First Kings 17 introduces the prophet Elijah and gives the account of his dealings with a widow from Zarephath. The chapter notes that the Lord was withholding rain from Israel (verse 1). The drought was in judgment of the nation’s rampant idolatry, led by the royal couple Ahab and Jezebel. In verse 8, the Lord commanded Elijah to go to Zarephath, a town outside of Israel, where a widow would provide food for him. He obeyed, finding a woman gathering sticks. He said to her, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink,” and, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand” (verses 11–12).
The widow, however, was in great need herself. She responded, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die” (verse 13). She expected the meal she was about to fix to be the last for her family. She had no other prospect than to die of starvation.
Elijah’s answer was surely a test of her faith. He told her that she was to make some food for him, anyway, using the last of her ingredients for him. He added a promise: “For thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty, until the day that the LORD sends rain upon the earth’” (1 Kings 17:14). The widow’s faith was evident in her obedience. And God was faithful to His promise: “She and he and her household ate for many days. The jar of flour was not spent, neither did the jug of oil become empty, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah” (verses 15–16). The widow’s food supply was supernaturally extended, as promised.
Elijah stayed there for some time, living in an upper room of the widow’s house. The woman’s son later died of an illness and, in her anger and grief, she blamed Elijah for his death—she assumed God was judging her for her sin (1 Kings 17:17–18). But Elijah cried out to God: “Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!” (verse 21), and the child was restored to life. When the woman saw this, she said, “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth” (verse 24).
This account is also mentioned in the New Testament. Early in His ministry, Jesus was speaking in the synagogue of His hometown, Nazareth. He said, “In truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow” (Luke 4:25–26). Jesus’ point was that no prophet is accepted in his hometown. Just as Elijah found more faith outside of Israel than within it, Jesus found little faith in His boyhood home. As if to prove His point, the people of Nazareth grew enraged and attempted to throw Jesus off a cliff (Luke 4:29).
The account of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath offers many insights. First, God often uses unlikely people and sources to accomplish His purposes. Second, God’s mercy extends to all people, both Jews and Gentiles, and the Sidonian widow was blessed for her faith (see Acts 10:34–35). Third, God requires faith (Hebrews 11:6). The widow’s miracle only came after she prepared a meal for Elijah—an act of sincere faith on her part.