Elijah and the Woman of Zarephath

Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

I’m going to take a bit of a different tack this morning. I’m going to focus on reading a story. It may feel a little strange. I encourage you to get out a Bible and turn to 1 Kings chapter 17, or wait and do that this afternoon. The story of Elijah the Tishbite is a great story, but it takes work to get the full value out of it, and in particular you have to read each episode in the context of the larger story. Like so much of the Bible, casual reading of this passage by itself can yield bad fruit, but put the effort in and it will nourish you. The story goes that God was angry with Israel’s king Ahab because he had married a Phoenician princess from the port city of Sidon, named Jezebel. This secures an alliance with Ahab’s northern neighbor, but involved him in the worship of Canaanite gods, which is the Israelite kings’ quintessential fault. The fact that Jezebel comes from Sidon is important to this morning’s little bit of the Elijah story, as we’ll see in as moment.

Before we get into it, it’s worth admitting that there are at least five ways in which this story is difficult for us modern westerners to hear. First, we no longer believe, indeed I’d argue we CAN’T believe, that the gods send rain or snow, or withhold it, in response to human beings. So to begin with, we have to engage in a little voluntary suspension of disbelief in order for the story to work. Second, we find here a God who punishes the whole people of Israel for the sins of the king. As a portrayal of God, this isn’t easy to swallow since it seems to make God arbitrary and unfair. Third, of all the people God could have chosen to take care of Elijah, God chooses a foreigner from Jezebel’s people, a woman without food to give Elijah food, a woman without a name to contrast with the notorious Jezebel. Fourth, it’s not like Elijah is starving — God has been sending ravens to bring him food, using the same language to describe that feeding as the story we’re reading today — which makes the widow’s situation all the more poignant. She barely lives hand to mouth, like birds, but is asked to make provision for Elijah. And fifth, the city gate is a terrible place to gather firewood, even just “two sticks.” The city gate was the public square, where trials and business deals were conducted. Who gathers sticks in such a place? These five things are genuinely odd. Some of them just have to be accepted as part of the story world, but some of them offer real insights into how ancient Israelites would have heard the story. So let’s dig in.

The little town of Zarephath lay between the larger cities of Tyre to the south and Sidon to the north on what is today the coast of Lebanon. Another 25 miles past Sidon and you’re in Beirut. God didn’t send Elijah to the people of Israel, but to a Canaanite woman. Earlier in chapter 17 we’re told that God “commanded” (צִוִּיתִי) the ravens to feed (לכלכל) Elijah. Now ravens are unclean (Lev 11:15), and God not only gives them a command but also requires Elijah to eat bread and meat brought by them, which probably would have made any Israelite squirm. In this morning’s reading we heard that  God had “commanded” (צִוִּיתִי) the woman to feed (לְכַלְכְּלֶךָ) Elijah, the exact same expression. So the unclean birds and the widow of Zarephath stand in the same relation to God and to Elijah.

The woman must accept Elijah’s proposal before she can receive God’s gift. She had been planning to cook for herself and her son, but Elijah calls her to care for himself, who in her eyes was just foreign beggar, first. When she stops living her life of scarcity and begins to share with him, abundance opens up. Her handful of flour doesn’t run out and her little juglet of olive oil doesn’t dry up until the drought is over. The narrator concludes with a “happily ever after” moment showing that everything the prophet promised got delivered. But it doesn’t last. The story goes on with the child becoming sick and dying, with the widow complaining to Elijah, and with Elijah complaining to God and the boy being healed. The first resurrection story in Scripture is not God raising an Israelite but a Canaanite child! The result of this astonishing act of God is that the woman comes to believe what Elijah says is God’s word. So in the larger context, we have a Canaanite woman whose response to Elijah is the correct one, contrasted with Ahab and Jezebel’s incorrect response that tried to shut Elijah up.

Now it’s a real danger in stories like this that particular readings of them can be antisemitic in the worst sense, using Jewish texts against Jews. Nothing could be more remote from Scripture’s intent. Admittedly we see Elijah taking God’s grace to foreigners while keeping the Israelites in drought and it’s so easy to slip from there into a narrative in which Israel is more unfaithful than other people, or somehow deserves bad treatment in the modern world. Such interpretations are unfortunately widespread among some Christians, and there’s a fairly direct pipeline that runs from such interpretations to horrible things like the synagogue shooting in Philadelphia last week. We Christians have more to repent and make amends for in that regard than Jews ever did.

Try to imagine reading this story as a Jew in Jesus’ time, a good 700 years or so after this story was written. In Jesus’ day, Tyre and Sidon were part of the Roman province of Syria despite being close to the Galilee. We’re told in Mark’s gospel that Jesus visited Tyre and Sidon at least twice, though that’s not mentioned in the other gospels. Luke actually records Jesus interacting with our story directly. Jesus says “There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah … and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow” (Luke 4:24-26). The saying illustrates how Israel resisted its prophets, necessitating that God should send His prophets elsewhere. I’m sure you can appreciate the antisemitic potential in that. The people of Nazareth, on hearing Jesus say this in the synagogue, tried to lynch Jesus right then and there! If this story could be so offensive when spoken by a fellow Jew, I’m pretty sure it would be deeply offensive from Christians. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that any reading of the Jewish scriptures in which Jews are held up to ridicule or scorn cannot be correct.

Instead, let’s pay attention to what GOD is doing here. God tells Elijah to leave his raven-fed hideaway in Jordan and go to Zarephath, assuring him, “Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you” (1 Kgs 17:9). When God gives people a command, it is always for their good. God commands Elijah twice, and commands the woman once, to the end that both Elijah and she and her son may eat. What seems at first like a hopeless act — a last meal before curling up to die — becomes the very means by which hope comes in. Her obedience to the prophet’s word results in her receiving God’s provision of food as well as, later on, the life of her son. But Jesus’ observation is still apropos: God might have sent Elijah to any number of Israelite widows to save them, but instead sent him to this foreigner to save her. What do we learn about God by observing this? We learn what Israel needed to learn, too, that God is not only the Lord of us and our people, but the Lord of aliens, legal and otherwise, and even the Lord of other nations regardless of whether or not they know it. God loves and cares for the unclean as well as the clean, the sick as well as the whole, the addicted as well as the teetotalers, the Canaanites as well as the Israelites. In the words of Psalm 147 God delights to feed the ravens when they cry out. We can see in the Elijah story the beginnings of the idea that Yahweh, Israel’s God could and did save  other peoples,[1] which would eventually evolve into the idea of Yahweh as the universal God. In the process of Israel’s discovery of God’s Oneness, stories like this one played an important part.

The season after Pentecost is a time when we typically talk about evangelism (though because we’re Episcopalians we may use a different word) and the spread of Christianity throughout the world, and this story weighs in on that matter. We may be tempted to make people convert before we give them help, but in this story it’s precisely the miraculous provision of food that leads to the widow’s conversion. Like all Jews and Gentiles, she is presented with a command from God obedience to which will make her live. That command, which we also receive multiple times in Scripture, is that she care for the stranger living in her vicinity. Even this Phoenician woman can recognize the truth of that command and obey it. Will we?

[1] Amos 9:7 has God saying, “Didn’t I bring Israel up out of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?”