework.

But what about the rest of the forces of nature? Might there be divinity somehow tied up with the material of the land, the motions of the air, or the powers of fire? These pagan or pantheistic beliefs are refuted by the scripture, but rather than give a blank ‘No,’ Elijah’s covenant God gives him and us an object lesson in each case, to ensure that we are completely clear about the reality. God wants us to understand. God is the power behind the phenomenon of wind, to be sure, but the wind is not Godself. Even the most fixed and firm part of our world, the ground under our feet, can sometimes be moved. So rather than trust in that, whether it was thought a pagan divinity or not, the phenomenon of earthquakes must rather point us to trust the God who actually makes the ground of all things. Perhaps there were those of Israel’s neighbours who might deify fire, which was part of the challenge to the prophets of Baal in the showdown with Elijah. Although Elijah’s God is “the God who answers by fire,” that does not mean that He is ‘in’ the fire.

Additionally there is a simpler answer: the artful mechanics of story telling. As in Exodus, where God brought ten plagues of judgement against the Egyptian pantheon, all the multiple deities of the Canaanites are summed up for us here in classic literary fashion: three stand for all, just like the bears in the forest. Which ever option you consider identified in this pithy rule of three– God is not there in person. The real God, the One worthy of the Name, is gloriously beyond mere matter.

As archaeologists continue to uncover and assemble historical evidence from ancient Near Eastern civilisations, a long list of Canaanite deities is emerging from the detritus of decay. Are any of them more likely targets to be held up to ridicule and judgement by Elijah’s God? I’ve picked a few significant candidates. Their ‘king of the gods’ was Ba’al Hadad, which translates as ‘master of thunder’, also god of storms, thunder, lightning and air. Dagon, god of crop fertility and grain, was supposed to be father of Ba’al Hadad. Melqart, ‘king of the city’, was specifically the god of Tyre, as well as the underworld and cycle of vegetation. Moloch and his wife Ishat were probably spoken of as god and goddess of fire by Jezebel and her priests. I suggest that these examples meet the criteria.

Whichever opposing pantheon we might think of, Elijah’s God has the same answer. They will pass. The wind will drop. The earthquake will cease. The fire will burn out. And the conceits of our civilisations will also crumble into dust, their clamouring voices stilled into silence. If, by some happenstance, their remains do last a little longer in the dust to be discovered and cleverly deciphered in our time, we will see their claims to greatness revealed in truth for what they are. Thin; barely distinguishable from nothing.

1 Kings 19 transports us to the mountain top with Elijah, who emerges from his rock hole after the spectacular displays have passed. Via the revelatory marvels of CCTV (‘Cave-circuit TeleVision’) we are invited to join with him in his encounter with the True God. That’s what prophets are for, after all- to show us God’s way.

At the mouth of the mountain cave, we are brought together and all treated equally. Whether we consider ourselves ‘modern’ materialists, who think that all meaning is ultimately reduced to the characteristics of the ingredients of a periodic table, or polytheists, whose various deities are assigned to selected natural phenomena, or pantheists who locate deity generally in nature, this text addresses us all collectively: the One True God YHWH transcends all and everything.

And yet…

and then…

Yahweh comes to us!

God is ‘in’ each of these phenomena, inasmuch as God is their actual first cause and upholding providence, but God also chooses to reveal Godself at our human scale and to protect and respect us as His esteemed creatures. I wonder if we each might we see with Elijah that God intends us to be equals-of-a-kind? This is a bold claim, I hope you appreciate, which can only be possible because of the grace of God.

Did you consider Elijah’s response in the text we began with? Once he has obediently left his cave lodgings on the mountain, to stand before the LORD, the most spectacular and fearsome phenomena occur before him. We are left to guess at the detail, but I think this much is easy. Elijah does not stay ‘standing’ for very long. After wind and earthquake and fire have passed, he went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. We were not told directly, but it’s pretty obvious that he was hiding. But don’t misunderstand Elijah. This was hiding inspired by wisdom: my flesh will not stand this hurricane, or the tremors which followed or the firestorm which came afterward. Just as we find that our life on God’s created Earth is generally a place of ‘just rightness,’ so the Lord ensures that even this procession of power is within the bounds of what Elijah can bear- at least if he is back inside the cave!

What a stunning series of sights! Today you can immediately call up video footage of hurricanes in the Bahamas, sudden earthquakes caught on municipal cameras in Japan, or a firestorm in the Californian forest with the electronic device you are using to read this blog. Any one of these would be a rare and once in a lifetime experience before the recent development of film and recording technologies: you’d had to have been there. Hollywood blockbusters exaggerate these spectacular sights even further with CGI, such that most real life is made to look less impressive than their cinematic fantasies. Though Elijah wisely returns to shelter inside his cave, all the action is happening right before him, and he takes all these highly exceptional events completely in his stride. He is watching out for the Presence of the LORD in each phenomenon – and is paying close enough attention to be able to discern that his God was not there. After the third act has passed, the prophet of God comes out to the cave mouth, confident of his being before his God. I think this is extraordinary. Would I have been so confident? Would you?

The air beyond the cave mouth was filled with blinding dust and the clash and clatter of ever larger rocks picked up and thrown together by the gale; this cacophony passed into the full-on shaking and trembling of the ground surrounding him- the whole cave was moving! Then the heat of the firestorm, with its own wind and roaring: a close curtain of fire rippling like the surface of the sun, its radiation trapping Elijah in his rocky pressure cooker.

Wouldn’t we have been quaking in our boots, shaking with fear and exhaustion- emotionally and psychologically spent after enduring such a fearsome display of natural wonders? How can we tell that Elijah was not so affected? Do you know what Elijah says before this scene? Look at the earlier verses in 1 Kings 19 and see what he says to the LORD:

There he came to a cave and lodged in it. And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” 

1 Kings 19:9-10

Now see what he says afterwards. God repeats His question to Elijah:

And after the fire the sound of a low whisper.[or a sound, a thin silence.] 13 And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” 

1 Kings 19:12-14

I think that my second answer would have been different. Whatever was bothering me beforehand would have faded into insignificance. I would have completely forgotten my earlier worries and concerns. At my best, I would like to dream that I would have been overcome with gratitude for both my survival and for being treated to such a stunning display. I’d like to think I’d be overcome with awe at my God and even full of praise and thanksgiving. I would have embarrassed myself as I would not have been able to come up with adequate words to say so! If an authority figure were to repeat a question to me, I’d be wondering if my first answer was somehow inadequate. Not so for Elijah. His response is identical. Following this unparalleled display of God’s creative and providential capacity, right under his very human nose- from his grandstand view from a seat for one- Elijah the prophet of God is simply assured in his human response to his God, who is affirmed to be who Elijah knows Him to be. He knows that his life is potentially on the line, but he is resolved not to be intimidated by the threats of men and women, even of Jezebel and Ahab. Why would he be, as the very forces of nature have been released and at once constrained on his account?

Where then is God? Not in fire or quaking or wind, we have learned, but now heard against the silence. Something like whispered words invite Elijah forward from his cave where he has been taking shelter from the overwhelming energy of the elements in procession outside. The Word is Presence! A still small voice: God’s self-declaring revelation then comes in clear and simple words that can be uttered and imitated exactly by a child. Human words with meaning that can be reliably preserved for us as inky black marks on a page or screen. Elijah comes out- a little tentatively I think, with his face concealed – for he is expecting the Glory Of The Lord, and hears God’s Words that are just right. The LORD is in God’s words to Elijah.

To what effect? Is Elijah’s insistent prayerful complaint about apostate leadership to be resolved, and if so, how? YHWH God’s considered answer is to appoint better leaders, and to create of them a functional community. With teeth. Take note: the nature of the environment is no obstacle to the success of this strategy. If God sends us, expect that empty wilderness could be the route. ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria.’ More surprises! The first new leader Elijah is sent to appoint is not a member of the covenant people of Israel. God’s plan begins with the others, the Gentiles. Anoint as king Hazael of a not-my-covenant land! His name, Hazael, means to see, or El/God has seen. Elijah may have expected that his current trouble with Jezebel the Canaanite queen of Ahab might result in God’s blessing being kept ‘in house’ at least for a while, but no! God’s Way Forward is WAY BIGGER than we expect. God goes on to speak of new leadership in Israel: ‘And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel.‘ Does not God’s ordering of the next part of the coming into being of God’s people in God’s world show that He is very serious about His Genesis 12 covenant promise to Abram?

And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.

The way the LORD instructs Elijah is so matter-of-fact. “However serious the situation looks, and you are right, Elijah, it is serious: You share my concerns, and we’ve got this.” Surely the lesson of ‘Hazael’ is that God sees all leaders in all places and times, whether in a palace, an office or even a cave. [If we jump forward to 2 Kings 8:7-15 we understand that this ‘seeing’ is the key point. Hazael is not going to act as a ‘good’ man, and the prophet of God weeps as he discerns what wickedness Hazael will eventually commit. So I think God gives Elijah a principle here in 1 Kings 19, analogous to Paul’s instruction to Timothy to pray for kings and those in authority in 1 Tim 2:2. I do not believe that God simply endorses wicked leaders. Such questions of human freedom under God are subjects for another day.]

We’re not done. Elijah is concerned that the line of prophets ends with him. ‘…and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.’  As if to say, ‘You think its all over? Not at all! Your mantle will also pass over in my order to the next generation, just as I determine.’

How will all this work? Not only does God direct Elijah to anoint and institute the next generation of kings in and beyond Israel, He shows him how these institutions will have their force and effectiveness. ‘And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death.’ The leaders God gives authority to can be tremendously effective- from the smallest detail of administration to the ultimate sanction and judgement- and especially when they act in concert. While Hazael king of Syria is highlighted first, the king of Israel will back him up– another prophetic move of God’s Kingdom Come!! The kingship of Israel is itself to be backed up by the priest-kings who are the Prophets, who speak and act directly in God’s Name, not man’s. Yahweh’s full leadership plan is more than adequate to deal with all Jezebels and Ahabs and their violent doings in the community of humanity. Is God waiting for us to do Elijah’s kind of business with Him? I think so.

This chapter takes us with Elijah on a journey to contrast the ultimately inadequate views of the world that pay attention to the surfaces of things, that seek to imbue meaning in the power of elemental phenomena or our own conceptions of spirituality- even that we might reject spirituality altogether to embrace materialism- with God’s real invitation to receive the gift of God’s world for us all to come into fully functional relationship with God, with God’s creation, and with each other. The focus of this relationship is not merely in the matter of managerial stewardship of energy and materials and the flux between them all. Rather, God has a bigger vision for an ethical quality in all these relationships that enables a mode of growth and thriving beyond material limits. Elijah is an exemplar for us, though not the final word. How else could Elisha be cheeky enough to seek a double portion of his master’s spirit? (2 Kings 2:9) How else can ‘the increase of His Government and Peace be without end’? (Is 9:7)

Where is God? He is not so much ‘in’ wind, earth or fire, as disparate elements, as God is Present in the whole of His good world- in Elijah’s day already, not only in but beyond Israel, His land and chosen people. God bestowed a mantle on Elijah that was beyond earthly kingship, though it surely supported that. The nature of being God’s co-worker is that supernatural things can be brought about naturally, in partnership with the One who both creates from nothing and providentially upholds divine laws of the cycles and changes of nature. There is a sacred distance between Creator and creation: the Lord passed by… but He was not in… and thus we see transcendence and immanence in tension. By extension, God is ‘in’ Elijah by His anointing, and yet Elijah has agency to act freely as a human creature.

As we follow Elijah’s story onwards, we see that the dimensions of his influence continue to expand because God is working in covenant partnership with His creature. Might we share in this vision? Of course! That is the plain meaning of this concluding detail: ‘Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.’ “I am the only one of your prophets left!” Elijah had complained, with great certainty. If we listen carefully in the thin silence we might hear two sounds. The voice of God speaking quietly with His servants, and God’s laughter. Might we despair that the power of our love for God in the world is limited compared with the powers of the elements, or the violence of monarchs and their military forces? God alerts us to His transcendent perspective: His victory is summed up in our pure kiss of worship.

Where is God to be found? My sources say that the Canaanites left no evidence of a cosmology. I am hinting that the four elements perhaps suggest something of an implicit cosmology, which the Lord rather playfully refutes. ‘No, I’m not there!’ like hide and seek. Instead, I think we are given a more significant steer. God wants to be found ‘in’ the service of His co-workers, and God desires to be ‘in’ delegated and faithful leaders who submit one to another and ultimately to God. Israel-The Church is the servant support of all nations, and all are invited to bow in sincere worship. This whole vision is prophetic of the End, a cosmology of God’s future. Structural analysis by me. (P)2021 S Thompson. Text of 1 Kings 19:11-12, 15-18 ESV

Elsewhere in this blog I am exploring what the characteristics of being a co-creator with God might be. Part of my intention is to discover the fruitfulness of dialogue between Christian theology and science. So having explored the nature of God’s created universe in the terms of the text of 1 Kings, and considered how this Earth in this Solar System in this particular galaxy at this time makes it ‘just right’ for us to be here, I want to appraise what the future might look like- the future of our cosmic environment.

Perhaps the most decisive piece of evidence that convinced geologists to repent of their mockery of Alfred Wegener is the pattern of magnetic field lines hard-baked into the under sea rocks either side of the world’s mid-ocean spreading ridges. This proof of the vast scale movement of the continents results from another phenomenon of the core, namely the irregular reversal of the whole magnetic field of the planet. This flip-flopping is what was recorded each time new molten rock emerged at the surface, preserving a record of the orientation of the field at that point in geological time. There are a lot of flipflops recorded, because the field has reversed many times over many millions of years. In 2018 a book by Alanna Mitchell drew attention to the fact that our electronic and satellite technology is known to be vulnerable to the radiation that will reach the ground at higher intensities if our field flips any time soon. Which it might well do, as the last few reversals occurred at something like 250 000 year intervals, and its been three times as long as that since we last had a major reversal. The security of our interlinked power supply networks is an engineering challenge to add to the existing vulnerabilities of our energy supplies to geopolitical stresses. Should we therefore be less confident that conditions on Earth are ‘just right’ for life after all then? No, for two reasons. The anxieties for life itself have been overstated. There are no mass extinction events correlated with field reversals. Secondly, even with a weakened field, our atmosphere will still protect living things. Additionally, we continue to be very lax in our behaviour as a species, pouring huge quantities of mutagens into our environment. We ought to be much more bothered about our self-inflicted threats to our own lives and the thriving of the biosphere as a whole.

Another not to scale graphic indicating how our magnetic field creates a protective shield against the high energy particles of the solar wind. Only a little of this aggressive radiation reaches us near the poles, though with fluctuations in the field strength, that can and does rise from time to time. Life has withstood the mutagenic effects throughout evolutionary history, though our current technology might need to be upgraded if such weakening becomes more common. See a number of live links and references at the end of this article on various aspects of this topic.

Just as the history of the Earth over deep time has further implications for the wellbeing of living things here, so does the life history of our own star, the Sun. Asteroid dating confirms that the Earth accreted from swirling dust and rock 4.54 billion years ago, about the same time as the Sun coalesced from the recycled remains of previous exploded stars. Such long periods of time are required for life to evolve. It took a while for things to get going. We humans have only been here a little while, and that is very definitively a convenient consequence of this timing. The porridge has cooled down just enough. Its all good for a long time yet. Our Sun is slowly working its way through its supply of hydrogen gas at 600 million tons a second. That’s the mass of the Earth every 70 000 years. Nothing much will change for a couple more billion years, by which point I’ll have retired and completely used up my pension. Then the sun will expand rather a lot, getting bigger and bigger as its gravity reduces, consuming Mercury and Venus and then us. Then it’ll go POP. So we’ve got plenty of time to follow Space X and launch whatever vehicles we fancy into space and get the heaven out of here. We haven’t developed much of the science and technology required to build and fly safe interstellar space colonies- we will have to take all the Goldilocks features with us. Not to worry. The Sun is our more or less friendly neighbour for a long while yet.

If we look even further afield, not just beyond our solar system but out beyond the Milky Way galaxy, we will find that our nearest galactic neighbour, Andromeda, is on a collision course with us- the whole Milky Way! At 70 miles per second. There’s a nice animation of this for you in the references below. Which means that our Sun will have consumed the Earth before the galaxies merge. I’m told that the probability of any stars actually colliding when galaxies collide is pretty low, but since we are here to do science AND theology, at some point we need to recognise that God said that He would end it all in order to bring New Creation. How and when that will happen I’m not going to speculate. As Elijah’s story makes plain, sometimes God does intervene to rectify the great ills in the world, and sometimes He does not. In any case, He charges each of us with great and serious responsibilities. I hope I have also inspired you to appreciate that there is much more of a partnership on offer than most of us have been taught or dared to dream.

A montage of galactic collisions at various stages taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. If God does not wrap up this universe beforehand, then this is what our Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies will do in just under 4 billion years from now. Tickets are not yet on sale.

In brief, we find that our place in God’s cosmos is going to carry on being very comfortable for a very long time yet. Recorded history is little more than 10 000 years, and right now its looking pretty dodgy for the next 100 years. We’ve burnt too much coal and oil and gas and cut down too many trees. How much oil are we still getting through? 100 million barrels of oil a day, apparently, and we may well have no more than 10 years to arrest run away global heating. Our oceans have already become an unseemly soup of plastics and toxins that are imperilling our collective survival. Never mind a few spats over trawling rights after Brexit. When John the Baptist and Jesus were seen in Galilee, baptising fishermen, some wondered whether Elijah had returned, as Malachi prophesied (Mal 4:5-6, John 1:19, Matt 11:14, and elsewhere.) We certainly need the Elijah kind of prophetic voice in our world, doing business with God in His world, supporting kings and all those in authority in prayer and action, especially in responding to the Climate Crisis. Might you be one of the next 7000?

Now I shall be blunt- excuse me if this is currently more awkward for you. As you know very well, we humans are mortal and spiritual beings. We can and will die in the short term compared to most of what we have just rehearsed. So what do we learn?

In the final analysis, it would be a mistake to claim that our being in God’s world is completely safe. Goldilocks found a warm bowl of porridge to eat up, a convenient chair to sit on, and a comfy bed to sleep in mostly because someone else had recently cooked and dished up, and then left a range of ‘gifts’ at just the ‘right time’ for her arrival. Entirely unintentionally, says the fairy story, because the bears had simply stepped out for a brief socially isolated forest walk. Whereas God has completely intentionally gifted us with a feast of life opportunities by His Providential Design. And he comes close by, hoping that we will respond with humility and a little courage to greet Him. Our life here and now is only a short season, but God has even better things to come.

I’ve said this already, and now I will whisper it quietly again against the silence. We are enjoyed the gifts of God’s created world, finding that it has so many ‘just right’ features. But little girls and old ladies all- every one of us- must now shoulder our responsibilities to make our own homes, grow our food and heat our own porridge, creating lives which are corporately sustainable and characterised by sharing and caring. On the scale of the whole planet. Planet A. Its the only one we’ve got. Some of us have taken much more than we need, so others cannot find just enough.

Elijah learnt constancy with Yahweh, the covenant God, and at the last his confidence in God was vindicated. At the end of his life’s ministry, as we see it recorded at 2 Kings 2:3–9, Elijah does not share the general destiny of man, to be buried in a hole in the earth. Rather, he spectacularly rises through the air on a fire chariot our God sends to carry him up and beyond Elisha’s sight, who catches sight of him as he does, and carries on in the Way with YHWH. With his God, Elijah transcends all the elements- represented in these chapters by water, air, earth and fire. Such a man is this intercessor, anointer of kings and prophets: mighty prophet, Elijah, the priest-king co-creator of Yahweh.

The cosmos is full of wonders, but we need not seek the face of God in the giant winds of a gas planet or its aurora, lit up by streaming plasma. Nor in the clash of asteroids, or even in the furnace of a fusing star. Revelation comes to those who are God’s own, and God can ensure that you will hear His voice. Listen out for the still small voice.

(c) 2021 Stephen Thompson

Published by Stephen Thompson

Thinking inside the box is to be recommended for many reasons. I am creating this blog in May 2020 as we are encouraged to stay inside our boxes as far as possible, though we are allowed out- encouraged out, indeed- for exercise. By blogging, our thinking can also be allowed out for public exercise. Right now we need new thinking, new exercising of our mental faculties, and collective application of our thinking to the big idea of a healthy collective future. I am trialling my thinking in constructive theology, science and leadership in the light of my experience as a science teacher, theological student and as a representative of the Christian community in the county of Kent, in the UK. I welcome your partnership!

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