Updated: Feb 5
The word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
This is an optional Old Testament selection from the Episcopal Lectionary for the Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year B 2018. In the numbering system that lists each Sunday in an ordinal fashion, this Sunday is referred to as Proper 27. If chosen, it will next be read aloud in an Episcopal church by a reader on Sunday November 11, 2018. It is important because it tells a story of faith being rewarded by God.
This is not the primary Old Testament reading selection, which means it will probably not be read in most Episcopal churches on the twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost. It is obviously chosen, however, because the message is centered on a widow woman, which is half of the focus in the Gospel reading of Mark 12. The alternative Old Testament reading selection (from Ruth 3 and 4) also deals with a widow (two actually: Naomi and Ruth) and a son, although they are not named as widows and the boy is a birth celebrated by a new marriage to a widow.
That theme of a widow with child is more pronounced here in 1 Kings. It should be read as symbolic of Mary and Jesus, as a prophecy of God protecting that most holy lineage. In the story of Ruth, Obed was the child born from her marriage to Boaz. Obed would be the father of Jesse, who would be the father of David. The same preservation of a bloodline is stated here in 1 Kings, although the woman and her child are nameless.
When this reading begins, “The word of the Lord came to Elijah,” Elijah is not named in these verses. It is understood that “to him” (Hebrew “’ê·lāw”) means Elijah, from his name having been mentioned earlier in chapter seventeen. The reading is best translated to begin by saying, “And came about the word of Yahweh.” While Elijah was a prophet of the Lord, one who heard the Word, the Word of God was a presence that was not limited “to him” alone.
Because this is a story of God speaking to Elijah, it is worthwhile to realize that the name “Elijah” means: “Yahweh is God” or “Strength Of The Lord.” Every story of Elijah is then one that shows the STRENGTH [this is the meaning of the name “Boaz”] of YHWH in a human form in worldly settings. Elijah had been sent “east” by Yahweh, after he confronted Ahab about his wicked ways, where Elijah could find safety. Ravens brought food to Elijah each day that he was in a place Ahab could not find him.
The setting now has God telling Elijah, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there.” Zarephath was a “Phoenician village that belonged to Sidon and was located in the northern extremity of Canaan.” Its name means, “Workshop For Melting And Refining Metals” or “Smelting Place.” Sidon was a “town a little over a day’s journey north of Tyre.” Based on the name meaning, “Sidon” was a “Fishery” or a “Place Of Fish.” Zarephath was between the two towns, but under the rule of Sidon.
One way to look at Zarephath is as a place where raw ores and other materials were placed in a furnace and transformed from separate solids to a unified molten liquid. This liquid would then be poured in shapes, such as ingots and bars, for easy handling and shipment elsewhere. The production of refined [purified] metals [most likely iron alloys] was hard work, with danger being ever-present from accidents from burning by molten rock or crushing under raw materials being offloaded and transported from a nearby pier [perhaps how the widow woman became a widow?]. Because it was the possession of Sidon [a larger seaport town], it could have smelted more valuable metals, such as gold, copper-bronze, tin-lead or any of the ancient iron alloys, depending on the number of smelting furnaces that were built there. The symbolism of God telling His Prophet to “live there” should be realized as that where the metal of the widow woman’s heart would be tested for purity.
It also should be recalled that Jesus traveled to Tyre (Matthew 15:21), where he was confronted by a Canaanite woman that pleaded with Jesus to heal her demon possessed daughter (Matthew 15:22). Jesus said he had only been “sent for the lost sheep of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24) The woman begged for help, causing Jesus to say, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” (Matthew 15:26) The woman agreed and then said, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” (Matthew 15:27) Jesus was amazed at her having spoken via the Holy Spirit and said, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” That story then says, “her daughter was healed at that moment.”
Because that story was of Matthew saying, “Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon” [Phoenicia], the implication could be that the mother traveled to Tyre to find Jesus, having left her daughter in Sidon, but the whole region had once been the land allotted to the Asher tribe. It became an “alloy” of Israelite, Hittite, and Canaanite blood.
When God sent Elijah to the same region, the land that was once given by God to the Israelites had long been ceded to the neighboring Hittites, who later became the Sidonians and Phoenicians. This region is then symbolic of the outward reach of the Israelite faith, which remained true to Yahweh amid Gentile influence. Just as God sent Jesus into that mixed land, at a time when Jesus was sought by the evil rulers of the land, so too had God previously sent Elijah into the same mixed land for the same purpose of avoiding those searching for him.
When we read, how God told Elijah, “I have commanded a widow there to feed you,” the story obviously does not play out as if the widow woman had received any divine orders from God. Therefore, the Hebrew word translated as “I have commanded” (“ṣiw·wî·ṯî,” from “tsavah”) is better understood as, “I have put” or “I have committed a widow there to feed you.” The implication is a statement of God knowing the commitment of a devoted servant in that region, whom God would allow to serve Him through Elijah; further protecting Elijah, through a woman whose life was committed to following God’s Commandments.
Once Elijah reached the entrance into Zarephath and saw the widow there gathering sticks, one needs to know that the land was near the end of a three and one-half year drought. Rather than picking up vegetables and things growing in a garden, the widow was picking up the death that surrounded Zarephath as sticks were then plentiful. It should be understood that sticks (from “‘ê·ṣîm,” wood from trees) would have been used to feed the furnaces. It would not be unexpected to find a woman gathering sticks for that purpose. However, during a period of drought, the smelting operations would probably have been curtailed, if not shut down completely, to avoid a wildfire burning down the village.
When Elijah asked the woman to bring him a cup of water, she immediately began going to the well, which had not gone dry. One needs to see how water symbolizes emotions, so when God appeared in the form of Elijah asking the widow to produce the emotions of faith, she was prepared to readily show God her love.
Because the widow woman did not hesitate when asked to serve Elijah a cup of water, God had him then command, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” One needs to see how bread is more than simply food that keeps human beings alive. It is the nourishment that comes from faith and is shared with those of the same faith. When it was instructed to come from her “hand,” God wanted the widow woman to share her own encouragement with a stranger, beyond showing her love of God.
When we hear the widow woman say, “As the Lord your God lives,” that was a confession of faith. By adding, “I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” That confession said she said she was unprepared to serve encouragement to anyone beyond her own family, which was just her and her son.
The meal symbolized the Torah and the oil symbolized those who were anointed by God as the blood of Israel. The sticks would burn as an altar fire, with death being self-sacrifice.
The assumption could then be made that her husband had died leaving his wife and their young child with enough physical foodstuff to last through three years of famine. Elijah then arrived when that inheritance had dwindled to one last supper. Death was then their sacrifice of themselves to God, in thanks for all they had already received. The husband [like Ruth’s departed Mahlon – meaning “Sickly” or “Great Infirmity”] had left behind the Laws of Moses as his only possession. While that had kept the widow and son alive until Elijah’s arrival, she had not foreseen prolonged life on earth.
When God spoke to the widow woman through Elijah, saying “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said,” the widow was told not to fear death. She was to go and prepare for herself and her son to die, but that would not be soon. She was going to die, as all mortal human beings die … eventually, but her soul had just been assured eternal life, with God’s command through Elijah.
When Elijah then said to the widow, “First make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son,” the implication was asking her to make more bread than the woman had said she had left. There is a change of request made, from “a morsel of bread” (from “paṯ-le·ḥem“) to now a “small cake” (from “‘u·ḡāh qə·ṭan·nāh). From unleavened flatbread [implying hand me one of your scrolls of text] to a cake of risen bread [implying the fullness of knowledge that comes from the Holy Spirit], God had Elijah ask the woman to share her knowledge of the meaning of God’s laws, because she had then been touched by a divine presence.
Just as Jesus remarked to the Canaanite woman, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted,” the faith of the widow woman of Zarephath has also been blessed. The Holy Spirit fell upon her. She was no longer an unmarried widow, as she was one with Yahweh, her Lord.
This is then the miracle of Jesus feeding the multitudes (twice), before that event occurred. While Jesus had this same effect of marrying God to His devoted lovers, in numbers of five thousand and four thousand [minimally], each one that was touched by Jesus [as him through his disciples] was exactly like the widow woman touched by Elijah. In all cases, it is God telling His devotees, “Prepare for eternal life by not fearing death by first serving others before you serve yourself, trusting that I [God] will provide for all My [His] children.”
This reading ends by stating: “For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.”
That says it was Yahweh speaking through Elijah. The Law of Moses and the anointed of God will not be emptied [disappeared from the world] before new emotion falls upon the land [the rainwater of God’s love]. The widow woman followed the instruction given to her by God’s Prophet. She never once questioned how a miracle could happen. She never doubted that Yahweh lived. Just as the widow who put all she had into the Temple treasury boxes [to feed the poor], the widow woman of Zarephath also gave everything she had to God.
In return, she was promised eternal life.
As an optional Old Testament reading for the twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost, when one’s own personal ministry for the LORD should be underway – one should be willing to die without losing one’s faith in God – the message here is God knows His flock. He watches over them all and sees who needs Him to appear before them as a Prophet. Strangers will come when true Christians need reinforcement and strength, to keep one’s spiritual emotions high and to give all you have to other Christians that bring orders from God.
In many Old Testament texts where a prophet is recognized as such, but not known by name, the address given to them is read as “Man of God.” It was a title of respect for the position. The widow woman did not make such an address to Elijah.
That says she only recognized him as an Israelite, but since all Israelites were expected to be men and women of God, she acted without pretense as any Israelites making demands on her during a famine would have found the same responses of service. This also says that Elijah did not travel to draw attention to himself [especially when Ahab was hunting for him], which Jesus pointed out the scribes did. He said they wear their long robes in the marketplace, meaning that made sure the common people knew what rank they held upon their arrival. They took advantage of the poor without concern for their lives. Elijah did nothing of the sort.
In the optional reading from Ruth, the conclusion said the women gave Naomi a name in Hebrew that proclaimed “A son have been born to Naomi.” The son [Obed] was actually born to her daughter[in-law] Ruth, who married Naomi’s kinsman Boaz. Naomi took that son to her bosom and nurtured it, which caused her women friends to name her as a wet-nurse. Naomi was not a wet-nurse, but a woman much like the widow woman here. She helped Ruth much like Elijah helped the widow woman and her son – Elijah took them to his bosom and nurtured them, so the bloodline of God would grow strong and remain pure.
In this way it is vital to see oneself [regardless of human gender] as the widow woman. The assumption always seems to be of an old woman, but the human age [like gender] does not matter. We are all women looking for a husband’s redemption, where redemption means having all one’s debt be assumed by one who had the means to pay that off. Our debts are our sins and the only one who can forgive those debts is God. We must find a way to please God so He will marry each of us; but for that to happen we must be totally committed to pleasing God.
The widow woman was submissive to God when He appeared in the form of His Prophet Elijah. We must likewise be willing to hear the commands of God and obey as good wives. When we prove our devotion, God will show us how the bread and oil will not run out. The basic materials of faith will give rise to new knowledge that must be shared with others. The child born to each of us, through marriage to God, will be Jesus Christ. We will take him to our bosoms and nurture him forever.
In return, we will be promised eternal life