Doing more with less – Tuesday, 10th Week in Ordinary time – I Kings 17:7-16
Chapter 16 of 1 Kings give us an insight to the background of the three narratives found in Chapter 17. The three narratives of chapter 17 are written to prove the prophet Elijah’s worth as both a prophet and the one who will challenge King Ahab’s reign. The prophet Elijah became the dominant spiritual force in Israel during the dark days of King Ahab’s apostasy. King Ahab married the Sidonian princess, Jezebel more to make a political alliance. But with this marriage, Ahab embraced the Canaanite fertility god Baal and worshiped him. Chapter 16:30 tells us that Ahab, “did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him” for he erected an altar of Baal in the house of Baal which he built in Samaria.
Chapter 17 can thus be seen as a fitting answer to both the King and his new found god. In the days when Ahab’s government officially supported the worship of Baal and other gods, the prophets name itself stood as a bold statement against the rule of Ahab, for Elijah means, “Yahweh is my God”. While the Canaanite god was considered to be a powerful fertility God, the writer of the book of Kings wants to demonstrate through chapter 17 that Yahweh alone is the guarantor of fertility; he alone gives life. In this context, Elijah representing the Lord, predicts a three-year drought on the land over which Ahab rules. This was a dramatic demonstration against the pagan god Baal, who was thought to be the sky god, the god of the weather. Elijah showed that through his prayers to the God of Israel, Yahweh was mightier than Baal.
When the water runs dry and food is no longer available, Elijah is sent to a Zarapath, a Sidonian town. Sidon was the land of Jezebel and it is here that he is asked not only to live in the land but to be provided for by a widow. When the widow’s son dies of illness, it is Elijah who raises him to life. In all the three narratives it is Yahweh who has the power to take or give life prompting a Sidonian woman to acknowledge the God of Elijah and not their own god, Baal.
We look at the narrative of today, the second of the three narratives in chapter 17. What ought to get our attention is the fact that God told Elijah to go to a Gentile widow and receive provision. This itself would be a shock for any Jew. It would be better for a Jew to wait beside a dry brook than receive provisions from a traditional enemy; for the Sidonians and Jews could not get along. Yet, by now, Elijah knew better, for at Cherith he was fed by ravens, a bird considered unclean by Elijah’s people.
Widows were notorious for their poverty in the ancient world and this widow was down to gathering sticks. Already placed at a social and economic disadvantage, the widow experiences further distress in the midst of a drought. That she has a young son who is dependent upon her, tells us something about her age; she is not old and feeble. Yet without a husband she has little means of support and no doubt the drought would have exacerbated her predicament. We also need to remember that the widow lives in Sidon so the usual social support prescribed by Deuteronomy 26:12 for Jewish widows may not have been in force in Sidon. And whatever system of help that may exist in Sidon, the drought would have degraded the effectiveness of that system. Elijah meets the widow at perhaps her lowest level of resources. She is in the midst of preparing what would be the last meal that she could eat from the resources she has available.
The Israelite prophet offers the widow an assurance that each of us needs to hear. In moments of great desperation, especially when our back is pushed to the wall we need to hear the words, “be not afraid.” The narrative ends with Yahweh as the hero. It is he who is our provider. When we trust in Him our jar of meal will not be emptied nor will the jug of oil fail us.
Today, give a thought to those who are hungry and the commitment to not waste food. The scarcity of food is a real issue in the world today.
Fr Warner D’Souza