Melakhim Alef Chapter 17
Eliyahu the Prophet confronts King Ahav and swears in the name of God that “there will be no more dew or rain these years except according to my word.” A drought ensues and Hashem commands Eliyahu to hide near the Jordan River beside a brook called Kerit. While there, he is miraculously sustained by ravens who bring him meat and bread morning and evening, and he drinks from the brook until it finally dries up.
Hashem then tells Eliyahu to travel to Tzarefat in Tzidon, where He has appointed a widow to support the prophet. Eliyahu finds the woman and requests something to eat or drink. The widow responds that she is searching for twigs for a fire so that she and her son can cook and consume the very last bit of flour and oil they have, after which they expect to die of starvation. Eliyahu assures her that a miracle will occur and her flour and oil will never be exhausted; the only condition is that she prepare him a small cake from the provisions before baking for herself and her son. She follows the prophet’s instructions and her flour and oil continue to miraculously replenish themselves as long as Eliyahu resides there – until the end of the drought.
One day, the widow’s son falls ill and dies. She protests to Eliyahu that he has brought evil upon her house with his presence. Eliyahu takes the lifeless body of the boy to his room, lays the boy on his bed and cries out to God over the injustice of having caused this tragedy to his host, a poor widow. He stretches his body over the boy’s three times, and prays to Hashem to revive him until the child’s life is indeed restored. Eliyahu returns the boy to his mother who declares that she now knows that Eliyahu is a man of God and that his words are true.
There are two fundamental issues in this chapter that require explanation. The first is the role of Eliyahu in the decree that there should be no rain. How is a mere mortal capable of making such a decision? We see here something remarkable about the role of the prophet in the Divine plan. In addition to being granted insight into Hashem’s wisdom and designs for the future, the prophet is expected to participate actively in the realization of the objectives that are revealed to him. This requires the prophet to develop his own strategy for achieving the goals with which Hashem has tasked him.
In order to equip the prophet for his mission, Hashem empowers him to perform whatever miracles he deems necessary for the process. Eliyahu has been sent by Hashem to rebuke and correct the behavior of Ahav, and he opts to put pressure on Ahav by decreeing a drought. Eliyahu has been invested with the authority to make such a determination based upon his own judgment of what must be done to attain the objective of his mission.
The second aspect of this chapter that is puzzling is the conduct of Eliyahu after the drought is initiated. What is the reason why he is sustained first miraculously by ravens and then miraculously by the widow in Tzidon? What purpose is served by the violations of natural law involved in these intriguing stories?
In order to understand the answer to these questions, we must clarify the setting in which Eliyahu operates and the character and attitudes of Eliyahu himself. As mentioned in our comments on the previous chapter, Ahav ruled during an unprecedented period of peace, tranquility and stability in Israel, DESPITE his wickedness and idolatry. While this time of relative calm could have afforded him the opportunity to reflect and repent, it seems to have had the opposite effect of reinforcing and rewarding his sinful activity.
In this context, Eliyahu’s approach is to impose “middat Hadin”, the strict principle of justice expressed in the Torah, and to withhold rain from the recalcitrant Jews. By establishing himself as the arbiter of the rainfall, he throws down the proverbial gauntlet before Ahav who will have to engage with and learn from him in order to “earn” the cessation of the drought. Throughout his entire career, Eliyahu’s signature characteristic is his staunch and uncompromising sense of justice and accountability and his unwillingness to consider more flexible or gradual solutions to the problem of Jewish defection from the Torah.
The series of experiences he is subjected to in this chapter can be thought of as an educational progression for Eliyahu, a lesson in the balance between justice and mercy that is necessary to allow growth to occur over time. First, he is fed amply but miraculously (an example of Divine compassion) by the cruel raven (a subtle hint to his own disregard for the suffering he has caused to others with the drought) but eventually the brook dries up, a manifestation of the strict justice that he himself has insisted upon.
Moving in with the widow provides Eliyahu with a firsthand opportunity to see the poverty and pain that has resulted from the severe famine. Here again, he is sustained miraculously, as befits him as a prophet of God. His interactions with the widow and her son, we must assume, involved much teaching, learning and inspiration; then, suddenly, the boy is ripped away from his mother by death. This seemingly senseless and destructive act troubles Eliyahu, who had expected to have more time to live with, educate and mentor this young man and his mother.
We, the readers, don’t know why Hashem determined that the youth’s life should be taken. Apparently, in His system of absolute justice, this was the correct outcome. Nevertheless, Hashem does not insist on the unbending rule of law – He allows the “reversal” of His decision and resuscitates the boy.
The lesson for Eliyahu is that the Almighty Himself is willing to compromise, setting aside the dictates of pure justice when there is a constructive and beneficial reason to do so. Focusing too much on the letter of discipline without room for human limitations, foibles, error and resistance is a recipe for disaster. A qualified teacher, whether he is a prophet or not, must be willing to accept his students or audience as the flawed creatures they are and to slowly and patiently work with them, forgiving their mistakes and setbacks along the way.
Interestingly, the Talmud tells us that the meat and bread delivered by the ravens came from the kitchen of none other than Ahav himself – representing to Eliyahu the importance of seeing the benefit of Ahav’s regime to his subjects, the fact that despite its profound flaws, Ahav did provide for the citizens of his kingdom. Government institutions and monarchies, like individual human beings, are complex entities. They tend to resist change, to backslide, and to err, yet they must be accepted as they are and must be allowed “room” for gradual and sometimes frustratingly slow development.
Eliyahu opted for the confrontational, high-handed, dramatic and idealistic approach rather than the more grounded, human, and realistic pedagogical methods of other prophets. Like Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai many generations later, Eliyahu was unable to tolerate the hypocrisy and equivocation of the people of his time and insisted on total and immediate fealty to the covenant. This led him into direct conflict with the establishment – instead of working with it he stands against it – and, ultimately, will lead to his removal and replacement with a less “extreme” prophetic personality.