Elijah the Tishbite
1 The Widow's Cruse
It was in the olden time, before any of the prophets of Israel had given utterance to their visions and written their books. It was before even Hosea and Joel, the first of the prophets, in the reign of King Uzziah, had spoken the word of the Lord and told Israel of the end that was soon to come. Hosea had just been born when Elisha died, an old man of nearly a hundred years, and Elisha was only a lad of about eighteen when he first heard of the Tishbite. Elisha did not dream then, as he followed the plough on his father's farm, how closely his own life was to be linked with that strange man. But that is a different story and the years have to be rolled quickly backward until they come to the days when Ahab ruled the people of Israel from his capital city of Jezreel in Samaria.
Nearly a century had passed since good King David had been laid to sleep with his fathers and since then the kingdom had been divided. King Jehoshaphat, of the line of David, ruled over the two tribes in Jerusalem and he was a good and wise king and under him the people were content. But as for Israel, the ten tribes, in Samaria, Galilee and Gilead, they were ruled by the son of a usurper, Ahab the son of Omri, a man who cared neither for the laws of God or the welfare of his people. And now King Ahab had taken as his chief wife a woman of the infidels, even Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal, the King of the Phoenicians, ruler of the merchant cities Tyre and Sidon by the Great Sea. It meant nothing to Ahab that this woman, beautiful as she was, a beauty renowned throughout the ancient world, was a pagan and idolater, devoted to the worship of Baal the Sun-god and determined to draw the people of her new country away from their own faith and compel them to accept hers. He thought only of the material riches this alliance would bring him. Friendship with the father of Jezebel meant rich stores of luxuries hitherto unknown in Israel. The ships of the Phoenicians, traversing the seas from every part of the greater world outside Israel, would bring to Ahab ivory and marble, gold and silver and precious stones, rare woods for his buildings and curiously carved vessels and furniture for his palaces. Thus he could become the wealthiest king Israel had ever known and his capital city of Jezreel the most luxurious. So Ahab built a great Temple for Baal in Samaria and erected an altar therein, and made places on every hilltop where those rites and ceremonies so sternly condemned by the Law of Moses might be celebrated to the degradation and degeneration of the people. Therefore the chronicler in after days, writing of these things, said "Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him".
Now we who live in later days know that God is not mocked; whatever a man sows, that he also reaps. King Ahab was very soon to find this out. It was written in the Law of Moses that prosperity would be the portion of the nation whilst they remained faithful to God. But there would be adversity when they disobeyed His Word and violated His covenant. "I will break the pride of your power" God had said "and I will make your heaven as steel and your earth as copper; and your strength shall be spent in vain; for your land shall not yield her increase, neither shall the trees of the land yield their fruits" (Lev. 26.19-20). Now was it not true that some in Israel had heard stories in their childhood of days long gone when Israel had broken the covenant and the dread prediction had been fulfilled? The rain had ceased to fall, the land had dried up. The heavens above shimmered like burnished steel in the glare of the tropical sun; the baked earth glowed with heat like copper in the smelting furnace. And the trees and crops withered away and the flocks and herds lay down and died. King Ahab, proud and arrogant with his new wife and his new possessions and his new god, failed to reflect that what had happened before could happen again, until that day when he looked superciliously from his throne upon the messenger standing before him.
A strange figure indeed, Elijah the Tishbite, and greatly out of keeping in that luxurious court. Bearded, unkempt, a towering, massive man of strength, clad in garments crudely fashioned from thick woolly goatskins, grasping a stout staff in his hand, he stood, his piercing, burning eyes holding the king as if by a spell. His voice, when he spoke, commanded attention and none who heard could resist the authority in its tones. This was Elijah from Tishbe in Gilead, a place so small and unimportant that no man since has been able to say where it was or find any remains of the houses and people who once lived there. Gilead beyond the Jordan, far from the metropolis of Israel and generally esteemed the home of a rude, uncultured people who made their living as brigands and bandits rather than by honest farming and stock raising. Stalwart sons of Nature were the people of Gilead, living close to the soil and the rivers, ranging over field and mountain, breathing God's fresh air by day and sleeping under the stars by night, men of a world the soft-spoken and effeminate courtiers of Ahab's palace never knew. Now the noblest son of Gilead stood in the midst of that decadent assembly, facing its apostate King and pagan Queen, and threw down his ringing challenge.
"As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom 1 stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word."
Then he was gone. No one saw whither he went. One swift movement as he turned, shouldered his way through the gaping bystanders, and was gone. Court decorum forbad the turning of heads to look after him; all eyes remained fixed upon the royal pair. There was that Queen Jezebel with a contemptuous smile upon her face. She had seen these wandering prophets in her own land and knew that Baal rarely backed up what they had prophesied concerning his intentions. King Ahab sat by her side, somewhat annoyed and just a trifle apprehensive. He was beginning to remember that there had been famines in the land before and it was certainly true that for some weeks now the weather had been unusually hot and rain showers had been less frequent than normally to be expected for the time of year.
Elijah was away from the city now, striding along the road, for God had told him to hide by a little stream, the brook Cherith. There, among the reeds and rushes of the river bank, he built himself a hut, concealed from sight by the overhanging trees, and in that hut he dwelt for perhaps a year, watching the waters of the river shrink and vanish away leaving wide stretches of baked mud where once the waterfowl swam and paddled and flew. There he waited for the word of the Lord to come to him again. But God only said that He "commanded the ravens to feed you there . . . and the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening, and he drank of the brook". Now some people find this hard to believe, that ravens could bring food to a man, and so they suggest that the word oreb which means a raven, a crow, a rook or a jackdaw, is a mistake for areb which means an Arab. But the Arab peoples of today were called by other names in the time of Elijah, and there were none such within many miles of the place where he was dwelling, so that this explanation is not very likely. It is much more probable that this little brook was one of the few left in the land where water still flowed. All the birds of the district came to it for water after scouring the countryside for food and in the providence of God carried some of that food to their watering place and left it for the prophet. "Bread and flesh" says the story, and bread in the Old Testament is a general term for any and every kind of non-meat food. So it could well have been fruit or nuts or green-stuff besides pieces of flesh of goats or sheep that the ravens brought, if indeed they were ravens. And before we reject the idea we have to remember that on one occasion it is said of Jesus that he told Peter to go down to the Lake of Galilee and he would find a fish swimming with a silver coin in its mouth which he could take and use to pay the tribute money. Before we reject that story also we must accept the fact that in modern times the same type of fish in the Lake behaves in the same way. It picks up and carries in its mouth bright objects such as coins and coloured pebbles, and for this reason it is still called Peter's fish. Now if the one story is thus shown to be possible so might the other when we remember that behind all this is the controlling power of God. But whether by ravens or by Arabs, Elijah was sustained in his quiet retreat while the pitiless sun blazed down by day and the hot, dry air blanketed the earth at night, the streams dried up and the wells ceased to give water. Then at last Elijah's little brook dried up also and he knew that soon God would speak to him again.
When God did speak it was to send him to the very land from which Queen Jezebel had come. He was to make his way to Zarephath, a seaport on the coast of the Great Sea only ten miles from Sidon where was the palace of King Ethbaal the father of Jezebel. Surely for Elijah this was putting his head into the lion's mouth with a vengeance, for by now King Ahab and Queen Jezebel were searching the country for the man who, as they thought, had inflicted this terrible drought and famine upon them. True, God said He had commanded a widow in Zarephath to sustain him, but how could a widow protect him from the soldiers of the King if his identity should become known. Nevertheless Elijah demurred not, but set out for Zarephath, a hundred miles journey in the blazing sun, through the valley of Megiddo. It was usually a vast expanse of smiling cornfields but now nothing but bare parched brown earth. He went past the lofty height of Mount Carmel where later on he was to destroy the priests and the worship of Baal, along the sea coast for fifty miles, until at last he came to the gate of Zarephath. But the drought and the famine were afflicting the land of the Phoenicians also. When Elijah found the widow it was only to see her gathering a few sticks from the ground that she might make a fire. With this she could prepare her last cake of bread with a sole handful of meal and a little oil in the bottom of the cruse that she and her son might eat thereof and lay them down and die.
Now to this widow and her son, Elijah came as saviour. His presence in her dwelling guaranteed their sustenance while the famine lasted. But that deliverance could only be hers upon a manifestation of faith. "Make me a little cake first and bring it to me" said Elijah "and after make for yourself and for your son." Yet there was only enough meal and oil for one cake! Herein lay the test of faith. "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 sends rain upon the earth." This woman was a Gentile, a member of a Baal-worshipping nation. Why should she have faith in the God of Israel or in Elijah his servant? But she did, and from that moment
Elijah became one of her household and remained with her perhaps two years or more, while the famine persisted. And in all that time, the meal in the vessel was constantly replenished and so was the oil in the cruse. so that they had no want. A miracle, yes, but no more so than the feeding of the five thousand from two loaves and five small fishes by Jesus, and if we believe the one we must also believe the other. A miracle indeed to a man but commonplace with God, whose power orders the constant transmutation of one substance into another that is always going on in Creation and was in operation here, perhaps speeded up, in a particular case for a particular purpose.
Before we leave this part of the story let it be noted that the term "barrel of meal" gives a false impression. The word there used means an earthenware jar of the kind Eastern women used to carry on their heads and it was a handful of meal in the bottom of such a vessel that was all the widow had left.
But now trouble of another kind came to the little household for the widow's son fell sick and soon he died. Then the widow in her grief reproached Elijah with having come to her and saved her from the famine only to slay her son and that because of some sin in her past life the knowledge of which she had locked away in her own heart and perhaps had thought was quite unknown to others. And now she was finished with Elijah, for the words she used "What have I to do with you, O man of God" mean that from now their ways must diverge. But Elijah took the child to his own room and laid him there upon his own bed and prayed to God that he would restore the child to life. In the intensity of his supplication he laid down beside the child's body. The expression here "he stretched himself upon the child three times" means that he "measured his length", as we would say, and that several times in succession, as he strode the length of his room communing with God. Then God heard the voice of Elijah and the breath of the child came into him again, and he revived. So Elijah brought the child to his mother and she said "Now by this I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth".
There is nothing more said about this widow and her son. One wonders why the incident happened at all unless it witnessed to the universal scope of the protecting power of God. There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, said Jesus upon one occasion (Luke 4. 36), but the prophet was not sent to any one of them but to a Gentile outside the bounds of the Promised Land altogether. This woman was a woman of faith, that is evident, even although her faith was strained by the untimely death of her son. The miracle of the never-failing meal and oil convinced her that this was no ordinary man and his God no ordinary God. But to what did it all lead? There was no witness given to the idolatrous people of Zarephath, of Sidon and of Tyre, of all that pagan land. Elijah remained hidden and unknown throughout the remainder of the famine, until three years had expired; he disappeared from Zarephath as silently as he had come, and the widow and her son saw him no more, neither are they mentioned again in the history.
Perhaps all this was for Elijah himself, a sign that God was with him and would sustain him in all that he was afterwards to be called to do. All three of these miraculous happenings were of one nature; they were preservative of life. In the midst of famine, whilst death stalked the land, Elijah had been furnished unfailingly with means of sustenance, as it were from heaven. At the end, he was shown that Divine power extended over even the issues of life and death, that the one who had been received into the land of the enemy could be brought back into the land of the living. Elijah must already have believed in God's power to do this thing, for that is revealed in his supplication at this time. But perhaps now he learned the place of faith and prayer in all this and realised the necessity of these in his own life if God was to work through him. Certain it is that Elijah was forever afterwards a man of sterling faith and fervent prayer. At the time of Israel's greatest peril he stood like a rock for the laws of the God of Israel and became his instrument in the most spectacular mass return to God which Israel ever knew.
(To be continued)