Bible Study | October 29, 2021

Elijah and the widow

Woman, boy, and man sitting on the floor of a simple house
Illustration by Brian Dumm

1 Kings 17:1–16

The books of First and Second Kings highlight the activities of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Elijah’s story begins in 1 Kings 17 and continues through 2 Kings 2, which tells of his death and ascension to heaven.

We know little about Elijah’s background. His hometown is Tishbe, a village located in a mountainous region east of the Jordan River known as Gilead. In ancient times, Gilead was an agricultural center, where olives, grapes, and grain were produced. In this story, a drought threatens the lives and livelihood of the people.

Our story begins rather abruptly. Elijah tells Ahab, King of Israel, of a drought that will soon occur in Israel. Following the prophetic announcement, God tells the prophet to go to the Wadi Cherith, located in Gilead.

Wadi is an Arabic word for a stream or stream bed; it is a translation of the Hebrew word nahal. During the dry season in Palestine, a wadi is usually dry, but during the rainy season, the wadi’s dry stream bed fills up with water. Elijah obeys God’s command and settles somewhere near the Wadi Cherith, where ravens bring him meat and bread. He gets water to drink from the wadi.

Dry wadi
Dry wadi at Nahal Paran. Photo by Mark A. Wilson, College of Geology, College of Wooster

One day, however, the wadi dries up. Yahweh then tells Elijah to travel west again, all the way to the town of Zarephath, located along the Mediterranean Sea. Zarephath is located outside of the kingdom of Israel, in Phoenician territory (modern Lebanon). Elijah obeys and meets the widow who Yahweh says will provide him with food.

We may be surprised that Yahweh sends Elijah to a widow, because widows in the ancient world generally were not wealthy. Due to the structure of ancient society, a widow often found herself in desperate straits without the protection and support of her husband. In the Bible, widows are often mentioned in association with two other groups in need of special protection: orphans and sojourners (resident aliens). The laws in the Pentateuch, for example, prescribe special protection for widows, orphans, and resident aliens (see Deuteronomy 24:17). The prophets, too, express concern for widows, orphans, and resident aliens. Jeremiah, for example, warns the people not to oppress the alien, the orphan, or the widow (Jeremiah 7:6).

Indeed, the widow of Zarephath appears to need special protection. She has only a little meal and a little oil, and she expects that she and her son will soon die. Elijah reassures her by saying, “Do not be afraid,” and then tells her to make him a little cake. He says that she will not lack meal or oil as long as the drought lasts. Without a word, the widow does as Elijah says. She feeds the prophet, and she and her household have food for many days. God has provided for both Elijah and the widow.

This woman was at the end of her rope. We may not experience what she went through, but we can all understand trying situations. How can you reach out to your children or youth and others who are suffering through difficult times?

Great and tender God, just as you guided Elijah, guide us to places of rest and provision. Help us to see the needs of
those around us and respond as we are able. Amen.

This Bible study comes from Shine: Living in God’s Light, the Sunday school curriculum published by Brethren Press and MennoMedia.