The Faith of Elijah and the Widow

1 Kings chapter 17 illustrates some things about God’s character and his promise of provision, and our role in receiving from him. It is the story of the prophet Elijah and a widow in Zarephath.

In 1 Kings 17, at the time of King Ahab of Israel, God’s prophet Elijah calls the king out for his introduction of Baal worship and the continuation sins of his predecessors in Israel. Elijah pronounces a drought over the land, and his life is threatened so he flees. God told him to go to Kerith Brook and God had ravens bring him bread and meat at the brook. These ravens were likely stealing the food from someone since bread is made by humans and not found in the wild, and the meat would have likely been a clean (kosher) animal from a butcher rather than an animal mauled by wild predators (not kosher). Unfortunately, since there was a drought in the land, the brook eventually dried up (1 Kings 17:1-7).

In 1 Kings 17:8-9, when the brook dries up, God says, “Go and live in the village of Zarephath, near the city of Sidon (in modern-day Lebanon). I have instructed a widow there to feed you.” Notice God already told this widow, who was a gentile in a foreign country, that his prophet was coming and she was to take care of him. God may have spoken to her in a dream or vision, or maybe through another prophet, or even an angel. Either way, she was told that he would come and ask her for water and food and that she was expected to help him.

In 1 Kings 17:10-11, Elijah arrives and sees her at the gate gathering sticks and asking her for water. Then as she goes to get water he asks for some bread. In 1 Kings 11:12, she responds “I swear by the Lord your God that I don’t have a single piece of bread in the house. And I have only a handful of flour left in the jar and a little cooking oil in the bottom of the jug. I was just gathering a few sticks to cook this last meal, and then my son and I will die.” She knows that he was a man of the God of Israel which is why she swore by his God and not her own gods since it was his God that reached out to her initially. In addition, she has no idea how she is supposed to take care of him since she has only enough food for a final meal and she plans to eat it with her son and die. So why would the God of Israel request a widow on her last meal to feed his prophet? Would God have her starve so that the prophet can eat? Well, the next verse indicates that while she had enough food for one meal, that meal was big enough to share with at least one other person outside of her family.

In 1 Kings 17:13-14, Elijah says, “Don’t be afraid! Go ahead and do just what you’ve said, but make a little bread for me first. Then use what’s left to prepare a meal for yourself and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘There will always be flour and olive oil left in your containers until the time when the Lord sends rain and the crops grow again!'” Verse 13 indicates that Elijah only requested a little of what they had then she can use the rest to feed her family. It’s similar to how God required Israel to give only 10% in tithes to the Levites (Num 18:26-28). God never takes all we have, only a portion. Then he specifically ask to be served first, which also reflects Isreal’s laws since God told them to give as offerings the first fruits of their harvest each year (Lev 23:9-14), as well as the firstborn of each mother (Num 18:15-17). The idea of giving God your first and best can be traced back to Abel’s offering in Gen 4:4. In 1 Kings 17:14, a promise was attached to this instruction. If the woman did as the prophet said then she would never run out of food and they would be provided for no matter what until the return of the rain.

That promise is fulfilled in verses 15-16 which say, “So she did as Elijah said, and she and Elijah and her family continued to eat for many days. There was always enough flour and olive oil left in the containers, just as the Lord had promised through Elijah.”

God’s intention here is to provide for his prophet and bless the widow’s family, however, tragedy strikes in verses 17-18. In verse 17 it says the boy got sick and died. And in verse 18 the widow responds, “O man of God, what have you done to me? Have you come here to point out my sins and kill my son?” She is wondering why God let this happen if he blessed her temporarily just to punish her later, which seems cruel. She is questioning what happens just like Job questions God’s justice when tragedy strikes him in the book of Job. Why would God save her and her son from dying of starvation by providing for her only to have her son die immediately afterward?

Let’s take a break and look at what the new testament says about this:
Romans 8:35 (NLT) Can anything ever separate us from Christ’s love? Does it mean he no longer loves us if we have trouble or calamity, or are persecuted, or hungry, or destitute, or in danger, or threatened with death? 36 (As the Scriptures say, “For your sake we are killed every day; we are being slaughtered like sheep.”[Ps 44:22]) 37 No, despite all these things, overwhelming victory is ours through Christ, who loved us.

James 1:2 Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. 3 For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. 4 So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing.

Back to Elijah and the Widow:
Elijah responds by praying to God for the boy in verses 19-21. God heals him in verse 22 which says, “The Lord heard Elijah’s prayer, and the life of the child returned, and he revived!” Elijah took him to his mother in verse 23 and she responds in verse 24 saying, “Now I know for sure that you are a man of God and that the Lord truly speaks through you.” God’s intentions were not for her and her son to die especially since she showed generosity to his prophet. In Genesis 12:1-3 God promises Abraham that he will bless his seed in such a way that anyone not related to him that blessed his descendants would be blessed as well, and those that curse his people will be cursed. Israel is Abraham’s seed since Jacob/Israel inherited the blessing from his father Isaac (Gen 27), who was the promised seed of Abraham (Gen 17). Therefore, even as a gentile she is blessed for showing favor to one of God’s people. There was no reason for her to lose anything in this deal, so when tragedy struck, God had a covenant obligation to intervene and he did because he is faithful to his promises.

God gave Elijah specific instructions to go to a brook where food was provided through ravens until the brook that he used for water dried up because of the lack of rain. Then he sent Elijah to a specific widow in a foreign country who was assigned to take care of him until the drought ended, which would be three years later. This woman had no resources but God provided for her supernaturally so that she could follow his instructions. Even when her son died, God raised him from the dead in order to keep up with his promise of preserving her family because she was obedient in helping his prophet.

The Moral of the Story:
This scenario is one of many examples in the bible of God’s faithfulness to specific promises. God’s promises are conditional to our obedience and since the widow was obedient she received favor. If she did not help the prophet God would have let her and her son starve and chosen someone else. Likewise, if Elijah didn’t leave the brook and gone to Zeraphath he likely would have died because he didn’t trust God and obey. The promises of God are attached to specific instructions and conditions and following those instructions in order to meet those conditions requires faith. That small piece of bread she set apart for Elijah was a seed planted in faith.

Matt 17:20 “You don’t have enough faith,” Jesus told them. “I tell you the truth, if you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.”

God’s word is like a code, and like any code (computer code or otherwise), it has conditional statements. Almost every covenant in the bible begins with conditional statements. If you meet the conditions (by trusting God), then you will get the promises, if you don’t, then you won’t.

If you eat of the forbidden tree, then you die. Otherwise, you keep your eternal life (Gen 2:16-17).

If the people of Israel obey the terms of the agreement (the ten commandments), they will become a “kingdom of priests” (Exod. 19:6). Furthermore, if they keep the commands they will get provision, protection, and life. Otherwise, they get poverty, sickness, and death (Deut ch. 28).

If you received in the covenant of Jesus, then you get mercy, access to the holy spirit (John 14:15-17), and eternal life. Otherwise, you stay guilty, a slave to sin (without the holy spirit’s help), and will experience condemnation on Judgment Day (John 3:16-21, Rev ch. 20).