Let’s be real. Everyone knows the story of Abraham, but how about the comparable story of the widow of Zarephath? Both were about sacrifice and beloved sons.
Abraham delivered his son Isaac to the funeral pyre—and would have killed the boy, had not God’s angel intervened. The widow of Zarephath also saw her son on death’s doorstop, although—unlike Abraham—such a condition was not her fault.
The story of Abraham is told in the Hebrew Bible to stress that God comes first. (For the record, I don’t believe that a loving God would ever require us to kill our children to make us prove our love.)
But…in terms of making a major sacrifice on God’s behalf, the widow of Zarephath ranks just as high. It’s clear she made quite an impression on Jesus. She is, after all, the first person to whom Jesus refers after he returns from his forty-day wilderness journey—and one of only three women from Hebrew scripture he refers to in his ministry.
Her story, in brief: An outsider, a woman, and a widow, she’s a person without power times three. And knowing Jesus, that’s probably why she went straight to his heart—and stayed there. She provided a powerful foreshadowing of Jesus’ ministry—after all, she poured out all she had to feed another, just like Jesus himself would pour his body and blood out on the cross.
Because of God’s anger toward Jezebel and others who have been worshipping Baal, the countryside has been suffering a famine for almost three years. A few can afford to buy precious grains for bread; some have died, others are so close to death that they almost don’t feel the flies on their faces. One of those is the widow of Zarephath. Month after month, day after day, she has put away whatever grains she could find, whatever drops of oil she could save. Now, with her son near death, she expects to bury him—then waste away herself, ignored by all but the birds of prey.
It hurts to walk. It hurts to breathe. And most of all, it hurts to walk away from her boy, knowing that he may not be breathing when she returns. Nonetheless, she must find firewood to prepare their last meal together, so forages outside the city gate, searching for a few sticks.
Mirage-like, a man appears in her path. She recognizes him as man of God because of the mantle that is wrapped around his shoulders. He, too, is emaciated, but God has cared for him, commanding ravens to share their food with him twice a day. Rotting flesh is better than no food at all. At least it has kept him alive.
If the woman had come earlier or later to the town’s gates, she would not have seen the prophet. If she had searched for wood in another part of town, she would not have seen him. Intuition? Coincidence? More likely a “God-moment,” (See 1 Kings 17) even though she is not an Israelite.
Elijah is there because his own water supply has dried up, and because God has directed him to the heart of this Baal-worshipping country, where God has told him that a widow will provide food.
“Give me some water,” he says. As she leaves to get it, he tells her to bring some bread back as well.
“I have no food, sir! What bits I have left I will give to my son so that he may live another day!”
“Do not be afraid,” he answers. “Cook a biscuit for me first and then you will both eat—for God says your grains and oil will not fail you.”
Somehow, she summons the courage to do as Elijah asks—and remarkably her containers stay full, brimming over with grains and oil.
But the crisis has not ended—for instead of recovering, her son deteriorates to the point of no return.
She snaps. “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to cause the death of my son!”
Elijah gathers the boy into his arms, takes him upstairs (where the woman has provided lodging), pleads with God, then stretches his body on top of the boy’s, begging God to fill his lungs with air.
And God does. The woman is overjoyed.
This is a tough story. A starving woman is asked to feed a wandering prophet before she feeds her dying son, before she feeds herself—and she does. Even though her failing strength would barely allow her to search for sticks, she recognized God’s presence in the prophet, and responded unconditionally.
Did she respond because she thought Elijah would save her? That correlation does not jump from the Bible’s pages. Did she respond because in the excitement of seeing a prophet, she forgot her son? No.
She gave food to Elijah first because she trusted him, instinctively knowing that he was a man of God. Her jug of oil kept flowing; her container of grain stayed full. Her cup truly overflowed—until her boy stopped breathing. And then she unloaded her anger on Elijah, blaming herself for her boy’s condition (as many mothers would, whether logical or not). Through the prophet, God’s restores the boy to health.
This woman is the first individual cited by Jesus in the New Testament after he returns from his forty-day trail in the wilderness, reading the scriptures in his hometown synagogue. He tells them, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to bring good news to the poor…to let the oppressed go free…” and that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 18:19)
The crowd: “Is this not Joseph’s son? Who does he think he is? Why, we’ve known him since he was a boy!”
Jesus: “I tell you this: no prophet is accepted in his hometown.”
And then he shares the story of the widow in Zarephath, and how God sent Elijah only to her, not to the “many” widows and lepers who were also starving. Hidden here is this: God continues to love the people of the covenant, but also actively includes others in his expansive grasp. The people get so angry with Jesus that they try to kill him, but he passes through their grasp and moves on to the next town.
What might we learn from the widow of Zarephath?
- God is present in moments of despair.
- God continually reaches out to those outside the traditional circle of faith, and therefore, invites us to do the same.
- God’s true representatives bring messages of faith and healing.
- Taking risks is part of being in relationship with God.
- The church is catholic (with a small “c,”) because it proclaims the whole faith to all people, to the end of time; and this is a good example of such outreach.
- Why did the widow of Zarephath trust Elijah? What did it mean that she fed the prophet even though her preference was to be with her son?
- In 1 Kings 17:18, Elijah restored her son to life. When he was dying, she blamed herself, although the nature of the sin she mentions is never explained. In that it is common for women to blame themselves, to what extent have you blamed yourself for circumstances out of your control?
- The restoration of Elijah might remind you of another story. What story(ies) in the Bible is similar?
- How might this story be a good text for interdenominational study?
Copy excerpted from Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter, published by Forward Movement, 2014
Photo Credit: Bud Holland.