Zaraphath was located in Phoenicia which was steeped in Baal worship. Baal was the god of rain, thunder and lightning, and in the Phoenicians’ eyes the dependence of living things on water linked Baal to the control of life itself. Elijah came to this region during a drought just after spending some time in the wilderness of Kerith (1 Ki. 17:1-24). Interestingly, Elijah’s sojourn in the wilderness could have led to the end of his life, but instead God demonstrated His control over life and death by providing food and water for the prophet. As Elijah heads into a territory where Baal is considered to be in charge of these matters gives God even more opportunity to demonstrate His superiority over Baal where Baal is expected to excel. However, Baal had not been able to overcome the drought, even on his home turf, and because of that a widow and her son are about to die.
Elijah’s interaction with the widow begins as he enters the city. Seeing the widow, he asks her for water, a seemingly absurd question in light of the drought, but her response is to set off and find some. While she is leaving, Elijah tacks on a request for bread as well. One would think that if she were to find either of these items in drought conditions she would first give them to her son. In fact she admits that she is about to prepare their last meal (1 Ki. 17:12). The widow may have had more means to live by in earlier days as it is noted in v. 19 that the home had a second story, something only wealthier families had. But now she has run out of funds and food. Even though her response to Elijah appears less than faith-filled, there is enough faith to make her obedient to God’s command, and Elijah’s request (1 Ki. 17:9). She dutifully prepares the food as a household manager would, and serves her guest as hospitality dictates. Perhaps as she was kneading the last lump of dough Elijah’s words and God’s promise ran through her mind and that flicker of faith grew into a small flame (1 Ki. 17:13-14).
Her faith, in spite of its inauspicious beginning, is rewarded. The narrator notes again in 1 Ki. 17: 15-16 that “she and her household ate for many days. The bowl of flour was not exhausted nor did the jar of oil become empty”. Human nature being what it is, and being a mother myself, I can imagine the widow wishing there was a little more than a day’s worth of food available during this time. But like the manna which fell from heaven on a daily basis, this is how God chose to provide for them (Ex. 16:4, 35). Jesus taught us to pray for daily bread, not weekly or monthly (Mt. 6:11; Lk. 11:3). There is something refreshingly satisfying about having what you need for the moment and not having to worry about anything else (Mt. 6:25-34). If the widow had seen wealthier days, this was a new experience for her. Living on excess never tries one’s faith. Living on a shoestring forges faith, like heat forges steel. The Hebrew of verse 16 literally states that God fed them “day by day by day by day...”, and each of those days proved continually that the Lord, not Baal held the course of their lives in His hands. Elijah’s presence in the midst of this household acted like an anchor. As long as he was there, the widow perceived that his God would provide. And He did.
I have seen a lot of Christians become consumed with planning for the future. They worry about pension plans, life insurance, investments and social security. While I don’t think one should throw caution to the wind and view God as a Pez dispenser that will spit out whatever is needed as life goes on, I do wonder sometimes if our culture has shifted our focus off of Who ultimately cares for us and gives us life. I think we have placed the security of our future on paper and programs that can easily disappear when the financial world is shaken by politics and greed. We have forgotten to enjoy the simplicity of being thankful for our daily bread and being content with what we have (Phil. 4:11-13). Like Alice Wells, the widow of Zaraphath recognized the source of her blessings (1 Ki. 17:24). My goal will be the same as I look to the future. How about you?
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
Week of 10/8/2017