Elijah & the Widow

1 Kings 17.8-16

This morning we are going to be thinking about Elijah.  If you know your Bible, you will know the most famous story of Elijah was his contest with the prophets of Baal to see who’s God could call down fire on their altar.

I heard of an incident when a Sunday school teacher was carefully explaining the story of Elijah the Prophet and the servants of Baal.  She explained how Elijah built the altar, put wood upon it, cut the ox in pieces and laid it upon the altar.

And then Elijah commanded the people of God to fill four barrels of water and pour it over the altar. He had them do this four times.

“Now, said the teacher, “can anyone in the class tell me why the Lord would have Elijah pour water over the ox on the altar?”

A little girl in the back of the room raised her hand with great enthusiasm. “To make the gravy.”

This morning we looking at the story of Elijah before his famous showdown.

To put it  in context, by the 9th century BCE, the Kingdom of Israel, was split in two: the northern Kingdom kept the name “Israel” and southern Kingdom was called “Judah.”  The southern Kingdom is probably the one that we think about the most because that’s where Jerusalem was (and it was the centre for government and religion with the site of the great Temple).  The Southern Kingdom was ruled over by the descendants of King David.  And that’s where almost all of Jesus’ ministry is set.

However, our reading takes place in the North.

Omri, the sixth King of the divided Israel, at first sounds like an interesting liberal kind of guy: he allowed diversity in the religious tradition: he encouraged the building of local temple altars for sacrifices (until then sacrifices were only allowed in the Temple in Jerusalem); he allowed priests from outside the traditional priestly tribe of the Levites; he also was tolerant of other religions and and encouraged the building  of temples dedicated to Baal.

Omri made a canny deal to stop the conflict between the followers of JHWH and the followers of Baal by a marriage alliance between his son Ahab and princess Jezebel, a priestess of Baal and the daughter of the king of Sidon in Phoenicia.

This marriage was a great success and brought peace, security and economic prosperity to Israel.  However the Israelite prophets objected – they demanded a more strict interpretation of the Mosaic law.

When Omri’s son, Ahab, took the throne the tensions grew.  Ahab built a temple for Baal, and his wife Jezebel brought a large entourage of priests and prophets of Baal and Asherah into the country.

In the passage that immediately precedes this morning’s reading Elijah condemns King Ahab for doing evil in the sight of the Lord and predicts a drought that will last years.

Its tempting to question the whole Biblical narrative and think that Ahab and Jezebel may have been the good guys and that Elijah was a troublemaking fanatic.  However, our sympathy Ahab’s tolerance for Baal worship must be tempered by the knowledge that its practices included human sacrifice, including the sacrifice of children.

History is written by the winners, and the same is true of the Bible, the narrative beneath the narrative is sometimes more interesting and nuanced than the surface – that is the whole basis of feminist theology.  But I digress…

In the narrative Elijah delivers God’s message and then literally runs for the hills.  Our reading from the book of Kings is set in the town of Zarephath, a small port city on the Phoenician coast between the cities of Tyre and Sidon.

While the drought withered the crops and huger spread through the land, God provided for the prophet Elijah by sending him ravens.  In case you are wondering he didn’t eat the ravens (or so the story goes) but rather the birds brought him bread and meat every morning and evening.  While the birds were behaving like cartoon creatures in a Disney movie, there was a small stream east of the river Jordan that provided his water.  However as the famine continued, the stream dried up, and Elijah was forced to move on.

God doesn’t send Elijah to a local merchant or wealthy household that would have supplies to see them through the famine, instead he sends Elijah to a poor widow.

There are several interesting things about this woman, that should have put him Elijah off:

The first, and obvious thing that made the poor widow an inappropriate candidate for helping Elijah was that she was a poor widow.  She had barely enough food for her and her son but that is where Elijah was sent.

There may be some logic in sending Elijah to someone poor.  As Jonathan, our outgoing treasurer, has pointed out many times, giving (at least to the church) is regressive – generally the more someone earns the less they give; not simply the less they give as a percentage of their income, but the less they give in total.  There is something about wealth that makes people want to keep it.

Generosity comes more naturally to the poor.

The second reason why the woman may have appeared a strange saviour to Elijah was that she was a Gentile.  Given Elijah’s hard line approach to religion, seeking help from someone outside the faith would have been a bitter pill for him to swallow.

Just as I’m pretty sure Jezebel was not the monster the Bible depicts, perhaps Elijah was not such a hard-line fanatic.  His time giving and receiving help from a Gentile shows a different side to him.

Perhaps God leads us not into places where we are comfortable, but into places where we can learn more about ourselves and about the world, and realise that God’s love stretches further than we may have realised.

So God sends Elijah to someone poor with barely enough food to survive, God sends Elijah to someone outside his religious tradition, and finally God sends Elijah to a woman who was a “sinner.”  The text doesn’t specify what her sin could have been, but when her son dies she cries out to the prophet, “have you come to remind me of my sin?”

It could be that the woman’s sins were not significant – maybe she did whatever was the 7th century BCE equivalent of keeping a library book overdue and just felt bad about it… or maybe she was the worst of sinners and had horribly murdered her husband.  The truth is probably somewhere in between these extremes, but she certainly felt like a sinner.

She was not the kind of morally upright person the prophets usually approved of.

To me the amazing thing about this story is not Elijah, who is a bit too scary and fanatical (in his later showdown with the prophets of Baal he takes the idea of “fire and brimstone” preaching a bit too literally) but the woman – who in her poverty is generous, who in her religion is open-minded, and who in her sinfulness is found worthy to play a part in God’s plan, and finds a place in Scripture.

Read over the story again at home, and pray for generosity, open-mindedness and a willingness to serve God.

Like the ancient widow, it might just change your whole life

 

*  *  *

1 Kings 17:8-16

Then 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.

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. She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”

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