Formations 01.11.2015: Praying in Times of Tragedy

1 Kings 17:17-24

The Prophet Elijah icon, Selezeniha, Russia, 18th century

The Prophet Elijah icon, Selezeniha, Russia, 18th century

After showing hospitality to Elijah and seeing her meager provisions miraculously multiplied, we readers might have been lulled into thinking that the widow of Zarephath’s problems were now over. In fact, they soon take another tragic turn.

The widow’s son, mentioned in last week’s lesson, soon gets sick and dies. Once again, God uses Elijah to minister to the woman by bringing her son back to life. The miracle arises out of deep emotional turmoil, however. The woman lashes out at Elijah in verse 18, and Elijah himself seems to take an accusatory tone toward God in verse 20. Even so, the prophet prays, and God acts to restore the boy’s life.

The emotions in this story ring true to life, don’t they? Or maybe they hit a little too close to home. Why are we so quick to we blame God, or even God’s representatives, for the tragedies that befall us?

Our world has no shortage of tragedy. As I write this, Americans are struggling to process news of the execution-style shooting of two New York City police officers, apparently an act of revenge for the previous deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. We have only recently marked the second anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in New Town, Connecticut, while at the same time reeling from allegations of widespread incidents of rape at the University of Virginia. Add your own personal tragedies to that list—the ones that may never make the nightly news, but are just as real and just as painful to you.

What are we to do when the world comes crashing down around us?

How can we find the courage to pray—even if our prayers are tinged with frustration and fear?


• Why did the widow blame Elijah for her son’s death (v. 18)? Why do people in general look for someone to blame when things go wrong?
• What do you make of Elijah’s prayer in verse 20? Why did the boy’s death affect Elijah so deeply?
• Is there a place for such an emotionally honest prayer in the lives of believers today?

Reference Shelf

The Dialogue of Prayer

The prayers of the OT are an important, though much neglected, witness to what transpired between the people of ancient Israel and the God who called them into faith. They suggest that life in relation to God was not to be lived on the level of monologue alone, with God always speaking, leading, commanding, punishing, forgiving, etc., and humanity always the passive recipient. Instead Israel had an important role to play. In the dialogue of faith Israel was sometimes petitioning, other times praising, often times complaining, but almost never silent. It was Israel’s divinely designated role to participate as partner with God in the accomplishing of the divine will, frequently even addressing God with language suggesting that something like peer status was permitted. Perhaps even more astonishing, certainly less comprehensible, is the portrayal of these ancient prayers as not only addressing God but also as influencing God. They praise, and God is pleased. They lament, and God is moved to compassion. They challenge and protest and question, and God listens and responds. Such prayers are a witness and a summons to a divine-human relationship that has consequences in both heaven and earth.

Samuel E. Balentine, “Prayer/Thanksgiving in the Old Testament,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 706.

New Power for Life

The feeding miracle of vv. 8-16…only creates a context for the more urgent, more conflicted engagement of the widow and the prophet (17:17-24). The presenting problem now is the illness of the son (17:17). We do not know why he is ill, but we notice that the narrative rather carefully avoids the bald statement that he was “dead.” In any case, the mother is beside herself about her son, and lashes out at Elijah with an accusation (17:18).

The prophet, however, does not respond to her accusation. He disregards it; instead he takes command of the situation. His action is bracketed by “Give me your son” (17:19) and “See, your son is alive” (17:23). Between these two statements he has taken the son and submitted him to the life-giving power of Yahweh, and then has given the son back to the mother. Between these two utterances to the mother, his action consists in two prayers addressed to Yahweh. In the first of these, he speaks an accusatory question to Yahweh, something of a parallel to the mother’s initial comment to him (17:20). In the second petition, he prays for life for the boy, an insistent demand that is answered by Yahweh (17:21). The narrative reports, without making any special fuss, that the prayer is answered. The boy lives again! Yahweh answers the prayer! But all attention is focused on Elijah, this powerful man of Yahweh who can summon Yahweh’s gift of life into a scene of death. As in v. 14, the narrator offers no explanation and expresses no curiosity about the wonder just enacted. It is a wonder that defies explanation. It is a gift of life that the king could never grant. It is a pastoral transformation that the mother could not have anticipated.

The return of the revived son to the mother evokes a grateful response from the mother as intense as her initial accusation. She recognizes the power and significance of Elijah (17:24). He is a man of God! He is a carrier of “the word of the Lord.” Of course, the narrator has known this all along (17:2, 5, 16), but now the needy woman knows as well. Indeed, as it is represented, the purpose and gain of this latter “wonder” is the credentialling of Elijah as a force from Yahweh in the life of Israel. In our modern reading, we may be preoccupied with the “miracle.” In the shaping of the text, however, the “miracle” is a sign that points beyond itself to signify about the miracle worker, Elijah. The reader is now on notice, as the king is now on notice, that this is one greater than he who will now shape Israel’s life, before whom the king is helpless. The credentialling of Elijah is rooted in these two miracles of oil-meal and revived son. The two narratives, however, are placed in the context of wilderness food that avoids any collusion with royal resources and of the widow as the social habitat of counterpower. The newness Elijah will enact for Israel from Yahweh is a newness completely outside the bounds of established power. He will do so by a counterpower that endlessly subverts establishment power. The narrative invites us to amazement at this completely inexplicable happening in the midst of ordinary life.

Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2000) 211–14.

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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