1 Kings 17:7-16 contains one of those arresting sentences that show the depth of suffering and living death people can reach before being restored to life by the Lord:
[Elijah said] “Please bring me a little water in a vessel so I can drink.” As she went to bring (it), he called to her: “Please bring me a bit of bread in your hand.” She said: “By the life of YHWH, your God, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in the jug and a little oil in the flask. Here I am gathering a few sticks, so that I can go in and prepare it for myself and my son. We shall it eat and then we shall die.”
God has sent Elijah to Zerephath, a foreign land outside of the power of his persecutor, Ahab. Zerephath is in Sidon, on the Mediterranean, and is the homeland of Jezebel and her god Baal. (Indeed, this story is part of a larger sequence showing the victory of God over Baal.) It is strange, then, that this foreign window recognizes him as an Israelite holy man and uses the phrase “By the life of YHWH, your God…”
A terrible drought afflicts the land. People suffer and die. The dryness of the land is reflected in the spiritual dryness of the people. It’s a sign of the growing insufficiency of the old law and the coming of a new law which will be written directly on the hearts of man by Christ.
Elijah gives us a foretaste of that new law when he is the conduit for a miracle. The woman’s action call to mind the story of the widow’s mite: she is ready to give the last measure of her grain to this stranger. Does she do this out of faith and hope, or out of despair? She has already decided she and her son are dead, and is resigned to the fate she had planned, but does this holy man stir something new in her?
There in a barren, dried land of famine, with no more than a handful of meal and a few drops oil–poor, miserable, spiritually dead without a true god (she refers to “your God” when speaking to Elijah)–she is as dead as the living can be.
And yet the presence of God comes to her in through the prophet, and a small flicker of grace prompts her to give her last mouthful to this man and thus prove by her works the goodness still alive in her heart.
What these passages offer, of course, is a powerful pre-figuration of Christ. Elijah is sent to the lowest of the low (a widow would have been utterly dependent on others to survive); he is sent to non-Israelites; he is the means by which a miracle of food is affected, as the grain and oil are replenished; and he follows this with another miracle by raising a boy from the dead.
Even the passing phrase she utters about “collecting a couple of sticks” suggests deeper meaning: isn’t the cross a “couple of sticks”? She has done what we must all do to be saved: she has taken up her cross.
Jesus himself mentions the widow in Luke 4:24–26, using this passage to explain that he will be rejected by his own but accepted by gentiles:
Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his own country. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.
Why was the widow of Zarephath favored? Partly to show the power of the true God against the false gods, but also to show how God lifts up the lowly and rewards those who give freely. It also looks forward to the day in which God will extend to all humanity the favor He has shown Israel.
Something even more powerful beats within this story, however, with powerful themes of want, suffering, and death. The woman and her son were near death. In the next story, the widow’s son does die, and is brought back to life. (Note: Some exegetes believe, without good reason, that these two stories are about two different widows.) Death stalks these passages like a beast devouring the innocent, laying waste to vast stretches of humanity.
T.S. Eliot, describing The Waste Land, shows us “fear in a handful of dust”: another image of death. But in this passage, we see death defeated by no more than a handful of meal.
That meal will be transformed by Christ into the Eucharist, which provides a food that gives life far beyond what a mere cake of grain and oil can do.
We all must die to be Christians: die to our troubled pasts, the world, our selfishness, our disordered desires, our sin. There is no new birth in Christ without death. There are a thousand little deaths that come before the last death, and in those little deaths new life springs forth. We become new creation in Christ as the one passes away.
The handful of grain the window gave to Elijah was once a seed, which fell to the ground and died, and in dying produced many seeds. If we allow ourselves to truly trust in Christ, to lift up his cross, and join him in death, then we too will spring up as new growth, with a new life that will never end.