Elijah and a Phoenician widow find themselves in serious trouble.

November 4, 2012

View Bible Text

Commentary on 1 Kings 17:1-16 [17-24]

Elijah and a Phoenician widow find themselves in serious trouble.

Ancient Near Eastern histories were written by elites, for elites. With limited literacy and restricted access to writing resources and technologies, only royalty had the capabilities to write lengthy historical narratives. For this reason, ancient historiography served to support and legitimize royal rule. But biblical historiography is different in this respect.

In the midst of the narratives of Israel’s kingship, the books of 1 and 2 Kings contain numerous accounts outside of the royal elite sphere. Such a chapter occurs in 1 Kings 17 about a disenfranchised prophet and a foreign widow in the midst of national calamity.

This passage centers on a few key themes as follows.

The chapter begins with a declaration of an absence of rain for an undisclosed number of years (1 Kings 17:1,7). Such a pronouncement comes as a punishment to King Ahab because he “did evil in the sight of the LORD more than all who were before him” (1 Kings 16:30). As king, Ahab incorporated Baal and Asherah worship, provoking God’s anger. The punitive cessation of rain serves as a demonstration that the earthly king of an agrarian society stands at the mercy of the sovereign God.

Though not explicitly mentioned, the opening verse gives us a historical frame of severe drought and concomitant hardship. The Lord’s instruction for Elijah to go eastward, and wait in the Wadi Cherith invites extreme risk to the prophet of God in regards to basic sustenance of food and water. The divine answer lies in the ravens and the wadi to provide for Elijah. It is enough to reassure Elijah for now.

But with the lasting effects of drought and the inevitable crop failures, exposure intensifies the natural bodily reactions of thirst or hunger. Elijah obeyed God and hid in the Wadi Cherith, somewhere east of the Jordan. But in accord with the prophetic judgment, the rains never came and God’s promised water source was no longer flowing. Elijah was thirsty, hungry, and tired.

The narrative is tantalizingly silent on the state of Elijah’s spirit. Was the prophet scared and doubting, or was he filled with faith and assurance? Perhaps he struggled between both responses? Elijah was a loyal prophet and a man of great faith. But such physical challenges could make even the most resilient person waver.

God faithfully provides, but sometimes from the unlikeliest of places. First, God provides through the ravens, an animal not known for particularly strong symbiotic behaviors. But after the ravens, sustenance comes from an even more remarkable being. Although the drought is a punishment for the Israelite king introducing idolatrous practices from Phoenicia, God instructs the prophet to obtain relief through a Phoenician widow.

No Fear
The foreign widow is the most disenfranchised person in ancient Israel. With severe drought, she lives at the brink of death for her and her son. Elijah understands this plight; perhaps his time of hunger and thirst while waiting for God at the wadi prepared him for this prophetic encounter. He instructs the widow, “Do not fear.” This is not an easy one to believe — with no rain, she had already resigned herself and her young son to death. Yet for some reason (again, the narrative is silent), she answers Elijah’s request to share the last of her meager supplies. Elijah is fed. In reciprocity, he blesses the foreign widow with the miracle of bounty until the end of the drought.

The unique narratives of 1 and 2 Kings are so much more than royal historiography. The main characters of a thirsty prophet and a poor widow allow us to think and reflect on our own experiences waiting on God amidst fears and unknowns. It invites us to understand the lack of rain, drought, thirst, and fear. For the working preacher, the passage reminds us to reflect on our own journeys of faith, and think about the times when God called us to a wadi with no further instruction but to wait on him. Ultimately, God reveals that the wadi leads to an opportunity to serve the least among us.

For those experiencing fear, the passage invites us to walk in the shoes of the widow. We hear the voice of God through the prophet with the gentle admonition to not fear an invitation to hospitality and assurance of provision.

God meets our needs, feeds our hunger, and slakes our thirst. Ancient Near Eastern histories are written by elites, for elites. 1 and 2 Kings however, narrates a much more colorful, inclusive history not limited to royalty, but extended to wandering prophets and poor widows. Somehow, the margins give us a richer perspective on allowing God to enter our own experiences of thirst, sustenance, and fear.

God of compassion,
By the power of God, Elijah provided bread and oil for the widow and her household. By faith in God, the widow provided food and water for Elijah. Give us hearts to love one another, so that in providing and in receiving, we too, might experience the unimaginable power of God, through the one who has provided life itself, your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

For all the saints   ELW 422, H82 287, UMH 711, NCH 299
I sing a song of the saints of God H82 293, UMH 712, NCH 295
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy   ELW 587, 588, H82 469, 470, UMH 121, NCH 23

Sing me to heaven, Daniel Gawthrop