by Father Mike Stubbs
When we hear the word, “Zarephath” in Sunday’s first reading, 1 Kgs 17:10-16, it may sound like just another one of those tongue twisters so frequently found in the Old Testament. We can tell from the reading’s context that it is a city, but not much more.
Zarephath was not located in Israel, but in a neighboring country, Sidon, which was pagan territory. The people living there did not worship the God of Israel. So when the prophet Elijah travels to Zarephath and meets a widow there, she is not a fellow Israelite, nor a worshipper of the true God. Centuries later, Jesus will draw attention to this fact:
“There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah the prophet when the sky was closed for three and a half years and a severe famine spread over the entire land. It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon” (Lk 4:25-26).
The widow herself recognizes this difference between her and Elijah in the way she speaks about God: “As the Lord, your God, lives.” Notice that she does not say, “our God,” but rather, “your God.” She is acknowledging that this foreign deity does not belong to her.
At the same time, she appears to recognize God’s power to act, even outside the territory of Israel, by acquiescing to Elijah’s request that she make him a little cake from the handful of flour left in her house, all that she and her son have to live on.
The widow trusts in Elijah’s promise that God will continue to provide food for the widow, even after she has used up all the remaining flour and oil. This is truly remarkable. The widow puts her faith in a total stranger, a prophet who speaks on behalf of a foreign god.
A person in the widow’s position would have normally recognized God’s ability to operate in the land of Israel, but not outside that territory. The pagans did not doubt God’s existence, since, after all, they believed in a multitude of gods. But they usually limited him to the land of Israel, since he was the God of Israel.
The miracle described in this story about Elijah and the widow demonstrates God’s universality. True, the Lord remains the God of Israel. At the same time, the Lord is recognized also as the God of the whole world.
The Lord’s compassion extends beyond the boundaries of Israel, to all people. The Lord will show mercy to them also, as demonstrated in this miracle performed for the widow of Zarephath.