I write this to sort through my thoughts and feelings about the Old Testament story of the widow of Zarephath and the prophet Elijah. My purpose here is to find context for this powerful story of faith.
These comments are directly tied to the first day’s lesson from the Old Testament Come, Follow Me manual for week 27 for 1 Kings 17-19.
Lesson One – Many, many years ago I sat in a Church meeting that was not anything special, except for the lesson I learned that day. It was common throughout the Church to have meetings that focused on food storage and being temporally prepared for all the normal emergency situations in life. Back then we were counseled to have two years worth of food set aside, if at all possible. Most people I knew viewed that kind of preparation as such a herculean feat that they only feebly attempted it, if at all.
In this particular meeting, as a young married man, and a recently new first-time father, I was in an emotional and spiritual state to receive the power of this particular preparedness lesson. As I sat in that priesthood meeting and listened, somewhat obliviously, I heard this general question: “What will your excuse be? What will you tell your child who is crying from hunger, expecting that Mommy and Daddy, who in their eyes can do anything, will feed them? How will you tell your child that there is no food, and that they will have to just live with the pain and sense of desperation, because you haven’t done what was needed to prepare for this day?”
I really felt that scene sink deep into my soul. I felt every emotion of that pretend conversation, had a sense of dread fill my soul, and a resolve formed that I would do anything I could to avoid ever having to have that conversation with my children. My love for my infant child came into focus, and I viewed with horror my sense of inadequacy that I would have to watch them suffer needlessly, because I did not take preparing to care for my family in an emergency seriously.
Lesson Two – Fast forward almost ten years. We lived in Provo, Utah. It was late Fall, and my wife really wanted to spend Thanksgiving with her family in Wyoming. The weather was turning nasty as multiple storms were threatening to collide to create major snow storms. Since our car wouldn’t be able to make the trip, she arranged for a relative to come and pick us up to take us to our destination. We all piled into their small car and headed out.
I have mentioned in other writings that I have spent the majority of my adult life as one who is acquainted with extreme poverty. This condition played itself out masterfully as we approached Wyoming through the mountain passes, and the car started to break down. We limped into Evanston, Wyoming just in time for the car to die completely, leaving us stranded in a major blizzard, the night before Thanksgiving, knowing no one, not having a credit card, no transportation, and abandoned by the relative who got us that far. We had four children in tow, the youngest being a babe in arms. It was dark, and we were in a strange town, and the children were all hungry and cold as we stood outside in the howling wind and snow.
Somehow we managed to get to a motel and pay for the night with all the remaining cash I had in my pocket. What we were supposed to do the next day, I didn’t know. In the motel room we bought what food we could from the vending machines, as we had no other way of getting food. We used the phonebook in the room, and the room phone to call a Bishop’s name we found in the phonebook. As it happened, this Bishop had been released a couple of years prior, but he was kind and generous and came to the motel and picked us up and brought us to his own home for the night.
For the next several hours, after he fed us, and while the children slept, he and I called the local bus lines and explored every option we could think of to get us back home to Provo. It turned out that the only bus that came through town didn’t stop unless it was literally flagged down on the side of the freeway. It usually came through Evanston about 4:00 a.m.
Not knowing what kind of time the bus would make in that severe weather, we awoke at 3:00 a.m. and bundled into his van. He parked by the side of the road in the darkness, while I got out and stood in the freezing blast on the side of the freeway to wait for the bus in the hopes it would be willing to take on six more people. I stood there in the darkness, and biting wind, and snow, without seeing a single vehicle on the freeway for more than an hour and a half. Eventually, the Bishop found out that all the roads were closed because of the blizzard. There would be no bus.
The Bishop took us back to his home and we waited to see what would happen once morning came. By ten in the morning the worst of the weather had subsided, the sun came out, and the snow plows were in full swing. After feeding us yet again, he personally drove my family back to Provo, Utah before returning to Evanston, Wyoming to enjoy Thanksgiving with his own family. I will never forget my debt to that good family. They will have my undying gratitude forever.
To this day I cannot go anywhere without cash in my pocket. It doesn’t have to be much, but I was so traumatized and shamed by that experience that the thought of not being prepared to care for my family in the case of an emergency in unbearable. Even now just thinking about what we went through that night brings me to tears, and that was more than thirty years ago.
I have never truly starved for food. And for that blessing I am so grateful. I have only danced on the edge of recognition of what it might be like to see your loved ones having to go without and not be able to do anything about it. These experiences are what connects me to our young widow of Zarephath.
Our young widow lost her husband when she had but one young son. In Israel she was not allowed to own land, so she couldn’t farm, and if there was no one to redeem her and take care of her from her late husband’s family, she would likely be left to beg. And to make life even more difficult, she was living during a famine. Each day she saw her cruse of oil and her jar of flour dwindling, with no way to refill either of them. Unless something presented itself, all she had to look forward to was the starvation of both her and her child. Can you even imagine how helpless that would make you feel, knowing there was nothing you could do to take care of your child. Death from starvation looked more and more to be the absolute destination for her little family.
There is a quiet desperation that is well known to the poor. It pervades almost every part of their lives. They can’t take advantage of sales, because they have no money. When they need something they are forced to pay whatever people make them pay to get it, because they either don’t have insurance, don’t have credit, don’t have the ability to store food when they can get it cheap, or some other reason. Being impoverished is the most expensive way to live, for no one cuts you a deal or gives you a break. The poor are completely at the mercy of anyone who has what they need or want. They live with an undercurrent of shame and frustration that never seems to go away. These are just generalizations, but I have experienced them myself.
Enter the Prophet
Elijah had declared that there would be no rain, not even dew, until he said so. To protect him from the anger of king Ahab, God sent Elijah to live by a stream. He was fed by crows both morning and night, and he drank from the stream. But of course the stream eventually dried up because of the drought. That is when the Lord directed Elijah to go Zarephath to find our young widow. God had prepared her to help His prophet (1 Kings 17:9).
9 Arise, get thee to Zarephath, which belongeth to Zidon, and dwell there: behold, I have commanded a woman there to sustain thee.
We don’t know how our young widow was prepared or made ready to host the prophet, but no matter what she knew of him beforehand, it took great faith for her to follow his instructions once she met him.
10 So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, the widow woman was there gathering of sticks: and he called to her, and said, Fetch me, I pray thee, a little water in a vessel, that I may drink.
11 And as she was going to fetch it, he called to her, and said, Bring me, I pray thee, a morsel of in thine hand.
Assuming these two were strangers, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for him to ask for a drink of water, since she lived there and had resources he didn’t have, being new to town. He then asked for some food, not a lot, but a morsel, just a little food. This also wasn’t out of the ordinary, because the ancient world was big on showing curtesy to strangers, and offering food was at the top of the hospitality scale. What is surprising is what Elijah asked of her next.
12 And she said, As the Lord thy God liveth, I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die.
13 And Elijah said unto her, Fear not; go and do as thou hast said: but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son.
14 For thus saith the Lord God of Israel, The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the Lord sendeth rain upon the earth.
Every time I read verse 13 the phrase that comes into my mind is “Excuse me?” “I just told you I am preparing the last of our food before we starve to death, and you want me to feed you first?” To be fair, she was obviously a faithful sister who kept the commandments, unlike most of the rest of Israel. Did you notice that she said in verse 12 “As the Lord thy God liveth”? I have difficulty with the idea that those who had long ago abandoned the worship of Jehovah, and had embraced the worship of Baal or Ashtoreth would use such a phrase.
Moment of truth
We can proclaim our conviction to the truth all day long, but at some point in our life God will put our claim to the test. We will either be vindicated or He will expose us to our self as a fraud. God was calling our young widow to account for her true beliefs that day. He was saying to her, ‘Do you really believe in my servant? Are you willing to feed him first even though there is the risk that you won’t have enough for you and your son afterwards?’
I believe that all of us will have to face the trial of our faith. The trial is different for each person, because God tailors our test to challenge us where we are weakest. It is when we successfully pass this test that we realize that even in the face of death (or our perceived death) we will be faithful to our Lord. This is when the Lord can truly trust us, for we have demonstrated that His approval is more dear to us than anything else in mortality. I think that our young widow’s test was feeding a stranger before her starving child. She chose to put her faith in Elijah’s promise that they would continue to have enough flour and oil to feed themselves, even though there was no way to logically assume such a miracle could happen. Up to that point in her life she hadn’t exactly been living off the fat of the land. To some, this may have been seen as just one last kick when she was down.
If there is one lesson the children of Israel should’ve learned well, it is that God can always do the impossible. How many times did He do the impossible for them from the first day Moses was sent to them? They had dozens and dozens of examples of the impossible to look upon, including being fed by mana for more than 40 years. Elijah’s request was just one more example of the impossible this child of Israel was being asked to believe in. To her credit she had the faith to do as the prophet instructed, and she received the promised blessing.
15 And she and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, did eat many days.
16 And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord, which he spake by Elijah.
We live in a day that has long been foretold. Famine, pestilence, disease, war, are all on the horizon. As food is priced out of reach, healthcare is more and more only available to the truly wealthy, and society becomes less and less able or willing to follow the prophet, more and more of us will find ourselves in the situation of our young widow. We will find that our only salvation will be in following the current counsel of God’s prophet. I have no way of knowing how far fetched his counsel may sound to us in that day of our individual trials, but this much I do know, that anytime we follow the prophet we will be vindicated by God in the end. That has been my experience.
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