Sabbath Day Thoughts – 1 Kings 17:7-15
He toddled after me. Bare feet kicked pebbles and stirred small storms of dust. He was practicing his words. “Deshe,” he said, handing over a tuft of dry grass, brittle with drought. I added the grass to my basket.
“Giza etz?” he said tentatively, holding up a stick, just the right size for kindling. Into the basket it went.
“Perach.” He smiled shyly, extending a tiny wilted bouquet of chamomile, clenched in his small fist.
Such a good boy! So generous! I tucked the flowers behind my ear and scooped him up, holding him next to my heart. I could feel his little ribs beneath his robe and see the delicate throb of a vein, pulsing at his temple.
It hadn’t always been like this. My husband, like his father and his father’s father, had gone to sea. We Phoenicians are a seafaring people, weaving a vast web of trade that spans the Great Sea from Sidon to Cyrene, Rome, Malta, and beyond. We pluck fish from the ocean depths, harvest rare pearls from the Gulf of Arabia, and hew great ships from the cedars of Lebanon. For men, it is an adventurous but dangerous life, always at the mercy of wind and wave. For women, it brings loneliness. Always the siren call of the water pulls our men back. Always, there is the waiting.
They said my husband was killed by a lightning strike. First the rigging caught, then the weathered decking. When the fire reached the amphorae of olive oil in the hull, it launched a ball of fire into the sky, worthy of the Great Lighthouse of Alexandria. I don’t know if he drowned or if he burned, but I do know the tight cage of fear that had held my heart ever since.
Our son was weeks old. There was no patriarch to take us in, no kindly kinsman to offer protection. In Zarephath, my neighbors made the sign of the evil eye behind my back, worried that my misfortune would rub off on them. The large amphorae of flour, oil, and salt fish that my husband had left behind slowly emptied, despite every economy. I had grown slight with hunger and my milk had eventually failed.
I was collecting wood for a final fire, a last loaf to be baked, a little oil to be poured out. My child, perched on my hip, looked at me with enormous eyes set in wan cheeks that had once been chubby. As my eyes filled with tears, he demanded to be put down, little arms pushing and legs kicking. With both feet on the ground, he stretched up a hand for me to hold.
“Ezra, Ama!” (Help, Mama!) he said. He tugged on my hand, pulling me homeward. Help? Whose help?
We saw him outside the city gate. He looked like he had been sleeping rough for a long time. His tunic was rumpled, the armpits stained with rings of sweat. His beard was enormous and wild. Bits of straw clung to his shaggy hair. He held a long, sturdy, wooden staff, the sign of a patriarch or a . . .
“Navi!” (prophet), my little boy said. His hands clapped with delight and chuckles swelled his small, empty belly.
Hearing my child, the prophet turned with a sharp look, taking in our skinny forms. “Shalom!” he greeted us, “Please, could I trouble you for some water?”
All the wadis had gone dry with drought, but within the walls of Zarephath, our deep well remained true. It was a simple thing to fulfill his request, but as I nodded and turned to do so, he stopped me.
“And please, a little bread with that? Surely, you have a little something to share with Yahweh’s messenger.”
I thought of the handful of flour and trickle of oil at the bottom of my jars, and the fear that clenched my heart held even tighter. Of all the people in Zarephath to ask for help, why choose us? Our poverty was obvious.
“Lechem?” (bread), my son said, pointing to the prophet.
I sighed. “You do not know what you ask, my friend. My cupboard is bare. We are headed home to eat our final few morsels and call it quits.”
But the prophet wouldn’t take my no for an answer. “Please!” he insisted, sounding both compassionate and authoritative, “Don’t be afraid. Make me a small loaf, bring it here; then, bake for yourself and the boy. Yahweh will bless you!”
It made no sense. Why would I ever consider such a thing at the expense of my child? Yet, my son seemed to have reached a different conclusion.
“Lechem, Ama! Lechem!” (Bread, Mama! Bread!). He stomped his feet, pointed at the prophet, and pulled me toward home.
It was against my better judgment. I stirred the coals from last night’s fire. I fed it with tufts of grass, which caught with a soft chuff. I carefully added our sticks and watched as tongues of flame leapt up. I scooped out most of the last of our meal, mixed it with water, and kneaded it into a smooth cake. I stretched it thin, rubbed it with the last of the oil and slapped it onto the baking stone, now so hot that it sizzled beneath the oiled dough. The fragrance of baking bread made our stomachs roar as the little loaf puffed and turned golden. With skilled fingers, I plucked an edge and flipped it over, revealing a well-browned bottom.
“What am I doing?” I asked my son. His cheeks had pinked with the fire’s warmth.
“Lechem, Ama! Lechem!” he repeated, pointing back to the city gate.
I wrapped the loaf in a cloth and slipped it into my basket. I filled a cup with water and stood swaying in the doorway, basket in one hand, cup in the other. “Stay or go?” I wondered. My son made the decision for me, stomping off on his short legs to the city gate where the prophet waited. I followed, questioning my every step.
I don’t know what I was expecting. A choir of angels? The peal of thunder? A heavenly affirmation? What I got when we found the prophet, waiting outside the gate, was a thank you. “Now, go and do the same thing for yourself,” the prophet instructed. He dismissed us with a nod, said his blessing, and began to devour his loaf with grimy hands.
I picked up my boy, balancing him on my hip as I walked slowly home. I had heard that Yahweh, the great God of Israel, is a generous god with unfailing love for the lost and the poor. Yet here we were, the widow, the orphan, and a stranger, clinging to life by our fingernails, preparing to eat our last bread before returning to our ancestors. Maybe my neighbors were right. Maybe the gods Baal and Asherah had cursed me. Maybe I deserved what was surely coming in the days ahead.
By now, we were home. I set my child down and pushed the door open. He walked over to the great flour jar, taller than he was, and patted it with both hands. “Lechem, Ama? Lechem?” He sounded hopeful.
“Yes, my love, bread.” I answered. I tied an apron on and pushed back my sleeves. I crossed the floor and pried the heavy clay top off the amphora.
Below, my son was stamping his feet. “Lechem, lechem, lechem!”
I was so shocked by what I saw within that I dropped the clay top. It hit the hard earthen floor with a dull thud and split in two. There, within the amphora, finely milled flour rose all the way to the top. I plunged my hands in, and felt the silky dryness slipping through my fingers.
My son had moved to the oil jar. Again, he placed his palms on the rounded sides. He patted with his small hands and sang in a tattoo rhythm, “Shemen zayit! Shemen zayit!” (Olive oil! Olive oil!).
I pried off the top and gasped. The oil jar was filled to the brim, the first pressing, fragrant, clear, and golden green. A few bubbles rose to the top and rested on the surface, as if freshly filled. My boy was laughing now, spinning with childish delight until he plopped down onto his bottom with a breathless thud.
I sat down next to my son, dizzy with hunger and mystery. Perhaps Baal and Asherah had cursed me. But Yahweh, the holy and almighty One of Israel, had blessed me. In an instant, the certainty of our death had changed to the promise of life. My heart felt funny, felt wild and free, felt like the cage that had bound it since the death of my husband had been sprung. I put my hands to my head to stop the world from spinning. As my son crawled into my lap, I laughed and cried until I felt empty and filled with a peace that I had not known since my husband’s death.
Perhaps it was the generosity of Yahweh that made me do it. When God is so good, how can you keep it to yourself? I picked up my son and went back to the city gate where we found the prophet dozing in the sun. Crumbs from my little loaf dotted his beard. A smear of oil had been wiped on the front of his tunic.
I put down my boy and he nudged the prophet’s sandal with his little bare foot. “Navi?” I asked.
He opened an expectant eye. “Call me Elijah.”
“Elijah, my son and I would like you to stay with us. Will you come?” The boy smiled. He reached out one hand to the prophet and with the other pointed home.
The prophet rose and brushed the crumbs from his beard. He balanced his staff against the city wall then reached down to pick up my son, who settled comfortably into his arms. The Prophet Elijah smiled, “We thought you would never ask.”