THE MIRACLES OF ELIJAH AND ELISHA
II. The Oil and the Grain (1 Kings 17:8-16)
So Elijah marched into the palace and declared that there would be no rain in all the land! And what happened? The brook dried up! God had told him that he would drink from the brook, and so for a while he drank from the brook and the LORD sent him food by the ravens. But finally the brook dried up. The effects of the drought were beginning to be felt, even by the prophet who declared there would be no rain. And so with that in mind, God sent the prophet to the home of a widow in Zarepath--Phoenician country.
These few verses reveal how God used the drought to teach a very important lesson to the people--it was Yahweh God who provided for the needs of the people, Canaanite as well as Israelite, and not the Canaanite god Baal. God commanded Elijah to go to the Zarepath of Sidon, on the coast, north, in the land of Phoenicia--Baal country. He was told to go to the house of a widow there, a widow God had commanded to feed the prophet. When Elijah came to the village he met a widow gathering sticks, and asked her to bring him some water; as she was going he also asked her for a piece of bread.
This brought a response. The land was in a time of drought, and she was a poor widow woman. She explained to the prophet that she did not have any bread, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. She was gathering a few sticks to go home and prepare some food for her and her son so that they would not die.
But Elijah simply said, "Do not be afraid. Go home and do as you have said, but first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son." Feed Elijah first, then take care of the family! On the surface this seems like a very selfish, uncaring attitude--get me something to eat first during this drought. But no, the prophet was asking her to do this for a couple of reasons. First, he wanted to show her that Yahweh, the God of Israel, can provide all she needs to eat. And second, he wanted her to show him that she had faith in the prophet’s word, that she would prepare food for him trusting that there would still be enough left to satisfy her and her son. The prophet promised her that the jar of flour would not be used up, and the jug of oil would not run dry from then until the day that Yahweh gives rain to the land. He was not simply saying that there would be enough there for them all--he was promising a supernatural provision of food through the coming years of the famine.
The woman believed the word she was given, and so she went her way and did as Elijah said. There was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. The oil and the flour was never used up--as the "word of Yahweh spoken by Elijah" had promised.
Here then we see the critical theological themes of the passage. First, it was the Word of the LORD (Yahweh) that was promising the provisions of life through the drought. That Word could be believed or rejected--especially by a Phoenician woman who had not grown up worshiping Yahweh. But she believed. Many people of Israel did not believe the Word of the LORD, but this Phoenician--Canaanite--woman did. And God blessed her faith. One cannot help but recall how several centuries later Jesus visited this same area and met the Syro-Phoenician woman who wanted help (Matt. 15:21-28). She knew of the tensions between the countries and so addressed him as the Son of Davd. He tested her faith by saying he was only sent to the Jews. But her response was that even the dogs get the scraps under the table, meaning, she, a Canaanite, would eagerly receive what the Jews did not want. And Jesus marveled at her faith.
Second, God was and is able to provide food for people during the difficult times of drought and poverty and hardship. In fact, the difficult times they were enduring were also sent from God to teach people that it was he, and not Baal, who controlled nature. We see a similar thing with the Israelites in the wilderness: according to Deuteronomy 8 God made them go hungry and then fed them with manna in order that they might know that they do not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
The Oil and Flour Motif
The archaeological discoveries at Ugarit and the other centers of Canaanite religion have added to our understanding of these events greatly. In the pictures and the texts the god Baal is connected with vegetation. In the Ugaritic literature he is called zbl b‘l arts, the "Prince, Lord of the earth." He is also called bn dgn, "the son of Dagan." By these titles the Baalists claimed that he had authority over agriculture and the produce of the land.
This god Dagan was worshiped by the Philistines later. He has been thought to be a fish god (because the Hebrew word "fish" is dag), but that seems unlikely now. He was clearly a vegetation deity worshiped across the whole region as far back as the 25th century B.C. A temple to Dagan was found in Ras Shamra, the place of the discovery of Ugaritic texts. Baal is also called the "son of El"; this apparent contradiction is normal in mythology, for as religious ideas were brought together the connections had to be made. Baal, who was equivalent to Hadad of Syria, and Adad of Assyria, the storm god, was now the son of Dagan, vegetation god.
What this all means is that Baal was a vegetation and fertility god, closely connected to grain and oil. Baal’s death in the mythology also reflects this point. When Baal "died" he was imprisoned by the god Mot ("death"). His consort Anat had to come to rescue him by fighting and killing Mot. By the way she killed Mot and planted his remains, sterility was removed from the earth and abundance returned. The verbs used to describe her killing of Mot are "crushed, winnowed, burnt, planted," implying the return of the harvest. In a way, Mot suffered the fate of the grain, being harvested, crushed, winnowed, and used for bread. His end marked the new life of the new season--as the grain dies and then comes to life again.
The same language occurs when Baal first met and fought Mot. Verbs like "scattering, burning with fire, grinding with millstones, sifting with a sieve, sowing" are all employed. So when Baal finally conquered Mot, fertility returned to the land, and as the text says, "the heavens rained oil" (see the texts quoted in part 1 of this series). This was all the Canaanites mythological explanation of the life and death cycle of vegetation.
When the text says that "the heavens rained oil," it is not meant to be taken literally (similarly in the Book of Ruth Naomi heard that Yahweh had visited his people to give them bread). This is the poetic way of saying that the god--Baal in their view--sent the rain, and the crops grew, and there was a good harvest of olives, and from the olives they made oil. The rainfall allowed all the vegetation to flourish this way. The point of the Canaanite teaching was that Baal, as the lord of the earth, was over all vegetation by sending the rain. He had the power to make man and beast fruitful.
Now in the Bible we read that Elijah declared there was to be a drought--no rain at all. But this was from Yahweh, the God of Israel, and not Baal. Then, when he went to the widow’s house, he did the miracle of the flour and the oil. Later, Elisha also performed miracles with flour and olive oil. He increased the oil of the wife of one of the prophets, preventing the son’s being taken away to pay for debts (2 Kings 4). Then when a man brought some bread and grain to the prophet, he commanded it be distributed, it was multiplied, and there was even some left over ((2 Kings 4:41-44).
These events demonstrated that Elijah and Elisha had the ability as the prophets of the LORD to increase olive oil and grain. Baal’s claims to be the lord of the earth, the son of Dagan, and the source of vegetation through the rains, were clearly being destroyed by the prophets of Yahweh. In fact, in the time of the Kings oil and grain were exported to Phoenicia from Israel (1 Kings 5:25). They were supposed to be Baal’s gifts, but they came from Israel! The miracle of the oil and flour in the house of the widow took place in Phoenicia in order to reveal that even in Canaanite country it was Yahweh "the God of Israel" who provided (see the wording in 1 Kings 17:14). And the story ends with the report that this drought would continue, and God’s provision of oil and flour would continue, until Yahweh sent the rain. Not Baal.
The Canaanites had been taught that only the worship of Baal would ensure the rains and the abundance of vegetation. But this narrative makes it clear that Baal was nothing, that he was not able to send oil and flour when Yahweh stopped the rains. It was Yahweh who was God of heaven and earth, and not this pagan deity. The message was soon forgotten by the Israelites who went headlong into the worship of Baal and other pagan gods, and eventually destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel. But the message was clear then, as it is today--only Yahweh, the God of heaven and earth, is sovereign over nature and vegetation, over life and death. He cannot be manipulated by magic ritual or in any way cajoled into acting. And he will not let another steal his glory. He has revealed himself to us; and he has declared that he is sovereign over life and death, seed time and harvest, abundance and want. And what he wants from his people is faithful allegiance--faith in his Word, for he has promised to provide for his people, and faithfulness in their worship and obedience, for they must learn to live by every word that proceeds from him.
So once again we see that a miraculous work of God through the prophet Elijah was polemical--it was not just a miracle for miracle’s sake, but was designed to undermine Canaanite beliefs and affirm the sovereignty of the LORD God of Israel. It reminds the reader that there was a spiritual war going on between the claims of Baal and the Faith. It was not sufficient for the prophets to counter the prophets of Baal with their views--they had to actually do the things that Baalism could only claim for their god.