The Widow of Zarephath, an Unnamed Hero
The geographic area encompassing both Phoenicia and Israel was in the midst of severe drought when our story begins. (1 Kings 17:1) Zarephath was part of Sidon, Phoenicia, the hometown of the Israelite prophet Elijah’s mortal enemy, Jezebel. (We’ll discuss her later on in this lesson.) In 1 Kings 17, we read about a woman known only as the widow of Zarephath. Since her name is not given, I will call her “Sister de Zarephath” here.
When the brook Elijah has been drinking from dries up (1 Kings 17:7), God instructs him:
9 Arise, get thee to Zarephath, which belongeth to Zidon [Sidon], and dwell there: behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee.
1 Kings 17:9
Here Elijah is told that God has already inspired Sister de Zarephath to help Elijah, but the details of the spiritual manifestation she received are not available to us because the authors of the text did not know them or choose to write them.
God’s epiphanies are not reserved for princes and potentates; God reveals her presence, power, and providence to whom she will. Often, she chooses the most vulnerable, the outcast, and the overlooked to bear witness to her mercy and majesty. …The widow is desperate and vulnerable, and not an Israelite.
—Gafney, Wilda C. A Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, 2021
Elijah finds Sister de Zarephath and immediately requests her hospitality, probably unaware of her dire circumstances.
10 So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, the widow woman was there gathering of sticks: and he called to her, and said, Fetch me, I pray thee, a little water in a vessel, that I may drink.
11 And as she was going to fetch it, he called to her, and said, Bring me, I pray thee, a morsel of bread in thine hand.
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.
1 Kings 17:10-12
Now Elijah knows just how poor Sister de Zarephath is, but he does not relent.
13 And Elijah said unto her, Fear not; go and do as thou hast said: but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son.
14 For thus saith the Lord God of Israel, The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the Lord sendeth rain upon the earth.
1 Kings 17:13-14
Sister de Zarephath has a choice to make.
15 And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, did eat many days.
16 And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord, which he spake by Elijah.
1 Kings 17:15-16
- Why do you think Sister de Zarephath chose to share food with Elijah, although she didn’t have enough to eat herself?
- How can we find the will to be generous, even when we may not feel like we have much to offer?
That is how we feed the hungry today. We give what we have and it will be enough. It will be enough because the God who feeds widows and sparrows will be with us, walking with us, working with and through us and multiplying our meager morsels. We give our money and our time and our activism and our policy experience and our vote. We, ourselves. We live out the hermeneutics of reversal and change the world. We dismantle the structures of inequity without waiting for yet another voice from heaven because people are hungry for more than food. People are hungry for peace. People are hungry for the safety and security of their children, their gay children, their trans children, their non-binary children, their non-gender conforming children. People are hungry for freedom, for the freedom to be who they are on the inside and on the outside. People are hungry for justice in this country, some folks, black folk, are starving for justice. People are hungry for love. And Jesus still says, “You give them something to eat.” You do your work and I’ll do mine bridging the gap between what is possible and impossible. And we will turn this world around because things cannot stand as they are forever. The world is about to turn, in fact the world is already turning. Reversals are not dependent on miracles from Heaven. You give them something to eat. Amen.
—Gafney, Wilda C. Hermeneutics of Reversal: Widow of Zarephath, March 18, 2022
- How can we recognize when someone is hungry, literally or metaphorically?
- How can we recognize what we can do to ease someone’s literal or metaphorical hunger?
In Doctrine and Covenants, we are reminded that with God, “there is enough and to spare.”
15 And it is my purpose to provide for my saints, for all things are mine.
- How does it change our perspective when we remember that all things on the earth belong to God?
- What does it mean when the God says that “the earth is full and there is enough and to spare”? How do we apply this knowledge?
A Vietnamese woman describes how this story gave her hope that a generous person like Sister de Zarapheth would help her and her family when they needed help most, after the fall of Saigon.
My family lost everything including our house and our basic needs for survival in this event. …You know, life was very hard after 1975. …My father was sent to a re-educational camp because he was an officer of the old regime, so my family was in great difficulty. In those hard times I remembered the story of Elijah. Elijah was also in a very difficult situation, but God used ravens and a widow to feed him. We prayed together, telling God,”You fed your prophet through the ravens and the poor widow; now please provide for us too.” We just prayed in the morning, and the ravens and widow came in the afternoon.
—Niem T. Vu, quoted by Quynh-Hoa Nguyen, The Widow of Zarephath: A Story of Empowerment in Marginality, 2011
- How does Sister de Zarepheth’s story give you hope?
A Latter-day Saint couple shared how the example of Sister de Zarapheth inspired them to increase their fast offerings during a financial recession:
Many families throughout the world struggle financially, especially during times of economic crisis. The impact of such a crisis was felt in our local ward several years ago, as we saw several families in need of assistance. At the beginning of that year, our bishop shared with us an invitation from our stake president to give a generous fast offering to help those in need. Although our leaders asked us to look at our individual situations and consider if we were able to be more generous with our fast offerings, they did not specify how much we should give…
As a family, we had been blessed abundantly and we felt a strong desire to increase our fast offerings. Moreover, we wanted our family to overcome the tendency to be selfish. Because we live in a society so focused on acquiring things and filling our own desires, we were concerned that our children might grow up selfish…
Within the first three months of giving a more generous fast offering, we began to see many blessings. We were able to spend less on groceries, and our gas tank seemed to stay full longer. Our children asked for fewer things, and the selfishness in our home almost disappeared. For example, when we contributed to the local food drive, our children began encouraging us to give more…
Our willingness to give a crust has brought us many loaves in return. Our willingness to give generous fast offerings more than doubled our food storage. Indeed, the Lord’s power to multiply five loaves and two fishes to feed 5,000 men, besides women and children, with enough fragments to fill 12 baskets (see Matthew 14:16–21), is the same power that filled the barrel for the widow of Zarephath and multiplied our family’s food storage. Still, our greatest benefit has not come in the form of multiplying food but in the decrease of selfishness and increase of spirituality in our home.
—Po Nien (Felipe) Chou and Petra Chou, Like the Widow of Zarephath: The Miracle of Fast Offerings, Ensign, July 2016
- How can we follow Sister de Zarepheth’s example?
The story continues, and we find that although Sister de Zarephath’s food insecurity problem appears to be resolved, her son is still not safe. In this story her goodness, combined with her boldness in confronting Elijah, is rewarded with a miracle.
17 And it came to pass after these things, that the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, fell sick; and his sickness was so sore, that there was no breath left in him.
18 And she said unto Elijah, What have I to do with thee, O thou man of God? art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?
19 And he said unto her, Give me thy son. And he took him out of her bosom, and carried him up into a loft, where he abode, and laid him upon his own bed.
20 And he cried unto the Lord, and said, O Lord my God, hast thou also brought evil upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son?
21 And he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried unto the Lord, and said, O Lord my God, I pray thee, let this child’s soul come into him again.
22 And the Lord heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived.
23 And Elijah took the child, and brought him down out of the chamber into the house, and delivered him unto his mother: and Elijah said, See, thy son liveth.
24 And the woman said to Elijah, Now by this I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in thy mouth is truth.
1 Kings 17:17–24
Jezebel, a Misremembered Villain
Jezebel, wife of King Ahab of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, is one of the most notorious female villains of scripture. Here is what we know about her:
- Her marriage to King Ahab of Israel was a political marriage, intended to create an alliance between Israel and Phoenicia, where her father, Ethbaal, was king of the Phoenician city of Sidon. (See Cameron B.R. Howard, “1 and 2 Kings” Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe and Jacqueline E. Lapsley)
- Marrying a king did not necessarily make her a queen, as there is no evidence that such a position existed in the Northern Kingdom at that time. (See Cameron B.R. Howard, “1 and 2 Kings” Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe and Jacqueline E. Lapsley)
- Her husband, King Ahab, was a villain in his own right. “Ahab did more to cprovoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him.” (1 Kings 16:33)
- Whether the accusation is just or not can be debated, but the authors of 1 Kings blame Jezebel for inciting Ahab’s wickedness. “But there was none like unto Ahab, which did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord, whom Jezebel his wife stirred up.” (1 Kings 21:25)
- Ahab converted from the Israelite religion to the Phoenician religion of his wife, which worshipped a deity names Baal. (1 Kings 16:31)
- Jezebel killed Israelite prophets (1 Kings 18:4, 13). While this is an objectively evil act, it should be mentioned that according to the text, the hero of the story, the Israelite prophet, Elijah, was also a murderer who killed prophets of Baal. (1 Kings 18:40)
- Jezebel threatened to kill Elijah, but the fact that he had just murdered her prophets was certainly an extenuating circumstance. (1 Kings 19:2)
- Jezebel had an innocent man named Naboth murdered because he refused to sell his vineyard to her husband. Then she confiscated the dead man’s vineyard. In this case, there were no extenuating circumstances justifying this act of violence. (1 Kings 21)
- Elijah accurately foretold the early deaths of Jezebel and her husband, Ahab. (1 Kings 21:19-23; 1 Kings 22:28; 2 Kings 3:33-35)
Read the account of Jezebel’s plot against Naboth.
4 And Ahab came into his house heavy and displeased because of the word which Naboth the Jezreelite had spoken to him: for he had said, I will not give thee the inheritance of my fathers. And he laid him down upon his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no bread.
5 ¶ But Jezebel his wife came to him, and said unto him, Why is thy spirit so sad, that thou eatest no bread?
6 And he said unto her, Because I spake unto Naboth the Jezreelite, and said unto him, Give me thy vineyard for money; or else, if it please thee, I will give thee another vineyard for it: and he answered, I will not give thee my vineyard.
7 And Jezebel his wife said unto him, Dost thou now govern the kingdom of Israel? arise, and eat bread, and let thine heart be merry: I will give thee the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.
8 So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, and sealed them with his aseal, and sent the letters unto the elders and to the nobles that were in his city, dwelling with Naboth.
9 And she wrote in the letters, saying, Proclaim a afast, and set Naboth on high among the people:
11 And the men of his city, even the elders and the nobles who were the inhabitants in his city, did as Jezebel had sent unto them, and as it was written in the letters which she had sent unto them.
12 They proclaimed a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people.
13 And there came in two men, children of Belial, and sat before him: and the men of Belial witnessed against him, even against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, Naboth did blaspheme God and the king. Then they carried him forth out of the city, and stoned him with stones, that he died.
14 Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, Naboth is stoned, and is dead.
15 ¶ And it came to pass, when Jezebel heard that Naboth was stoned, and was dead, that Jezebel said to Ahab, Arise, take apossession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give thee for money: for Naboth is not alive, but dead.
1 Kings 21:5-15
- What motivated Jezebel’s actions?
- What character traits does this episode reveal about Jezebel?
- How can we guard ourselves against adopting these traits and motives in our own lives?
Jezebel’s legacy has been invoked often in scripture and popular culture. In the New Testament, the apostle John scolds Christians in the Greek city of Thyatira for falling under the influence of a “Jezebel.”
Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.
Note that this Greek woman was not literally named Jezebel, but rather, John was calling her Jezebel to describe her as evil. He was saying, “She’s as wicked as that Phoenician Jezebel of the Old Testament!” (See: Got Questions? What is the story of Ahab and Jezebel?)
Jezebel’s very name has become an epithet for women with any number of perceived characteristics, from seductiveness to promiscuity to prosperity to self-assuredness to ruthlessness.
—Cameron B.R. Howard, “1 and 2 Kings” Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe and Jacqueline E. Lapsley
However, these two women did not share the same sins. Their main commonality was that both happened to be female.
While none of the Thyatira woman’s deeds overlap with those attributed to Jezebel in Kings, this invocation of Jezebel’s name evidences an early example of associating her with a growing array of sinful behaviors, including fornication.
—Josey Bridges Snyder, “Jezebel and Her Interpreters” Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe and Jacqueline E. Lapsley
The name of Jezebel has come to be used in our contemporary society as a slur against women perceived to be sexually promiscuous, which is ironic because, while the Biblical authors accuse Jezebel of many serious sins, sexual promiscuity is not one of them.
In all of its condemnatory language about Jezebel, the Kings narrative never comments on her sexuality. There is no indication that she was ever anything but faithful in her marriage to Ahab, and there is no language in the text that unambiguously points to promiscuity. There is one reference to “the many whoredoms and sorceries of your mother Jezebel” (2 Kgs. 9:22), but that language reads as a comment on religious practices—either the practice of cultic prostitution that may have accompanied the worship of some deities, or more likely as a metaphor for religious infidelity. That Jezebel has become associated in the popular imagination with harlotry or sexual indulgence is surely a comment on the images of women in the history of biblical interpretation or on assumptions about female power in our modern culture; the text does not make judgments about Jezebel’s sexuality.
—Cameron B.R. Howard, “1 and 2 Kings” Women’s Bible Commentary by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe and Jacqueline E. Lapsley
- What can we unpack about our modern assumptions about women from the way Jezebel is misremembered and misrepresented in our modern culture?
How do we hear God’s voice?
In 1 Kings 18 and 19, we read two very different stories about how God manifests Himself.
Fire from Heaven
In 1 Kings 18, King Ahab and Elijah confront each other, with the whole kingdom in audience.
17 ¶ And it came to pass, when Ahab saw Elijah, that aAhab said unto him, Art thou he that troubleth Israel?
18 And he answered, I have not troubled Israel; but thou, and thy father’s house, in that ye have aforsaken the commandments of the Lord, and thou hast followed Baalim.
19 Now therefore send, and gather to me all Israel unto mount Carmel, and the aprophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel’s table.
20 So Ahab sent unto all the children of Israel, and gathered the aprophets together unto mount Carmel.
21 And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between atwo opinions? if the Lord be God, bfollow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word.
1 Kings 18:17-21
- Why do you think the people couldn’t or wouldn’t answer?
- Do you ever feel like you are halting between opinions? How do you move forward?
The Israelites may have felt they had good reasons to worship Baal despite the Lord’s command, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Baal was known as the god of storms and rain, and after three years of drought, they desperately needed a storm. And Baal worship was socially accepted and endorsed by the king and queen.
—Come Follow Me for Individuals and Families: Old Testament, 1 Kings 17-19
Elijah decides to settle the question with a showdown between him and the prophets of Baal.
22 Then said Elijah unto the people, I, even I only, remain a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets are four hundred and fifty men.
23 Let them therefore give us two bullocks; and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under: and I will dress the other bullock, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under:
24 And call ye on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the Lord: and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God. And all the people answered and said, It is well spoken.
25 And Elijah said unto the prophets of Baal, Choose you one bullock for yourselves, and dress it first; for ye are many; and call on the name of your agods, but put no fire under.
26 And they took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made.
27 And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is apursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.
28 And they cried aloud, and acut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them.
29 And it came to pass, when midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded.
30 And Elijah said unto all the people, Come near unto me. And all the people came near unto him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that was broken down.
32 And with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord: and he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed.
33 And he put the wood in order, and cut the bullock in pieces, and laid him on the wood, and said, Fill four abarrels with water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice, and on the wood.
34 And he said, Do it the second time. And they did it the second time. And he said, Do it the third time. And they did it the third time.
35 And the water ran round about the altar; and he filled the trench also with water.
36 And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the aevening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word.
38 Then the afire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.
39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God.
1 Kings 18:22-39
- How do you think Elijah found the confidence to know that God would bring down fire at his request?
The results were dramatic, but for most of us, probably not relatable. A more relatable manifestation is found in the next chapter.
A still, small voice
In Chapter 19, Elijah is hiding from Jezebel in the wilderness, and beginning to despair.
4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.
1 Kings 19:4
- Why would Elijah feel this way, even after calling down fire from heaven?
- What can we do when we feel despair?
9 And he came thither unto a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah?
10 And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.
11 And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:
12 And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
1 Kings 19:9-12
- What can we learn about how God speaks to us from this story?
- Have you ever heard a still, small voice? How do you feel the Spirit?