In this chapter, Elijah prophesies a drought, multiplies food and raises a dead boy to life.
This chapter introduces Elijah without so much as a genealogy. We know from verse 1 that he is from Gilead, which is part of the tribe of Manasseh, but otherwise we do not know where he is from or how he became a prophet of God. Some prophets, like Moses or Samuel, we learn about their childhood and upbringing. Other prophets, like Gad (1 Samuel 22:5) or Nathan (2 Samuel 7:2) emerge without any introduction. Elijah has no introduction. In the course of this commentary, I have frequently wondered at how righteous men and women became followers of the LORD, and I wonder that about Elijah too. Where did he get such faith to perform such miracles? How did he develop such a relationship with the LORD? Did the LORD sovereignly move in his life, or did Elijah seek the LORD through persistent prayer in order to grow into his calling?
These are questions that can't really be answered from the text. But even without knowing Elijah's origins, I love the story of his emotional development and how the LORD leads him. More on that later.
This chapter begins with a drought, which Elijah prophesies as punishment for Israel's idolatry. Note that Elijah is from the northern kingdom and prophesying to Ahab, the king of the north. From the last chapter, we know that Omri reigned for 11 years before he died and Ahab (his son) became king. This means that both Ahab and Elijah grew up during the political strife that killed so many people in the north. Omri was an evil king and Ahab was even worse, yet somehow Elijah emerged from this with profound faith in God. The situation in the northern kingdom is going to get worse before it gets better. The idolatry of Ahab arouses the LORD's wrath, and the LORD responds by sending a three year drought.
Elijah himself flees from Israel and crosses the Jordan to his home country of Gilead to reside by a brook and with supernatural sustenance. After the brook dries up, he is told to go to Sidon which is north of Israel on the Mediterranean coast, and it is a Canaanite nation. So the widow of Zarephath is not part of Israel. This might be why the woman says, "as the LORD your God lives", because she was not herself a follower of the LORD. In both of these cases, Elijah is fleeing outside the territory of the northern kingdom to hide from Ahab. Having promised Ahab that only his word could end the drought, he understandably sought to keep himself out of Ahab's power.
This story shows us the devastating effects of the drought were extended north into Sidon as well, because the woman replies to Elijah that she is preparing the very last meal she could afford, and felt that she was consigned to death with her son.
Elijah asks her to give him a cake of bread first, and then she and her son may eat, and the LORD would multiply the food to provide for all of them until the drought ended. I think this is the first time we have seen food multiplied in the bible and it's also the first time we have seen ravens bring food to someone. The last time we saw supernatural provision was when Israel wandered through the wilderness; God provided manna to them from heaven and also at one point sent a flock of birds to fall down and die around Israel's camp (Numbers 11). Even earlier than that, an angel of God visited Hagar and provided her water when she was driven out into the desert (Genesis 21).
The similarity, of course, is in the need. Israel in the wilderness absolutely depended on God's provision. After entering the promised land, they were able to grow or pillage all the food they needed, so the manna ceased. Now that a drought has come upon Israel, Elijah is given provisions because of the Goshen Principle: as a righteous man, God protects him from the wrath that is intended for the wicked.
Why is the widow protected? She is protected in two ways: first, by sharing in the multiplied bread that God provided to Elijah, and secondly when Elijah raises her son from the dead (more on this in a moment). The widow was not a follower of the LORD, nor part of the covenant, and unlikely to be a righteous person; in fact, after her son dies she accuses Elijah of coming to "remind me of my iniquity". So why is she protected? I can think of two reasons. The first is that God commands his people to care for widows and orphans, so I'm sure that God is interested in protecting widows. I think the more likely answer is that Elijah blesses the people around him out of the overflow of God's blessing in his life. This is an important principle so I would like to expand on it a bit.
In Deuteronomy 15, Moses said that Israel would "give generously" to their brothers. In Genesis 19, it is likely that Zoar shared in the sins of Sodom, so why was Sodom destroyed and Zoar spared? Zoar was spared because Lot stayed there when he was fleeing the destruction. God was protecting Lot, but many lives were saved merely because they were near Lot. Joseph was taken as a slave to Egypt, but because of God's favor on his life, many were saved in Egypt during the 7 years of famine that struck the country. Surely the men of Egypt did not worship the LORD, nor were they part of the covenant, but their lives were spared because of God's blessing on Joseph.
As part of the covenant with God, as part of his nation, the people of Israel are promised that God would bless them, multiply them and protect them. What we can see in some of these examples, though, is that the blessing of God is meant to overflow into others. God's purpose in the covenant is not to save Israel out of a burning and destroyed world; his purpose in the covenant is to redeem Israel first, and then to flow through them to redeem the rest of the world. God's purpose was to restore mankind and the world to the state that it held before the fall into sin that happened in Genesis 3.
The most poignant contrast in this chapter is that Elijah announces the drought in one place and then saves a widow's life in another. If God's purpose is to redeem the world from sin, why does he send a drought to punish sin? And if he seeks to punish sin, why does he spare the life of a woman and her son who undoubtedly were not part of the covenant? Similarly, why would God destroy Sodom but spare Zoar?
I don't want to give a full answer now because I think this subject will come up many times. My understanding is that God has two broad purposes in his actions: he seeks to punish sin and bring redemption and healing. These are not contrary purposes: the people who sin bring destruction to the world and to others, and God needs to punish sin in order to promote healing. Sin cannot co-exist with redemption and life. Understanding these two purposes, we should now review these two actions, the drought that strikes Israel and the mercy that saves a widow. At first glance, my readers may assume that I am going to say that the drought satisfies God's desire for punishment and saving the widow satisfies his desire for redemption. I do not believe that is true.
I believe that both the drought and saving the widow fulfill both of God's purposes, for justice and for redemption. The drought is punishment for sin, and certainly it is God's judgment upon sin, but God's judgment is intended to bring repentance. This is why God sends the prophet Elijah to Ahab in the first place, because he is calling Ahab to repent. As strange as it sounds, this devastation is meant to draw Israel into repentance, which in turn leads to healing. God cannot force people to repent, however, so if they do not then it is their sin itself that would lead to ultimate death (Gen 3:19). Life cannot coexist with sin.
Saving the life of the widow, in a naive sense, certainly brings redemption and healing. But it also brings the woman to repentance: in verse 24, the woman declares that Elijah is truly a prophet of God. If she turns to the LORD, then she receives forgiveness of sin and obviates the need for punishment. Therefore, both purposes are satisfied; not because sin was punished, but because sin was destroyed through repentance, which in turn brought about a spiritual healing to go along with the physical resurrection of her son.
Both judgment and mercy can bring people to repent and return to God, and only God can perceive which of these is necessary for any person to be saved. Therefore, I trust both his judgments and his mercy even when I do not understand why he chooses one or the other. I trust God's actions because I trust his motivation, which is to undo the curse that befell from sin.
Lastly, I want to talk a bit more about this resurrection. This is the first time in the bible someone has been raised from the dead, but in my opinion this is the epitome of God's purposes in the covenant. As I said above, I believe the covenant is intended to reverse the curse of man and the curse is most represented by death, so raising someone from the dead is the strongest repudiation possible for the curse of man. In the Passover, the firstborn of Israel were spared from death; in this chapter, the widow's son literally dies, but Elijah reverses that death by his prayers.
Even though it is a profound miracle, raising the boy from death is only a metaphor for what God does in the lives of everyone who turn to him. There is an even more profound resurrection when we are restored into proper relationship with God and other people, when we are raised from the death in our spirits. It took 900 years for Adam's body to die after he sinned and death entered his spirit; we were born into sin, but have the power of God available to raise our spirits to life even while our bodies die. The widow's son was resurrected as a metaphor for God resurrecting our spirits and raising us up to live with him.
In conclusion, this is a grim time in the northern kingdom. Having just passed through multiple rounds of violence as one king deposed another, there is finally some political stability when it is interrupted by a devastating drought. In the midst of this drought, however, there are glimmers of hope as God shows himself to be strong on behalf of Elijah and that God is not coming just to bring wrath; he is coming to bring healing and resurrection as well, and he is still seeking to bring redemption to Israel, Sidon and by extension, to the ends of the earth.