Israelite life was marked by rebellion and idolatry during the monarchy period, as the kings of Israel turned from the Lord. In 1 Kings 17, Elijah lays out the consequence for serving another god: drought was coming, and the dew and rain would not return until God gave His word (17:1). Then, in an apparent about-face, Elijah performs miracles that bring sustainment and life to a widow who wasn’t an Israelite. We can’t ignore these contrasts: death and life, a punishment for Israel and provision for a Baal-worshiper. To understand this passage, we’ll need a Bible dictionary and a commentary.
Use a Bible Dictionary for Background Knowledge
First Kings 16:31–34 provides the backdrop for these miracles. King Ahab was not only worshiping Baal, a pagan god, but he also built Baal an altar and a house. Using The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, we read that Baal was known as the storm god who controlled the rain. He was worshiped for the fertility of the land—for growing the crops that would sustain the life of the people. From the time the Israelites first settled in the promised land, this fertility religion posed a major threat to Yahweh worship.
Observe Common Themes throughout the Text
First Kings 17 moves through a progression of miracles that bring life in the midst of death. After Elijah foretells the drought, God tells the prophet to live by the brook of Cherith, where He provides him with food from ravens (17:1–8). When the brook dries up, God instructs Elijah to visit a woman in Zarephath, Sidon—in Baal country (17:8–16). Elijah finds her preparing what little food she has left for her and her son, that they “may eat it and die” (17:12). But their lives are saved because the “Lord, God of Israel” provides a continual supply of flour and oil to sustain them (17:14). When things are going well, death strikes again. The widow’s son becomes sick to the point that “there was no breath left in him” (17:17). Both the widow and Elijah acknowledge that God took the child’s life. Elijah prays, asking the Lord for the child’s life to return. In a final declaration of triumph, Elijah says to the widow, “See, your son is alive” (17:23).
These miracles show that the God of Israel is the giver of life. The Israelites should have known this truth. Before they entered the promised land, God told them He was the one who “put[s] to death and give life” (Deut 32:39). But why did Elijah go into Zarephath, Sidon, to display God’s power?
Consult a Bible Commentary
We know from the text that the drought extended to Sidon—beyond Israel and into Baal country. The fertility god of Sidon was unable to overturn the drought sent by the God of Israel. But God didn’t simply bring death and drought. He extended mercy and life to the foreign woman, who was neglected by her own “life-sustaining” god. Yahweh beat Baal in his own territory, at his own game.
That’s not all. If we consult the New American Commentary on 1-2 Kings, we find that Sidon was also the hometown of Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab, who ruled Israel at the time. With Ahab’s blessing, Jezebel promoted Baal worship in Israel—priests, a house and an altar for Baal. While Israel turned its back on God, led by a faithless king and his idolatrous wife, God was showing compassion in response to a Sidonian widow’s simple statement: “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the LORD (Yahweh) in your mouth is truth” (17:24). It’s a confession that even the king of Israel couldn’t muster.
Elijah’s name means “Yahweh is God” (‘lyh, הילא)—appropriate for the prophet who repeatedly spoke out against Baal worship. He is introduced in 1 Kings 17 without explanation or reference to family background. His name assumes his mission.
Biblical references are taken from the New American Standard Bible (NASB).