The Widow of Zarephath

pinnable image of wheat and "The Widow of Zarephath"

June 27-July 3

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Elijah is a prophet over an apostate Israel. Elijah, through the power of the Lord, stops the rain from falling over the land. Because of this, a great famine spreads. This famine does not only affect Israel but many places around it. Elijah, who is no longer safe in Israel, flees to a neighboring country amongst the Gentiles. Along his journey, he is fed by ravens while he hides from an evil queen who put a price on his head. The Lord guides him to the widow of Zarephath and her son.

The widow of Zarephath is one of the players in this week’s Come Follow Me. Though her story is relatively small in comparison to other major characters throughout the scriptures, her lessons are no less significant. In the few verses that share her story, we can find many different lessons from this woman who offered up the last of the bread that was originally meant for her and her son.

How much did she know?

The Lord commands Elijah in the following verse. 

1 Kings 17:9 Arise, get thee to Zarephath, which belongeth to Zidon, and dwell there: behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee.

The Lord explains here that He commanded a widow woman to sustain the prophet. That is the only detail we have. Did the Lord choose to send an angel? Did the Lord give her a dream? How did He send His commandment? For all we know, this woman merely received some kind of whisper from the spirit. 

So Elijah obeys and runs into the widow in Zarephath. He asks her to bring him a little water. As she turns to leave and get the water, he also asks her to bring him some bread. At this point in the story, I imagine the widow pausing. She knows she has nothing left. She has been watching her son slowly starve for some time now. Perhaps she was made aware of the prophet’s arrival before he came, but we still see the doubt here.

1 Kings 17:12 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.

So, when I picture this story in my mind, I see her pause. I picture her yearning to save the bread for herself and her son. Even though they’re going to die anyway, how can you deny your son the last of your food?

Judging from the widow’s response, I imagine that her knowledge of the Hebrew God was immensely limited and her commandment from the Lord must not have been any kind of miraculous vision. Had an angel appeared to her, I would assume it might have been easier to get the prophet what he needed. But no. Whatever command she received from the Lord must have been small enough that handing over the last of her food was painful. Even after Elijah promised her that her food would not fail, I can’t imagine that she was suddenly completely placated. I can’t imagine that there weren’t doubts in her head; I can’t imagine her fears had suddenly vanished.

So why did she do it? Why did she choose to hand over her food?

I can think of two possible reasons, both of which have significant implications for our own lives and our own dealings with prophets. 

First potential reason. Despite the fact that she was a Gentile, perhaps this woman was inherently good. Perhaps putting others before herself was a natural inclination of her’s. Perhaps she thought in her head, “Well I can give this stranger my portion and still give my son what I was going to give him anyway.”

If this is the case, the lesson for us goes beyond trying to achieve her simple goodness. It would be extremely humbling to stand before this woman. If she lived in our day, would we turn away from her? Her clothes and home must have been a disaster. Without rain, I can’t imagine she was taking any baths. We really can’t know what is hidden within a person’s heart. This beaten down widow (who was one of the least in her society) passed a test that many of us would fail. When you see the woman on the street corner with a cardboard sign, do you share what you have? And more importantly, when you share what you have, do you pat yourself on the back? Or do you really take a look at her and see her for the child of God that she is? You have no idea what kind of strong, miraculous spirit may be hidden behind the evidence of life’s cruel nature.

Many of the people around us are products of their circumstances, just as this widow was. And yet, perhaps this widow was so innately good that the Lord saw her even if everyone else ignored her. Do we truly see and appreciate her equivalents in our day?

Second potential reason. And I identify with this reason more because it fits what my response would have likely been.

As I said before, her “commandment” from the Lord was not significant enough that it wiped away her doubts and fears surrounding her circumstances. We know that from the way she told Elijah that her and her son were planning on starving to death. However, maybe there was a piece of her that simply thought, “I have nothing to lose I guess.” She knew her circumstances were doomed regardless of whether she ate that last piece of food. Elijah promised her that she would not run out of food if she fed him first. I believe my thoughts would have been, “Well, maybe this stranger is a lunatic, but my options are limited anyway. If there’s even a small chance that he can perform this miracle, I might as well go with it. I will die anyway.”

So what is the lesson for us here? Perhaps it is simply a lesson in human nature and the wisdom of God. Up until this point, Elijah has been sustained by birds…literally. The Lord could have sent Elijah to this lady way earlier than He did. The Lord could have easily sent Elijah to her while she still had the barrel full of meal.

But I ask you this. Would she have shared it with Elijah? Maybe. Was it easier to share with Elijah when she knew she would die anyway in comparison to when she still had a barrel of hope left? The Lord let her drain all of her remaining resources before asking her to lean on Him because the Lord is wise. This widow needed a miracle which means she needed to act in faith. It was much easier to have faith in the Lord when her faith in her own abilities had depleted.

At what point do we usually remember to turn and rely on the Lord rather than our own resources? It is often when our own power has been depleted. We were given the gospel; we are not Gentiles like this woman. Many of us have had experiences with the Lord that have helped us to trust Him, and yet, how often do we live in fear anyway? Are we stingy with our limited resources of time, money, energy, and faith? Do we hold onto what we have for dear life before finally giving in because we’re about to crash and burn anyway?

Perhaps the lesson here is that the Lord is wise to push us to our limits because that is usually the point where we turn to Him. Perhaps the lesson here is that we can turn to Him earlier before that barrel is almost gone.

A selfish request

Another detail of this story is the idea that Elijah may have seemed selfish. This widow, who had probably known poverty and hopelessness for some time now, had just informed him that they were about to starve to death. Elijah had been provided for with miracles, and yet, he asks her to make his food first.

If it was anyone but the prophet, I would have thought he was a total loser for doing that to a poor widow. 

But this was the prophet. So what’s the lesson here?

Sometimes we’re asked to do hard things by prophets. The example that comes to mind first is race and the priesthood. Now this is a very specific example, but the principles apply to a myriad of scenarios. I merely use a specific example because it makes it easier to illustrate. 

We have not been given any answers as to why people of African descent were denied the priesthood for some time. The Lord has not chosen to reveal what happened, nor has He given any reasons as to why He allowed it to happen. When the prophet and apostles ask us to have faith in regards to certain issues in the church, it can sometimes add salt to the wounds of those who struggle with this specific point in church history.

Now when I share this principle, I know that I share it through the lens of believing in the prophet and I also know that I share it despite the fact that I was never personally affected by race and the priesthood. And yet, I believe that this can be a healing principle for those who turn towards the Lord and draw nearer to Him.

If I had been Elijah and had not received any specific commands from the Lord, I probably would have given the widow her miracle without asking her to perform that huge act of faith that seemed selfish and wrong.

But the widow needed that opportunity to show faith and there are two reasons why. First reason: from verse 15, we learn that her barrel of meal and cruse of oil fed all three of them for many days. I imagine that she learned a lot about the God of Israel in those few days and she was prepared for that knowledge because of her huge leap of faith. Her faith prepared her to receive the gospel. Second reason: her child dies in this same chapter. Just as she thought everything was coming together and that her tiny, broken family would be okay, her child dies. I can’t imagine the faith it would take to survive that tragedy. That leap of faith she took previously served her. It prepared her for the next part of her story: when her child is brought back to life. Her faith softened the heart of Elijah who took the child and prayed for the Lord to reverse the death. The Lord granted Elijah’s prayer, and the widow was reunited with her son.

Elijah’s request to be fed first might seem careless and even cruel. When our prophets ask us to have faith despite issues from the past, it might seem careless and even cruel.

But regardless of why these things happened, we have been given an opportunity to show forth faith, and that faith will serve us. Not only do we have the opportunity to be healed by the atonement of Jesus Christ, our act of faith to draw closer to the Lord despite a lack of answers will bless our lives tremendously. 

I testify that the atonement of Jesus Christ will right all wrongs. Because He loves us, He will make up the difference and more. I also testify that Christ can turn trials and doubts into opportunities to show forth faith, and I testify that He will bless that faith with tremendous miracles that will provide for us in the same way that the widow’s barrel and cruse provided for her and her child. 

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