There are many women in the Bible who were unseen and overlooked in their time and culture and you might say little seems to have changed. But, we can find encouragement in the fact that they were seen and directed by God into His plans and purposes. The widow of Zarephath was such a woman and we find her story in a few verses of 1 Kings chapter 17. She played a small part in the bigger picture of God’s covenant relationship with Israel but for her, it was lifesaving and life-enhancing!
Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath
This story began when God sent Elijah with a word of impending judgment to Ahab, king of Israel. This was because of Israel’s rebellion and idolatry, but Ahab did not accept this word of warning. Instead, he directed his anger at Elijah, the messenger.
God quickly sent Elijah into hiding and removed His prophet from the nation. The people of Israel were cut off from God’s word and came under divine judgment. The land, and the surrounding area, were hit by drought which brought food shortages and famine.
Elijah for a time was hidden by God by the brook Cherith. But when the brook dried up Elijah was sent into the heart of the enemy territory, to Zarephath in Sidon. This was the area ruled by Ahab’s father-in-law Ethbaal, and the stronghold of Baal worship.
“Then the word of the LORD came to him: “Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” 1 Kings 17:8-9
Widow of Zarephath Story
When Elijah arrived at Zarephath, he saw a woman gathering sticks in the gateway of the town. He identified her as a widow possibly from the way she was dressed. He asked her for a very simple meal, a little water in a jar and a piece of bread.
As Elijah identified her status as a widow, she identified him as a stranger, an Israelite, and a man of God. This is seen in the way she addressed Elijah when she replied to his request ‘as surely as the Lord your God lives, I don’t have any bread.’
The woman went on to explain why she didn’t have any bread, all she had left was a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. She was gathering sticks for her last cooking fire and was about to make a meal for herself and her son. Then the future would be very bleak.
Elijah responded to her predicament with a word of faith to bring reassurance and hope!
“Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: “The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD sends rain on the land.” 1 Kings 17:14
Elijah told the widow of Zarephath to first make a loaf of bread for him. Then to make something for herself and her family. The widow was to believe, to take a step of faith and give into God’s service, before she received herself.
The prophet Elijah spoke with confidence, God’s covenant with His people is based on faith, trust, and obedience. Even though the widow had so little, she proved willing to share what she had. She went away and did as Elijah had told her, in faith feeding him first.
By God’s miraculous provision there was food every day for Elijah, the widow of Zarephath, and her son.
What happened to the Widow of Zarephath’s son?
Sometime later, the widow of Zarephath’s son became ill. His condition rapidly got worse until the point where he stopped breathing. The woman said to Elijah:
“What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” 1Kings 17:18
In her grief, the widow of Zarephath was questioning why her son had died. Could it be because Elijah was staying in her house and that had brought God’s attention to her sin? Was her son’s death God’s judgment on her?
Elijah responded by picking up the boy and taking him to the privacy of the room where he was staying. Placing him on the bed, he cried out to the Lord:
“Lord my God, have you brought tragedy even on this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?” I Kings 17:20
Elijah also questioned why the boy had died. Had God who had brought the promise of life to this family, by his provision, now brought death?
Elijah stretched himself out over the boy as he prayed, crying out to God to let the boy’s life return to him. Three times he did this, and the Lord heard Elijah’s cry and the boy’s life returned to him. He lived!
Elijah picked up the child and carried him back from his room into the rest of the house, and gave him to his mother, saying “Look, your son is alive!”
The woman responded with a great declaration of faith:
“Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is truth.” 1 Kings 17:24
Before the widow had acknowledged that Elijah looked like an Israelite, his manner and speech were of an Israelite, and he was a man of God. But now she knew without a doubt, by her own experience, the truth of the word of God!
This non-Israelite woman received the ultimate covenant blessing from God the gift of life, as her son was rescued from death and restored to her.
Widow of Zarephath lessons
The widow of Zarephath would have been familiar with grief and loss. The death of her husband had left her in a vulnerable position, especially with a child to raise on her own. Then things got even worse as a drought and famine hit the land. At a point in her life when all hope seemed loss, God gifted hope to the widow of Zarephath enabling her to move on. What lessons can we learn from the widow of Zarephath?
God directs those who have faith in Him.
God directed Elijah to go to Zarephath, and he directed the widow to supply his needs.
Directed is an interesting choice of word – commanded, in some translations. The original meaning of the word ‘tsavah’ is explained as ‘to set up, a precept, or command.’ God set up a meeting between the widow of Zarephath and Elijah, to provide for and bless them both.
Belief in God is the beginning of faith.
The widow of Zarephath replied to Elijah’s request for a meal with “As surely as the LORD your God lives, I don’t have any bread.” A remarkable statement for a non-Israelite to make! Here she acknowledged the truth that Elijah’s God, the God of Israel, is a living God.
“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” Hebrews 11:6
Faith grows as we believe in God’s word.
Elijah knew his people’s history and God’s miraculous provision for them on their journey from Egypt through the wilderness to the promised land. But he also knew by his own experience in the Kerith Ravine that it is God’s word that sustains us.
Contrary to the widow’s report of her very limited means, God had told Elijah that this woman would supply him with food! He put his faith in the word of God and not in what he heard or saw before him.
Faith does not grow in storage – it only grows when we believe, and act on our belief!Tweet
The widow saw Israel a famine hit nation. She saw Elijah, a travel weary man, far from home who had nothing – less than she had. But the widow of Zarephath chose to put her faith in the word of God and not in what she saw before her!
Fear is overcome with faith.
Elijah was God’s representative to Israel. To the surrounding nations he was God’s ambassador. The widow of Zarephath was to bring her offering to Elijah and then to go back home and make something for herself and her son.
The widow stepped out in faith and believed that the word Elijah had given her would be true. When she would put her hand in the jar of flour, she would find flour. And when she would reach out for the jug of oil there would be oil to pour out! God’s provision was there every day as she chose to believe and depend on His word.
Related Post: Overcoming Fear with Faith
Great faith goes beyond our knowledge or experience.
In the house of the widow of Zarephath, we find the first account in Scripture of someone being raised from the dead. For Elijah, this was a test of ‘great faith’ stepping out beyond his level of knowledge or experience.
God had demonstrated His power to feed His people before. Elijah knew Israel’s history how God had brought them out of Egypt and how He had provided for them in the wilderness with manna, quail, and water from the rock.
Elijah also had his own experience of daily depending on the word of God when he was fed by ravens in the Kerith ravine. Then in Zarephath, again daily dependence, the miracle provision of flour and oil that did not run out. He had learned to depend on God to maintain life, but to restore life when life had been lost – this was a big leap of faith!
God was revealing to Elijah that He is not confined or restricted to one people or one place – His gifts are available to all those who believe.
Faith of the Widow of Zarephath
In the third year of the drought, God sent Elijah back to Israel to contend once again with Ahab. The widow remained in Zarephath. She was still a widow on her own, and there was still famine in the land. But everything had changed – there was victory in her life. She had taken a step of faith with a revelation of God’s goodness.
The loss and fear in her life were replaced with faith in God, an active faith, each day dependent on his miraculous provision and with hope for the future. The widow of Zarephath received from God the gift of life for her son and for herself.
One day soon the drought and famine would end, and her son would grow into adulthood. He would become a young man able to provide and care for her, the only hope for widows in ancient society. Regardless of what the future might hold, she need never be afraid again with the experience and knowledge of God’s love in her life.
Why did God send Elijah to Zarephath?
When God directs there is always a reason, but we may not always see or understand what that reason is. God first hid Elijah in a place where there was no food. This was not because at this time there was no food anywhere in the land, but to teach him to depend on God!
Elijah needed the Kerith Ravine experience for the Zarephath experience. The faith that was built each day in the Kerith Ravine was preparing him to be able to speak out in faith to the widow in Zarephath.
Elijah’s experience of being fed by unclean birds prepared him to live among Gentiles in Baal worshipping country. And also taught him that God’s covenant blessings come to those with faith, demonstrated by a willing and obedient heart.
Related Post: Elijah and the Ravens at the Kerith Brook
Widow of Zarephath New Testament
The story of the widow of Zarephath is mentioned by Jesus in the New Testament. At the beginning of His ministry Jesus taught in the synagogues. Initially everyone praised the way that He spoke with authority on the word of God. But we find in Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown, that He was rejected by the people. More than that they were outraged at what He said and threatened His life!
What changed the people’s perception in such a dramatic way? What did Jesus say and do?
First of all, Jesus quoted from Isaiah words that were regarded as prophetic and that pointed to the Messiah. As this got everyone’s attention Jesus then stated, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’
The people were amazed at these words but doubted that they could be true. This was because they thought that they knew who Jesus was, the son of Joseph, and their minds were closed to any other possibility.
Jesus went on to challenge them that no prophet is ever accepted in his hometown. But what enraged the people was when Jesus reminded them of the story of the widow of Zarephath.
“I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed - only Naaman the Syrian” Luke 4:25-27
This was the point when the people became so angry that they drove Jesus out of town intending to push Him off a cliff! They understood the point that Jesus was making. If or when Israel rejected God’s messengers, non-Israelites would receive the blessings that should be theirs…
Grace and Faith
The widow of Zarephath New Testament lesson is equally profound for us today. Our nationality, being from a Christian country, or family, or church, does not guarantee God’s blessing in our lives. It is not enough to know about Jesus. We need to begin a personal relationship with Him as our Lord and Savior.
There may be times when we need to be willing to put our worldly knowledge aside. Instead, see with eyes of faith the possibilities for those who believe in God!
"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast." Ephesians 2:8-9