Whenever I can I help out at the Community Emergency Foodbank in Oxford which is run by my wonderful mother. The Foodbank provides much needed sustenance to an ever growing number of families every week who struggle to provide food for themselves and their children.
Our next woman was in a similar position.
She’s known in the bible as ‘The Widow of Zarephath’ and she lived in a thriving trade centre in the province of Sidon at the time when the king of Israel was Ahab, ‘who did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him’ (1 Kings 16.30). She had a young son to care for but as she had no husband she was vulnerable. Things were especially difficult as there was a drought in the land and she was at the point where she was down to her very last day of food, and she was close to giving up.
The prophet Elijah encountered her at the city gates where she was gathering sticks for her final meal with her son:
I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it [bread] for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.1 Kings 17.12
Elijah had predicted the drought to King Abab and for some years had been living on the banks of a Wadi (stream) where he was said to have been fed by ravens (1 Kings 17.3). When the stream eventually dried up the Lord told Elijah to go to Zarephath, and it was here that the thirsty and hungry prophet met our widow.
He asked her for water, which she went to fetch for him, but then he asked for more that she could provide:
Bring me a morsel of bread1 Kings 17.11
It may only have been a morsel, but even that meager amount was too much for her. Elijah told her to not be afraid, to go home and make two small cakes, one for him and then one for her and her son. He promised there would be enough, not just for that day, but until the drought ended.
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.1 Kings 17.15-16
There was plenty of food for them all.
The widow’s story doesn’t end there though, because even in the midst of this miracle, tragedy struck. Her beloved son became ill and died. She cried out to Elijah and in her grief looked to find someone to blame for her loss:
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!1 Kings 17.18
Elijah had no answer for this. Instead he took hold of her son, carried him to an upper room, and cried out to God:
O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?1 Kings 17.20
In a remarkable act of faith Elijah stretched himself out on the boy and asked God for the boys’ life to return to him, which it did, ‘the life of the child came into him again, and he revived’.
We can only imagine the joy this woman felt to see her son returned to her. Not only had the Lord provided her with enough food to sustain them through the drought, but even the death of her son was not the end of the story.
Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.1 Kings 17.24
Reflection and Prayer
Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?...Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted' John 6.9,11
There are numerous echoes from this encounter between Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath to the life of Jesus, and you can see why Jesus’ early disciples thought he was Elijah who had returned (John 1.21). Both Elijah and Jesus spent time in the wilderness before their ministry, and this particular story reminds us of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, where Jesus feeds a crowd with the small boy’s meagre offering of loaves and fishes. The widow was similarly generous with the little she had, and was rewarded with abundant blessings.
We are not in a time of literal drought (far from it considering the amount of rain we had this winter in the UK!), but we are in a time of wilderness and I don’t know about you, but it feels rather like a drought. In these times it is generally the poor who suffer the most. Perhaps this story is a reminder to us all to be generous with what we have, whether that is a great deal, or only the most meagre of morsels. We might also pray that God would transform what little we can give and and make it far more.
And let us support our local foodbanks at this time, remembering that just a tin or packet from each of us creates an abundance for other ‘widows’ in a time of need.
O Heavenly Father, who by thy blessed Son hast taught us to ask of thee our daily bread; have compassion on those who live in poverty and hunger; relieve their distress; make plain the way of help; and grant thy grace unto us all, that we bear each others’ burdens according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen