Formations 01.04.2015: An Unlikely Benefactor

1 Kings 17:1, 8-16

Jan Victors, Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath, 1640s

Jan Victors, Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath, 1640s

January 6 and the Feast of Epiphany marks the end of the Christmas season. Does this mean, however, the end of our annual heightened consciousness of needs in our community? We gladly toss our change into the Salvation Army kettle, donate toys to needy children, and write checks to charitable organizations as we are caught up in the “season of giving.” Let’s not forget that within our community—among the people we are called to love in Jesus’ name—suffering and deprivation don’t magically come to an end on January 1st.

Our study of the prophet Elijah begins in the opening months of a drought that was destined to last over three years. During this drought, God sent Elijah to a widow of the Sidonian city of Zarephath. The text describes how Elijah ministered to this woman and her son through a miraculous provision of flour and oil. It is also a story about a Hebrew prophet coming alongside a pagan widow and sharing something of her life and experience.

It is worth noting that Elijah did not approach this woman from a stance of sufficiency. The drought had taken its toll on him as well! But in asking for—and receiving—help from this most unlikely of benefactors, Elijah found that God had opened a door for him to minister to her as well.


• When have you had to rely on the hospitality or benevolence of another person? How did that affect the relationship between you?
• What lessons might God have been teaching Elijah through this experience?
• Jesus reminds us that there were plenty of widows in Israel, yet God sent Elijah to a widow in a pagan town (Luke 4:25-26). What might this detail tell us about giving and receiving help?
• What does this story say about what it means to minister to others, particularly to those whose lives have been harder than ours?

Reference Shelf

The Prophet Elijah
[Elijah was an] Israelite prophet who ministered during the reigns of Ahab (ca. 869—850 B.C.E.) and Ahaziah (ca. 850–849 B.C.E.). He was a vigorous supporter of his God, Yahweh. Elijah’s name, which means either “My God is Yahweh” or “Yahweh is God,” reflected his zeal. The Deuteronomistic Historian selected certain episodes, a mixture of legend and history, from a cycle of stories about Elijah and inserted his interpretation of this period in 1 Kgs 17–19; 1 Kgs 21; 2 Kgs l; and 2 Kgs 2:1-12. Elijah’s reputation and influence are witnessed in 2 Chr 21:12-15; Mal 4:5-6 (Heb 3:23-24); Sir 48:1-14, several apocalypses bearing his name, the NT, and traditions that grew within the three monotheistic faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The first story (1 Kgs 17–19) abruptly begins with Elijah’s proclaiming to Ahab, the syncretistic Israelite king, the beginning of a drought. Upon the instruction of Yahweh, he immediately went to the brook Cherith where he hid from the wrath of Ahab and his Phoenician wife, Jezebel, who had been slaughtering the prophets of Yahweh. He stayed there, sustained by the brook, and fed by ravens, until the brook dried up and Yahweh directed him to stay with a widow and her son in Zarephath. When he arrived in Zarephath, he found the widow preparing the last meal she could manage on her meager provisions. However, Elijah assured her that Yahweh would oversee her well being if she would care for him. She believed him and Elijah’s promise proved true.

Russell I. Gregory, “Elijah,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 243.

Life for Widow and Orphan

Again Elijah is commanded by “the word of the Lord,” for he is a creature of that word (17:8). He is dispatched by Yahweh to Sidon, a territory outside Israel. This note not only asserts Yahweh’s governance beyond the territory of Israel (more territory than King Ahab administers), but Sidon is the home territory of Jezebel (16:31). It is as though this is a counterthrust on the part of Yahweh against the incursion of Jezebel into Israel. Elijah is sent, moreover, to a nameless widow who functions in the narrative as a cipher for the powerless, uncredentialed, disadvantaged, and hopeless. The prophet asks her for water—his wadi has dried up and he needs water! He asks for bread (bread only for the day), for Yahweh has promised that the widow would feed him (17:10-11; cf. v. 9). Her response to the prophet is a measure of her destitution (17:12). She has neither drink nor food to spare. Indeed, she is starving to death; her statement would seem to suggest a critique of king Ahab, for widows and orphans, poor and needy, are the peculiar charge of the king.

Thus far, our narrative is only setting the stage for the drama in which the prophet takes command of the scene. His work is in two parts. He makes a lordly speech (17:13-14), and then he enacts the wonder he has just announced (17:15-16). The speech is a characteristic speech of promise. It begins with an assurance: “Do not fear.” This “salvation oracle” is a characteristic formula whereby an utterance of powerful presence alters circumstance. It is spoken against death in order to assure life. It is spoken against exile to assure homecoming. It is spoken against despair in order to assure hope. The speech mobilizes the life-giving power of Yahweh. The assurance is followed by a specific promise of meal and oil that reverses the destitution of the widow and her son. In a circumstance of extreme scarcity, the prophet speaks lavish abundance.

Elijah is, moreover, as good as his word (17:16). No, he is as good as Yahweh’s word, for it is “the word of the Lord” that vetoes circumstance and guarantees abundant life. Note well, that the narrative does not explain. It has no curiosity about how this has all happened. It is a wonder! It is an act that draws amazement like a magnet. The story keeps being retold, and the astonishment of the act abides from generation to generation, endlessly amazed that God, through this human agent, can override killing scarcity with lavish abundance.

Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2000) 210–11.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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