Stories Jesus told with women in them
The widow of Zarephath (Luke4:25-26)
(Her full story is found in 1 Kings 17:7-24)
You may have been wondering why you were reading all about the famous Elijah instead of the obscure widow who housed and fed him for three years. That’s fair! The way the story was written, Elijah was the most important person, and the widow sort of a supporting character, if you will. There’s much to learn from Elijah’s life, so we don’t want to miss the chance of paying close attention to how God worked with Elijah.
But, Jesus didn’t mention Elijah. He focused on the widow—whose name, by the way, we don’t even know! We only know where she lived, and the condition of her living. So let’s get to know her a little better to understand why, among all those peopling the pages of the scriptures Jesus spoke from, she was singled out as an example of faith.
She lived in a town called Zarephath, which literally means smelting-shop, "a workshop for the refining and smelting of metals." Located in Phoenicia in antiquity, called Sarepta in the New Testament, and Sarafend, Lebanon today, this town of some significance, situated about a mile from the coast, almost midway on the road between Tyre and Sidon.
Economically and politically, Zarephath was allied with Sidon during the time Elijah came to live with the widow, but later was taken over by Tyre. Its archaeological remains have survived to this day, with many fragments of columns, sarcophagi, marble slabs and other architectural features extending for a mile or more.
It sounds like Zarephath must have been a lovely place, at its zenith, nestled in the lush seaside foothills, affluent, strategically situated on a major trade route, well-known for its ironworks. But the widow God guided Elijah to did not enjoy any of the benefits of her hometown. And that’s the first place you and I need to stop and meditate.
God expressly instructed Elijah to seek out a particular widow, “I have directed a widow there to supply you with food,” God had said. What could that possibly mean?
The widow provided something of an answer when Elijah asked her to take care of him, “As surely as the Lord your God lives,” she said. Those were the first words out of her mouth. She did not consider any of her gods significant enough to emphasize what she had to say. Only he one true, living God would do. Somehow, tucked away in Phoenicia, was a woman who thought about God, and honored Him above the gods of her own people.
And she was destitute in a way few of us have endured.
- “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug.”
- “I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son.”
- Then we will eat that little, meager meal, and wait to die of starvation
She had no money, no food, no other family than her son, no prospects. Poverty is a lot more than not having enough money. Poverty is a chronic, wearying condition in which every resource is either depleted, or empty. According to Ruby Payne, our resources include:
- Financial—Having the money to purchase goods and services.
- Emotional— Being able to choose and control emotional responses, particularly to negative situations, without engaging in self‐destructive behavior. This is an internal resource and shows itself through stamina, perseverance, and choices.
- Mental—Having the mental abilities and acquired skills (reading, writing, computing) to deal with daily life.
- Spiritual—Believing in divine purpose and guidance. Having hope or a future story.
- Physical—Having physical health and mobility.
- Support Systems—Having friends, family, and backup resources available to access in times of need. These are external resources.
- Relationships/Role Models— Having frequent access to adult(s) who are appropriate, who are nurturing to the child, and who do not engage in self‐destructive behavior.
- Knowledge of Hidden Rules—Knowing the unspoken cues and habits of a group.
- Formal Register —Having the vocabulary, language ability, and negotiation skills necessary to succeed in school and/or work settings.
As you mull over what the widow told the prophet, can you see how few resources she had left? Yet God had singled her out as the one whom He wanted to bless with the prophet’s care. She couldn’t possibly know what the future held for her—she thought, in that moment, that her future, and that of her son, would end very soon.
Yet, when Elijah told her not to be afraid, to instead make him a meal as well as a meal for her and her son, and to trust his word that God would miraculously replenish her tiny store of flour and oil…she believed him!!
She believed, and she followed through.
When is the last time you or I ever put everything we need to live another day on the line for the Lord, and for the Lord’s own?
She was going to die of starvation, and what’s more, her only child, the only person in the whole world who loved her and was part of her life, that person was going to die, too, if what Elijah predicted wouldn’t happen.
Out of her intense poverty, her crushing poverty, she decided to believe God and share what little she had. That blows me clean away.
And God faithfully provided for both Elijah and the widow, for three years, during the drought and famine that ravaged the entire region. It was simple fare, the same olive oil and probably barley flour (the bread of the poor was made from barley), but it must have seemed a sumptuous feast to them, mana from heaven, as it were. And the spiritual feast must have been rich and powerful, for the prophet who was loved and cared for by believers, and for the widow and her son, who otherwise had no others with whom to share in the Lord. Interestingly, by the end of the story, she actually owned the home she, her son, and Elijah were living in.
It seems like a horrible, random event when the widow’s soon became ill, gradually declined, and finally died. I’ve wondered about that boy for years. Why hadn’t he come with his mother to gather sticks that day she met Elijah? Had he been too young? Too fragile? Too selfish and lazy? When he died, the widow immediately assumed it was her fault. “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” she cried, heart scalded, utterly broken. I can’t even imagine how horrific this must have been for her.
What had she done, what awful, dark secret had she been harboring, that now immediately leapt to mind? Had she always worried that her son might have to pay for her own wrongdoing? And Elijah didn’t get it either. Taking the boy in his arms, (he can’t have been that big) Elijah took him to the room upstairs where he’d been staying, and began to pray at the top of his longs. “God!” “O LORD MY GOD!” “Were You the one to bring tragedy even on this widow? Really? Is this You?”
Haven’t you been there? Why is this unspeakable thing happening. Then Elijah said something heart-wrenching, to the effect of: “God! I know you have made me be like a plague to everyone I meet. Wherever I go I have to deliver Your judgement. This drought, this famine... People look at me, and they know I’m the one who prayed it in, I’m the one who spoke the words. Then You sent me to this widow to stay with her. And now her son is dead. Is this Your dreadful judgement, even on this kind, Canaanite woman, who took a risk of faith, taking me in?”
The Phoenician widow downstairs wept and sobbed over the death of her son, and the prophet upstairs shouted himself hoarse to God, stretching himself over the dead boy. God responded to those aching hearts, and He brought the boy back to life. When Elijah brought the weak, but definitely alive child back downstairs, the widow had a profound spiritual experience.
“Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.”
I like to think she felt forgiven of God. I like to think that she learned God is gracious and compassionate, that He does not punish the children for their parents’ wrongs. I like to think Elijah, also, felt lifted from the burden of his own anointing, a prophet no one wanted to welcome into their home. A bringer of doom and destruction. But God had granted him the beautiful gift of bringing life, too, to the brokenhearted—life, love, and hope.
Maybe this is the story that prompted Jesus to say, a thousand years later, “Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward” (Matthew 10:41)