Monday, September 19, 2022

1 Kings 17

1 Kings 17 (NIV)✞: Elijah Predicts a Drought, the Widow of Zarephath, Elijah Raises the Widow’s Son


In the last passage King Ahab was introduced but we weren’t told much about him or his reign. In this chapter the author(s) of 1&2 Kings start getting into the kingdom under his rule, starting with a drought, though the action quickly pivots outside of Israel, and Ahab himself is barely mentioned.

The story of the drought takes place across Chapters 17–19, though this post is only focused on Chapter 17, starting with God predicting the drought in the first place:

1 Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”


2 Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah: 3 “Leave here, turn eastward and hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. 4 You will drink from the brook, and I have directed the ravens to supply you with food there.”


5 So he did what the LORD had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there. 6 The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook.

verses 1-6 (NIV)✞

The brook eventually dries up, however, so God tells Elijah to go to a place called Zarephath, in the region of Sidon (verse 9 (NIV)✞), for which I couldn’t find a good map. 🙄 However, I did find some lesser quality maps that indicate this is to the North-West of Israel, and since this is taking place around 863B.C. I believe that puts Zarephath/Sidon in Phoenicia.

Regardless, the reason God tells Elijah to go there is that He has “directed” a widow in that region to feed him. But I put “directed” in quotes because the widow herself doesn’t seem to be aware of it:

10 So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?” 11 As she was going to get it, he called, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.”


12 “As surely as the LORD your God lives,” she replied, “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, that we may eat it—and die.”


13 Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. 14 For this is what the LORD, 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 sends rain on the land.’”


15 She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. 16 For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the LORD spoken by Elijah.

verses 10-16 (NIV)✞

The widow and her son must have been happy about being spared the drought through this miracle. But then the widow’s son becomes ill – so ill that he stops breathing! Her response to this is fascinating: “She said to Elijah, ‘What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?’” (verse 18 (NIV)✞). More on this below.

Elijah brings the child to his bedroom where he prays to God: “Then he cried out to the LORD, ‘LORD my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?’” (verse 20 (NIV)✞) – which is also fascinating, and will be discussed below.

Elijah stretches himself out on the boy, praying that God will restore the boy’s life, and God listens to him and does so, such that the boy revives.

23 Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, “Look, your son is alive!”


24 Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth.”

verses 23-24 (NIV)✞


We aren’t told much about Elijah, he’s simply introduced in the passage and we jump right into this story. (We’ll see in future passages that he seems to be pretty well known.) In the next passage we’ll see the event that he’s probably the most famous for when he faces off against the prophets of Baal—at least, it’s what I remember most about him—but this is a fascinating story on its own.

Hiding by the Brook

There are two interesting things about God telling Elijah to go and hide by the brook, after the initial prediction of a drought:

  1. First, and most obviously, the fact that Elijah is fed by the ravens is miraculous. It must have taken great faith for Elijah to obey, at least at first: he’s told to go and hide in a place where there’s no food and he goes; a bird comes to drop off some food, so he eats it; the bird (or another) comes back again with more food in the evening; then more food arrives the next morning… Eventually he would have gotten used to it—we can get used to pretty much anything with enough time—but it would have taken faith to obey in the first place.
  2. But to me, that’s not the most surprising part of verses 1–7. The most surprising thing is that God tells him to go in the first place! In the upcoming passages we’re going to see amazing displays of God’s power, emphasizing that He is a the real God, while the “gods” worshipped by the Canaanites/Israelites are no “gods” at all. And yet at the start of it, God tells Elijah to go and hide from Ahab!

Going to Sidon

Another point on God sending Elijah to Sidon is that it is, in the words of the ESV Study Bible notes, in the “heartland of Baal worship.” In fact, let’s quote them altogether, because they’re making a larger point:

1 Kings 17:9 Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon. The heartland of Baal worship in Sidon might have been thought by many to be a region over which Israel’s God could have no authority. Yet one discovers as the story unfolds that it is nevertheless an area also badly affected by the drought announced in v. 1 (cf. v. 12). The Lord is God of all lands and can bring drought to all lands. He can even “command” a widow in this northern region to feed Elijah—although since the widow herself shows no awareness of having been directly commanded by God, it may be best to understand the verb here and in v. 4 in a more indirect way (i.e., “I have ordained that …”).

ESV Study Bible notes

The people of Elijah’s day would have considered their gods to be regional; we have our god(s) and you have your god(s), and whoever’s gods are more powerful will win wars! They wouldn’t have viewed the God any differently; just one more “god,” worshipped by the Hebrews, in their corner of the world. But we know that that’s not true; there is one God, the LORD worshipped by Elijah; as the ESV Study Bible points out, He sometimes proved that even to the non-Hebrew people of the Old Testament, even if His focus was on the Hebrews.

Elijah knew that as well as we do; even though he uses the term, “the God of Israel” when talking to the widow, it doesn’t mean he thinks that God is only the God of Israel, he’s just using the speech patterns of the day. He knows that God is not her God—though, by the end of the story, I assume He is!

The Healing of the Widow’s Son

Perhaps it’s not necessary, but I’ll mention it anyway: the widow’s son dying would have meant more than just the heartbreak of loss, it would also likely have meant that she’d die, too. Women of the day didn’t work or have a means of supporting themselves, so she’s in a precarious position at the moment, trying to survive long enough for her boy to get old enough to work so that he can support them; if he were to die, it would mean she has no hope left. Who will take care of her? How will she survive?

Having gotten that out of the way, there are three things I find interesting about this part of the story:

  1. The widow’s reaction to the illness
  2. Elijah’s reaction to the illness
  3. The reason this happens in the first place

The Widow’s Reaction

Regardless of what I said above about people believing that “gods” were regional, the miraculous feeding of herself and her son convince the widow that the God of Israel has power beyond His borders. And, in fact, Elijah must have been telling her about the religion of the Hebrews because she seems to have at least a rudimentary belief system around sin, and the fact that the God of the Israelites cares about her sin.

So when her son falls ill her immediate reaction is to assume that God must have been “reminded” about her sin, such that He must have decided to punish her by taking her son. And as a Christian, I find this knee-jerk reaction familiar; I think many of us, when we encounter hard times, have the same reaction: What have I done wrong that God is punishing me? The Bible is very clear that hard times are not always punishment for sin—or not a punishment for our own sins; sometimes someone else’s sin will have impacts on me—but it doesn’t stop us from immediately thinking like that when something goes wrong.

So my heart goes out to the widow at this point in the story: Elijah has likely been telling her about his God, and how that God interacts with His people, and how He punishes sin, and then suddenly her son falls deathly ill!

Elijah’s Reaction

While not mentioning anything to do with the widow’s sin, Elijah also assumes that this must be God’s doing. I read his reaction as being one of bafflement, however: why would God bring him to this widow’s house and save the three of them from starvation through a miracle only to kill the widow’s son?

The Reason it Happens

While I typically hate to get too confident in assumptions as to why something happens—even in the Scriptures, with the benefit of hindsight—it seems like this all happens for the widow’s benefit; see the widow’s reaction to the boy’s healing:

24 Then the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD from your mouth is the truth.”

verse 24 (NIV)✞

This is why I believe that the widow, by the end of this story, believes in God. She saw the way the flour and oil had been lasting throughout the drought, and started learning about who God is, but this final demonstration of His power over life and death convinces her that He’s more than just a powerful being, as other “gods” of her day were viewed.

The widow and Elijah were right in their initial assumptions that the boy’s illness was more than just a coincidence; God must have had a hand in it. In that initial moment when they didn’t know what was going to happen to the boy their only question was “why.”

In their case they were able to get an answer to the question quickly—though it would have seemed like an eternity while the woman thought her son was dead or dying—but in many cases we don’t get answers so quickly. It’s in the moments when we don’t yet have an answer that true faith is required.

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