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June 6, 2010
1 Kings 17:8-16 (17-24)

In Year C, the Old Testament readings in the time after Pentecost focus on the prophets. We begin our journey with these prophets with the figure of Elijah. We will read from the stories about Elijah and Elisha for the first five weeks of this season. Elijah and Elisha are not like the ‘written’ prophets to come later (Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah etc.) all of whom have books in their names. For these early prophets we have a collection of tales including some ‘miracle’ stories and encounters with people both great and small. We are not so much hearing a message from the prophets as hearing a message in the telling of their prophetic stories.

The story of Elijah begins in 1 Kings 17. Elijah is already established as a prophet and we meet him in the court of Ahab, king of Israel. Ahab too has only just been introduced to us (1 Kgs 16:29-30) but we know from the start that the writers of the books of Kings do not favour him as he is charged with all sorts of syncretistic practices (see 16:31-34). Whether in real life Ahab was like this can be debated. There are some hints that he was not as the Bible generally paints him and we know from sources outside the Bible that he was a military figure of some note. In the biblical story, however, he appears as the archenemy of Elijah, the hero of the story.

Elijah declares to Ahab in the Lord’s name that there will be a drought (17:1). We are not told why this drought will happen. We might presume that the reason lies with the negative view of Ahab at the end of ch. 16. In any case, Elijah does as he is bidden by the Lord, and then is immediately sent out from the court to the Wadi Cherith, east of the Jordan. There, in spite of the drought, the Lord marvellously provides for him. We note at this stage that it is the ‘word of the Lord’ which sends him out of the court in v. 2 and that he did ‘according to the word of the Lord’ in v. 5. The drought becomes the backdrop to the stories to follow, but it is the ‘word of the Lord’ which is the ‘director’ of the drama.

Today’s reading, vv. 8-16, further underlines this last point. Verse 7 tells us that even the Lord’s special provision for Elijah in the time of drought dries up. This is the occasion for the word of the Lord to give new directions. Elijah is to go and live in Zarephath which is far to the north in Phoenician territory. There the Lord has commanded a widow to feed him (vv. 8-9). Two points in the development of this story should be noted. First, when Elijah meets the widow at Zarephath (v. 10) he finds her gathering sticks for a fire. He asks for water and then requests her to bring him something to eat. His approach might sound a little heartless in this context. It is made even worse when we learn that the widow is gathering sticks to prepare a last, meagre meal for herself and her son. But we should not be distracted by Elijah’s demands. This is a story and Elijah’s words at this point serve more to highlight the woman’s situation than reflect on his compassion or lack of it. In any case, the point is that the one whom the Lord has sent to provide for Elijah does not have sufficient for herself let alone for him. The story points out the utter dependence of the characters on the word of the Lord.

Secondly, in light of the story to come the location of the widow is important. She lives in a Phoenician town, Zarephath, near Sidon on the Mediterranean coast. King Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, is a Phoenician princess from the same region (16:31). Elijah will clash with her and her Phoenician prophets later (chs. 19 and 21). To demonstrate the power of the word of the Lord to direct the Lord’s servants and the affairs of earth, the story teller locates this first episode right in the land from which Jezebel comes. There is little doubt who will gain ascendancy in the battle between Elijah and the prophets of Baal and their patron, Jezebel, and indeed between the Lord and Baal themselves. We are not told whether the meagre food store of the widow is due to the drought or more generally to a lack of opportunity and community support. If it is the former then the writer makes the further point that the drought declared by the Lord through Elijah has reached to the very heart of Jezebel’s homeland. The Lord has already vanquished his opponents.

Once Elijah has heard of the plight of the widow, he tells her not to be afraid, and then reissues his command concluding with a word from the Lord assuring the woman that her meagre store of food will not run out. The woman, like the prophet she feeds, will be supported by the Lord. The point is underlined one last time in v. 16 when we are told that her rations did not fail her ‘according to the word of the Lord’.

At the start of the stories of Elijah and Elisha, the writer emphasises that the word of the Lord, that which the prophets utter, is what controls the events to come. The word has its own power beyond any power or influence belonging to the prophet. The prophets participate in a mystery that lies behind and under the events and words of their lives. Similar points are made in the Gospel for today (Luke 7:11-17) where Jesus’ word raises the dead son of a widow (cf. also the continuation of Elijah’s story in 1 Kgs 17:17-24) and the people proclaim a prophet has come among them. In the reading from Gal 1:11-24 Paul also stresses that the Gospel he preaches is not of human origin. As we begin a series of readings from the prophets this Pentecost season, stress on the word that is embodied in their words and which sustains all who proclaim that word is appropriate. The preacher will want to ponder ways in which the word of God sustains and supports those who faithfully proclaim it in their lives in the modern world.

Psalm 146

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