The story itself and additional background.
by Dave Skipper.
In this series of posts I give background information and details regarding my new concept noise album release אֵלִיָּהוּ/ELIJAH. Check the series page HERE for basic intro and info.
Previous post: Album Notes 2: Preparation, Recording, Editing
This album is essentially a creative soundtrack to two episodes from the life of the Old Testament prophet Elijah: his dramatic confrontation on Mount Carmel with the prophets of the storm-god Baal, and his subsequent encounter with God on Mount Horeb. So what actually happened in these incidents? Who was Elijah? And how could a story of sacrifice, slaughter, and a whispering God possibly be meaningful, relevant, or even acceptable today? In this post I will give a bit of background context to the story, followed by the Bible text of the story that the album follows [note: this Bible text is printed on the inside of the CD sleeve]. In subsequent posts I will break down the album track by track: the sounds, the structures, the story details, and the spiritual meanings.
At 50 minutes long, I wanted an album that felt full but didn’t overstay its welcome. Part 1 clocks in at over 28 minutes, and Part 2 at nearly 22 minutes. There is a gap at the end of Part 1, like an intermission, so listening can happily be done in two sessions. Although broadly a noise album, I didn’t think in genres or categories when crafting it, so it straddles various descriptions. Maybe it could be called ‘prog noise.’ In the world of prog rock and prog metal, to be ‘progressive’ often involves the use of odd time signatures and extended instrumental sections, but the term ‘progressive’ in that context sometimes brings with it embarrassing connotations of overindulgence and overwrought space operas. But the good DNA of any truly progressive music (regardless of instrumentation, genre, or need for dexterity) involves subverting musical expectations. It is all about exploring new forms, styles, sounds, textures, and structures. It means allowing the music to twist and turn in whatever way is necessary to reach its destination. Ultimately, progressive music should take the listener on an exciting and unpredictable journey. So, ‘prog noise.’ Maybe.
The ideal way to listen to this album is as a form of meditation. In the Bible, meditation is described as an activity in which the mind is fully engaged. It means thinking deeply and intentionally and continually. It means thinking with a view to action. Many psalms in the Bible talk about meditating on God’s law, God’s love, and God’s deeds; that is to say, pondering and chewing over the words of Scripture and allowing them to shape one’s thinking and perspectives and whole life. In this sense, then, this album is best listened to as a form of meditation on the story that it depicts. Read the Bible text that goes along with each track, and imagine yourself in the story, following the unfolding drama and the atmosphere of the events that take place. Try it out!
Now I need to give just a little background to the story so that it sits in some historical context…
The Story – Historical Context
The nation of Israel in the Old Testament (not to be confused with modern-day Israel, an entirely different entity) was uniquely established in covenant with God, through Moses, following their exodus from slavery in Egypt in the 15th century B.C (see the book of Exodus). A covenant is a binding agreement between two parties, with clearly defined laws and sanctions. In this case, the covenant was famously summarised in the Ten Commandments, which are then expounded in great detail in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy. After Israel conquered the land of Canaan (recorded in the book of Joshua) they had a period of ruling judges (see the book of Judges) before deciding they wanted a king to rule over them. Their first three kings were particularly notable: Saul, who was more concerned with his own power and agenda than with God’s covenant; David, indisputably Israel’s greatest king, a man of fighting renown, writer of most of the Psalms in the Bible, and known as “a man after God’s own heart;” and Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, who built a temple for God but who later fell into sin and corruption through his lust for wealth and women. Israel then split into two kingdoms, and the Old Testament books of Kings and Chronicles record a picture of wicked king after wicked king rejecting the covenant, pursuing or encouraging all manner of false religion and idol worship, engaging in political compromise and backstabbing (politics as usual then!), and generally doing just what was right in their own eyes. The saga is punctuated by good kings who seek to return to the covenant with varying degrees of commitment and success, but their efforts are always short-lived.
This background is important because it clarifies the role that the Old Testament prophets had: to call the king and the nation to turn away from their sin and idolatry, back to their Creator God who had chosen and called Israel by name, who had delivered their ancestors out of slavery, who had given them his good and just laws in the covenant, and who desired for them to choose and know life and blessing instead of death and cursing. The role of the prophets, then, was not primarily to predict the future (though that was sometimes a part of their prophetic words), but rather to remind the people of God’s character and actions and ways, urging them to repent and follow him wholeheartedly. Predictions therefore often took the form of warnings of what would happen if they continued to reject God and engage in injustice, idolatry, abuse of the poor, etc. Some warnings were given specifically to the kings themselves (e.g. you will die in battle if you go against God’s command), and some were given to the nation as a whole (e.g. the Assyrian army will come and take the people away into captivity). The prophets usually brought their messages directly to the kings, however, as the king was the representative of the people, had the power to influence the laws and actions and trajectory of the nation as a whole, and had the means to spread messages around the land.
And so we come to Elijah. We know next to nothing about his background, only that he came from a place called Tishbe in Gilead (an area on the eastern side of the River Jordan). This is significant, because he encapsulates the idea that the people who God delights to use mightily for his kingdom are the faithful ‘nobodies’ rather than the powerful rulers with all their fame, prestige, military prowess, privileged background, wealth, and influence. Elijah appears on the scene in 1 Kings 17 during the reign of Ahab (Israel’s 7th king, 9th century B.C.), the most wicked of all Israel’s kings. You can read all of Elijah’s story from 1 Kings 17 through to 2 Kings 2. He is also mentioned a few times in the New Testament as a great example of someone who prayed in faith, and as a special representative of all the Old Testament prophets. Aside from his escapades with the kings of his day, he also had a crucial role in blessing, encouraging, and training pockets of people who were still faithful to God, including the marvellous story in 1 Kings 17 of miraculous provision for a widow, and the raising back to life of her dead son. At this stage in Israel’s history God declares through Elijah that the land will experience drought because of the covenant-breaking apostasy of Israel and its kings, climaxing here in the unprecedented extent of Ahab’s rebellion…
And so we come to the text for the album. It raises questions about the nature of sacrifice, justice, divine revelation, and religion, but I will attempt to comment on those in the track-by-track notes in the ensuing posts.
PART 1: SACRIFICE! [MOUNT CARMEL]
01) Shrivelling Land [1 Kings 16:29-30,32-33; 17:1]
In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab the son of Omri began to reign over Israel, and Ahab the son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria for twenty-two years. And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him… He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. And Ahab made an Asherah. Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him… Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.”
02) Summoning the Prophets [1 Kings 18:1,17-24]
After many days the word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, “Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth.”… When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” And he answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals. Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.”
03) Slashing Flesh While Deities Slumber [1 Kings 18:25-29]
Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped round the altar that they had made. And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.
04) Soaked Stones [1 Kings 18:30-35]
Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down. Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name”, and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two seahs of seed. And he put the wood in order and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” And he said, “Do it a second time.” And they did it a second time. And he said, “Do it a third time.” And they did it a third time. And the water ran round the altar and filled the trench also with water.
05) Supernatural Fire [1 Kings 18:36-39]
And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.”
06) Slaughter of the Prophets [1 Kings 18:40]
And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.
07) Stormclouds a’Comin’ [1 Kings 18:41-45]
And Elijah said to Ahab, “Go up, eat and drink, for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.” So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees. And he said to his servant, “Go up now, look towards the sea.” And he went up and looked and said, “There is nothing.” And he said, “Go again,” seven times. And at the seventh time he said, “Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.” And he said, “Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.’” And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel.
08) Superhuman Sinews [1 Kings 18:46]
And the hand of the Lord was on Elijah, and he gathered up his garment and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.
PART 2: SALVO OF THE ELEMENTS [MOUNT HOREB]
09) Scheming Reprobates / Strength to the Suicidal [1 Kings 19:1-10]
Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” And he lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God. 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?” 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.”
10) Cyclonic! [1 Kings 19:11a]
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.
11) Seismic! [1 Kings 19:11b]
And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.
12) Scorching! [1 Kings 19:12a]
And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.
13) Susurrations of the Almighty [1 Kings 19:12b-13a]
And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.
14) Seven Thousand Saints [1 Kings 19:13b-18]
And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 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.” 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. 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. 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. 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.”
Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.