” I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when… there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon…” Luke 4:25-26
At the beginning of his earthly ministry, directly after his temptation in the desert, Jesus was in Nazareth, speaking in the synagogue one Sabbath, as recorded in the fourth chapter of the gospel of Luke. As he is speaking to those in the assembly, he makes reference to a widow from Zarephath. What is it that distinguished this particular widow and set her apart to receive divine intervention? Why was Elijah sent to her alone? Her story is told in a few verses found in 1 Kings 17:8-16, but what can be learned from this brief encounter could fill volumes. The stage is set when the brook where Elijah had been receiving his sustenance during the famine dried up. God commands him to go to Zarephath and dwell there, because he has tasked a widow there with the responsibility of supporting him.
The first thing that struck me was the brevity of God’s instructions to Elijah. Consider all the logistic and practical questions left unaddressed — questions like, ‘How will I know who I’m looking for?’; ‘What should I say when I meet her?’; or ‘What do I do if she doesn’t believe me?’. Perhaps given his prior experiences and relationship with God those type of questions were not entertained by Elijah. All that mattered was to be obedient to the word of the Lord which came to him, and to trust God to work out the details. I think that’s highly informative of how faith is to work in the lives of those who set their hearts on serving God.
And it is just that manner of faith that made Elijah such an effective servant and man of God — but this profile in faith concerns the widow he was sent to, not Elijah himself. And for good reason, too, I think. No one can take the mantle of an Elijah upon himself, it must be given to him by God; and the extraordinary nature of his calling may make it difficult for some to relate to his example. But although she was not commissioned to work miracles or to confront spiritual wickedness on a national scale like Elijah, the widow was expected to believe God and act in accordance to that faith in order to experience His deliverance; and this requirement is common to all believers, which makes it easier to identify with. And if we can relate to the example, we may be inclined to strive to emulate it all the more — which is good, since I would argue that the world would have no need for the work of an Elijah if only every professed believer put into practice the faith required of, and demonstrated by, this Sidonian.
Before turning our focus to the main point of what made this widow unique, I’d like to raise a side question: by what method was God’s command delivered to the widow? One might imagine the Lord dispatching an angel to relay His word, or that the widow was shown a vision or a dream of herself feeding Elijah. I concede these are possibilities, but I, for one, have never been visited by an angel, had a vision, or heard the voice of God audibly — nor am I aware of knowing anyone who has. And so I offer as conjecture another possibility more relatable to common Christian experience: that the word of the Lord came to the widow in a still, small voice — a simple word spoken to her heart — “Provide for my servant Elijah.”. While it is by no means a definitive proof that this is the case, it is interesting to note that the same Hebrew word ‘tsavah’, meaning to appoint or give charge to, is used in verse four, when God commanded or appointed the ravens to feed Elijah, as it is in verse nine, when it refers to the widow. The implication of the word is that God commissioned each of them with the responsibility of supporting Elijah, not that He communicated to both parties in a direct way that would be easily recognized as emanating from Him.
Why is this an important point? As Elihu said in Job 33:14, “For God does speak –now one way, now another — though man may not perceive it.” The fact is that one may, as a pleasing self-deception, falsely attribute a thought or desire of the heart as having emanated from God. Conversely, it is also possible to dismiss legitimate instruction from God due to failure to recognize Him as its originator . The potential for doubt is a large part of what makes faith challenging. But if God has clearly spoken, doubt as to what His will is has been removed, and faith is no longer required. The issue becomes one of straight-forward obedience, which I think does the widow a disservice by diminishing the trying nature of this encounter.
With that backdrop in mind, we can now move on to what made this widow distinct from all the widows in Israel. As the encounter unfolds, imagine yourself in her place. Try to think of it as you are today, and with the current realities of the world as they are. A stranger calls out to you in the street, asking for water. You could easily go about your business and pretend as if you did not hear him, or that you imagined he was speaking to someone else, and turn to walk away. And if you did, there are many today, even in the church, who would say you were simply exercising discretion as a single woman in a dangerous world, and justify you for doing so. Given that she did not opt to follow this reasoning, we are provided a small glimpse into her character, even at this early juncture.
Now the biblical account only records Elijah asking for a little water and the widow going to get it, but the snippet of conversation we are provided with creates for me the impression of an internal dialogue being worked out between the two parties. Elijah’s request has the sense of probing — as if he is indirectly seeking the answer to questions not yet given voice — ‘How tender is this woman’s heart to the needs of a foreigner? Is she the one I’ve been sent to?’. It seems unlikely the widow would simply drop what she was doing to immediately comply to a stranger’s request, with no questions asked, so let’s infer a dialogue occurred that we are not privy to. A natural exchange may have been something along these lines: Elijah calls out his request for water, to which the widow replies ‘Who are you, and what brings you here, stranger?’. Elijah responds, ‘I am a servant of the Lord, the God of Israel. There is a drought throughout the land and the Lord has commanded me to dwell in this town. The journey has been tiring and I am thirsty — would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?’ When she turns to comply, she passes Elijah’s litmus test for tenderheartedness, yet further clarification is still required to be certain she is the one to whom he has been sent. Thus the follow-up, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.”
And if the Lord’s command did indeed come as a mere whisper sown in her heart as postulated, it is plausible to conclude that she would have her own unspoken doubts needing to be addressed. Perhaps the following thoughts occupied her mind as she is leaving to go get the requested water:
‘Is this man’s appearance and request simply a coincidence? And if it is not a coincidence, and he has been sent to me by God, how am I to provide for him when I have almost nothing myself? If he is a man of God, as he claims, shouldn’t he already know my situation?’
If these were not considerations being worked out within the widow’s mind, how else can the remarkable restraint she displayed in making nary a word of reference to her own dire need be explained?
One can see the unseen hand of God’s involvement in the matter becoming more evident when, with perfect timing, as the widow turns to leave pondering such things, He inspires Elijah to add to his previous inquiry. His request for bread prompts the widow to disclose what she had heretofore not been inclined to reveal, and the door has been opened to put each of their doubts to rest. She now lays all of her cards on the table: 12 “As surely as the Lord your God lives, 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.”
What a test we are presented with here! Consider all the widow had already been subjected to prior to this encounter. Her husband has died and she has been left to care for her child: alone, and with no means of support. We find her now, down to her last meal, and no one has shown any concern by providing for her needs. Surely her neighbors would have been aware of her situation after her husband’s passing. Even if they were unmoved on her behalf, should not pity have been aroused for the sake of her child? How confident would you have remained in the goodness of the Creator in an environment so devoid of compassion? Yet, although she had already born all these burdens, it appears that they were merely quizzes and not her final exam. For look at how Elijah framed his final challenge:
13 Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. 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. 14 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 gives rain on the land.’
Does not the carnal nature present within us all loudly and indignantly protest against the temerity of this command? How speedily the following response presents itself to the mind! “Let me get this straight. I just told you I’m down to my last meal. No one has helped me at all — and now you, a stranger I just met, want me to feed you before myself or my son!?! Because my food will somehow magically replenish if I do as you say?! Well sir, you obviously worship an amazing god if he can do that — but if that’s true, let me ask you, then: Where has he been for me all this time?!”
Hopefully, this imaginary dialogue conveys how easy it could have been for this widow to use her suffering as an occasion to accuse God, and to even feel justified for so doing. But we see from her no protest at all. Her actual response?
15 She went away and did as Elijah had told her.
Amazing. In this simple act of humble compliance the widow becomes a witness establishing the veracity of the word of God, which says in Hab. 2:4, “The righteous will live by his faith”. Her story perfectly accentuates both aspects of the duality of meaning encapsulated in this verse. First, we see that the woman’s belief informed her action — she lived and was guided by, her faith; secondly she was delivered and lived because of her faith. What belief could have prompted such swift and unquestioning obedience? Could it be anything other than an absolute confidence in the Goodness of God, rooted deeply in her heart ? At this critical moment, when the rains came, the streams rose, and the winds blew, trying her to the very foundation of her soul, this belief must have echoed from within and called to her mind the certainty that even if all men should fail you, faith in the Lord is never disappointed. How else could she have emerged victorious when given a responsibility that could only be accomplished by trusting in the One who gave it?
The question of what made this widow unique can be concluded by returning to the opening quote from Luke 4:25-26; this time with a different question in mind. Why did Jesus direct his audience’s attention to her example? Verse 22 of Luke 4 ends with those who were gathered in the synagogue asking, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” In answer, Jesus said, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.'” He used the widow’s example to highlight a deficiency in their hearts and to contrast their continual demand for a sign with her ready acceptance. Rather than requiring proof of God’s goodness, she stood firm in her conviction and refused to relinquish it even when all the evidence of her situation seemed to argue against it. May all who seek God learn from and be inspired by her example.