She wasn’t surprised when the dusty stranger asked for a drink of water and a piece of bread to eat. After all, she was down to her last day’s ration of flour and oil. She had been told in a dream that she would supply this man with food. It had better be today, for tomorrow there wouldn’t be any.
The rainy season had come and gone—without a drop. Her little garden shriveled before the herbs and vegetables opened to the first leaves. The father of her son had been a fisherman in their seaside village of Zarephath, near the Mediterranean kingdom of Sidon. After he’d been lost at sea in a violent storm, the villagers had brought food and loaves of bread and helped for a while, but with the spreading famine, everyone was stretched thin. Buying food shipped in from foreign markets was beyond their means. Their principal god, Baal, was supposed to supply the earth with dew and rain, and make their livestock fruitful. But a prophet from Israel, Elijah, had threatened a drought, and it had become a reality.
The widow and her son had barely survived on plain flour-and-oil flatbread for weeks. There were no more fish, for she had no means to buy them. Her firewood was used up, and, breathing hard in her weakness, she picked up sticks on the beach to build one last cooking fire. When she had an armload, she dragged herself back through the city gate, and there was the dusty stranger. He was lean, but muscled from walking, so he had escaped the worst of the famine.
“I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour and a little oil. I’m making a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die,” she responded to his request for food. They were already so weak and malnourished that death would come quickly.
The stranger could see this for himself, but he said to her, “First make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For the God of Israel says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord gives rain on the land.’”
The God of Israel. Not her god, Baal the lord of fertility and abundance, who seemed to have gone underground despite prayers and sacrifices. Whatever god Elijah called on, she didn’t care at this point. But the personal integrity of this woman, deep in the flesh and bones of every honorable person, demanded that she offer hospitality to strangers even at ultimate cost to herself.
The widow didn’t skim off a little bit of flour and oil from the abundance of her pantry. She used the entire handful—all she had—for this crazy prophet. She gave until she had to trust in someone else’s god for sustenance.
And sustain her, the God of Israel did. Every day the flour and oil were miraculously replenished. Perhaps as the drought worsened, the widow even supplied bread to her neighbors and extended family. And yes, Elijah the prophet. The man responsible for this drought and famine that had fallen not only on Israel, but all their neighbors as well.
That’s another thing. The widow was harboring a fugitive from King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel, in her upper chamber. Perhaps there was a reward for his capture, or death for the person harboring him. But the unmarried prophet Elijah, the widow, and her son lived together as a family, sharing the food-gathering, fishing, foraging, and other chores, and the joys and pains of everyday life. Isaiah said years later, “God sets the lonely in families.” Even if the family is made up of unconventional components!
Sometime during those three and a half years of famine, according to the story in 1 Kings 17:7-24, the woman’s son became ill and died. In her grief, the widow lashed out at her friend Elijah. Wasn’t it enough that Elijah had prayed for disaster on Canaan? Did he have to bring death with him? “What do you have against me, man of God?” she cried. “Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?”
Elijah took the boy from her arms, carried him upstairs, and laid him on the bed. He prayed for the boy to live again, and God answered the prayer immediately.
Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.” She had experienced God’s grace for herself, though she had heard it from Elijah over many months of evening talks.
Hundreds of years later, Jesus said that this Phoenician woman had received a great honor. “There were many widows [here in] Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but a widow in Zarephath.” Luke 4:25-26
Because of her openness and hospitality to a stranger, the widow and her son were sustained and renewed during the famine. Because she learned to trust God, everything that she feared: loneliness, starvation, her own and her child’s deaths, were answered with companionship, food in plenty, life and health. They were given to her because she gave all that she had. When she was emptied, she could be filled. When she was weak, she was made strong.
In speaking of another single woman, Jesus said, “This poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth: but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” Mark 12:43
Whether it’s a season of harvest, thanksgiving, and gift giving, or a season of recession, joblessness, and poverty, this is the time to bring a sacrifice of love and praise and service to God. Cast yourself upon him, as a child would on its father, and see the showers of blessing he’ll have to let go, to catch you in his arms! Your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom.
This article by Christy K. Robinson was published in Loma Linda Campus Hill Communique, Sept/Oct 1998.