Selections on New Creation Week 9
As a child I lived in impoverished Southern California communities with a young African-American mother who worked tirelessly to provide food, clothing, and shelter. Because we continually found ourselves on the margins during times of recession, I find myself drawn to the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17. As a black male child, among the poorest, most stigmatized group in the country, I knew that I had been born into a situation that I had no role in creating. On the way home from school I’d walk past hopeless men in front of liquor stores and wonder inwardly if God was aware of my need for deliverance. Eventually, I’d succumb to despair to join those participating in the economy of the streets.
In due season, God’s kingdom entered my psyche and my spirit. As an adult in my early twenties I rededicated my life to Christ. My formative years as a new believer involved being reconciled to God, receiving inner healing, and learning biblical approaches to social justice to heal social trauma. Because poverty shaped my yearning for God and my interest in reconciliation, I find it necessary to unveil both the spiritual and social aspects of the interactions in this story from 1 Kings.
The story is set in a Sidonian town called Zarephath, which translates as “smelting shop,” suggesting a location where metals are refined and smelted. This is deeply significant, as the Old Testament is filled with references to refinement and smelting. Malachi writes, “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness” (Malachi 3:3). This Scripture underscores how God orchestrates our social and spiritual contexts to refine the hearts and minds of his mediators and the people around them. God’s respect for our autonomy means that He places us in situations of testing to uncover our willingness, or lack thereof, to perceive reality and participate in reconciliation.
The 1 Kings narratives, in general, implicitly juxtapose two Sidonian women, the widow of Zarephath (chapter 17) and Jezebel (chapters 16-19), to expose godly and ungodly responses to Jehovah. We recognize marginalization, meekness, and faith on the one hand, and self-promotion, will-to-power, and greed on the other. Although both women are worshippers of Baal, the contriteness of the widow underscores the need to refrain from hastily making social or spiritual judgments based on religious affiliation.
Intrigue enters the story as the prophet encounters the pitiful widow and her son out gathering sticks to cook their last meal. In the ancient Near East, widows were among the poorest in society, along with orphans and immigrants. The drought had devastated crops in this region, creating conditions for famine. Yet oddly, the prophet requests “a morsel of bread” (1 Kings 17:11) from the widow. Although mother and child are resigned to an inevitable death, the woman shares her meager rations with the stranger, demonstrating a self-sacrificial willingness to help others. This act provides the context for the prophet’s message of deliverance. Elijah meets the widow in her deepest despair, declaring that God will grant provisions until “the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth” (17:14). In other words, Elijah declares that his God, and not Baal, is able to meet her need. As the widow responds in faith, God feeds her family.
Within the context of preaching in most American churches, this miraculous event is often read as an idiosyncratic intervention for this particular widow’s household in this particular moment. However, the miracle can also been seen as a manifestation of God’s care for those on the margins, regardless of their social standing, moral uprightness, or spiritual affiliation. In Exodus 22:21–23, Moses exhorts, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry.”
While we don’t find a recognizable persecutor in Zarephath, the implied agencies are the political decisions made at highest level of the social order that led to the widow’s neglect, which in turn led to a tormenting form of poverty that caused her to resign herself and her child to an inescapable death. These social structures emerge due to the cumulative effect of individual and organizational decisions based on the selfishness of those in power. In other words, this widow’s crisis allows us to perceive the aggregate effect of King Ahab’s empire for those on the margins.
King Ahab had married a Sidonian princess, Jezebel (1 Kings 16:31). Her father was Ethbaal, King of the Sidonians. As a princess, she had been raised to lead in the worship of Baal, and taught Ahab to follow suit. The Sidonians offered their infant children as sacrifices to their god. One can imagine how Jezebel’s corrupt influence led God to curse His people. The narrator writes, “Indeed, there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord, urged on by his wife Jezebel. He acted most abominably in going after idols, as the Amorites had done, whom the Lord drove out before the Israelites” (21:25–26). During Ahab’s reign, against the command of God, Hiel of Bethel rebuilt Jericho, bringing that corrupt and worldly culture back into Israel (16:34). Elijah’s prophetic stance against King Ahab and Jezebel, however, had evolving repercussions for the inhabitants of the region. Structural violence came into play through King Ahab’s selfish pursuit of his own agenda, submission to Jezebel’s negative spiritual leadership, and his neglecting to seek the good of the poor.
As we return to the widow’s narrative we find that the God of Israel, through Elijah, meets the needs of her household. The Scripture explains, “She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah” (17:15–16). However, the good widow could not seem to avoid calamity. After this provision, her son falls ill and dies, which she sees as a judgment correlating to a visitation from the “man of God” (17:18). That is, the perceptive widow attributes her son’s death to a divine hidden agenda carried out by someone she clearly recognizes as an agent of God. She poses a rhetorical question: “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” (17:18). Although she is a native Baal worshipper, her reaction reveals an innate spiritual acuity, sensibility, and responsiveness.
From my vantage point, the question isn’t whether or not God brought judgment on the widow for some past wrongdoing. Instead, the message lies in the stark juxtaposition of the hedonistic, selfish, and unrepentant Jezebel, who defies Jehovah and dominates Jehovah’s people, with this spiritually sensitive widow, who is plagued by fear and guilt. On some level, her fear is reasonable. She has been indoctrinated in a religion that requires the sacrifice of helpless children. Yet the widow seems to become hyper-aware of her sinfulness in the presence of Jehovah’s agent, the carrier of God’s presence. We must contrast her humility and recognition with Jezebel’s covetousness and utter defiance in Baal worship, which culminates in her later conspiring to assassinate God’s prophet (19:1-2). On a deeper level, we perceive another unavoidable contrast here. Jezebel is committed to killing children in her worship of Baal, and the widow is hoping the prophet will somehow restore her deceased child.
We might speculate about the widow’s hidden sin, but more important is her posture of faith, humility and submission before God. Whatever the case, the prophet seems to ignore her. He takes the child to his room and begins to pray (17:19–21). Elijah cries out,
“O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” (17:20–21)
God revives the child and spares the widow the burden of her guilt. The prophet is spared as well. When Elijah returns the boy to his mother, the reader should be moved to imagine a strengthening of Elijah’s character, faith, and relationship with the Lord. The agent of God himself experiences Jehovah’s compassion for the poor — a concern that transcends political and class affiliations. He grows in his recognition that God controls nature and even the mysterious force of death. Whenever there is a social encounter in which the humanity of the marginalized and/or outcast is exposed, both parties should be transformed. In Ephesians 2:12–15, Paul articulates the basis on which these distinctions lose their meaning. He writes:
Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace […]
When considered in the broader sociopolitical and theological context, this act of resuscitation reveals that Elijah serves a God who stands in opposition to Baal, as well as the entitled and privileged, on behalf of the humble, the meek, and the poor. The gospel is good news to the poor who may experience poverty as abandonment by God and evidence that they reside outside the province of God’s blessing. On another level, Elijah’s traveling into the enemy’s territory (so to speak) to minister to the widow demonstrates that these perceived barriers never existed from God’s perspective. He enters Sidonia as an ambassador of Yahweh to reconcile a woman who stood outside the covenant due to her ethnicity and native worship. It is God’s action through Elijah that “[breaks] down the dividing wall” (Ephesians 2:14). When Christians travel across cultural borders, our movement and good works honor the new covenant that Jesus established by his own body.
The resurrection of the widow’s son foreshadows the resurrection of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. The presence of God is inherently conciliatory for those willing to hear or to perceive the good news implied in a divine visitation. Through acts of redemption, the Holy Spirit reconciles us to God by moving us beyond our sinful past into the redemptive present and towards a redeemed future. The perception of animosity is removed. We no longer see ourselves as enemies of God. While Baal, the god of Sidonia, required the sacrifice of children, Yahweh has the power to bring the widow’s son back from death to life. Elijah’s display of grace and power most assuredly must have culminated in the widow being reconciled to the God of Israel.
In addition to reconciliation, I see redistribution in God’s sending his prophet to a foreign widow. I have used the word “redistribution” in connection with the three principles of Christian community development as defined by Dr. John Perkins: reconciliation, redistribution, and relocation. These three pillars are ubiquitous in the literature on Christian community development. [Author’s Note #1]
In this story, the reader witnesses God relocating his representative into Sidonia to meet the needs of a poor widow. We should not allow the significance of this act to escape us. As a scholar interested in health and social justice, I’d argue that God’s provisions of food and physical wellbeing imply that the redistribution of resources — both material and ministerial — leads to biblical reconciliation. The act of radical redistribution requires that Christians refrain both from judging needy strangers and from simply observing their poverty. The divine impulse toward reconciliation means that we cannot remain aloof and indifferent to human suffering and social injustice. Instead, we must act on behalf of the poor, in faith that God will follow our efforts.
I have chosen this particular scripture in the Old Testament based on my own personal experience as an African-American child who grew up in a single-parent household and faced poverty firsthand. I believe that my childhood experiences renders palpable the personal crisis and societal decline evident in Elijah’s encounter with the widow. The experience with structural violence shapes my interpretation of cross-cultural engagement between Elijah and a family on the margins of a pagan empire. In brief, poverty culminates in escalating needs and duress in the lives of the poor.
I worked as a janitor at the tender age of nine, and I shined shoes during middle school. My class experience led to the development of empathy and compassion for the poor. I will never forget the day I watched a spoiled African-American child throw a fast food meal of fried fish that his parents had purchased into the garbage near my shoeshine stand. Within minutes a poor white man opened the lid of the garbage can, took out the meal, and began to eat it. My innocent heart burst within me. Over time I began to witness, on a deeper level, the impact that poverty has in undermining the autonomy and dignity innate in every one of God’s children.
In the sixties, my mother had the courage to take on the scarlet letter of an illegitimate pregnancy and child. When Mom moved out on her own, our first apartment was on an intersection that has become known as the “Four Corners of Death.” We lived in a small apartment complex behind a Mexican taco shop. The building stood near an archetypal ghetto boulevard corner that included a Catholic parish, a liquor store, a barbeque shack, and a gas station. I can still recall the day I tried to enter the church sanctuary to pray and found the door locked due to burglaries. Quiet as it was kept in the media, America’s finest city witnessed a disproportionate amount of crime in the black and brown community. Yet I knew that our family wasn’t poor because we were criminal, idle, or felt entitled. Even as a young child, I was aware that the source of our poverty was not laziness. We worked hard. Today I am a university professor and pre-med advisor.
My education and spiritual development as a believer in Jesus Christ enable me to recognize the influence of my story on the reading of Scripture. I have learned, however, that only the God who moved Elijah to respond to the needs of the widow is able to empower Christians to recognize the innate value in every human being. The recognition that each one of us is made in the image and likeness of God should move Christians toward reconciliation. My childhood experiences taught me that I could not depend on human systems to affirm my God-endowed dignity. My self-worth is found only in Christ. And it is Christ who gives me the mandate and the ability to love, to serve, and to act as an agent of reconciliation. According to Paul, “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross,” (Colossians 1:19–20). Today it is the Holy Spirit in the church that is continuing the work of reconciliation between God, widows, prophets, and the rest of us.
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