It would seem that the amazing and dramatic stories found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures are tailor-made for our 21st-century sensibilities. Last week’s lectionary passage from First Kings in which the prophet Elijah takes on hundreds of priests of Baal sounds almost like a ready-made Hollywood script. And this week’s passage, which precedes that encounter (even though it follows it in the lectionary cycle), makes for a heartbreaking tear-jerker that ends well with a most heartwarming conclusion. As any regular Bible-reader might suspect, however, there’s much more beneath the narrative.
Before we go to the text, a bit of background: Elijah had brought a message from God to King Ahab that a drought was to descend on Israel and regions roundabout. This was to be a direct affront to the supposed power of the Phoenician fertility god Baal, whose worship was actively promoted by Ahab’s Phoenician-born wife, Queen Jezebel. The gauntlet had been thrown down, as it were, and we pick up the story as Elijah is sent to another Phoenician woman–a poor, widowed mother of a young son. While Ahab and Jezebel would most likely escape the dire effects of a regional drought, those at the other end of the economic and political scale would not.
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.
After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.” –1 Kings 17:8-24 NRSV
The temptation for us, naturally, is to go straight to the several miraculous elements in this story (baking bread for multiple days with ingredients that should not have been possible in actuality; and the much more dramatic bringing back to life of the widow’s son by Elijah’s actions calling upon God for restoration). Granted, that would make a good movie, or at least a TV miniseries on cable. It’s tempting, as well, to conclude that if only we have enough faith then we can replicate Elijah’s great deeds.
Instead, let’s avoid all those easy temptations.
True, we are all called to be faithful, to live lives in harmony with God’s purposes. Therein lies a key to this and other Elijah stories: It’s all about God!
It is God (and certainly not Baal) who controls creation, who is the author and source of all life. And it is to that Divine Author that allegiance is owed. Once we stray from that basic truth we start getting into a whole lot of trouble. When we dwell on what is actually minutiae (say, the apparent impossibility of feeding Elijah from an almost bare cupboard or the resuscitation of a dead child) we miss the greater truths that can be discerned in God’s Word.
I can hear the rebuttal: But that takes all the majesty and wonder and miraculousness (and the fun?) out of it!
Maybe. Yet that begs this question: Is this biblical story there just to impress us with spectacle or to help us develop and grow as faithful disciples of the One who calls us to serve?
*Reprinted from the 2013 ForeWords archive