BIBLICAL COMMENTARY 1 KINGS 17:8-24
1 KINGS 17-18: THE CONTEXT
The first 16 chapters of 1 Kings deal primarily with the activity of kings. The first 11 chapters deal with King Solomon, who ruled over the united kingdom, and chapters 12-16 deal with the kings of Israel and Judah.
Then, in chapter 17, the prophet Elijah comes on the scene to challenge King Ahab, who had married Jezebel and had started worshiping Baal. For the next 15 chapters (1 Kings 17 – 2 Kings 9), the prophets Elijah and Elisha dominate the narrative. The prophets' names are instructive. "El" is a word for God. Elijah's name (Hebrew: eliyahu) means Yah is El or "Yahweh is God" or "Yahweh is my God." Elisha's name means "God is salvation." Their names proclaim their message.
The last several verses of chapter 16 set the stage for chapter 17 by telling how King Ahab "took as wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshiped him" (v. 31).
Chapter 17 is composed of three stories about Elijah. The first (vv. 1-7) has Elijah confront Ahab with news of a drought and sees Yahweh provide for Elijah at the Wadi Cherith. The second (vv. 8-16) has Yahweh providing for Elijah and a starving widow at Zarephath. The third (vv. 17-24) has Elijah reviving the widow's son, who has died.
Chapter 18 will continue the story of Elijah's confrontation with Ahab and Baal. It tells the story of Elijah's triumph over the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel (18:20-40)––and the end of the drought (18:41-46).
1 KINGS 17:1-7. ELIJAH FROM TISHBE
While these verses are not included in the lectionary reading, they set the stage for the two stories that are included. They identify Elijah as being from Tishbe in Gilead (v. 1a). Elijah challenges Ahab, who worships Baal, by saying, "As Yahweh, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word" (v. 1b). Elijah says "according to my word" rather than "by the word of the Lord," but it is Yahweh's word that gives Elijah's word its power. The book of James credits Elijah's prayers with having caused the three-year and six-month drought (James 5:17).
Elijah's word challenges not only Ahab, but also Baal, the storm god, who is thought to provide rain. When Elijah announces a prolonged drought, he is in effect saying that Yahweh rather than Baal controls the weather and provides or denies rain.
Yahweh directs Elijah to go to the Wadi Cherith, where Yahweh provides him with water from the wadi and bread and meat brought twice a day by ravens––thus demonstrating both Yahweh's power over nature and the sufficiency of his providence. This is a miracle like unto the earlier manna in the wilderness and water gushing from a rock to meet the needs of the Israelites.
But the wadi eventually goes dry due to the drought "because there was no rain in the land" (v. 7)––thus fulfilling Elijah's prophecy.
1 KINGS 17:8-16. ARISE, GO TO ZAREPHATH
8The word of Yahweh came to him, saying, 9"Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and stay there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to sustain you." 10So he arose and went to Zarephath; and when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks: and he called to her, and said, "Please get me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink." 11As she was going to get it, he called to her, and said, "Please bring me a morsel of bread in your hand." 12She said, "As Yahweh your God lives, I don't have a cake, but a handful of meal in the jar, and a little oil in the jar. Behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and bake it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die." 13Elijah said to her, "Don't be afraid. Go and do as you have said; but make me of it a little cake first, and bring it out to me, and afterward make some for you and for your son. 14For thus says Yahweh, the God of Israel, 'The jar of meal shall not empty, neither shall the jar of oil fail, until the day that Yahweh sends rain on the earth.'" 15She went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, ate many days. 16The jar of meal didn't empty, neither did the jar of oil fail, according to the word of Yahweh, which he spoke by Elijah.
"The word of Yahweh came to him, saying, 'Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and stay there'" (vv. 8-9). Zarephath, "which belongs to Sidon," is located on the Mediterranean coast between Tyre and Sidon. This is the region where Jezebel grew up and the place where Jezebel's father, King Ethbaal, reigns (16:31). It is the heartland of Baal worship. We would think that Yahweh would have his prophet avoid this evil place, but he sends Elijah into enemy territory to demonstrate his power. While working behind enemy lines, Elijah will prove that Yahweh, not Baal, is God.
"Behold, I have commanded a widow there to sustain you" (v. 9b). This prepares us for verses 10-11, where Elijah requests water and food from the widow. When Elijah makes that request, he is just following God's direction.
A widow is the least likely candidate to provide hospitality, because widows and orphans are among the poorest and most vulnerable people in the land. The Torah includes laws to protect widows and orphans (Leviticus 22:13; Deuteronomy 14:28-29; 16:10-11, 14; 24:17-22), but there are always evil people who take advantage of the vulnerable (Job 22:9; 24:21; Psalm 94:6; Isaiah 1:17, 23; Ezekiel 22:7). Yahweh's choice of a widow to feed Elijah is like his choosing a boy to fight a giant or a band of 300 soldiers to route an army. It is a demonstration of power, using the least and the unlikeliest to accomplish a seemingly impossible task.
"So he arose and went to Zarephath" (v. 10a). Elijah does not hesitate, but obeys Yahweh just as he did in verse 5 when commanded to go to the Wadi Cherith.
"and when he came to the gate of the city, behold, a widow was there gathering sticks" (v. 10b). Gathering sticks is a common activity among poor people in primitive areas. Sticks provide fuel for cooking and heating. Poor people in primitive areas typically spend a significant percentage of their workday foraging for fuel. That is true even today.
"and he called to her, and said, 'Please get me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink'" (v. 10c). In the midst of a serious drought, Elijah's request for a little water stretches the requirements for hospitality. In the midst of such a drought, water is more precious than gold, because water can sustain life but gold cannot. But verse 11 tells us that the widow responds by going to get Elijah some water.
"Please bring me a morsel of bread in your hand" (v. 11). While the widow is complying with Elijah's request for water, he raises the ante, asking for bread as well. In the midst of a serious drought, bread would be almost as precious as water because crops would have failed and there would be no grain to use for baking bread.
"As Yahweh your God lives, I don't have a cake, but a handful of meal in the jar, and a little oil in the jar. Behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and bake it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die" (v. 12). The widow acknowledges Elijah's God, calling him Yahweh, but says that she has only a small amount of meal and oil with which she plans to prepare one last meal for herself and her son so that they might eat one more time before dying. She apparently plans to use the sticks that she has been gathering (v. 10) for fuel to bake her remaining supply of meal and oil.
"Don't be afraid. Go and do as you have said; but make me of it a little cake first, and bring it out to me, and afterward make some for you and for your son" (v. 13). Elijah challenges this woman to take a leap of faith––a step into the darkness in the faith that God will protect her. In this case, Elijah first reassures her by telling her not to be afraid. Then he asks her to make a little cake for him from her pitiful reserve of meal and oil before providing for herself and her son.
In this kind of situation, a mother's instinct would be to provide for her son even at the expense of her own life, so a request from a stranger for food at the son's expense would be the most difficult of all requests to honor. However, we must keep in mind that Yahweh has commanded her to feed the prophet (v. 9). She has heard Yahweh's voice, so it seems likely that Yahweh assured her that all go well for her and her son if she obeys his command to feed the prophet.
"The jar of meal shall not empty, neither shall the jar of oil fail, until the day that Yahweh sends rain on the earth" (v. 14). While we are likely to hear this promise as contingent on her obedience to feed the prophet first, that is not what Elijah says. He does not say, "If you feed me first, the jar of meal will not be emptied." Instead, he makes an unconditional promise. He assures the widow that she can easily afford to honor her Godly obligation to hospitality, providing for the guest first, because Yahweh has already set things in motion so that she will have an unending supply of meal and oil until the rains come.
"She went and did according to the saying of Elijah" (v. 15a). In doing what Elijah asked, this woman is also obeying the command that she received from the Lord to feed the prophet (v. 9).
"and she, and he, and her house, ate many days" (v. 15b). Yahweh is as good as his word. Just as he provided for the Israelites in the wilderness by giving them manna to eat and water from a rock, so also he gives this woman sufficient food and water to sustain her guest, her son, and herself through the crisis.
"The jar of meal didn't empty, neither did the jar of oil fail, according to the word of Yahweh, which he spoke by Elijah" (v. 16). It seems like a magician's trick that the jar of meal and the jug of oil just keep on keeping on. But magician's tricks are just that––tricks––accomplished by sleight of hand and clever deception. A magician must have a rabbit to put in the hat before he can pull a rabbit from the hat––and then the trick is over. A magician could not use a failing jar and jug to prevent starvation.
So this is no magician's trick. All that exists was created by Yahweh, and Yahweh can distribute it as he sees fit. In this case he sees fit to provide ample resources to this little household in the midst of a killer drought. This home becomes, by the grace of God, a oasis of plenty in the midst of a wilderness of famine.
1 KINGS 17:17-24. YAHWEH LISTENED TO THE VOICE OF ELIJAH
17It happened after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick; and his sickness was so severe, that there was no breath left in him. 18She said to Elijah, "What have I to do with you, you man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to memory, and to kill my son!" 19He said to her, "Give me your son." He took him out of her bosom, and carried him up into the room where he stayed, and laid him on his own bed. 20He cried to Yahweh, and said, "Yahweh my God (Hebrew: elo·hay yhwh – my God Yahweh), have you also brought evil on the widow with whom I stay (Hebrew: mit·go·rer – dwelling as an alien), by killing her son?" 21He stretched himself on the child three times, and cried to Yahweh, and said, "Yahweh my God, please let this child's soul come into him again." 22Yahweh listened to the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived. 23Elijah took the child, and brought him down out of the room into the house, and delivered him to his mother; and Elijah said, "Behold, your son lives." 24The woman said to Elijah, "Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of Yahweh in your mouth is truth."
"It happened after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick; and his sickness was so severe, that there was no breath left in him" (v. 17). This verse is the start of a new vignette, but it is the same prophet, widow, and son. In plain language, the son dies. This incident will provide Yahweh opportunity to demonstrate that he has power not only over Baal and nature, but also over death.
"What have I to do with you, you man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to memory, and to kill my son" (v. 18). The widow has had ample evidence that Yahweh exercises the power of life and death––and also that Elijah the prophet works by the power of Yahweh. Her words to Elijah are accusatory and assume that Elijah (and, by extension, Yahweh) is responsible for the death of her son. In the light of the previous story, where she put the life of her son at risk by feeding the prophet first, it would constitute the worst kind of treachery on Elijah's part to cause her son to die––or even to allow the son to die if he could prevent the death.
"He said to her, 'Give me your son.' He took him out of her bosom, and carried him up into the room where he stayed, and laid him on his own bed" (v. 19). Elijah responds to the widow's accusation with actions rather than words. He takes the dead boy to his own room and lays him on his own bed, in spite of the fact that touching a corpse or even being inside a room with a corpse makes a person ritually unclean for seven days (Numbers 19:11, 14, 16, 18).
"Yahweh my God (elo·hay yhwh – my God Yahweh), have you also brought evil on the widow with whom I stay(mit·go·rer – dwelling as an alien), by killing her son?" (v. 20). While Elijah's prayer is couched in the form of a question, it is an accusatory question. The widow has obeyed Yahweh's command (v. 9) and Elijah's request (v. 13). She has extended hospitality to Yahweh's prophet, allowing him to reside in her home. Given her faithfulness, Elijah cannot imagine why Yahweh would slay the widow's son––and it is clear to him that Yahweh must be involved in the son's death. If the situation is as it appears to be, Yahweh has engaged in unconscionable treachery by attacking this faithful woman at the point of her most sensitive vulnerability––the life of her son.
"He stretched himself on the child three times" (v. 21a). This is probably a healing ritual common to that day. Elijah's objective is to impart life from his body to the child's lifeless body. It is Elijah's prayer (v. 21b) rather than this gesture that persuades Yahweh to give life to the boy, but Elijah is using every means at his disposal to bring the boy back to life.
"and cried to Yahweh, and said, 'Yahweh my God, please let this child's soul come into him again'" (v. 21b). Elijah prays an intercessory prayer for the child's recovery.
"Yahweh listened to the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived" (v. 22). When Yahweh told Elijah what to do, Elijah obeyed (vv. 5, 10). Now, in response to Elijah's prayer, Yahweh does what Elijah asks. In the New Testament, James says, "The insistent prayer of a righteous person is powerfully effective" (James 5:16) and cites Elijah's prayer for drought and rain as examples (James 5:17-18). Elijah's prayer for the life of this boy is another example.
This and two incidents involving Elisha (2 Kings 4:35; 13:21), Elijah's assistant and successor, are the only stories of a Godly person reviving a dead person until Jesus does so in the New Testament (Matthew 9:25; Luke 7:15; John 11:44).
"Elijah took the child, and brought him down out of the room into the house, and delivered him to his mother; and Elijah said, 'Behold, your son lives'" (v. 23). Elijah's prophetic stature has been authenticated by his stopping the rain and his providing grain and oil to the widow. The raising of this child from the dead, however, is the most dramatic authentication of all.
"Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of Yahweh in your mouth is truth" (v. 24). We might prefer that the mother would glorify God rather than God's prophet, but faith often begins with a relationship with a person of faith and grows from there.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.