During Elisha’s time there was a drought that caused a famine. (fn1) When the brook he was living by dried up and the ravens stopped bringing him food, (fn2) the Lord tells him to go to Zarephath where a widow woman will take care of him. (fn3)
The woman is also suffering from the effects of the drought. She tells Elijah she is gathering sticks to prepare with the last of the meal and the oil for her son and her to eat before they die of starvation. (1 Kings 17:12) Yummy.
It Wasted Not
It is easy for me to imagine how this woman felt each day it was time to prepare food. We do not know for how long she’s been widowed, but life was not easy for a woman with no husband who still had herself and a family to care for. She had already been pushed to the brink of physical limitations, facing starvation. She probably felt like a failure that she was unable to care for her son, a mother’s greatest concern and priority. When Elijah showed up demanding food for himself first, she would have felt frustrated, and probably angry at having her own priorities placed below those of a stranger.
And while it is true that the meal and oil didn’t run out for as long as the famine lasted, each day would have required an act of faith when she reached into the barrel of meal and poured the oil. “Is today the day it runs out?” she must have wondered each time. She knows what it is to be hungry; it likely would not have surprised her if it happened again.
“Man of God?”
Despite this ongoing daily miracle, the woman appears to still not fully believe Elijah is a prophet. When her son gets so sick that he stops breathing, she sarcastically calls Elijah a “man of God,” and accuses him of mocking her for some sins in her past. Elijah ignores the jab, and taking the boy to his own chambers, and “stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried unto the Lord, and said, O Lord my God, I pray thee, let this child’s soul come into him again. And the Lord heard the voice of Elijah; and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived.” (vv 21-22.)
It is only after her son is revived that the widow can testify that Elijah is “a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in (his) mouth is truth.” (v 23.)
This is not to criticize the woman at all, but is something that sparks questions in my own mind: What does it take for me to believe that the current prophet is the mouthpiece of God? that he speaks the word of the Lord? Do I need the manifestation of a personal miracle for me to believe? Or is it enough for me to see that my own spiritual vessels of oil are filled on a daily basis when I listen to the prophet’s voice?
Elisha and the Shunnamite Woman
Fast forward a few years to Elijah’s successor, Elisha. Many events in Elisha’s ministry parallel Elijah’s life. And some of them illustrate an elevated and contrasting example.
One day Elisha traveled to Shunem where he encounters a woman who invited — “constrained” — him to dine with him. “And so it was, that as oft as he passed by, he turned in thither to eat bread” (2 Kings 4:8). This woman did not require something huge like having a family member brought to life to recognize Elisha as a man of God. She said to her husband, “I perceive that this is an holy man of God, which passeth by us continually.” (v 9.) By inviting the prophet into her home on a semi-regular basis to be taught by him, she opened her heart to the possibility of hearing the Lord’s voice from his mouth.
In fact, she grew to appreciate Elisha’s presence so much, she insisted on building a permanent space for Elisha to stay in anytime he chose. She made elaborate plans and provided complete furnishings of a bed, table, a stool, and a candlestick. Compare to that to the widow Elijah lodged with in a loft removed from the main portion of her home. The Shunnamite woman built a brand new space for Elisha so that “when he something to us, he shall turn in thither.” (v 10.)
When the widow of Zarephath was confronted with the death of her son, she accused God and Elijah of killing him. Compare that to the Shunnamite woman who by preparing a permanent place for the prophet also prepared herself to hear the Lord’s voice through his servant-prophet. And when we show a willingness to hear the Lord’s voice on a regular and consistent basis, He in turn is willing to hear us.
Where Does a Prophet Live?
In both women’s cases, a son was given/restored, so it may appear at first glance the stories are nearly the same. But I believe there is something more to be discovered. When we make a permanent space for the prophet — and by proxy, the voice of the Lord — we are opening our hearts to any number of miracles. The Lord does not accomplish things in the ways we expect (Isaiah 55:8-9), but He does get things done according to His will.
I see myself in both women. I have gone through times where I wasn’t as diligent in inviting the prophet to my home and believing his words. I was hungry spiritually, but did not know that all I had to do was dip my hand in that barrel. More recently, I have been like the Shunnamite woman who is hungry and recognizes the hunger for what it is. I want to hear God’s voice daily, and so I make space for the prophet and God’s voice. To continue the parallel between the Shunnamite woman and our contemporary church lives, I see General Conference not unlike what she did when she invited Elisha to dinner every so often. We don’t know the frequency he stopped by, but I like to think of that as our semi-annual conferences every six months.
It’s nice to clear our schedules and listen to a few hours of conference. Even better is when we make a permanent space for the prophet in our hearts. Then conference doesn’t feel like such a novelty; rather, we become used to and even hunger after the peace and truths that come from listening to prophets’ voices.
During these recent weeks and coming days where we continue defining a new normal, I am profoundly appreciative for the constant stream of communication coming from President Nelson and other local church leadership. When our prophet looks into the camera lens and expresses love for church members, it doesn’t seem like a media ploy to me. That love is genuine and real, and I know he is also communicating on behalf of Jesus Christ, who loves us beyond measure and comprehension. “My dear friends, our Heavenly Father and His Son Jesus Christ know us, love us, and are watching over us. Of that we can be certain.
“These unique challenges will pass in due time. I remain optimistic for the future. I know the great and marvelous blessings that God has in store for those who love Him and serve Him. I see evidence of His hand in this holy work in so many ways.”
fn1: Even though Elijah is the one who has commanded the drought and the famine, he is no less affected by the drought than anyone else in the land, except for the fact that food is being provided for him. This strikes me as important to know that prophets are just as subject to what is happening in the land as anyone else. There were consequences for Elijah because he commanded the drought to happen, yet he is willing to sacrifice his own comfort and well-being so that people will turn their hearts again to God.
fn2: Where did the ravens get the bread? Was there a nearby community that wasn’t affected by the drought? Did the ravens know how to bake? Obviously not, though I get a kick out of imagining that scenario. The Lord is clearly providing the bread and all that would go into having the ravens deliver it twice a day.