Commentary on 1 Kgs 17:7-16
Elijah and the widow
The effects of the drought now even reach Elijah as the stream which provided him with water dries up. But it is not a sign of God withdrawing his providence; rather it is a sign that a new stage in the story is about to unfold.
God tells Elijah now to go to Zarephath of Sidon, a town on the Mediterranean coast between the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon (the only Gentile places we are told that Jesus visited during his public life). In effect, Elijah is being told to go to the territory ruled over by Jezebel’s father and thus to the very centre from which the worship of Baal had originated. Elijah must have found it a strange command but he put his trust in the Lord and went. This whole story is about trust in God’s providence and care.
Elijah receives a promise that he will be looked after there not now by birds but by a poor widow, herself on the point of starvation. Moreover, she is a Gentile, in Jewish eyes a pagan. Just one more example of how God’s people were sustained by people they despised and avoided. Elijah, as the bearer of God’s word, was now to be sustained by human hands, but they were the hands of a poor widow facing starvation. She was, moreover, from outside the circle of God’s own people. She was from the pagan nation that at that time (much like Egypt earlier and Babylon later) represented the forces arrayed against God’s people.
Once again, showing his deep trust in God’s care of him, Elijah goes off and, as promised, finds the widow gathering sticks. He asks for a little water to drink and she goes off to get some for him. However, as she is leaving, Elijah also asks for a little bread to eat. Here she demurs.
“As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she began. Her oath in the name of the Lord was either in deference to Elijah the Israelite or even a recognition of Elijah’s God. She told him that she had only a very small amount of flour in her house and a little oil. She was now gathering firewood to prepare a final meal for herself and her son. After that, with nothing more to eat, they were prepared to face death.
“Do not be afraid,” said Elijah – a phrase that comes up again and again in both the Old and New Testaments and often used by Jesus himself. He tells her to go and make the meal for her son but first to prepare a small cake for him. The widow is asked to give all she has to sustain the bearer of the word of God. The demand to give her all is in essence the demand of the covenant that Israel had broken.
Elijah then cites to her a promise from the Lord: she will not want for flour or oil until the day the rains return. In a marvellous act of trust she agrees. She reminds one of the widow in the Gospel who donated all she had to the Temple treasury. This Gentile woman’s trust is also in strong contrast to the Israelites who had bound themselves by covenant to unconditional and total service of their Lord but had reneged on it so often and were doing so again.
The truth of Elijah’s promise was soon confirmed for the widow. For the jar of meal and jug of oil were never again empty for one whole year. By her act of faith the woman received the promised blessing, while Israel had forsaken the covenant and followed Baal and Asherah in search of prosperity. Now in the midst of a pagan kingdom a widow realises that the trustful obedience to the word of God is the way that leads to life.
God miraculously provided for this non-Israelite who, in an act of faith in the Lord’s word, had laid her life on the line. He gave her “manna” from heaven even while he was withholding food from his unfaithful people in the promised land.
The whole story is a teaching about trusting in God’s care for us. Later, in his home town of Nazareth, Jesus will use the example of this Gentile woman as well as the cure by Elisha of Naaman the leper from Syria as examples of Gentiles having more faith than God’s own people. Jesus was not able to heal many in Nazareth because of their refusal to see in him anyone but one of their neighbours.
This story reminds us too that the secret of life is for everyone to share generously of what they have. When that happens, no one is in want. When everyone gives, everyone gets.