1. Elijah Declares a Drought (1 Kings 17)

Audio (41:03)

John Absolon (1815-1895), detail of 'Elijah before King Ahab,' watercolor.
John Absolon (1815-1895), detail of 'Elijah before King Ahab,' watercolor.

1.1 Elijah's Proclamation and Escape (1 Kings 17:1-9)

Elijah appears abruptly in 1 Kings 17:1 with little introduction except these words:

"Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, 'As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.'" (1 Kings 17:1)

Who is this Elijah? Who is Ahab? To begin, we need to back up a few verses to understand the backstory of what is going on in Israel.

Ahab Becomes King of Israel (1 Kings 16:29-34)

Ahab has inherited the throne of Israel, the northern kingdom, from his father Omri.

"In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab son of Omri became king of Israel, and he reigned in Samaria over Israel twenty-two years." (1 Kings 16:29)

As you will recall from Bible history, Saul, David, and Solomon reigned over a united kingdom made up of the 12 tribes. But when Solomon died, his son Rehoboam was foolish and the kingdom divided on his watch. Rehoboam remained king of the largest tribe, Judah, in the south and the remaining 10 northern tribes followed Jeroboam son of Nebat (1 Kings 12).9

Jeroboam had a problem, however. The Jews were used to going up to Jerusalem three times a year for the various feast days. But this would bring them into Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, Rehoboam's capital. Jeroboam couldn't allow this if he didn't want them to revert their allegiance to Rehoboam.

"28 After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, 'It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.' 29 One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan.
30 And this thing became a sin; the people went even as far as Dan to worship the one there." (1 Kings 12:28-30)

Jeroboam's sin sounds a lot like what Aaron had done in the wilderness of Sinai in fashioning a golden calf to worship (Exodus 32:1-4). These bull-calves represent fertility symbols to which the power of God is attributed, a common idea in Canaanite worship.10 Jeroboam doesn't ask the people to renounce Yahweh. Rather, he adds elements to their worship to keep them within the borders of the northern kingdom -- at Bethel, Dan, and at the hilltops or "high places" where the Canaanites had worshipped for hundreds of years. He also sets up a whole new cadre of priests to tend religious matters and make sacrifices on these high places.11 At this stage, Jeroboam's changes appear to be syncretism rather than a wholesale forsaking of Yahweh worship and the adoption of a different religion. Nevertheless, Jeroboam leads Israel into sin.

After Jeroboam's death, his son reigns for only two years before his dynasty is overthrown. And the next dynasty, and the next. Then we come to the dynasty of Omri, who begins his reign about 885 BC. By this time idol worship is firmly established in Israel.

"But Omri did evil in the eyes of the Lord and sinned more than all those before him." (1 Kings 16:25)

Early kings of Israel (931-814)
Early kings of Israel (931-814). (Larger chart)

Omri reigns twelve years and is succeeded by Ahab. Ahab has a long and influential reign over the northern kingdom -- twenty-two years. He is a builder who fortifies cities, fights against the Assyrians in the Battle of Qarqar (853 BC), and constructs a glorious palace inlaid with ivory (1 Kings 22:39-40).

But Ahab was worse than his father Omri.

"30 Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him. 31 He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him." (1 Kings 16:29-31)

As we will see, Ahab's wife Jezebel is a strong and evil woman who insists on having her way. She is from Sidon, a leading Phoenician city, and brings to the marriage a strong allegiance to Baal and Asherah.

Baal and Asherah (1 Kings 16:32-33)

The protocol of this time might have required Ahab to build some kind of private religious shrine where his foreign wife could worship her gods.12 But Ahab goes far beyond protocol. To please Jezebel, Ahab builds public temples and opens wide the door to full-scale Baal worship throughout the northern kingdom. This isn't new, of course. There had been Baal worship in both the northern and southern kingdoms before this back to Gideon's time, but now it comes with a new militancy and intensity.13

"32 [Ahab] set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria.
33 Ahab also made an Asherah pole and did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him." (1 Kings 16:32-33)

The predominant fertility gods of this region for centuries had been Baal and Asherah.

  • Baal (the son of El) was revered as the god with power over rain, wind, clouds, and therefore over fertility. Baal is known as the storm god.
  • Asherah was a Semite goddess derived from the Babylonian god Ishtar. As worshipped locally in Canaan, she was the consort of Baal, and supposedly brought fertility to the people who worshipped her.

While temples to foreign gods are occasionally mentioned in the Old Testament, Canaanite worship often took place in open-air sites at the tops of hills, referred to in the Bible as "high places." Usually, there was a masseba or stone pillar erected as a symbol of the male deity and an asherah representing the female counterpart, some sort of wooden pole or image of the goddess. In front of these was a sacrificial altar.14

Craigie and Wilson describe some of the worship:

"Characteristic of Canaanite fertility ritual is the association of male and female 'holy ones' (cult prostitutes) with temples and shrines of the fertility deities. By joining in the activities of cultic sexuality, common people could participate in 'stockpiling' fertility energy, which ensured the continuing stability of agricultural as well as human and animal productivity.

Archeological excavations in Canaanite locations have uncovered temples with chambers where sexual activity took place. Also, many iconographic representations of the fertility goddess with exaggerated sexual features have been discovered. The influence of the fertility cult was widespread; it was combated fiercely in Israel as alien to the covenant faith (e.g. Hosea 1-3)."15

It wasn't that the women worshipped the goddess and the men worshipped the god. Both were seen as complementary in the matter of fertility of the land, of herds, and of families -- by means of the reproductive activities practiced in their worship.

This is the religious situation Elijah is called to confront -- a corrupt kingship, an aggressive Baal-worship cult with at least 450 priests of Baal and 400 of Asherah (1 Kings 18:19), and an evil queen who will brook no adversaries to her favorite religion.

Elijah Appears (1 Kings 17:1)

Now, let's return to Elijah

"Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, 'As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.'" (1 Kings 17:1)

Location of Gilead
Location of Gilead (larger map)

Elijah's name means "My God is Yah(weh)," a compound name formed from (1) El, "God," (2) "i" signifying in Hebrew the pronoun "my," and (3) "Jah" or Yah, short for Yahweh. Elijah is the prophet who forces Israel to choose who is the true God: Baal or Yahweh (1 Kings 18:21). As for Elijah, his name designates his allegiance.

Elijah is a native of the village of Tishbe. We're not sure exactly where Tishbe is,16 except that it is found in the region of Gilead, an area that is loosely defined as east of the Jordan between Galilee and the Dead Sea, lying north and south of the Jabbok River.17

Old Testament Prophets

Elijah appears as a prophet of God, though he isn't called that until later (1 Kings 18:36). Already in 1 Kings we have seen several prophets.18 "Man of God" is a phrase describing a person dedicated to God and closely identified with prophets in 1 and 2 Kings.

"The word of the Lord came to...." is a phrase often used to describe the way in which God spoke to and through a prophet.19

The Hebrew word is nābîʾ ("prophet") is of uncertain derivation.20 An Old Testament prophet was "a spokesperson for God who announced God's will or intentions for people, or predicted the future, or did both."21 The prophetic tradition began with Abraham and Moses, continued through the prophets of the monarchy (David, Nathan, Ezekiel, Elisha, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, etc.) the Exile (Daniel, Ezekiel), the Restoration (Zechariah, Habakkuk, Malachi, etc.), and then continued through John the Baptist and on into the New Testament Church.

Forthteller. Some scholars have emphasized that Old Testaments prophets were "forthtellers," that is, proclaimers of God's message, often a pronouncement of God's judgment on sin, a call for justice and righteousness by those in power, and a concern for the poor. Some prophecies encouraged kings and pointed to wise policies to guide the nation.

Foreteller. Some prophets were also "foretellers," that is, they brought predictions of the future.

Certainly Elijah makes declarations of the future in God's name, such as a drought, which comes to pass. But he also calls the nation to God. He is both a forthteller and a foreteller.

Elijah Declares a Drought to Ahab (1 Kings 17:1)

"Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, 'As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.'" (1 Kings 17:1)

Imagine a proud king in his palace in the capital city of Samaria, dressed in fine robes and surrounded by sycophantic courtiers. Into the courtroom comes a strange man, roughly dressed, "a garment of hair and ... a leather belt around his waist" (2 Kings 1:8), perhaps clothing characteristic of prophets (Zechariah 13:4). This garb creates the same kind of stir as that of his successor John the Baptist, whose "clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist" (Matthew 3:4).

The guards begin to move toward him, but the king waves them away. "Speak man," he says. "What do you want?"

Elijah utters one sentence:

"As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word." (1 Kings 17:1)

Notice that small caps for Lord in the Old Testament of your Bible indicate the divine name Yahweh. Elijah doesn't represent the false god Baal, but Yahweh, the true and rightful God of Israel. He calls for a total drought.

The idiom "as the Lord lives" is a solemn oath, "by the life of God" (RSV), a common oath which is binding on the person on whom it is made on pain of death if he disobeys.22 Look for this kind of oath to occur seven times in the Elijah saga.

In California where we have a "Mediterranean climate," we have had a rather severe drought for several years. Last December we had a huge rainstorm, putting snow on the mountains, rain in the valleys, and water in the low reservoirs. It was followed by heavy dew for several mornings. But then came two days of blustery winds that nearly did away with the morning dew. Unless things change in the spring, we're in for a brutal summer where crops go without water and wildfire ravages the forests.

Israel's weather patterns are predictable with early and latter rains, that is, "autumn and spring rains."23 In the summer, its skies are often hazy from the moisture that comes in from the Mediterranean. Heavy morning dew is a result.

But Elijah declares a total drought -- no rain, not even dew. There is climate change in Israel. No dew. No rain clouds. No moisture. Elijah declares total devastation to this agrarian society that depends upon rain, not irrigation, for its crops.

A Challenge to Baal, the God of Rain

This drought is a special challenge to Ahab and Jezebel who worship Baal, the Canaanite storm god, the "god of rain." In a well-known Ugaritic text known as "the Baal Cycle" written on six clay tablets about 1400-1200 BC, Asherah speaks:

"Now, too, the seasons of his rains will Baal observe,
The seasons ... with snow;
He will peal his thunder in the clouds,
Flashing his lightnings to the earth."24

Baal is the god of rain. Thus, when Elijah declares a drought in the name of Yahweh, he is asserting that Yahweh, not Baal, controls the rain and the whole world.

Elijah has laid down the gauntlet. No dew, no rain. The king is blustering and protesting, but Elijah stalks out of the palace without a further word and then disappears.

One important part of this series of lessons are three to four Discussion Questions in each lesson. We learn by reflecting on what we have learned, processing it, and thinking through its implications. Don't skip this step, or you will have gained head knowledge without heart knowledge! I encourage you to write out your own answer to each question, perhaps in a journal. If you're studying with others, discuss it. If you're studying online, click on the web address (URL) following the question and read others' answers or post your own. (Note: You'll need to register on the Forum before you can post your own answers.

Q1. (1 Kings 17:1) What kind of courage does it take for Elijah to go before King Ahab with a message of drought? What dangers does this bring to Elijah? Why is "speaking truth to power" so difficult when the power structures are corrupt?

Hiding in the Kerith Ravine (1 Kings 17:2-6)

James J. Tissot, 'Elijah Fed by the Ravens' (1896-1902)
James J. Tissot, 'Elijah Fed by the Ravens' (1896-1902), gouache on board, Jewish Museum, New York

After humiliating the king, Elijah is now in great danger and puts distance between himself and the king's palace before the king can react. And God lays out his "witness protection plan" for Elijah.

"2 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: 3 'Leave here, turn eastward and hide25 in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan. 4 You will drink from the brook, and I have ordered the ravens to feed you there.'" (1 Kings 17:2-4)

Elijah is from Gilead, the area east of the Jordan and roughly between the sea of Galilee and the north end of the Dead Sea. East of the Jordan is his home turf. God is specific.

Location of the Cherith Brook or Ravine.
Location of the Cherith Brook or Ravine. Larger map.

"Hide in the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan." (1 Kings 17:3a)

Various translations have different names and spellings: "the Kerith Ravine" (NIV), "the brook Cherith" (ESV, KJV, NASB), "the Wadi Cherith" (NRSV). The Hebrew word for this watercourse refers to a "stream-bed, wadi," either with perennial stream or (often) a stream, only in the rainy season.26 Such a dry river-bed or ravine can become a raging torrent in minutes.27 The place name Cherith or Kerith comes from the Hebrew verb kārat, "to cut," perhaps describing the deep ravine that this wadi has cut into the earth as it tumbles down to meet the Jordan. In this ravine there is water in the rainy season, but when summer comes it will be dry -- especially as the coming drought begins to take hold.

The Kerith Ravine is said to be "east of the Jordan" (1 Kings 17:3a). A process of elimination has led scholars to identify the Kerith Ravine with the Wadi Yabis,28 an intermittent stream flowing in a deep canyon from the highlands of Gilead.

Fed by Ravens (1 Kings 17:6)

"5 So he did what the Lord had told him. He went to the Kerith Ravine, east of the Jordan, and stayed there. 6 The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning and bread and meat in the evening, and he drank from the brook." (1 Kings 17:5--6)

My wife's cat, JoJo, is quite a hunter. He'll sometimes find a gopher in the garden or a field mouse, carry it in his mouth, and then set it on the ground before my wife, who is the Alpha in the relationship. That's how I envision the raven and Elijah.

I imagine Elijah crouching in some kind of cave or rock shelter in the depths of the Kerith ravine. Every morning and every evening a huge black raven, two feet long with a wingspan of perhaps four feet,29 will swoop down into the canyon with some food. The word "bread" (leḥem) is the generic Hebrew word for food.30 Who knows what the raven will bring on any given day? Actual bread? Stalks of grain? Succulent leaves for a salad? But then, the Scripture specifies that the raven also brings "meat" (bāśār), "flesh," twice a day.31

This might be a problem, however, since ravens are notorious scavengers. They find carcasses of animals killed in the wild. They gorge themselves on the meat and innards.

Elijah is a practicing Jew. He doesn't eat meat from animals found dead in the wild since it is forbidden in the Torah.32 He doesn't eat squirrels, rabbits, or rats, foxes or jackals, bats, field mice, lizards, or snakes, though deer, gazelle, and some birds would be okay.33

When he was living at home, the meat eaten in Elijah's household would have been carefully prepared by slitting the throat of the animal and hanging it upside down to drain out the blood, lest the family transgress the law about not eating blood.34 Jews are careful about meat.

But Elijah is no longer in his own household. He is living in the wild. He can't ask the raven where he got this meat or this food. He can't protest like Peter during his vision at Joppa:

"Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean." (Acts 10:14)

Moreover, ravens themselves are considered unclean animals.35 Why is an unclean raven touching Elijah's food? We're not told. All Elijah can do is thank God for supplying his food with such regularity and leave the theological problems to others. He ends up following what Paul would recommend many centuries later:

"Eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience"
(1 Corinthians 10:27)

"For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer."
(1 Timothy 4:4--5)

For the duration of this raven's morning and evening food delivery service, consider him a God-sent "holy raven."

Notice how Elijah has now moved into a period of isolation, silence, and solitude after obeying God. For a while, at least, he is a God-directed hermit.

Q2. (1 Kings 17:2-6) What does God feeding Elijah by ravens tell us about God? What does eating food sent by ravens tell us about Elijah? What do we learn about God's provision for us when we obey him?

1.2 The Widow at Zarephath (1 Kings 17:7-16)

Elijah remains in the Wadi as its waters flow to a trickle and the remaining pools now dry up completely. He prays: God, I need water. Then God answers him.

"7 Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land. 8 Then the word of the Lord came to him: 9 '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 17:7--9)

Location of Zarephath
Location of Zarephath (Larger map)

Zarephath is the site of a prosperous Phoenician harbor on the coast nearby the present city of Sarafand, Lebanon, 8 miles (13 km.) south of Sidon. Thirteen miles (21 km) to the south of Zarephath lies the famous Phoenician port-city of Tyre. The territory of Zarephath is controlled by Jezebel's father. It is enemy territory, filled with Baal worshippers.36

Elijah has been hiding within Ahab's kingdom. Now he moves to a foreign coastal city, less affected by the drought that grips Israel.

Yahweh's Direction (1 Kings 17:9)

Elijah's direction from the Lord is interesting.

"Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food."37 (1 Kings 17:9)

God's word seems urgent. The translations: "Go at once!" (NIV), "go now" (NRSV), "up and go" (NJB) catch the sense.38 God has been arranging circumstances, and now is the time Elijah must move. Of course, Elijah must have water. But perhaps the urgency is for his own protection from Ahab's soldiers. Perhaps because the widow's situation has finally reached its most desperate extreme. We don't know. But now is the time.

Elijah probably hadn't been in the Kerith Ravine for more than a few months, for this stream usually dries up each summer. But God tells him to go to Zarephath and "dwell there" (ESV).39 It turns out to be a multi-year sojourn.

Yahweh says he has "commanded" a widow to care for Elijah. "Command" seems to be used here in the sense that God has preordained or arranged for a widow to care for Elijah, in the sense that he "commanded" the world into existence and directs the course of history.40 God is looking out for Elijah and anticipating what he will need next, just as, dear friend, he is looking out for you and arranging circumstances to work in your life. Paul writes:

"We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." (Romans 8:28)

This verse about God's command is fascinating!

'The Widow at Zarephath', unknown artist.
Elspeth Young, 'Charity Never Faileth.' Copyright 2022 by Elspeth Young, oil on panel, 22 x 30 in. Used by permission.

"I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food." (1 Kings 17:9b)

The widow doesn't know anything about this command. Elijah doesn't even know who the widow is. But God has planned, ordained, and arranged it all. It makes me wonder how our wonderful God "commands" circumstances to happen in our lives according to his plan. Oh, I want to be sensitive to his voice and then obedient, so when he is setting me up to walk into one of His prearranged appointments, I'm there on time and open to his leading!

Elijah Meets the Desperate Widow (1 Kings 17:10-11)

"So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks." (1 Kings 17:10a)

From the Kerith Ravine east of Jordan to Zarephath on the coast is a trip of perhaps 140 miles (230 km.). It will take Elijah a week, perhaps more. Elijah threads his way down the ravine in which he has been hiding to the Jordan, then north among thickets of the Jordan Valley to the Sea of Galilee, then on the east side of the lake, being careful to avoid Ahab's spies and soldiers, for Elijah is being earnestly sought by the king. He continues north past the Sea of Galilee until he finds the tortuous trail over the rugged mountains of northern Galilee to the coast. Finally, the trail descends to the walled city of Zarephath.

As he approaches the city gate, he sees a woman engaged in the daily task of gathering sticks from downed branches outside the walls to make a cooking fire.41 He guesses she is a widow from the way she is dressed in worn clothing.

Elijah's words to the woman seem strange to us at first.

"10b He called42 to her and asked, 'Would you bring me a little water in a jar43 so I may have a drink?' 11 As she was going to get it, he called, 'And bring me, please, a piece of bread.'" (1 Kings 17:10b-11).

He isn't commanding her in some kind of superior tone; rather this is a polite entreaty, hard to translate into English. Translators have rendered the Hebrew particle nāʾ as "would you" (NIV) "I pray thee," (KJV), "please" (NASB), or just not translated it at all (ESV, NRSV).44 If Elijah seems a bit forward to us, we forget the very strong sense of a duty to show hospitality to strangers found throughout the Near East.

Elijah is a traveler, worn down from an arduous journey over the coastal mountains, asking for water and for a bit of bread. He is also on the lookout for a widow in Zarephath who Yahweh has told him will sustain him. His request may be a sort of test to see if she is the one.

The Widow's Plight (1 Kings 17:12)

The widow's answer is interesting, for she begins with an oath to underscore that she is telling the absolute truth.45 The oath is "on the life of Yahweh your God," using the name of Yahweh. This indicates that she both recognizes Elijah as a Hebrew (perhaps from his accent) and could well be a believer in Yahweh herself; otherwise her oath in his name would have been meaningless, a mere gesture to acknowledge Elijah's different religion.

"'As surely as the Lord [Yahweh] your God lives,' she replied, 'I don't have any bread46 -- only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks47 to take home and make a meal48 for myself and my son, that we may eat it -- and die.'" (1 Kings 17:12)

Households in the Iron Age relied on pottery vessels for cooking, water, and food storage. The widow's flour jar49 is nearly empty. The small earthenware jug50 in which she stores olive oil is nearly empty. She's out scrounging a few sticks for a cooking fire. Just a few. She doesn't need a big fire, after all. There's just the widow and her son, with a bit of oil and literally just a handful51 of flour52 left -- enough to make a couple of bread-cakes. Then nothing. All that remains is death by starvation. There is no social safety net in Zarephath. Nor is there any family on which this widow can rely for survival, for they would have come forward sooner. This is the end for her and her son.

Her desire to show hospitality to strangers is great. She can bring him water, but food? No. There's none left. She gives Elijah the brutal truth.

Elijah's Challenge of Faith (1 Kings 17:13-16)

You would think that Elijah would apologize and show compassion. But he doesn't.

"Elijah said to her, 'Don't be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small53 cake of bread54 for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son.'" (1 Kings 17:13)

Indeed, at first glance, Elijah's words seem selfish and harsh. But then he speaks a word directly from God himself.

"For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: 'The jar of flour will not be used up55 and the jug of oil will not run dry56 until the day the Lord gives rain on the land.'" (1 Kings 17:14)

First a challenge, then a promise. Will she believe the promise or be overcome by her fear and desperation? Elijah assures her. "Don't be afraid." God's going to take care of this. Trust me.

Common Sense vs. Faith

But she first needs to take a step of faith -- in this case, go against what her common sense is telling her. Sometimes I see common sense blasted as evil among "spiritual" believers. Common sense is good. Common sense is what the Book of Proverbs calls "wisdom." We should hunger and thirst for it. Day by day, we strive to inculcate common sense into our children.

But common sense is not the pathway to the miraculous. Faith is that road. And Elijah calls the widow to faith. Yahweh will supply you with food through this entire famine, if you'll trust Him.

Q3. (Proverbs 1:1-7) What is the appropriate role of common sense in our lives? Does that supplement or contradict faith in God's ability to work miracles outside the natural order?

Faith in God's Promise (1 Kings 17:15-16)

Praise God! The widow rises to the challenge of this one she believes to be a Man of God.

"15 She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. 16 For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah." (1 Kings 17:15--16)

"So there was food every day" -- this in the middle of a severe drought in nearby Israel.

Verse 16 concludes: "In keeping with the word of Yahweh spoken by Elijah." The widow believes Elijah's prophecy is true, acts on it, and receives a wonderful reward.

Elijah Raises the Widow's Son (1 Kings 17:17-24)

James J. Tissot, 'Elijah Raiseth the Widow's Son' (1896-1902)
James J. Tissot, 'Elijah Raiseth the Widow's Son' (1896-1902), gouache on board, Jewish Museum, New York.

Elijah has been living for a year or two in the widow's second-story room (1 Kings 17:19). Oh, I am sure there was gossip in town about the widow who had no source of support, who didn't go to the market much, but still had food to eat. And the foreigner, the lodger who must be renting the extra room she had upstairs. But no matter the wagging tongues, this was God's provision -- both for the widow and for Elijah.

Then the widow's boy becomes ill and gets rapidly sicker. The boy is young, though we're not sure of his exact age. The Hebrew noun usually refers to a young child.57 He is small enough for Elijah to carry him up the stairs in his arms to the roof chamber (verse 19).

"17 Some time later the son of the woman who owned the house became ill. He grew worse and worse,58 and finally stopped breathing. 18 She said to Elijah, 'What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind59 me of my sin and kill my son?'" (1 Kings 17:17-18)

The widow's first reaction is blaming God in her grief. She doesn't do it directly, rather she blames the man of God, his prophet Elijah. If you're a church leader, you know that anger against God sometimes comes your way.

And if you've studied the stages of grief, then you know that anger is predictable when we suffer a loss. With her mention of some sin, we get a hint of what's going on in her heart: "What did I do to deserve this?" or "God is punishing me for my sin." She is heart-broken.

But the widow is not so bereft of faith that she refuses Elijah when he asks for her son. He takes him up to the small chamber60 that she has made for him on her flat-roofed house. You've probably heard this called a "prophet's chamber."

" 19 'Give me your son,' Elijah replied. He took him from her arms, carried him to the upper room where he was staying, and laid him on his bed. 20 Then he cried out to the Lord, 'O Lord my God, have you brought tragedy61 also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?'62 (1 Kings 17:19-20)

Elijah, too, seems to be blaming God for the boy's death. He's much like the rest of us when faced with tragedy. Nevertheless, he makes full contact with the dead boy and prays a plaintive prayer of petition.

"Then he stretched himself out63 on the boy three times and cried to the Lord, 'O Lord my God, let this boy's life return to him!'" (1 Kings 17:21)

I don't think there is only a single physical way to heal someone or raise them from the dead. Paul "threw himself" on Eutychus when the boy fell from a third-story window (Acts 20:10). Jesus healed by a word, by laying on of hands, by making mud with spittle, etc. There is no sure-fire technique to learn. Rather, we listen to what God is saying. The real secret is believing prayer from a faithful man. James reminds us,

"Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain...." (James 5:17)

There's another thing. Elijah is praying according to God's will. God answers Elijah!

"22 The Lord heard Elijah's cry, and the boy's life64 returned to him, and he lived. 23 Elijah picked up the child and carried him down from the room into the house. He gave him to his mother and said, 'Look, your son is alive!'

24 Then the woman said to Elijah, 'Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.'" (1 Kings 17:22-24)

She had concluded long before this that Elijah was genuine, since she personally baked loaves of bread each morning from the miraculous renewable flour. But this was the ultimate confirmation. I expect the story is included here to emphasize that Elijah is a man of faith.

On Ravens and Widows

The story of God's provision for Elijah is fascinating. God says go, so Elijah goes immediately. God provides a brook for water and sends a raven to provide food for him. When his water is exhausted, God promises to provide through a widow.

Pause for a moment to think about the incongruity of what Yahweh is telling Elijah. That a raven will feed him. A raven? How crazy is that? Food morning and evening; that is wonderful. But twice-daily meat also? That is a luxury among the poor classes. Then the promise that a widow -- women who are notoriously poor -- will feed him. A widow? Why not a rich man who can afford it? Strange stuff!

Paul tells the Corinthians:

"God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things -- and the things that are not -- to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him." (1 Corinthians 1:27--29)

This is the stuff of faith and obedience. This is where God shines and blesses those who will follow him. No situation is impossible with God -- especially not yours, my friend. This is the message of the raven and the widow for us. Let those who boast, boast in the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:31).

This is the same God who shows Abram a ram caught in a thicket atop Mount Moriah to be the sacrifice instead of Isaac. So Abram names the place Yahweh-yir'eh ("Jehovah-jireh," KJV), "the Lord will provide" (Genesis 22:14).

Our God will provide for you, too.

Q4. (1 Kings 17:8-16) Why does God send Elijah to a poor widow rather than a rich man? If God sent someone to you to provide for, how would you respond?

Lessons for Disciples

I see a number of lessons we can learn from this chapter. Here are some of them.

  1. Worshipping false gods is dangerous and displeases God. So is syncretism: mixing worship of the true God with partial allegiance to false gods (1 Kings 16:31-33).
  2. True prophets act as God's spokespersons and with his authority -- sometimes as foretellers, sometimes as forthtellers.
  3. The lie behind Baal is that he is the god who will bring fertility to the land. The truth is that Yahweh is all-powerful. Inducing us to believe lies about what is best for us is at the root of the Deceiver's power.
  4. We are to accept God's provision for us, even though we may find the way it is provided distasteful, such as raven-delivery (1 Kings 17:4-6).
  5. God delights in doing the impossible to show that the answer comes from him, not through our own successes. God can place answers to prayer in our path where we least expect them.
  6. God can predestine or foreordain events ahead of time by "commanding" them to happen (1 Kings 17:9).
  7. Christian maturity requires us to be able to balance a good dose of wisdom or common sense with a strong faith in the God who can do anything (Proverbs 1:1-7).
  8. It is common for us to interpret tragedies as God's punishment or God's fault when we aren't aware of all that he is doing (1 Kings 17:18, 20).

Elijah: Rebuilding Yahweh's Altar, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats.


Father, thank you for your faithfulness to us to provide for us. Increase our faith. Open our eyes so we can see you afresh with eyes of faith as you work in the world around us. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, 'As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.'" (1 Kings 17:1, NIV)

"Then the word of the Lord came to him: '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 17:8-9, NIV)

"So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah." (1 Kings 17:15b-16, NIV)


References and Abbreviations

[1] At that time, what we call 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings were divided into 1, 2, 3, and 4 Kings.

[2] Wiseman, 1&2 Kings, p. 45.

[3] Wiseman, 1&2 Kings, p. 45.

[4] Edward Ball, "Kings, Books of," ISBE 2:30.

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Baba Bathra 15a.

[6] Wiseman, 1&2 Kings, p. 53; Martin Noth (Könige, 1968, and The Deuteronomist History, 1981) talks about the "Deuteronomist," in the same tradition as the Book of Deuteronomy.

[7] Edward Ball, "Kings, Books of," ISBE 3:30-38; J. Gordan McConville, "Kings, Books of," DOTHB, pp. 623-634; Wiseman, 1&2 Kings, pp. 15-59.

[8] Edwin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983).

[9] The Levites, of course, were the twelfth tribe. Their villages were spread throughout Judah and Israel.

[10] Wiseman, 1&2 Kings, p. 143.

[11] Some have argued that Jeroboam didn't intend the golden calves to be worshipped as idols, since this would be directly against the commandments against making graven images and worshipping other gods. Rather, the writer of 1 Kings is writing polemically, and the golden calves weren't criticized by prophets prior to Hosea 10:5; 13:2 (Jones, 1&2 Kings, 1:257-259; Rice, 1 Kings, pp. 106-107). I'm not convinced.

[12] E. B. Johnston, "Jezebel," ISBE 2:1057, citing Josephus, Against Apion 1:116-119.

[13] 1 Kings 14:15, 23; 15:13.

[14] Adrian H. W. Curtis, "Canaanite Gods and Religion," DOTHB, pp. 140-141.

[15] P.C. Craigie and G.H. Wilson, "Religions: Canaanite," ISBE 4:100.

[16] Since Byzantine times, Tishbe has been associated with Listib (Mar Elias), about 8 miles (13 km.) north of the Jabbok River (Rice, 1 Kings, p. 141; Wiseman, 1&2 Kings, p. 164).

[17] William S. LaSor, "Gilead," ISBE 2:468.

[18] Nathan the prophet is an advisor to King David, and later to his son Solomon. In 1 Kings we meet Ahijah the prophet of Shiloh (1 Kings 11:29; 14:1-7), Shamalah (12:22), a man of God from Judah and an old prophet from Bethel (1 Kings 13), and Jehu son of Hanani (1 Kings 16:17).

[19] 1 Kings 13:1; 16:1; 17:2, 8; 18:1, 31; 19:9; 21:17, 28; 2 Kings 3:12; 7:1; etc.

[20] There are four theories of the derivation of nābîʾ: (1) From Arabic root, nabaʾa, "to announce," hence "spokesman." (2) From a Hebrew root, nābāʾ, softened from nābaʿ, "to bubble up," hence pour forth words, perhaps ecstatically. (3) From an Akkadian root nabû, "to call," hence one who is called [by God] (Albright, Rowley, Meek, Scott).. (4) From an unknown Semitic root (Robert D. Culver, TWOT #1277). I think it is safer not to assume a derivation for the word and build a theory of its meaning from this speculation. Rather the meaning should be derived from its usage in the Old Testament.

[21] Paul L. Redditt, "Prophecy, History of," DOTPr, p. 587.

[22] Wiseman, 1&2 Kings, p. 164. We see oaths often in 1 and 2 Kings, especially in the Elijah and Elisha sections (1 Kings 2:24; 17:1, 12; 18:10, 15; 22:14; 2 Kings 2:4, 6; 3:14, 4:30; 5:16, 20). Oaths played an important part in the Ancient Near East, and carried implicit and sometimes explicit curses. An Akkadian oath is either "by the life of the god" (1 Samuel 19:6; 20:3; etc.) or "by the life of the king" (Genesis 42:15; 1 Samuel 17:55; 2 Samuel 14:19). It is understood to mean: "may the god live for me if I speak the truth" (and do the opposite if I lie). Another oath, more closely associated with the curse is "may God do to me thus and thus if" (e.g., 1 Samuel 3:17). Other curses might be, "may God deal with me ever so severely, if I don't ...), "may it be far from (me to do this or that)" (e.g., Genesis 44:7), and "as your soul lives" (1 Samuel 17:55). Yahweh swears on his holiness (e.g., Amos 4:2; Psalm 89:35), by the pride of Jacob (Amos 8:7), and by his faithfulness (Psalm 89:49) (F. Charles Fensham, "Oath," ISBE 3:572-574). To break an oath is to take Yahweh's name in vain, a breach of the Third Commandment; to do so incurs guilt (Exodus 20:7; Leviticus 19:12).

[23] James 5:7; Deuteronomy 11:14; Jeremiah 5:24; Hosea 6:3; Joel 2:23.

[24] This comes from a trove of Ugaritic clay tablets found in 1928 at Ras Shamra, a port city in northern Syria.

[25] "Hide" (NIV) is the Niphal stem of sātar, "hide, conceal," here with the passive idea, "be hidden, remain undiscovered" (TWOT #1551, Holladay, p. 260).

[26] Naḥal, Holladay, p. 233.

[27] J. G. S. S. Thompson, "River," in New Bible Dictionary (Second edition; Tyndale House, 1982), p. 1032.

[28] In the Middle Ages it was identified with the Wadi Qelt in the mountains west of Jericho, but that location doesn't follow the text, which specifies "east of Jordan" (William S. LaSor, "Cherith," ISBE 1:641). So also Herbert G. May, Oxford Bible Atlas (Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 69; Barry J. Beitzel, The Moody Atlas of Bible Lands (Moody Press, 1985), Map 55; Jones, 1&2 Kings, 2:304). On the other hand, some scholars today favor the Wadi Qelt. Donald J. Wiseman translates al-pe as a location which 'overlooked' the Jordan (1&2 Kings, p. 165; so Hohanan Aharoni, Michael Avi-Yonah, Anson F. Rainey, and Ze'ev Safrai (eds.), The Macmillan Bible Atlas (Third Edition; Macmillan, 1993), map #134.

[29] "Raven" is ʿōrēb, "raven" of the genus Corvus, perhaps Corvus corax in particular (TWOT #1609). The raven is large, two feet (55-65 cm.) in length, with a powerful 3 inch (8 cm.) beak that can rip its food. Noah releases a raven to determine if the waters have receded (Genesis 8:7). The raven is referred to as dwelling in devastated cities (Isaiah 34:10f; Zephaniah 2:14). Both the Old Testament and Jesus see the raven as an example of God's providential care (Job 38:41; Psalm 149:9; Luke 12:24) and the lover in the Song of Solomon describes her lover's hair as "black as a raven" (Song of Solomon 5:11).

[30] Leḥem is baked "bread," then a generic term for "food, grain" (TWOT #1105a).

[31] "Meat" is bāśār, "flesh," animal musculature (John N. Oswalt, TWOT #291a).

[32] Exodus 22:31; Leviticus 17:15.

[33] Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14.

[34] Leviticus 17:13-14.

[35] Leviticus 11:15; Deuteronomy 14:14.

[36] Barry J. Beitzel, "Zarephath," ISBE 4:1174. One hundred fifty years after Elijah's time, Zarephath is described as a walled city belonging to the king of Sidon. In modern times, its ruins have been unearthed by archeologists and its ancient culture thoroughly studied.

[37] "Supply with food" (NIV), "feed" (ESV, NRSV), "sustain" (KJV) is the Pipel infinitive of kûl, "provide (food)" (Holladay, 152, 2), "cause to contain, supply" (TWOT #962). The word also occurs in Genesis 45:11 in the context of famine.

[38] "Arise" (ESV, KJV) is the Qal imperative of qûm, "rise, arise, stand." In many instances it refers to preparatory activity, especially (although not exclusively) pursuant to traveling (Leonard J. Coppes, TWOT #1999). "Go" is the Qal imperative of hālak, "go, walk" (TWOT #498).

[39] "Stay" (NIV), "dwell" (ESV, NRSV), "live" (NRSV) is the Qal perfect of yāšab, "dwell, live (somewhere)" (Holladay, 146, 6).

[40] "Commanded" is the Piel stem of ṣāwâ, "order, direct, appoint" something to do something (Holladay, 304, 2).

[41] "Sticks" is the plural of ʿēṣ, "trees," then "wood," here in the plural, "pieces of wood, sticks" (Holladay, 279, 6). The suggestion that this is mere "stubble" seems to stretch the idea too far. The verb is the Poel participle of qśś, "collect." That the verb is used with collecting stubble in Exodus 5:7, 12, isn't an effective argument that the verb is always used of stubble rather than wood (Numbers 15:32f; Wiseman, 1&2 Kings, p. 165; Jones, 1&2 Kings, 2:305-306). It refers "probably gathering dry material which had fallen from a plant."

[42] "Called" is the Qal stem of qārāʾ, "call, call out," "the enunciation of a specific vocable or message" (Leonard J. Coppes, TWOT #2063); "call, cry, utter a loud sound" (BDB 895, 1a).

[43] "Jar" (NIV, NASB), "vessel" (ESV, NRSV, KJV), "pitcher" (NJB) in verse 10b is Hebrew kĕlî, referring to a useful object in the widest sense, "article, utensil, vessel" of all sorts. It is used of the golden goblets on Solomon's table, of equipment for temple/tabernacle worship, of earthenware vessels for cooking, storing food, a shepherd's bag, etc. (BDB 480, 3; TWOT #982g).

[44] The Hebrew word is nāʾ, "a particle of entreaty or exhortation" (R. Laird Harris, TWOT #1269). Holladay (p. 223) describes it as an "enclitic particle of urgency, translation difficult to specify, e.g. please (come in), do (come in); just (listen to me)." Also in 2 Kings 2:2-6.

[45] See more on oaths above in Lesson 1.1 on 1 Kings 17:1.

[46] In verse 12, "bread" (NIV), "baked" (ESV, NRSV), "cake" (KJV) is māʿôg, "supply, provision" (Holladay 205); "disc or cake of bread" (BDB 728), from the verb ʿûg, "bake a cake" (TWOT #1575).

[47] "Few" (NIV), "couple of" (ESV, NRSV), "two" (KJV) is šĕnayim, "two," a pair, a couple, an indefinite small number (TWOT #2421a), "two" (Holladay 379); "as a round number" (BDB 1041, 3).

[48] "Make a meal" (NIV), "prepare" (ESV, NRSV), "dress" (KJV) is the Qal perfect of ʿāśâ, "do, make, fashion, accomplish" (TWOT #1708).

[49] "Jar" (NIV, ESV, NRSV, NJB), "barrel" (KJV), "bowl" (NASB) in vss. 12, 14, and 16 is kad, "jar" (TWOT #953); "large (pottery) jar" for water (Genesis 24;14; 1 Kings 18:34), for flour (1 Kings 17:12) (Holladay 151). This held perhaps 3 gallons. "The mouth was big enough to allow removal of a handful of flour but small enough to be covered with a large potsherd, stone, small bowl, or lid" (J. C. Moyer, "Jar," ISBE 2:967).

[50] "Jug" (ESV, NIV, NRSV, NJB), "jar" (NASB), "cruse" (KJV, RSV) in vss. 12, 14, and 16 is ṣappaḥat, small convex vessel for water and oil, "jar, jug(let)" (Holladay 309). This was "a water canteen or pilgrim flask made for travelers or soldiers. The mouth of the canteen allowed for quick and easy drinking and could be easily stoppered for traveling." The same word is used for "an oil juglet. These juglets ranged from 7.5 to 15 cm. (3--6 in) in height." (J. C. Moyer, "Jar," ISBE 2:967). This was a small elongated earthen vessel or flask, about 6 inches (15 cm) in height, generally used for holding liquids such as oil" ("Cruse," ISBE 1:832).

[51] "Handful" (NIV, ESV, NRSV, KJV) is literally, "what fills the hand" (Holladay, 196).

[52] "Flour" (NIV, ESV), "meal" (NRSV, KJV) is qemaḥ, "meal flour" (TWOT #2033a). "The flour or meal of ordinary use was made by rubbing grains between two stones and sifting the product in such a way that all larger pieces were removed" (A. van Selms, "Bread," ISBE 1:541).

[53] "Small" is qāṭān, "young, insignificant" (TWOT #2009a).

[54] "Cake of bread" is ʿūgâ, "disc or cake of bread" (TWOT #1575a); "(circular, flat) bread-cake" (baked in ashes or on hot stones)" (Holladay 264).

[55] "Run dry" (NIV), "be empty" (ESV), "fail" (NRSV, KJV) is the Qal stem of kālāʾ, "withhold, shut up, keep back" (TWOT #980).

[56] "Used up" (NIV), "be spent" (ESV), "be emptied" (NRSV), "waste" (KJV) is the Qal imperfect of ḥāsēr, "lack, have a need, be lacking" (TWOT #705); "diminish, be empty" (Holladay 112, 1).

[57] Yeled, "child, boy." It is generally used for very young children but may refer to adolescents and sometimes even young adults (TWOT #867b).

[58] "Ill" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "sick" (KJV) is ḥālâ, "be or become sick, weak, diseased" (TWOT #655; Holladay 104). "Worse and worse" (NIV), "severe" (ESV, NRSV), "sore" (KJV) is two words, mĕʾōd, "exceedingly, much" and ḥāzāq, "strong." "When applied to sickness (I Kgs 17:17) or famine (I Kgs 18:2), it is appropriately translated 'severe'" (Carl Philip Weber, TWOT #636a).

[59] "Remind" (NIV), "bring/call to remembrance" (ESV, NRSV, KJV) is the Hiphil construct of zākar, which can mean either "mention, have (one's name) mentioned," or "make known, announce" (Holladay 88, H3). "Sin" is ʿāwôn, "activity that is crooked or wrong," first "(conscious, intentional) offense, sin," then "guilt (incurred by offense, sin)" (Holladay, 208).

[60] "Upper chamber" (ESV, NRSV), "upper room" (NIV), "loft" (KJV) is ʿălîyâ, "roof chamber," from the verb ʿālâ, "go up ascend" (TWOT #1624f). Also at verse 23.

[61] "Tragedy" (NIV), "calamity" (ESV, NRSV), "evil" (KJV) is raʿ, either moral evil or evil circumstances (TWOT #2191a). We see both meanings in 1 Kings 19:20-21.

[62] "Causing to die" (NIV), "killing" (ESV, NRSV), "slaying" (KJV) is the Hiphil infinitive of mût, "die, kill" (Holladay 188 H1c; TWOT #1169).

[63] "Stretched" is the Hithpoel imperfect of mādad, "stretch (oneself) out" on, from the basic idea of "measure," as in stretching out a line to measure. (Holladay 182; TWOT #1146).

[64] "Life" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "soul" ( KJV) is nephesh, "life, soul," from nāpaš, "take breath, refresh oneself." This is the idea of the breath of life, since the original, concrete meaning of the word was probably "to breathe" (Bruce K. Waltke, TWOT #1395a).

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