Get your copy of “Messiah: Biblical Retellings” here, or download a free chapter here. (Published under my pen name, C.A. Gray)
Today’s meditation and retelling comes from 1 Kings 17.
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The podcast also includes a discussion. This is the text of the retelling:
I’m not sure if anyone really chooses to be a prophet of the Lord. He chooses us, and then puts his words inside us so powerfully that we cannot help but proclaim them. Even so, if anyone ever sought the job, I probably did. I’d always been in love with the scriptures, pouring over them by the hour.
The first time the word of the Lord came to me, it wasn’t audible or words directly to me in my spirit, the way it would come to be in later years; it was through the scriptures. Ahab was the wicked king of Israel, and I was reading in Deuteronomy when I came across these words:
Take heed to yourselves, that your heart be not deceived, and ye turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them; And then the LORD’S wrath be kindled against you, and he shut up the heaven, that there be no rain, and that the land yield not her fruit; and lest ye perish quickly from off the good land which the LORD giveth you.
The words seemed to leap off the scroll to me like a proclamation directly from the Lord. I realized,this is us! We, Israel, under the leadership of King Ahab and especially his wicked Queen Jezebel, are whoring after other gods. Therefore, the Lord commanded a draught!
I’d never before met King Ahab, but I had a word for him now. So I clothed myself in a garment of hair and tied a leather belt around my waist in deliberate contrast to his ostentatious finery, and went to seek an audience with the king. I would have expected this to be a much more difficult task than it turned out to be: I presented myself to the king’s fortress, and a servant led me straight to him, in his throne room. I took this as another proof that my mission was from the Lord. Even as the king eyed my unusual garments with disdain, I opened my mouth boldly.
“You have disobeyed the Lord your God and led Israel to worship other gods. Therefore, as the Lord, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.”
The proclamation simply tumbled out of my mouth, almost to my surprise. The scripture I had read in Deuteronomy had said nothing about dew, and certainly nothing about rain dependent upon my word. Yet, there it was, out in the open, and I couldn’t take it back.
King Ahab gave a short, snide laugh. “Is that so? And who areyou?”
I drew myself up to my full height. “I am Elijah the Tishbite, prophet of the Lord!”
And then I fled.
Jezebel sought to kill all true prophets of the Lord, and so I knew to identify myself as one of them in the king’s very throne room was taking my life in my hands. Nevertheless, none stopped me, which I took as yet another proof of the Lord in my mission.
As I ran, the word of the Lord came to me again, this time as an impression in my spirit: “Depart from here and turn eastward and hide yourself by the brook Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the brook, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.”
Strange, but ok. I did as the Lord commanded, and went on foot until I came to the place in the wilderness by the brook where the Lord had indicated.
I constructed myself a small shelter by the brook, and lived there all alone for I know not how long: months? Years, perhaps? My only companions were the ravens whom God had instructed to sustain me. I drank from the brook, and ate the bread and meat the ravens brought me morning and evening. Now I understood why the skins on my back had been necessary: they kept me warm, and protected against the volatile elements.
But after a time, due to the draught, the brook began to dry up too. I watched as day after day, the gushing water reduced lower and lower, until it was nothing but a trickle. I confess, I did start to get anxious, waiting for the Lord to speak again. What was I to do next?
One day I awoke and found that the brook was nothing more than mud. Only then did the word of the Lord come to my spirit again.
“Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. Behold, I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” With the word, behold, the Lord also gave me a vision of a starving woman, her cheeks sunken and her eyes hollow, gathering sticks. I briefly wondered at why the Lord sent me to her, rather than to a widow in Israel. I might have assumed it was to protect me from Ahab’s wrath, except that I would have to travel a good hundred miles through Israel to get to Zarephath. I didn’t know whether the fellow Israelites I met along the way would turn me over to Ahab, but they’d all have good reason to hate me, as Ahab had surely spread far and wide that the draught was my doing. Not only that, but Zarephath was in Phoenicia, Jezebel’s homeland. The people there worshipped Baal! But so do the Israelites now, I supposed. That was the whole reason for the draught in the first place.
So I set off, according to the word of the Lord. I traveled by night and slept as best I could during the daytime, so as to avoid being seen. As the days went by, it became harder and harder to do much of anything, due to my thirst. One hundred miles on foot without water! Toward the end, my desperation to arrive drove me onward. The widow would have food and water, never mind how she looked in my vision. The Lord had said she would.
When at long last, I arrived at the gate of the city, that widow was the first woman I saw, exactly as the Lord had shown her to me. I approached her, so parched I could barely speak. But I managed.
“Bring me a little water in a vessel, that I may drink!” I called to her.
The woman raised those hollow eyes to me with no expression, stooping to drop the sticks she had gathered thus far into a pile. She nodded, and went, presumably to get me what I asked for. Emboldened, I added, “And bring me a morsel of bread in your hand as well!”
The woman stopped, and turned back to me very slowly. Her eyes were no longer hollow, but probing. “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.” Her voice hitched at this last phrase. And yet, as she watched me, I detected in her face the faintest glimmer of hope. Even though she identified Him as the Lord my God, not hers, He had told me He had spoken to her already. She knew He would be sending her someone to sustain. But apparently it was up to me to make that possible.
“Do not fear,” I told her, “go and do as you have said. But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterward make something for yourself and your son. 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.’”
He didn’t say any of this to me before I said it to her, but I recognized from my experience with Ahab and the draught that, as the Lord’s prophet, my word was His word—provided I was acting in accordance with what He had either already said to me, or what He had said in His scriptures. It seemed to me that He had sent me to sustain this widow just as much as she to sustain me.
When she heard my words, the woman’s lips parted in a small o, and her whole face softened. She hurried away quickly, and I had the impression she did it so that I might not see her weep. I wondered how long ago the Lord had spoken to her and said that He would send help? How long had she been waiting to see that promise fulfilled?
Just as I had remained at the brook for what I now learned was nearly a year, I remained with the widow and her son indefinitely as well, a guest in the upper chamber of her home. I watched as she made bread each day, wondering at the fact that the Lord did not supernaturally refill her flour or her oil when it dwindled to almost nothing. Each day she used it, and it looked as if it were the last. But the next day, each of the jars had just as much in them as they had had the day before. We never saw the miracle take place, and yet it happened, day after day. I thought, and told her, the story of the children of Israel in the wilderness after they had left Egypt. They had not even the jars of flour or of oil, and so the Lord had dropped manna from heaven every morning—but only enough for that day. If they gathered extra, it would putrefy. The lesson was clear: He wanted them to learn to depend upon Him daily. So it was with the ravens at the brook. So it was with us now.
Then after some time, the widow’s son fell ill. It was a swift illness, and in a very short time, the boy died. In her grief, the widow blamed me.
“What have you against me, O man of God?” she lashed out, weeping and cradling her son’s lifeless body. “You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance and to cause the death of my son!”
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t think the Lord intended to do either, but then, why did such things happen at all? I crossed to the woman and reached my arms out. “Give me your son,” I said, and she did not resist as I scooped the boy up into my arms. Then I carried him up to the upper chamber of the house, where I resided. I stretched the boy out upon my own bed, and cried out to the Lord.
“O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by killing her son?”
No reply, but in my spirit I felt an answering spark of hope. I had the strange inclination that I should stretch myself out upon the boy: shoulder to shoulder, arm to arm, leg to leg, face to face. He was not yet cold, but he was horribly pale. As I did this, I cried out, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again!”
Could I do this? I thought. It was certainly unprecedented. Nobody had ever been raised from the dead before, at least not in recorded scripture. Surely if they had been, such a miracle would have been written down!
Nothing happened. I stood up again, paced, and returned to stretch myself out upon the boy a second time. I called out to the Lord a second time. When I lay upon the body of the boy a third time, he gasped against my weight. I leapt up again, peering at him anxiously. The boy’s eyelids fluttered, and he blinked up at me.
I almost cried with relief, but instead I started to laugh. “Thank you, Lord,” I managed to choke out. “Thank you, Lord!”
I scooped the boy up into my arms again, and this time he held on to my neck as I carried him down to his mother, who paced and wrung her hands. She spun when she heard me coming, and a hand flew to her mouth when she saw her son looking at her.
“See, your son lives,” I said to her, beaming.
The widow ran to us, and the boy stretched out his arms from my neck to hers as she scooped him into her arms, sobbing for joy. After she had smothered the boy in kisses, she gasped out to me, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth!”
I left mother and son to their post-mortem reunion, and walked outside to ponder what I had just learned.
Did the Lord cause the death of that boy? If He had, then He would not have permitted me to revive him, lest He work against Himself. But if He had not caused it, then who—or what—did? What power could there be in the world strong enough to work against the will of the Lord?
The Lord gave me no direct answers that day, but a story came to my remembrance as I pondered the question. It was the oldest story in the Pentateuch, the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. There was no death in all creation, until Adam ate the fruit. Death was not the Lord’s original intention, but it came about as part of the curse, along with knowledge of good and evil. The curse became far more explicit under the law of Moses: by it, I had learned of the punishment of draught and famine for worshipping other gods. But the Lord made it quite clear in Deuteronomy that “I set before you death and life… choose life.” Life was still His perfect will; not death. The death of that boy had not been a punishment for disobedience, or else He would not have allowed me to raise him.
But if it was not God’s will for the boy to die, why did he die?
I felt like I was missing an enormous part of the equation. Something fundamental about my understanding of the world was missing. Nor did the Lord bother to explain, I suspected because I wouldn’t have understood His answer anyway.
Whether or not I could comprehend all the heavenly causes for calamity here on earth, though, one thing I walked away with: the Lord is good. All the time.