ZIMRI an ambitious and murderous man, had tried to become king of the ten tribes of Israel by murdering King Elah. (I Kings 16:8-10.) Zimri had then hidden in the palace at Tirzah. When the army approached, he had set fire to it, knowing that he would be slain if he were found. Zimri madly shouted that he would rather see the palace burn than give it up to anyone else. The building and everything in it went up in flames, including Zimri, who was allowed by God to consider himself king for only seven days. (I Kings 16:11-18.)
Disunity in Israel
In the months that followed, the people of the ten tribes were divided into two parts as to who should be their next ruler. Military people were in favor of Omri, but civilians favored a man named Tibni. The dispute continued for such a long time that each man came into power over different parts of the ten tribes. After four years Tibni died, leaving full leadership of the ten tribes to Omri. (I Kings 16:21-23.) Omri wasn't satisfied with the place in which he lived in Tirzah. He considered it a poor substitute for the burned palace. Besides, he didn't like the location. One day he was riding through a valley situated about ten miles west of Tirzah and over thirty miles north of Jerusalem. He was impressed by the sight of a long, flat-topped hill rising about five hundred feet from the valley floor. "Find out who owns that hill," Omri told one of his aides. "I want to buy it for my palace site." When the owner was found, he sold the hill to the king for two talents of silver, a very reasonable sum. Omri's palace was later built there. It was the beginning of what eventually grew into the important city of Samaria. Perhaps Omri was used by God to start Samaria, although the king didn't purpose to carry out God's will. As other leaders did before him, he practiced idolatry and encouraged his subjects to do likewise. He died twelve years after Zimri's death. (I Kings 16:23-28.) Ahab, a son of Omri, became the next ruler of the ten tribes. Unfortunately for the people, his leadership wasn't an improvement over that of the kings who had gone before him. In fact, he stooped to some new lows as a king, by marrying a cruel, scheming Canaanite woman who detested God and who was extremely ambitious of forcing idolatry into Israel. She was Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal, king of the nearby coastal nation of Zidon. (I Kings 16:29-31.) Ethbaal was a murderer, a thief and a pagan priest who officiated during rites to the goddess Venus, or Astarte, later called Easter.
A Look at Judah
A few years before Ahab's time as ruler of Israel, King Asa of Judah had hired King Ben-hadad of Damascus to help him against King Baasha of Israel. (II Chronicles 16:1-6.) A prophet named Hanani had then come to Jerusalem to tell Asa that he had a message from God for the king. "God was displeased when you paid the king of Syria to help get King Baasha of Israel away from the Jerusalem area," Hanani said. "If God could rescue Judah from the million Zerah brought from the south, why couldn't He do the same for Judah at any other time as long as you rely on Him? God is always willing and able to help those who obey Him. Because you looked to a nation that has long been an enemy of Israel for your help, you have lost the opportunity to overcome both Baasha and Syria and you shall continue to have wars." Asa was furious at Hanani because of what he said, even though he knew that he was guilty of buying help from the Syrians. "Imprison this man!" Asa angrily yelled to his guards. (II Chronicles 16:7-10.) From that time on Asa's relationship with God deteriorated. He was no longer as close to God as he had been. He lost a compassionate attitude toward his people, insomuch that he wasn't always fair to many of them. In his last years he was unable to walk because of what was probably a gout condition. Whatever it was, it was very severe Nevertheless Asa did not pray to God for relief and healing of this ailment. Instead, he put his total trust in physicians. He died after ruling Judah for forty-one years, and was buried with great honors in Jerusalem after a very special funeral. (II Chronicles 16:11-14.)
Utter Depravity in Israel
By the time Asa's rule over Judah ended, the hill in Israel where Omri's palace was located had become covered with buildings that comprised early Samaria. Some of these structures were dedicated to the worship of heathen gods. One of them included a huge altar for making sacrifices to Baal, who was supposed to be god of the sun. Another place was a school where instruction was given to men who were recruited to train as priests to carry out the base rites of idol worship brought to the land by Jezebel, Ahab's wicked wife. Samaria had become the capital of idolatry in Israel. (I Kings 16:29-33.) Jezebel's hatred for those who followed God was so intense that she sent soldiers to kill those men who were known to be true prophets. Ahab didn't object even to this wholesale murder. Oddly enough, his chief steward, Obadiah, somehow managed to remain faithful to God despite his surroundings. Quite possibly he was meant to be in his high position so that he might help others who were serving God. For one thing, he succeeded in saving the lives of a hundred prophets by hiding them in caves in nearby mountains and sending them food and water to live on. (I Kings 18:3-4.) Ruled by such a depraved pair, most of the people of the ten tribes were worse off than they had been for years. To add to that, some great calamity was certain to come from God unless Israel turned from idolatry. One day a prophet named Elijah came to the palace at Samaria to speak to the king. He explained that he had made a special trip from the territory of Gilead, east of the Jordan River to bring an urgent message from God to Ahab. Palace aides ordinarily didn't admit uninvited visitors, but when Ahab heard about him he was curious to hear what the stranger had to say.
God Sends Famine
"I have come to warn you that because of the sinfulness of this nation's people, this land will suffer a lack of rain and dew," Elijah told Ahab. "There won't be any more rain until I return to announce its coming." "Interesting!" exclaimed Ahab mockingly. "Then I suppose you'll be honoring me with another visit a few days from now?" "I doubt it," Elijah replied. "It will be more like a few years from now." (I Kings 17:1.) Ahab was in a pleasant mood, or he might have ordered guards to seize Elijah and jail him for being insolent. Besides, he wanted to prove to spectators that he was a fair and compassionate ruler. "Let him go for now," Ahab said. "He's only a harmless crank." As soon as Elijah had slipped out of Samaria, he was told by God to go eastward and hide near a certain brook that flowed into the Jordan River. He was informed that he shouldn't be concerned about food because birds would supply it. Even to Elijah, who had great faith in God, the idea of birds feeding him was fantastic. (I Kings 17:2-4.) When the prophet reached the brook, he looked around till he found a nearby cave for shelter. In it he made a bed of leaves and grass. This was to be his home where he was to stay hidden from human eyes until he was instructed what next to do. It wasn't an unpleasant spot in which to dwell. The cold, clean brook ran close by to supply water for drinking and bathing. From the cave Elijah could look down a ravine to the open valley where the brook joined the river. Toward evening he began to wonder about food, having walked more than twenty miles from Samaria that day. Elijah was almost as hungry as he was tired. As he rested by the stream, he became aware of a flock of ravens approaching quietly, and then swooping to the ground only a few yards away. They left something lying on a wide flat rock that almost resembled a table. At first Elijah could hardly believe what he saw. There were small pieces of bread and cooked meat on the rock! The hungry prophet didn't wonder where the ravens had obtained it. He thanked God for it and ate. The bread tasted as though it had been freshly baked, and the meat as though it had been roasted recently. Elijah wasn't concerned about whether or not it was clean meat. He knew that God wouldn't provide him unclean food. After eating all he needed, he spent a time praying and then went into his cave for a night of well-deserved rest. Next morning, as he refreshed himself at the stream, he saw the ravens flying in, and watched them as each bird carefully deposited on the rock something it carried in its beak. After the ravens had flown away, he again ate more bread and meat. Elijah wondered where it had come from. Had the birds taken the bread from some bakery or kitchen not too many miles distant? Had they brought the meat from God's sacrificial altar? Or had God miraculously put the bread and meat into the beaks of the ravens and directed them to put it down before Elijah? However it happened, the prophet knew that God caused it to occur. He was thankful for the supply of food in the months that followed. (I Kings 17:5-6.)
Elijah Sent to the Gentiles
During those months, no rain fell in Samaria or the pagan regions for many miles around. Ahab clearly remembered the warning made to him by Elijah and what the prophet had said about the drought ending when he returned to announce it. The king was increasingly troubled. Regardless of his tendency toward idolatry, he feared anything that seemed to come from God. At last he decided to establish a wide search for Elijah, hoping that the prophet would appeal to God to send rain. All the searchers eventually returned to report failure, whereupon they were promptly sent back to continue the hunt. (I Kings 18:10.) Meanwhile, more streams dried up and more cisterns and wells went dry. The land became a sickly yellow-gray color. The supply of water was dangerously low. (I Kings 18:5.) About a year or two after Elijah had come to live in the cave, the nearby stream dried up completely. The only way to get water was to go down to the Jordan River, and that meant a risk of being seen. God didn't want Elijah to be discovered yet by anyone who would report his whereabouts to the king. He instructed the prophet to go to the town of Zarephath, about a hundred miles northward at the eastern edge of the Great Sea. There he was to find a certain widow who was to supply him with food and lodging. Traveling mostly at night, Elijah was very careful not to be seen. In the daytime he rested and slept in well-hidden shady places in ravines and among boulders. Food and water weren't naturally present wherever he went, but God somehow supplied him with enough to keep up his strength. When he reached Zarephath it was daylight, but because the town was in the idolatrous nation of Zidon, it was very unlikely that anyone would be looking for him except the woman he was to meet. Just outside the gates of the town he saw a thin, weary-looking woman picking up a few sticks. He had a strong feeling that this was the widow about whom God had told him. He was very thirsty, so he didn't lack for a reason to start a conversation. "I haven't had any water for hours," Elijah called out to the woman. "If you know where there is water, would you please get some for me?" (I Kings 17:7-10.) The woman hesitantly approached the prophet and looked at his tired eyes and parched lips. "I'll get water for you," she said, starting toward the gates, "but I can spare only a little." "A little is better than none," Elijah observed. "I am very hungry, too. Could you give me a small piece of bread?" The woman turned back to the prophet a little impatiently.
Gentile Widow's Faith
"Sir, I don't have any bread," she told him. "All I have is a handful of meal in a jar and a little oil in a bottle. When you first spoke to me, I was looking for a few sticks with which to build a fire and bake the oil and flour into a bit of bread. That will be the last food my son and I shall eat. Then we shall starve to death." (I Kings 17:11-12.) "You and your son won't starve," Elijah said confidently. "The God of Israel has told me about you, and it's not His will that you should die from lack of food. Your jar of meal and bottle of oil will last until God sends rain." The woman stared at Elijah. Ordinarily she would have considered a man who talked as he did some kind of fanatic, but somehow she felt that the God of Israel had sent him and she trusted God to keep His promise. She motioned to Elijah to follow her, and trudged off to her home within the walls of Zarephath. Later, after Elijah had eaten the biscuit-sized bit of bread the woman had unselfishly made for him, he watched her begin to prepare more with the very last of the oil and flour. He wasn't surprised at what she had to say. "There is more oil in this bottle than there was before I used it last!" she exclaimed. "And there is more flour in the jar than there has been for days! My memory must be failing me." "There's nothing wrong with your memory," Elijah assured her. "You were kind enough to attend to my needs first. Because of that, God will see that as long as the drought lasts there will be plenty of oil in that bottle and plenty of flour in that jar." The prophet's words proved true during the months that followed. Regardless of how much oil the widow poured from the bottle, it always had some left in it. It was the same with the flour jar. It didn't become empty, no matter how much was taken from it. (I Kings 17:13-16.) During that time, the widow's young son became seriously ill. Days later he died, leaving his mother in an extremely grief-stricken state. To add to her misery, she became somewhat embittered because she felt that Elijah had something to do with her son's death. "What are you really here for?" she tearfully asked the prophet as she stood before him with the lifeless little form in her arms. "Did you come to seek out my past sins and tell God about them so that He would punish me by taking away my son?" "Give me the boy," Elijah patiently said to her. "Why?" the woman asked, twisting around so that she was between Elijah and her son. In spite of the mother's attitude, Elijah reached out and tenderly took the limp body from the mother, who was surprised at her sudden willingness to part with it. The prophet walked up a stairway to his room on top of the house, where he had lived since coming to Zarephath. There he placed the boy on his bed. "God, I know you must have a reason to bring misery to the woman of this house by taking her son," Elijah prayed. "I don't know what it is, but I know that she has suffered greatly in these past days, and especially in these last hours. I'm asking that in your mercy you would forgive her for any sins she has committed and bring life back to this child." (I Kings 17:17-21.) By this time the little boy's body had become cold. Elijah lay down very close to it, hoping that his warmth and strength would be of some value while God supplied the spark of life that only the Creator could impart. The minutes slipped by. The prophet thought he felt a movement in the boy's body, but he couldn't be sure.