Commentary on 1 Kings 17:8-16
Chapter 17 of 1 Kings begins a series of stories about the prophet Elijah and his successor, Elisha.
In these stories, the two prophets interact with the rulers of the northern kingdom of Israel (notably Ahab, Jezebel, and Jehu) and with common folk. At the beginning of chapter 17, the reader is rather abruptly introduced to Elijah the Tishbite, when read that he says to King Ahab, “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (17:1). God then tells Elijah to go and hide east of the Jordan River and promises that ravens will feed him and a wadi will provide water (17:2-6). When the drought becomes severe and the wadi dries up, God sends Elijah to Zarephath (17:7-8).
Thus begins the lectionary reading. God tells Elijah to go and live in the Sidonian city of Zarephath, where a widow will provide him with food and water. When Elijah arrives in the city, he meets a widow and asks her for some water and bread. She protests, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing . . .” But Elijah promises in the name of the God of Israel that the widow will be well-provided for until the drought comes to an end.
This story and many of the stories about Elijah and Elisha that are included in the book of Kings is enigmatic and puzzling on a number of levels. Questions this canonical critic cannot help but ask are, “Why was this story included in the book of Kings, and why in this particular place in the book?” What does it tell us about the prophets of God, particularly Elijah; what does it tell us about the nature of God, particularly in this pivotal time in the history of the northern kingdom of Israel; and, perhaps most importantly, what message can this story convey to folk in the twenty-first century? Let’s walk into the story and listen carefully to the voices and pay close attention to the actions of the characters.
We begin with God. We presume, although the text does not tell us so, that God commands Elijah to confront Ahab with news of an impending drought (17:1). God then sends Elijah into hiding for three years (18:1). Elijah is to go to the east of Jordan River, and God promises to feed him and provide water. But “after a while” (17:7), the water dries up and God sends Elijah to live with a widow in a town in Sidon.
God must have “called” Elijah in some way or another to the rather bold task set before him–announcing the drought to Ahab. Then, God tells Elijah to flee, promising provision from two sources–ravens (17:7-6) and a widow (17:8). With God’s help, Elijah is able to elude Ahab after delivering the news of the drought to him. Elude, yes, for we read in 1 Kings 18:10 that “there is no nation or kingdom to which [Ahab] has not sent to seek [Elijah].” During his time of hiding, God provided for Elijah from two very unlikely sources. Ravens are included in listings of “unclean” birds in Leviticus 11:15 and Deuteronomy 14:14 and are birds of prey according to Job 38:41, Proverbs 30:17, and Isaiah 34:11. Widows are, in the Old Testament, included among those who are less able to care for themselves–the widows, the orphans, and the strangers (Deuteronomy 16:11, 14, Job 22:9, Psalm 68:5, and Isaiah 9:17). God’s ways are not the ways of humanity; God can and often does use “the least of these” to accomplish God’s good end.
Next, we examine Elijah. As stated above, we have no record of his call to a life of prophecy. His first action in the text of 1 Kings is to speak to Ahab in 17:1. He then flees at God’s command, but we read of no conversation with God about the command. Nor do we ever hear Elijah’s voice while he is east of the Jordan, being fed by the ravens and provided with water from the wadi. Elijah remains silent when God instructs him to go to Zarephath in verse 8. Only after he arrives in the city do we again hear his voice. At God’s behest, he asks a widow for water and morsel of bread (verses 10-11). When she protests, Elijah assures her “by the Lord the God of Israel” that she will be provided for (verse 14).
Elijah is part of a rich prophetic tradition in Israel, part of a group who followed the call of God despite fear, without regard for personal gain, and against all odds–sometimes being bold to speak and sometimes quietly trusting in God’s provision and care. What a life and what a model for our own lives.
Finally, we examine the widow of Zarephath. She lives in a thriving trade center on the coast of Syria in the province of Sidon, but her life is one of desperate poverty. Without a husband or adult son to provide for her, she must scrape out whatever living is possible. Thus we meet her “gathering sticks” (17:10). Imagine her reaction when a traveler–a stranger–asks her for water and “a morsel of bread” (17:10-11). But was he a total stranger? Towns in the ancient Near East were small; everyone knew everyone else. Word of Elijah’s coming would have reached the town long before he did–he was traveling a great distance from east of the Jordan to Sidon. The widow’s response to Elijah’s request suggests that she knew something of who he was: “As the Lord your God lives . . .” (compare with Elijah’s words to Ahab in 17:1).
The widow who trusts Elijah and his God comes from the same province (Sidon) as Jezebel, the wife of Ahab. The widow believes that the God of Elijah can provide for her and her son based merely on the words Elijah speaks to her. Jezebel refused to believe in the power of the God of Elijah even after hearing about the spectacular events that took place on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:20-46).
Thus, a God who calls and provides for; a prophet who quietly and boldly obeys; and a marginalized woman who takes a risk on this god of Israel.