Commentary on 1 Kings 17:8-16
Sometimes God’s provision comes in the most unlikely of places and by means of the most unlikely of people.
Take the example of Elijah. In 1 Kings 17:1-7, the text right before the lectionary text for today (verses 8-16), we find Elijah in a precarious situation, caught in the divine judgment against Ahab that involves a severe drought and accompanying famine. Hiding from the wrath of Ahab and Jezebel, Elijah is said to go to an area far away removed from the capital of Samaria called Wadi Cherith. In this desolate place, God provides for Elijah by sending ravens to bring food — unlikely agents of God’s provision as ravens were considered scavengers and the meat they would have brought would be considered unclean. But desperate times call for desperate measures and Elijah survives. That is until the wadi, which had been providing Elijah with much needed water, ran dry.
Once more, though, God’s provision for Elijah continues. In this week’s lectionary text, God sends the prophet to the widow in Zarephath, a town between Tyre and Sidon. Again this scenario seems to be an unlikely choice for mediating God’s provision. Not only is Zarephath a Canaanite city in the outskirts of the land, but what provision would a widow be able to offer? Is it not typically widows who were in need of provision? After all in Deuteronomy 10:18, it is said that “God executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing” (cf. also God’s provision of food for the young ravens in Psalm 147:9).
Nevertheless, with few other options, Elijah complies, only to find out that the widow is not a viable option for survival after all. Appealing to the laws of hospitality according to which a stranger was entitled to food and drink, Elijah asks the widow he encounters at the entrance of Zarephath for a drink of water and a bite to eat (verses 10-11).
However, the widow reveals that in these desperate times she has very little resources, merely a handful of flour and a little oil. Actually, she divulges something of her inner despair saying that she is finding firewood in order to prepare a meal for her and her son that she suspect will be their last (verse 12). Instead of food being the source of life, the widow’s desperation is evident in her assertion that she and her son will eat their last meal and then they will die. In the absence of food, the only logical conclusion is that death will soon follow.
But God is a God of life; a God who does provide food to widows and orphans. This God by means of God’s prophet speaks a life-giving word in a situation of famine and death: the flour will not fail (literally “come to an end”) and the oil will not be depleted (literally “lacking”). In verse 16, the same words are used again when Elijah’s promise has become a life-saving reality. This miraculous provision constitutes an interim measure until the day the drought and the resulting famine breaks — the day on which God will send rain once more. As in the instance of the manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16), God’s provision of food in 1 Kings 17 proves to be sufficient and something that can be counted on daily — as verse 15 states, the widow, her household, and Elijah ate many days of the supplies that did not run out.
From this striking text, it is evident that the fate of Elijah and the widow is intrinsically connected. By helping Elijah, the widow is helping herself and her son. Moreover, this help extends into the next pericope (verses 17-24), for when the widow’s son dies, it is Elijah whom the widow has helped all along who becomes the instrument by means of which God gives life to her son.
So what does this ancient survival story have to do with us today? The other day on National Public Radio, I listened to a segment on the effect of the economic crisis on people’s career plans. The presenter had asked a group of one hundred or so people how many of them were, with regard to their career, still on their “Plan A.” Only one participant raised her hand — and she was twenty three!
Most of the others have learned the hard way that life takes you places that most definitely were not part of your plan A, B, C or even D. And sometimes it happens that one finds oneself in the outskirts and even in the midst of a prolonged drought or famine. The message that God provides in the most unlikely of places and by means of the most unlikely of people may help us to be receptive to God’s provision when (not if) it comes.
Moreover, a powerful theme that emerges from this story is the belief that our hospitality to the stranger may not only help the other, but actually be responsible for our own survival. The widow with her very limited resources first provided Elijah with food, before preparing food for her and her son. It is, moreover, ironic that the widow herself is considered a foreigner from an Israelite point of view. In Luke 4:24-26, Jesus uses the example of the widow of Zarephath to make the point that a prophet is not accepted in the prophet’s hometown.
Finally, this central role bestowed to this foreigner and widow who serves as the means through which the prophet survives may challenge us to look differently at those people in our midst whom we barely spare a second glance: the immigrant, the homeless, the person from a different religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation, race, class, culture — or whatever barriers manage to divide us. Just as surprising as the widow of Zarephath’s intervention in the life of Elijah would have been, so we may find ourselves surprised and blessed by those whom we would least expect to serve as our source of survival.