1. Here’s an interesting quote from my reading today of Phyllis Schlafly’s Power of the Positive Woman:
George Gilder demonstrates in his book Sexual Suicide that the family is the institution that has civilized the male. It enables female stability and nurture to prevail over masculine mobility and violence. Man’s role as family provider gives him the incentive to curb his primitive nature. Everyone needs to be needed. The male satisfies his sense of need through his role as provider for the family. If he is deprived of this role, he tends to drop out of the family and revert to the primitive masculine role of hunter and fighter. (96)
2. For my weekly quiet time this week, I studied I Kings 17. According to v 1, Elijah is from Gilead. In Genesis Rabbah 71, there’s a rabbinic debate about the meaning of the word “Gilead.” One rabbi interprets Gilead to be the geographical region in the Transjordan—the area that is east of the Jordan, where Gad, Reuben, and the half-tribe of Manasseh chose to settle, instead of the Promised Land (Numbers 32). He contends that Elijah is from the tribe of Gad, which is traditionally the location of Tishbi (Elijah’s town). This is most likely the correct interpretation, but something confuses me. In I Kings 17:3, after Elijah tells King Ahab of Northern Israel that it will not rain until he (Elijah) says so, God tells Elijah to go east to the Wadi Chereth, which is in front of Jordan. Many maps put Tishbi close to the Wadi Cherith. But why would God need to tell Elijah where the Wadi Chereth is, if Elijah is from that area? Wouldn’t Elijah already know? Or is the part in v 3 about the Wadi’s location something the author inserted for the benefit of the reader, who may not know where it is?
The second rabbi says that Elijah was from the tribe of Benjamin, for I Chronicles 8:27 mentions Elijah in a list of Benjaminites. So how does this rabbi interpret “Gilead” in v 1? He states that mi-toshavei gilad refers to those sitting in the hall of hewn stone, where the Sanhedrin meets. The footnote in my Judaic Classics Library states this is because galed means “a heap and a witness” (Genesis 31:47).
Another issue that came up in my study was the length of the famine. Luke 4:25 and James 5:17 affirm that it lasted for three-and-a-half years. Some believe that this conflicts with I Kings 18:1, which states that Elijah appears before Ahab to end the famine in the third year, which many translators and commentators understand as the third year of the famine. How could the famine end in the third year, yet last three-and-a-half years? I’ll be reading the explanations of the harmonizers next week. But here’s something that’s weird: Josephus says the famine only lasted one year! He quotes the historian Menander of Ephesus (second century B.C.E.), who discusses a year-long famine during the reign of Ethbaal, king of Tyre, whose reign was during the time of Ahab. Was Josephus compromising the biblical narrative to embrace an extra-biblical source that supposedly corroborated a detail of the biblical history? If so, he’s not the last to do this! There are maximalists who have compromised the Bible in their attempt to reconcile it with history. Among other examples, I think of those who date the Exodus to the time of Raamses because that fits the setting of the Exodus story better, even though I Kings 6:1 dates the Exodus centuries before that!
Another issue in my study concerned v 9. The Wadi Chereth, where Elijah is eating and drinking during the famine, dries up. Interestingly, there’s a rabbinic view that says God was trying to get Elijah to make it rain, for God was merciful, but Elijah steadfastly refused God’s request. According to this view, God dried up the Wadi in one of his attempts to make Elijah let up.
But, back to v 9! The Wadi dries up, and God tells Elijah to go to Zarephath in Sidon, where God has commanded a widow to sustain him. What’s this mean? Did God tell the widow woman that Elijah was coming and that she’ll have to support him? The commentators whom I read say “no.” According to them, v 9 just means that God ordained for the Sidonian widow woman to support Elijah, not that he gave her a command. They relate v 9 to God’s providence. And the word for command—tsavah—sometimes carries this connotation. In II Samuel 17:14, God commands that the good counsel of Ahithophel be defeated, and this occurs when Absalom heeds Hushai rather than Ahithophel. But God didn’t verbally command Absalom to do this; rather, God ordained the event through God’s providence.
But I wonder if the woman could have received a verbal command from God. Elijah comes to her and asks for water, and she gives it to him. Then he asks for food, and she says that she only has enough for her and her son, and they’ll eat that during the short time that they have left. But Elijah tells her to fear not, and to make him a cake, before she makes food for herself and her son. Elijah predicts that the meager amount of oil and meal that she has will last until God ends the famine. The widow then obeys Elijah, and, sure enough, Elijah’s word comes true!
But why did she trust Elijah’s word? He’d done no miracles up to that point! Even during this miracle of the self-regenerating food (or something like that), she may have had some lingering doubt about Elijah’s status, for it was later—after Elijah raised her son from the dead—that she said, “Now I know that you are a man of God…” You mean she didn’t know that before Elijah resurrected her son? Yet, even before Elijah performed that feat, she (on some level) thought that he was a prophet, for, when her son dies, she accuses Elijah of bringing her sin to remembrance. According to some, she’s contending that Elijah brought God’s attention onto her family by staying at her place—since Elijah is a prophet and had God’s continual eye. The result was that God noticed some of her sins and decided to punish the son for the sins of the mother.
But back to my question! Why did she trust Elijah enough to give him the little food that she had in a time of famine, before she’d even seen evidence that he was a prophet? Did Elijah have a comforting yet authoritative persona that influenced her to trust him and do what he said? Did she figure that she had little to lose, since she and her son were about to die anyway? Or could she have heard a message from God, telling her to sustain Elijah? She was reluctant, but she still did it, and that was remarkable!
Perhaps echoing the rabbis, Rashi states that this story resembles Genesis 24. There, Abraham’s servant is looking for a bride for Abraham’s son, Isaac, and he suggests to God a sign: if a woman gives him water when he requests it, and also offers to water his camels, then she’s the one! And the right woman turns out to be Rebecca, the niece of Abraham. Similarly, in I Kings 17, Elijah requests water from the Sidonian widow, and, when she gives it to him, Elijah knows that she’s the widow God was talking about—the one who would support him.
I thought a little bit about charity. I listened to a preacher who said that God is pleased when we give out of our scarcity, not out of our abundance. And, indeed, there are biblical passages that appear to suggest this (e.g., Mark 12:41-44). But I compared the Sidonian widow with Rebecca in Genesis 24. Indeed, the widow gave out of her scarcity, and she’s to be commended. But did Rebecca? She performed a hefty task, watering the servant’s camels, but was that a huge sacrifice on her part? And was it a sacrifice for her family to invite the servant to its home for a meal and lodging? I bet they could have afforded it! Personally, I think God’s happy when we give, period, whether it’s out of our scarcity, or out of our abundance.
A final point: in Luke 4:25-26, Jesus said that God could’ve sent Elijah to any widow in Israel, but God didn’t do that. Rather, God sent him to Sidon, which was quite a trek from the Wadi Cherith, where he was staying! Israel was much closer, and Elijah would probably have to go through Israel anyway to get to Sidon. So why was God so intent on Elijah getting to Sidon? Couldn’t Elijah have stayed with an Israelite widow?
There are a variety of possible answers: there was danger for Elijah in Israel, none of the Israelite widows was worthy, etc. But here’s what’s ironic: Sidon is where Queen Jezebel is from (I Kings 16:31). It’s where her father, King Ethbaal, is ruling. Jezebel had brought Baal-worship to Israel. Now, Elijah was bringing Yahwism to her land, Sidon! We can also learn lessons of not writing entire people-groups off just because they have some bad apples, or even of not writing off the bad apples!