In the midst of a drought, God sent the prophet Elijah to Zarephath, where he had “commanded a widow there to feed you” (1 Kings 17:9). Elijah finds her and directs the woman to bring him “the morsel of bread in your hand.” She replies:
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. (v 12)
In the end, God works a miracle through Elijah, keeping the jars of meal and oil from emptying. Still, “That we may eat it, and die” has always struck me as one of the saddest lines in all of Scripture.
But then I picked up the story in this morning’s lectionary reading, and was moved even more deeply:
After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. (v 17)
Having nearly starved to death — and having already lost her husband some unstated time before — this poor woman now has to watch her only child die of some disease that, here in late March 2020, sounds uncomfortably like COVID-19.
Last week that pandemic claimed its first American victims younger than 18: a child in southern California, and a newborn in Illinois. Children generally seem to be less affected than their elders, but the possibility of an illness “so severe that there was no breath left in” one’s child is the stuff of nightmares for parents inundated with reminders that there may not be enough ventilators to go around.
So while I know that this widow’s son lives, that God again works a miracle through Elijah, I had a hard time this morning focusing on the story’s hopeful message — its foreshadowing of the life-giving work of Jesus, who raises not just Lazarus but another widow’s child. At first, all I wanted to do with this morning’s time with God was to ask him about the problem of evil: Why, all-powerful and all-knowing God, do you allow people to starve to death, to suffocate to death? God of goodness and justice, why do some people seem to experience layer upon layer of tragedy?
But today’s commentator, Rebecca Gaudino, points out that we need to read the tragic-then-hopeful stories of the widow and her child in the larger context of a book about kings who often defy the Lord:
In the midst of this miracle story, we get an intimate look at life outside the palace. While kings vie for power and wealth, a widow and her son struggle for their daily bread, like most of the people of the land, no matter their country. They subsist on baked cakes, not the vast repasts of kings (4:22-23). When the king chooses wrongly, the humble live with and die by the consequences.
“The king” here being the wicked Ahab, who has just married Jezebel (daughter of the king who rules over the people of Zarephath) and turned away from God to worship Baal. “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him” (16:33) — a remarkable achievement, if you’ve read the preceding chapters in 1 Kings. At this point, Elijah enters the story to deliver his first prophecy to Ahab: “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (17:1).
(Baal, we should know, was revered as a rain god by the people of the ancient Near East. The drought finally ends after Elijah prevails over 450 prophets of Baal, as he calls down a fire from God that consumes wood soaked with jar after jar of precious water.)
We’re often too quick to interpret natural and other disasters as God’s judgment on a people. But in this case, a drought is very clearly presented as God’s judgment on one person, a king that Gaudino later describes as being “addicted to sin.”
While Ahab eventually grows desperate, it’s doubtful that the royal storehouses ever ran out of meal and oil, that his children were so weakened by hunger that their lungs were left susceptible to disease. But the marginalized of multiple countries — not just Ahab’s subjects in Israel, but Sidonites like the widow and her son — find the margin between life and death shrinking to nothingness.
I don’t want to overthink this story. Clearly, the central message here is the contrast between a life spent in faithful relationship to the one true God (Elijah) and the death that comes from devoting oneself to false gods (Ahab).
But once again, I’m reminded that this with-God life does have political implications. Rather than putting our trust in narcissistic princes who bow down to idols (if not Baal, then the gods of power and wealth), the story of Elijah in Zarephath reminds us to trust in the God “who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry” (Ps 146:7). Or as James put it centuries later, on the other side of his brother’s resurrection, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (1:27).