We are studying 1 Kings 17:8-16 for Sunday, October 13, the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (we don’t know her name). [A few questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: The story is told in 1 Kings, what we might think of as the heart of the Deuteronomistic history. The Deuteronomistic history is that narrative from Joshua – 2 Kings that [I learned] is an account of the history of Israel in the land, written from the perspective of the exile, or at least edited from that perspective. That is, the text we have seems to reflect the concerns of people who have been through something like hell, and then the redemption of the return to the land, and who see the hand of God in all of that history. In particular, “the Deuteronomist” sees faithfulness to God’s commands as essential, as what makes the difference between one outcome and another. [Kings was some extra reading a couple of months ago.]
In Hebrew Bibles the book of Kings is in the section called Nevi’im, prophets, and is one of the books of the “former prophets.” Protestants, who probably learned to think of these as the “history” books of the Old Testament, might feel better about that when they recall that there are Prophet Elijah stories, like the one in our study, in 1 Kings and Prophet Elisha stories in 2 Kings. Also, “traditionally,” the book was written by the Prophet Jeremiah. (Who is, however, one of the latter prophets. And is not “the Deuteronomist.”)
These days, since reading Foucault on “The Courage of Truth,” I think of Biblical prophets as people who speak not their own word but “Word of YHWH.” That way of thinking about prophets works well, it turns out. Elijah will do exactly this, in fact, in our story.
The book of Kings begins with the imminent death of King David, and the succession dispute it precipitates, which is resolved with Solomon becoming king. Key events of Solomon’s reign (the building of the temple, the visit of the Queen of Sheba, his ultimate idolatry) occupy the first 11 chapters or so. Then, Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, refuses to lighten the burden of conscripted labor on his subjects, there’s a civil war, the kingdom is divided, and Jeroboam takes over the rule of the “northern kingdom” or “Israel,” in contrast to the “southern kingdom” or “Judah.” From then on, the book alternates between accounts of the northern kings and the southern kings.
In this story, the kings of Israel (northern kingdom) are uniformly wicked – idolaters from the get-go, with Jeroboam having set up golden calves right away, being more interested in politics than in faithfulness to YHWH (1 Kings 12:25-33). But Ahab is the worst, and he begins to reign just before the beginning of this story, in 1 Kings 16:29. His first acts are to marry Jezebel, a Sidonian (Phoenician) princess, and build an altar for the Canaanite storm god Baal in the capital in Samaria – presumably to accommodate his wife’s religion. [From the perspective of the Deuteronomist, foreign women are particularly problematic for just this reason: they stick to their foreign religions, and consequently encourage their husbands to abandon the God of Israel.] Then the text tells a story about the rebuilding of Jericho – which, in fulfillment of a curse back in Joshua (Joshua 6:26), was rebuilt “at the cost” of the builder’s sons.
There is a midrash that explains how the drought, which is the condition for our story, relates to this episode, and also why Elijah needs to be sent to the widow in Zarephath as a result of it.
Zarephath is not in Israel. It is a Sidonian city, between Tyre and Sidon, on the coast. [Here is a map.] Elijah will have a long walk to Zarephath from the Wadi Cherith (also on that map – south, east of the Jordan, near Tishbe, Elijah’s home town).
Also, we can presume that the widow living there is not an Israelite. [Jesus points out the same thing in his first sermon, according to Luke (Luke 4:16-30).]
While he is staying with the widow, her son will die and Elijah will bring him back to life. Then, it will finally be time for the drought to end, Elijah will do battle with the prophets of Baal (involving massive amounts of water – a miracle in itself, considering the drought), and then will flee from Jezebel to the wilderness, where he will hear God in a sound of sheer silence, and then will pick up Elisha as an apprentice. Then there will be war, and the official corruption that seals the doom of Ahab’s monarchy – involving abuse of the power of office, secret communications, directing subordinates to perjure themselves, and the perversion of the justice system into a murder weapon, all for the sake of satisfying a whim that proceeded from the desire for personal enrichment. [“Those with ears to hear, let them hear.”] That doom will unfold completely in the book of 2 Kings. So, in this story, we are at the beginning of Elijah’s reported prophetic career.
The text shows up twice in the Revised Common Lectionary, in Year B (where it is paired with the widow who gives all she has to the Temple, in Mark), and in Year C, where it is paired with the raising of the son of the Widow of Nain in Luke. Interestingly, it’s never paired with Jesus’s sermon in Capernaum which specifically refers to it, maybe because the common revisers have seen fit not to include that particular text from the gospel of Luke. [So, another one of the things you won’t know if you only know the lectionary Bible.]
CLOSER READING: The story begins with a prophetic formula, “the word of YHWH came” to Elijah. That word tells Elijah to “arise, walk” (literally) to Zarephath in Sidon and “sit” (again, literally) there. “Look,” God has commanded a woman a widow to “sustain” Elijah, a word in a peculiar verb form that comes from a word that, in a more typical form, means “to measure out,” which seems prescient and intentional in this particular context, in which this woman widow will be measuring out, and God will be measuring out, the providential sustenance that will be the central miracle of the story.
Elijah does what he is told to do (v10), comes to the gate (or entrance) of the city, and “look” (again) a woman a widow gathering sticks. Can he see that she is a widow? If so, how? Or does he just see a woman, and assume or know that this is the widow woman God had told him about?
Elijah “cried” to her, which is something prophets do, as well as people who are oppressed, but also something people who are a bit far away from other people do. He has two requests. First, for her to “get” him “a little water in a cup”, then for her to “get” him a piece of bread in your hand. He is polite about it. He makes the bread request as she is on the way to get the water, so she has already started to satisfy the first request.
The “cup” specification strikes me as significant. It’s not the same as a “drink,” like from a jar of water. Maybe because there is no well and no jug of water in this story – since there’s a drought on, probably. But this story is a little like all those meeting women at wells stories, nonetheless. So – when Jesus says whoever gives “a cup of cold water” to a little one in the name of a disciple (Matthew 10:42), is he thinking of this story, specifically? And does that cast the “little ones,” whoever they are, in the role of prophets? In the role of Elijahs – harbingers of the messiah? (Think Matthew 25?)
The widow woman responds to the bread request with an explanation, calling YHWH “your God,” which underscores her foreignness. She has a long speech. There’s no actual bread. She has only “a whole palm of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug”, she is getting “two sticks” (we infer, for a little tiny fire) and she will “go in and make it … and we will eat and we will die.” .
There is a lot of emphasis on “little”ness in this story – Elijah is asking for just a little, the widow lets him know she has just a little. Little. Scarcity. Barely enough.
Then Elijah says, in effect, “fear not.” Sounding a little like an angel, or like God to Joshua. And then he tells her to bring out his piece of bread first. Which seems audacious. But he follows this up with the assurance of “thus says YHWH God of Israel”, and the promise that she will have enough flour and oil to see her through the drought.
Elijah’s request to have the first portion might indicate that Elijah is a priest; this inference shows up in midrash, where there is ongoing debate about who is Elijah’s ancestor, Leah or Rachel. The idea seems to be that one of women’s mitzvot is to separate dough, and that separated portion is given to the priests. [Or, in the absence of the Temple and the priests, burned.]
But … the widow of Zarephath is not an Israelite, so is she really required to separate dough in the first place? She’s a foreign woman, just like Jezebel. But with the difference that she acknowledges the God of Israel, and in this case she also follows the God of Israel’s instructions. In fact, she seems to be a direct contrast with the bad foreign women, because instead of overreaching (as Jezebel does), for more, she gives (to the prophet Elijah), trusting Elijah’s reassurance that there will be enough – just enough. “Daily bread,” we might say. Which should probably make us think this: that the root issue isn’t ethnicity. The God of Israel is the God of the whole earth and all its peoples. The root issue is whose word a person trusts and whose instructions a person follows.
In v15 there’s a “ketiv qere” – words that are written or spelled one way and read another way. There is a midrash that says that Elijah brought his own provisions with him, which is why it is written “he and she” ate, although it is read “she and he” ate, because he provided these for her. Or it was a miracle, like manna, which makes a better story.
In v16, we learn that everything went “according to the word of YHWH” that God spoke “by the hand [of] Elijah.”
It’s peculiar to think of speaking words by someone’s hand. Unless, maybe, we think of Elijah as a yad, the “hand”-shaped pointer used to read Torah in synagogue, and God as the reader/speaker of that Torah. Maybe.