Women of the Bible - Monday, July 8, 2013

The Widow of Zarephath

Her character: A Phoenician woman, she showed extraordinary hospitality to one of God's prophets, providing a safe harbor for him during a period of famine.
Her sorrow: To suffer extreme poverty, famine, and the loss of husband and son.
Her joy: To experience repeated miracles of God's provision.
Key Scriptures: 1 Kings 17:8-24; Luke 4:25-26

Her Story

Her arms were spindly and rough, like the dry twigs she had gathered for kindling. Her body shook as she stood over the fire, greedily sipping and sucking the steam from the pan, as though the smell of frying bread could fill her belly and soothe her fears. She had lived her life a stone's throw from the Mediterranean, at Zarephath, seven miles south of Sidon, in a territory ruled by Jezebel's father. She had always loved the sea, but now its watery abundance seemed only to mock her, reminding her of all she lacked.

Tears escaped her eyes, try as she might to blink them back. How hard it was to suffer her fears alone, to wake in the night with no one to warm her, no one to whisper sweet lies about tomorrow. If only her husband were alive to squeeze a harvest from the fields. But he had died before the drought, leaving her with a small son, a house, and little else. Every night she hoped for rain, but every morning she woke to a brilliant sky.

Though she starved herself to feed her child, his distended belly accused her. His need condemned her. She had failed in the most basic ways a mother could, unable to protect, nurture, and provide. These days she stood with shoulders hunched as though to hide her breasts. Today she had scraped the last bit of flour from the barrel and poured the last drop of oil from the jug. She began to prepare for a final supper for herself and her child.

But then a stranger had called to her: "Woman, would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?"

Graciously, she had gone to fetch it, only to have him call after her, "And bring me, please, a piece of bread."

Is the man mad? she wondered. He might as well ask me to snap my fingers and produce a cow to feast on.

She turned on her heel and replied, "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."

But the man had persisted. "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. 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.' "

Instead of cursing the stranger for his callousness, as we might expect, the woman did exactly as he had requested, feeding him the food she had reserved for herself and her son.

The woman from Zarephath wasn't a Jew, but a Phoenician. She had no idea that the stranger was Elijah, a prophet who had the gall to inform King Ahab that God was withholding rain to punish Israel's idolatry. She would have been astonished to learn that this same God had instructed Elijah to "go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food."

The widow of Zarephath had felt utterly alone, not knowing God had his eye on her. Yet for some reason she believed Elijah and acted accordingly, giving him everything she had.

After that, every time she dipped her hand into the flour, every time she poured oil from the jug, the widow saw another miracle unfold, another sign of favor, additional evidence of God's provision. Just as Elijah had promised, the supply of flour and oil lasted day after day, month after month, never failing until at last the rains came and revived the land.

How like God to construct a parable of grace during a time of judgment, to display his mercy and power in the midst of weakness and need. The widow's faith saved not only her son and herself but actually provided a refuge for Elijah, who may have wondered why God chose such flimsy protection—a destitute woman who lived in the territory of his worst enemy, Jezebel.

Later, the widow's faith would again be tested when her young son died. But she would also be the first woman to witness God's power to raise the dead, which he did in response to Elijah's repeated prayers on behalf of her child. As a woman who endured extreme difficulties, her story reveals God's power to provide what we need the most—a commodity of the heart called faith.

Her Promise

God doesn't ignore the needs of those who cannot help themselves. He doesn't urge them to pick themselves up and get going when they have no resources to do so. He doesn't pat them on the back and say he's sorry life is so tough. Instead, he sometimes intervenes by miraculous understatement, in this case by making sure that a little bit of oil and flour—just enough for a small loaf—didn't run out.

An unexpected check comes just when you need it. Another mother gives you her kids' outgrown clothing so you can clothe your own children. God uses something or someone to change your husband's heart just when you thought he didn't love you anymore. Our God is still a miraculous provider, granting what we need sometimes in the most unexpected ways.

This devotional is drawn from Women of the Bible: A One-Year Devotional Study of Women in Scripture by Ann Spangler and Jean Syswerda. Used with permission.

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