17:1-19:21 This section describes the clash between the prophet Elijah and King Ahab of Israel. One of the greatest missionary themes in OT theology was the witness of God’s miraculous signs. The best literary pattern exemplifying this theology is Jethro’s visit to Moses in the wilderness (Ex 18). Jethro heard of God’s great deeds of deliverance (Ex 18:1) and visited God’s people and learned even more about God’s great works (Ex 18:8). He praised God (Ex 18:10-11) and then joined in a fellowship meal with God’s people (Ex 18:12). These were the same signs that drew Rahab to the Lord (Jos 2:8-13) and threw other Canaanites into despair.
In biblical history, there are four extended periods of witness with great signs and wonders: (1) the exodus and conquest, (2) the age of Elijah and Elisha, (3) the first coming of Christ and the growth of the early church, and (4) the end of history with the miraculous wonders of the book of Revelation. In the age of Elijah and Elisha, faith in the Lord clashed with one of the most dangerous false deities it ever faced, Baal-melkart of Tyre (see note at 1Kg 16:25). The power encounter between these two rival religions was the setting for the miraculous works of these great prophets.
17:1 The CSB suggests that Elijah was one of the settlers in Gilead. This raises the possibility that he was a non-Hebrew settler, since a Hebrew was typically described in terms of his tribe and family. Elijah’s rustic appearance also set him apart as someone different. He was to announce to one of the most powerful kings in the region that God would send a devastating drought against the land.
17:2-3 The location of the Wadi Cherith is not clear. Some authorities identify it with the Wadi Qelt that passes just south of Jericho. Some translations place it east of the Jordan River, apparently taking the words where it enters the Jordan (lit “which is facing/before the Jordan”) as being equal to “facing the Jordan from the east.” If we permit Elijah’s move eastward from delivering his oracle in Israel to include a great deal of southeasterly movement, the Wadi Qelt is possible.
17:4-7 In sign theology, miracles have meaning. God’s miraculous provision of food for Elijah, at a time when God had cut off food for the nation, reminded any hearer/reader that God is the true provider of human needs. Unclean carrion birds (ravens) brought this food.
17:8-9 Then God sent Elijah to the Phoenician city of Zarephath, a Gentile city under Ethbaal’s control, for provision and protection. Jesus gave a theologically suitable interpretation of this passage (Lk 4:26-27)—that God sent his messenger with beneficial signs and wonders to a Gentile. God’s witness through signs was not given to Israelites alone.
17:12 In referring to the Lord your God, the widow seemed to show she recognized that Elijah represented the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, yet she did not turn him over to Ethbaal, the king of the Phoenicians. Ethbaal was the father-in-law of Ahab, from whom Elijah was hiding. Either that knowledge was insufficient to specifically identify Elijah to Ethbaal, or she deliberately chose not to betray Elijah.
17:13-14 Elijah is asking her for an expression of faith in the prophet’s God. His initial, Don’t be afraid, usually found coming from God or an angel, is a remarkable claim of authority.
17:15-16 This miraculous sign illustrated that God rewards faith and obedience, even that of a Gentile.
17:17-24 This miracle teaches three lessons: (1) not all illness is the result of sin, (2) God has power over sickness and death, and (3) the purpose of the signs was to produce faith in the Lord’s word.