In this chapter, we’re introduced to the prophet Elijah. Or, rather, we aren’t. We’re told that he was a Tishbite from Gilead. According to my study Bible, the sudden entrance may indicate that the cycle’s beginning was lost from the source material. It seems that the story is a northern one, perhaps brought to Judah by refugees. “It must be remembered,” continues my study Bible, “that all final redaction was done in Judah.” As for why the Judahite scholars would have chosen to keep the story of Elijah yet skim so much through the reigns of the kings, it seems rather clear. Elijah is no friend to the Israelite king, Ahab. His message, therefore, is well in line with the Deuteronomist thesis. So it makes sense that Elijah only enters the scene when directly confronting Ahab.

Another attractive aspect for the Deuteronomist is that Elijah is attacking the worship of other gods. Sticking strictly to the text, he appears to merely be informing Ahab  that there will be no rain without God’s say-so. However, we learned in the last chapter that Ahab had been tolerating the worship of Baal, that his wife Jezebel brought with her (1 Kings 16:31-32). Since Baal was a god associated with rain and fertility, saying that the rain would not happen without YHWH’s say so was a direct challenge to the Baal cult in Ahab’s court. There’s far more going on than a simple prediction of coming drought.

Incidentally, James McGrath wrote a post about biblical prophecy not too long ago, titled Prophetic Blizzard. In it, he claimed that the Hebrew prophets were not threatening people with some post-life punishments, but rather with earthly events: “Plagues, famines, pestilence, earthquakes, war, and so on.” He also notes that the punishments were all perfectly ordinary, expected disasters. Here, we have Elijah announcing a drought, not “blizzards. Freak snowstorms.”Of this, McGrath says:

That is worth reflecting on. The prophets are not predicting things that will happen, which otherwise would not have happened – God miraculously bringing an ice storm to their Eastern Mediterranean setting. They are not so much “predicting” as interpreting things which happen regularly, and will inevitably happen again.

Let me say that again. They are not predicting that God will do something miraculous. They are interpreting the kinds of things which happen, based on the assumption that God is behind them.

According to my New Bible Commentary, Josephus “records that according to Menander there was a full year’s drought in the time of Ethbaal, father of Jezebel” (p.342). It’s beyond the point to argue whether it’s the same drought event or simply an indication of how immediate and relevant the threat of drought would have been.

The Ravens

There’s no word on how Ahab reacted to his encounter with Elijah, or how the two met in the first place. Instead, we skip straight to God telling Elijah to go to the brook of Cherith and there to drink straight from the brook and be fed by ravens, who bring him bread and meat twice a day (what sort of meat is not specified, but we might hope that there weren’t any battlefields nearby).

The fact that Elijah appears to be hiding out in the wilderness seems to suggest that Ahab didn’t take too kindly to being denounced, and that perhaps Elijah was on the run. In this case, we’re to understand that God sustains him with a miracle while he is on the lam.

Unless, of course, he was sustained by Arabs, not by ravens. While very nice, it wouldn’t be quite the same miracle. According to my New Bible Commentary, the word for “Arabians” has the same consonants as the Hebrew word for “ravens” (p.342). This seems absurd, since the story is clearly meant to illustrate both God’s power and his favour for Elijah. However, Elijah will soon be fed by a Sidonian woman, so it’s not inconceivable that, in its original telling, the story was of Elijah’s run from Ahab, and was only made miraculous through misunderstanding. That said, given how common stories of important people being miraculously sustained by animals in the wilderness are, trying to explain it away seems unnecessary.

God’s miraculous sustenance doesn’t last long, however, as the brook Elijah has been drinking from dries up. God’s drought-bringing powers lack finesse, it seems.

The Widow

With his prophet no longer able to survive in Cherith, God sends Elijah instead to Zarephath. This was a Sidonian settlement, and so would have been outside Ahab’s control. This continues to support the conclusion that Elijah was on the run. There, God tells Elijah that he will find a widow who has been commanded to feed him. No one appears to have told this widow, however.

When Elijah arrives, he finds her (as assume it’s her, though the text only tells us that she was “a widow” – 1 Kings 17:10 – this gives us the amusing possibility that there was another widow on the other side of town who was really confused when the prophet she was supposed to look after never shows up).

While the first part of the section makes it seem that God cleared his plan with the widow ahead of time, that’s clearly not what happened. Elijah just shows up, finds a widow out by the city gates collecting sticks, and commands her to fetch him some water. Rather than sock him right there, she actually does it. As she’s bringing him the water he asked for, Elijah commands her to get him so bread. No ‘thank you’ or anything.

With saintly restraint, the widow gently explains to Elijah that there’s a drought on, that food is rather dear, and that she needs the bread for herself and her son (though acknowledging that, since it is the last of their store, they will certainly die soon after they finish it). In fact, she was out collecting sticks with which to bake it. Undaunted, Elijah tells her to bring him a cake from the meal she has anyway, but that in exchange her ingredients will replenish themselves so that she and her son won’t starve. She obeys, the store never runs out, and the three of them live together for a while.

Of course, the spin here is that Elijah wasn’t being selfish when he commanded the widow to give him a piece of what little she had. Instead, it is argued, he was testing her faith. This is the same excuse so many people give abused wives – continue to submit, this humiliation and suffering is only a test! Fine, it appears to have worked out for this one widow in a story, but any extrapolation seems rather horrible.

Elisha raising the son of the Shunamite, by Frederic Leighton

Elisha raising the son of the Shunamite, by Frederic Leighton

My New Bible Commentary presents the possibility that the replenishing jar might not have been a literal miracle. Rather, the widow’s generosity and self-sacrifice moved her better-provisioned neighbours (or shamed them) into providing for her family. While possible, this interpretation is not indicated, and it seems clear that the author intended the event to be miraculous.

Not all goes well for the family, however, as the widow’s son takes ill and “there was no breath left in him” (1 Kings 17:17). She blames Elijah for this, apparently believing that his presence was a spotlight of sorts, leading to her being punished for some unnamed past sin. More like, something like this would be perfectly ordinary in a drought. Malnutrition weakens populations, making it much easier for diseases to spread.

Elijah asks the widow to give him her son’s body, and he takes it up to his room. He lays the boy’s body down on his bed and stretches himself over the corpse three times. While what he’s doing is likely just meant to be some mystical ritual, it looks remarkably like someone performing CPR (while anachronistic, it’s not inconceivable that someone blowing “the breath of life” into a body or accidentally doing chest compressions as part of a ritual might not, on occasion, lead to the victim reviving, thereby cementing the actions as part of a ritual – again, though, this is all a stretch).

While doing all this, Elijah calls out to God, asking him to return the child’s soul. God does so, the boy is brought back to life, and the widow then attests that she now knows that Elijah is truly a man of God (the refilling meal jar did not, apparently, tip her off).

The mention of the soul here is interesting. If we wanted to get theological about it, we might take from this story that the soul is a thing that leaves the body at death and can be returned to the body to reanimate it. It could also be that the term here is used to mean breath or even life, and that it’s return is poetic rather than literal.