Three Phoenician Women in the Story of Faith
I want to think for a bit about two women from outside Israel who show up in the same place in the book of 1 Kings: one is a queen and the other a poverty-stricken widow. Neither is part of Israel, and their inclusion in the Bible shows again that the big story of God’s involvement with human beings includes all peoples.
King Ahab and Queen Jezebel take up a lot of space in the book of 1 Kings—six chapters or so. When Ahab married this foreign Phoenician princess, she brought her religion with her, and Ahab became a big promoter of the fertility cult of Baal. Although Ahab may have married other women (he has 70 sons or grandsons), Jezebel had a lot of power. Together, they were evil rulers over Israel.
Ahab’s reign included both Elijah and Elisha, famed prophets of Israel who spoke against the worship of Baal and the abuse of kingly and queenly power embodied in Ahab and Jezebel. Elijah confronted Ahab and announced a three-year drought because of the idolatry. Worship a fertility god, Elijah said, and the true God will dry up your land. Then Elijah ran for his life. He hid for a while by a river, where ravens brought him bread and meat, and then, when the river dried up, God sent him to Zarephath in Sidon, the homeland of Queen Jezebel.
Two women, then, neither belonging to Israel, side by side in the Bible. The contrast between the queen and the widow and the way God deals with each fits right in with the large theme of the Bible that God is on the side of the weak and humble and fights against the powerful and proud.
Sidon was in the part of the Middle East we now call Lebanon. It was a Phoenician city-state. Ahab likely married Jezebel as part of a political alliance. She had two passions—her religion and her husband’s status. The first passion is evident after Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18): Baal sends no fire for the offering but Israel’s God sends fire that burns up even the altar stones and the water in the trench around it. Then the rains come back after a three-year drought. Jezebel immediately sends a message to Elijah: “May the gods kill me if you aren’t dead by tomorrow.” So Elijah runs for his life again.
The second passion shows up in the story of Naboth’s vineyard. Ahab wants to buy Naboth’s vineyard, and Naboth refuses to sell. When Ahab sulks, Jezebel says, essentially, “Who is the king in Israel, anyway? I’ll get you the vineyard.” Jezebel covertly arranges to have Naboth accused of blasphemy and treason and executed. No one is going to tell her husband no.
Elijah confronts Ahab at the vineyard. “Where the dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, they will lick up yours,” Elijah tells him, “and the dogs will eat Jezebel’s remains, too.” After Ahab dies in battle, Jezebel lives long enough to hear about the assassination of her grandson. She meets her doom with fresh eyeliner and mascara and perfect hair. Her servants throw her out of a window, and the dogs leave nothing but her skull, hands, and feet (2 Kings 9).
Jezebel’s life was defined by status, privilege, and power, all of which she misused. Her inclusion in the Bible demonstrates that women are not given a bye. The prophets require all to lay aside such idolatries, which are more pernicious to the soul than is worship of a pole or bull or fish.
The other Phoenician woman in this story is a widow. She lived south of Sidon in a town called Zarephath. When Elijah meets her, she is gathering sticks to cook a last meal for her son and herself. He asks her for a little water and bread, and she responds out of deep despair and need. “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing…just enough for one last meal.” The drought has reduced her to near starvation, and with her, many others.
Intriguingly, she acknowledges herself to be outside of the faith of Israel (your God) and at the same time swears by “your God” that she is telling the truth. Elijah challenges her to have faith in his God. “If you feed me a little cake first, the God of Israel will make sure you have food clear through this famine. Don’t be afraid.” She has little to lose and everything to gain, and she takes the challenge and feeds the prophet. After that, she never runs out of meal or oil until rain falls again.
But what she fears most (don’t be afraid) happens anyway. Her son sickens and dies. She comes to Elijah and accuses him of causing the death of her son because of her sin. “But he said to her, ‘Give me your son.’ He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him out upon his own bed. He cried out to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying? … O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again’” (1 Kings 17:20-22, NRSV).
The Lord sends life back into the child, resurrects him, and Elijah takes him downstairs to his mother. “Now I know for sure that you belong to God and that you speak God’s truth,” she says.
The stories of these two women are so opposite. This Phoenician widow, probably a Baal worshipper, down to her last oil and meal, acts in hospitality to a stranger. And not only a stranger but one with a rival God. God honors her faith and generosity with God’s own faithfulness and generosity. When tragedy strikes, she goes right to the prophet with her sorrow, and when her son is resurrected, she responds with a statement of belief.
Her life is defined by loss, fear, and poverty. Nonetheless, she uses what she has to bless another person. Her inclusion in the Bible affirms that outsiders who live up to the best light they have are able to act faithfully and recognize God’s truth. Jesus refers to her as a rebuke to his hometown: “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow in Zarephath in Sidon” (Luke 4:24-26). Don’t miss this, he says, because God will send the truth to those who will hear it. Your ancestry and your proximity count for nothing. Jesus’s neighbors wanted to kill him because of these words.
If this story included only Jezebel, the Bible would confirm our prejudices against outsiders to faith: she was killed in a coup and the dogs ate her just as predicted. However, we might miss the fact that though she was arrogant, passionate, cruel, and true to her origins, she lived a long, unrepentant, influential life. Why did judgment wait so long? In Israel’s story, Jezebel is a villain, but in her own story, a person whom God loves. Her stubbornness ensures the fulfillment of Elijah’s prophecy, while Ahab’s repentance earned him a reprieve (1 Kings 21:27).
The inclusion of her humble countrywoman as an example of faith requires us to realize that God’s love includes the outsiders, that God may even single out an outsider for particular blessing when there are plenty of worthy insiders. This inclusive love of God infuriates the chosen people. It’s better not to mention that God’s rain falls on the just and the unjust, that God has sheep from other pastures. The prophet Amos must have shocked his audiences when, in the middle of prophecies of judgment for the surrounding nations as well as Israel, he said, “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the Lord. Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir?” (Amos 9:7). These were the enemies of Israel, and God cares for them. Do we think God cares only for one group of people? God’s care is over the whole of humanity, and God’s redemptive purpose includes us all.
When Jesus travels in this very region of Tyre and Sidon (Mark 7:24-30; Matthew 15:21-28), a woman from that region, a Gentile, finds him and begs him to cast the unclean spirit out of her daughter. He says to her, so mysteriously distant, “The children must eat first; it isn’t fair to take their food and give it to the dogs.” (This is the same Jesus who reminded his neighbors that God favored a Phoenician woman over the widows of Israel during Elijah’s time.) She does not give up: “Lord, even the dogs are allowed the children’s crumbs.” Jesus praises her desperate faith (Matthew 15:28) and perhaps admires her quick wit and sends her home to a healed daughter.
I see this as an acted parable. Jesus begins by taking on the role his disciples expect—the Messiah for Israel. He says what they are thinking. But he leads them to the place where he says to this outsider, “Great is your faith!” Like Elijah’s widow, the mother has enough desperation to give her confidence to ask for help. And she sees enough of God’s love in Jesus to insist that the leftovers of that love will heal her daughter. There are enough leftovers of God’s love to satisfy every human being; when everyone gets enough, there will still be love left over.
God holds insiders and outsiders, men and women accountable for the ways they use what they have, whether it is great power, a little food, or a nimble mind. When they live up to the light they have, it counts, and God includes them in the community of faith. And even when they persist unrepentant and arrogant to the end of life, God still loves them.