5.60 1 Kings -- The Canaanite Widow
This woman is another of the Bible's great anomalies -- like Rahab, or Ruth, or the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 3), or her fellow countrywoman: the Canaanite woman in the New Testament (Mat 15:21-28, Mk 7:24-30). God sent Elijah out of Israel all the way to Zarephath of Sidon, a Phoenician city on the coast of the Mediterranean, in the heart of Baal worship.
"Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food" (1 Kings 17:9).
We know nothing of the background of this woman, except that she was a Canaanite, she had a son, and she was destitute. This is one of the mysterious acts of God in Scripture that appear to break all the rules. Were there no widows in Israel that would have served Elijah? And the woman herself had no idea that God had appointed her to feed Elijah:
"As surely as the Lord your God lives," she replied, "I don't have any bread--only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it -- and die" (1 Kings 17:12).
So the truth was that she had nothing to give him. Elijah said to her,
"But first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son" (1 Kings 17:13).
Elijah's command makes no sense to the rational mind. Yet she obeyed his word. By her act of obedience, she showed herself a woman of faith -- with no upbringing or instruction in the history or practices of Judaism. Another righteous Gentile! There is a fine movement of grace, of mutual dependence, here. The man of God was dependent for sustenance on this foreign woman, and she herself was dependent on the Divine word spoken by the prophet. And it all comes to nothing without the continuous, active, miraculous provision of God -- which persists, like manna, until the natural order is restored (end of the drought):
"For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land’” (1 Kings 17:14).
This Canaanite woman was a sermon in herself. First there was the divine initiative: apart from that, she lay dead, and her son as well. She could not save herself. But the Word was given through a man whom she would count an enemy, and she had not only to believe it, but also to risk herself in obedience. She had to use the little food she had left before she could enter into the covenant of God. Here is both the folly and the desperation of faith: she divided her last meal with a stranger, who might have been a deceiver. Perhaps she was only a gullible fool, and hastened the death of her son by taking the food from his mouth. Is there not something of Abraham in this woman, putting her son on the altar?
This incident, this act of faith, is juxtaposed with the relentless unfaithfulness of the people of Israel, and the apostasies of her kings. Here, O Israel, is a model of what God expects from you -- it is a parable: "you, Israel, are the widow, your resources are gone, your offspring are threatened. But the Presence of God comes to you, it challenges you, it waits for your response. Your entire future hangs in the balance. It is not your sacrifices that will save you, because you have nothing to offer but your inadequacy and emptiness. But if you will look to Me as your provider, if you will live in dependence on Me, then My provision will not fail you."
And all of this happened outside of the Law, and the majestic Temple that thousands labored to build! This, not Jerusalem, was the heart of the Jewish religion, and of the Abrahamic covenant. And it was happening in Baal-country, to a foreign woman, whose faith God used not only to save herself and her son, but also to sustain His own spokesman in her generation. The very walls of racial exclusion that God Himself had erected were breached at His command. Truly, God's ways are past finding out! In the midst of overwhelming judgment throughout the land, radical mercy was extended.