1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24) The Widow of Zarephath
The word of the LORD came to Elijah, saying, 9"Go now to Zarephath*, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you." 10So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, "Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink." 11As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, "Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand." 12But she said, "As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die." 13Elijah said to her, "Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth." 15She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.
[17After this, the son of the woman, the mistress of the house at Zarephath, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. 18She then said to Elijah, "What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!" 19But he said to her, "Give me your son." He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. 20He cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?" 21Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the LORD, "O LORD my God, let this child's life come into him again." 22The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, "See, your son is alive." 24So the woman said to Elijah, "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth."]
*-Zarephath was in modern Lebanon, along the Mediterranean coast, at the location of the modern town of Sarafand.
Background: In 1 Kings 16, machinations over the throne caused all kinds of evil deeds (part of the protest by prophets that Israel didn’t need a king since they were ruled by God as God’s chosen people, and that instituting a king would simply lead to exactly this kind of problem). King Elah was made drunk and killed by his chariot officer Zimri, who named himself king and killed everyone else in the royal house to prevent another claimant competing with him for the throne (and this was supposedly God’s will for the sins of Elah’s father Baasha). Promptly the people of Israel made another military commander, Omri, their king. Omri besieged Zimri, who then set his palace on fire with himself inside rather than to be captured. Another man, Tibni, had some support to be king instead of Omri, and the two sides fought and Omri’s side won, with Tibni “dying.” Omri then ruled but also worshipped idols, and after he died his son Ahab became king. Ahab’s wife was Jezebel, who encouraged him to worship Baal. And that’s all in just one chapter! In chapter 17, Elijah warns Ahab that because of his abandonment of God, there was to be a great drought. Elijah then fled from the wrath of Ahab and was sent on orders from God to the Wadi Cherith (a wadi is a dry valley or riverbed that fills with rain in the rainy season) east of the Jordan in what is now Jordan. It was even promised that the ravens would bring him meat and bread there. However, due to the drought, eventually even the wadi ran dry. God then told him to go the Zarephath, which is where our pericope begins.
There are two miracles in just this short reading: the flour and the oil lasting many days, and the bringing the widow’s son back to life, and if you count the miracle of the ravens feeding Elijah in the wilderness near the wadi, there are three.
Once again, we see a Gentile having faith and acting upon that faith in a risky way. This widow takes in Elijah even thought the drought has affected her too, and she and her son are on the verge of starvation, and her lack of a husband and breadwinner only makes her situation more desperate. She has given up hope. Elijah asks the woman to get him a drink (remember Jesus had asked the Samaritan woman to get him a drink in John 4). Can you imagine what he must have looked like after being out in the wilderness for all that time? He’s not just a stranger, he’s probably filthy and unshaven. And the widow still does not turn him away. She takes an enormous leap of faith—and is a model of being willing to trust.
The expectations of hospitality at that time require that she do as he asks, but when he asks for a bit of bread, she has to confess that she has too little to share, and has resigned herself to the death of herself and her child. When Elijah still asks that she feed him (based on Elijah’s faith on a God that is not her own) she DOES it. That’s pretty amazing. A miracle is then given to her: she and her son are saved from starvation. Her meal and her oil do not run out—it feeds Elijah, the widow, and her “household”—which seems to be a pretty grand word to express a woman who is depicted as being by herself with just her child.
But just when it seems that there is nothing but a happy ending here, the additional part of this pericope plunges us back into a tragic situation. The widow’s little boy dies—her only prop for her old age in a patriarchal society in which women were dependent upon fathers, husbands, and/or sons to support them. She reflects an understanding of causation common in the Bible—her son’s deep illness and possibly death (is he dead? It says there is no breath left in his body…) is caused by God, at the very least by indifference to her plight after she has just evinced great, blind trust by taking in this strange man and feeding him at a time of severe deprivation. Her blame challenges Elijah to do something. He takes the boy from the mother, carries him up to a room, and prays to God to intervene. His charge in verse 20 agrees with the woman’s take on the situation: has God brought this calamity as a response to one who has given everything she has? He doesn’t argue against the woman’s charge, but lays it against God himself. He then stretches out over the boy and intercedes with God three times, and God restores the boy to life. I have always wondered what tone of voice Elijah used when he said “See, your son is alive.” Nonetheless, this is the first time in the Bible that someone is brought back to life. This miracle then proves the existence of God and the power of God to the woman, and that Elijah is truly a prophet, although this is not something she had ever doubted—even in her anger she had called Elijah “man of God.” This ties in beautifully with our gospel reading for today.
Notice also that twice in this pericope, the death of the widow's son was countenanced. The widow was resigned to her child dying when she thought that they both would die, but when only her child is dying, she reacts not with resignation but with anger and grief. I often tell my students that my generation is the first that did not regularly experience the death of a sibling in childhood. Both of my parents experienced at least one sibling dying. But the death of a child was actually very common throughout the vast majority of human history. This did not make such events any less tragic than they are today-- just less common.