Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath
Story: 1 Kings 17
Key/Memory Verse: Then the woman told Elijah, “Now I know for sure that you are a man of God, and that the LORD truly speaks through you.” 1 Kings 17:24 (NLT)
This story introduces us to three miracles that happen in the life of Elijah, miracles that show us the power and providence of God. The Life Application Study Bible has an assertion that aptly sums up this story: “The real miracle in Elijah’s life was his very personal relationship with God.” It is this connection with God that steels Elijah through trials, allows him to act courageously, and takes him to unforeseen situations.
Participants will be able to:
- Find the story of Elijah in the Old Testament of the Bible.
- Know that Elijah was a prophet of God; that prophets were God's chosen messengers.
- Learn that when we are obedient, God provides.
- Understand that Elijah's time away hiding was a time to strengthen his trust in God, bigger challenges were coming in Elijah's life.
- Contrast Elijah and the woman's view of God at different points in the story. How did Elijah help the widow come to know God? Compare this to our own experiences in helping people to come to know God.
Bible Background Notes
The prophet Elijah first appears in 1 Kings chapter 17, bursting onto the scene and confronting King, Ahab with a pronouncement about the weather. Who is this prophet? What does his statement mean? Why should it not rain over the next few years? This story brings many questions to mind.
We aren’t told much about Elijah, except that he is “from Tishbe in Gilead.” Let’s focus first on King Ahab. There have been seven kings since the separation into a northern and a southern kingdom. Our story takes place in the northern kingdom of Israel. All of these kings have been evil, continuing the sins of idolatry that their fathers had committed (1 Kings 15:26). With Ahab as king, things sink to an all-time low. Ahab has married Jezebel, a “foreigner,” and Ahab allows Jezebel to introduce to the people the worship of Baal.
Baal worship was a form of idolatry. Baal was the god of weather, supposedly appointing the time of rain. Baal was also the god of nature and fertility. Now Baal had been worshipped by Israelites in the past. “David rid the land of this dirge, but now it was resurrected on a new scale, larger than ever, and this was done by the government, the king” (Keathley). Why was it tempting to follow Baal? Because so much of the people’s lives depended upon rain. They had forgotten to place their confidence in God.
Elijah Annouces a Drought
Into this situation comes Elijah, the prophet God had chosen to bring the people back to him. Elijah makes this pronouncement to Ahab that there won’t be any more rain until Elijah says. God is preparing the Israelites to pay attention to the power of their own God. Since Baal was the god of rain, Elijah’s statement is setting up a direct confrontation between God and Baal. Looking ahead we can see that this confrontation gets settled in the following chapter in the account of Elijah and the prophets on Mount Carmel. But that’s another story.
Why did Elijah say this to Ahab? “There will be no dew or rain during the next few years unless I give the word!” (17:1). He had been called by God to do something to get the people back to worshiping God. Scholars agree that a passage in Deuteronomy probably had an effect on his decision. “But do not let your heart turn away from the LORD to worship other gods. If you do, the LORD’S anger will burn against you. He will shut up the sky and hold back the rain, and your harvests will fail” (Deuteronomy 11:16-17a). This edict is often cited as Elijah’s prayer for no rain. Elijah is mentioned 29 times in the New Testament. One of them is in James 5:17-18a. “Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for the next three and a half years! Then he prayed for rain, and down it poured.” Elijah was confident in his prayer to God. His faith and belief is evident in his words to Ahab: “As surely as the LORD, the God of Israel, lives -- the God whom I worship and serve ...”
Elijah Hides by the Kerith Brook and is Fed by Ravens
Then what happens? Verses 2 and 3 tell us: “Then the LORD said to Elijah, Go to the east and hide by Kerith Brook...” Hide! Why would a prophet be told to hide? Prophets are God’s messengers. Wouldn’t a prophet need to be in front of the people? First off it would have been important to hide for a time, so that people could begin to feel the effects of drought and to recognize that it came from God. Secondly, Elijah needed to hide from Ahab. We aren’t told of Ahab’s response to Elijah’s proclamation but we can assume it meant trouble for Elijah; Ahab likely would have been out to kill Elijah. Finally, God wanted Elijah to spend time alone with him – to sojourn in God’s protection. By obeying God and going to hide, Elijah was being built up in his faith, strengthening his trust in God. Jesus spent time alone with God (Mark 1:35; Luke 5:16). How often are we willing to take time to listen to what God has to tell us?
So Elijah goes off to hide. God has promised him provision from ravens! To the Israelites ravens are considered unclean (Leviticus 11:13-15). Nevertheless these birds feed Elijah, twice daily. “Elijah was learning experientially that Yahweh was the only source of food, fertility, and blessing” (Constable). God provides when we are obedient to his word. Picture Elijah living by an obscure brook, waiting patiently for food from birds. His experience demonstrated the certainty of God and prepared Elijah for the bigger challenges that were coming in his life.
Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath
Sure enough, the brook runs dry. There is, after all, a drought in progress. But God is still providing for Elijah for now God sends Elijah to the care of a widow. “Then the LORD said to Elijah, ‘Go and live in the village of Zarephath, near the city of Sidon. There is a widow there who will feed you. I have given her my instructions’” (17:8-9).
Zarephath is an ironic place to be sent for it is near the home city of Jezebel and Zarephath was considered the heart of Baal territory. “It was often believed that the gods were territorial … If this were true then Elijah is taking a huge risk by moving to Zarephath” (Deffinbaugh). But Elijah went – he was obedient to God. Surely Elijah wondered how a widow could provide for him, let alone a Gentile woman as this was outside the territory of God’s people. Widows were seen as the ones who were disadvantaged and this widow was definitely in need. When Elijah met her, she was gathering sticks to cook her last meal.
Elijah requests of the widow, a “bite of bread.” Hospitality is required for strangers, yet did Elijah know he was asking for her last victuals? The widow is honest with Elijah and tells him of her situation. She must recognize Elijah as a prophet for she starts her response in verse 12 with “I swear by the LORD your God …” Notice that she does not say “my God” as the LORD is not yet her God; perhaps she worships Baal? Soon, she would see the power of Elijah’s God.
“But Elijah said to her, don’t be afraid! Go ahead and cook that ‘last meal,’ but bake me a little loaf of bread first. Afterward there will still be enough food for you and your son. For this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: There will always be plenty of flour and oil left in your containers until the time when the LORD sends rain and the crops grow again!” (17:13-14) The woman is required to place faith in Elijah’s God. Elijah is asking to be fed first. When she goes ahead and follows Elijah’s words, she is blessed with the miraculous provision of daily supplies: “For no matter how much they used, there was always enough left in the containers, just as the LORD had promised through Elijah” (17:16).
Elijah and the Widow's Son
Things are going along well, though each day requires new faith in God’s providence; but then, disaster strikes – the woman’s son takes ill and dies. The widow is distraught; she blames Elijah. “O man of God, what have you done to me? Have you come here to punish my sins by killing my son?” (17:18). Think about what her perception of God is at this point. Elijah was living in this widow’s house; surely he spoke to her about his God. She has seen God as a provider of food. But is this a God of vengeance? Is God only a “little” God, who can provide flour and oil, but not keep her son from dying? She hasn’t yet developed a real relationship with God. She does not yet have faith to commit to God, to trust him for life. How many of us could do so?
Elijah takes the son and prays over him. At first his prayer is one of disbelief over the incident: “O LORD my God, why have you brought tragedy on this widow who has opened her home to me, causing her son to die?” (17:20). Then he admonishes God, “O LORD my God please let this child's life return to him” (17:21).
Compare the woman’s feelings toward God, with Elijah’s. The use of the words “my God” shows his close personal tie with God. He trusts God with the outcome of his prayer, and what an extraordinary prayer of faith it is! There is no precedent for Elijah’s request – no one had ever been raised from the dead before. “The LORD heard Elijah's prayer, and the life of the child returned, and he came back to life!” (17:22). Elijah’s actions serve as a witness to help the widow come to more fully know God. “Then the woman told Elijah, Now I know for sure that you are a man of God, and that the LORD truly speaks through you” (17:24).
We can think of this part of the story in terms of our own experiences in helping people to come to know God. How does our relationship with God appear to others? Is God our source of supplies, or the source of our deeper faith? In this instance not only the women came to trust God. Elijah learned from this experience too, to fully trust God and trust in his own relationship with God.
- Auld, A. Graeme. The Daily Study Bible (Old Testament) I & II Kings. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986.
- Constable, Thomas L. “Notes on 1 Kings.” 2006. http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes.htm
- Deffinbaugh, Bob. “The Life and Times of Elijah the Prophet.” 2006. https://bible.org/seriespage/1...naaman-2-kings-51-27
- Life Application Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996.
- Mays, James L. ed. Harper’s Bible Commentary. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.
- Keathley III , J. Hampton. “Studies in the Life of Elijah.” 2006. http://www.bible.org/series.asp?series_id=10
- Seow, Choon-Leong. The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume 3. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999.
- Trimboli, Kim et al. Postings at rotation.org – discussions of Writing Team on this story of Elijah. July 9 – August 4, 2006.
- Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, Copyright © 1996, 2004. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.
Written by Carol Hulbert for Rotation.org