Zarephath, Sidon, 869 BC
1 Kings 17:10-16, Luke 4:25-26
Elijah pushed through the crush and followed the woman into the city.
The crowd continued along the beach-front street, but she took the first turn inland and then followed a side street parallel to the beach. The broadest chariot Elijah had ever seen could have driven up the middle of this street with room left for Elijah, Nathan, and the woman. A few couples and several children, scattered along the street, traveled in the same direction as the woman.
Elijah’s long legs brought him to her side.
Nathan loped up beside him. “I can breathe here.”
She glanced across Elijah and smiled at up Nathan. “We’re almost there, boys. What are your names? My name is Ellisa.”
“Elijah, ma’am, and my brother is Nathan.”
Stone blocks as long as Elijah’s forearm paved the street, and on both sides stone walls rose as high as he could reach. Oak trees from behind the walls stretched branches over their heads. The fading light revealed few leaves, and those few more brown than green. The smell of fish and salt water floated in, but the branches muffled the rattle of ships’ rigging.
The woman passed several houses and turned in at a high gate. She crossed a small courtyard and unlocked a thick oak door hung on ornate hinges. She grasped the wrought iron handle, leaned back, and tugged. The door creaked open. “Come in, boys.”
They entered the first floor, where warmth should radiate from donkeys or a cow and her calf. Yet the stalls stood empty and cold. Mangers sat without hay. The gutter lay clean of manure. The smell said no animal had lived here for weeks.
Elijah craned his neck. Not one donkey or cow poked a nose into the aisle asking for a nibble or a massage. He stood still. Snorting? Nostrils blowing? Perhaps a cow chewing her cud? Nothing.
The widow tipped her head at Elijah’s maneuvers. “I sold the cows and donkeys long ago.” She mounted the steps.
The stairs rose as a dirt ramp wide enough for two. Finely-worked black slabs of basalt capped the steps. They began at the entrance on the left side of the house and crossed on a diagonal, pausing for level landings at the second floor and the roof.
The woman climbed past the stalls for livestock and paused at the second-floor landing. A smaller oak door hung on hinges every bit as ornate as those of the entrance below. “We’re here.” She pushed through the door and beckoned the boys inside.
The walls rose in square-cut blocks, each an arm long and a hand high.
A slow smile spread across Elijah’s face as he pictured a house for Milkah of smooth, straight walls instead of the rough-hewn limestones Mom and Dad had laid up.
He rose on tip-toe. In Tishbe, he could touch ceilings while standing flat-footed, but to reach this ceiling he would have to sit on Nathan’s shoulders.
“Very nice, ma’am!”
“My husband built this house with his own hands. He was a metal worker, and while he was alive we ate well.”
A small boy with an eager face bounced in and stood next to the widow.
“This is my son, Zimrida.” Her pale lips formed a stiff smile. She laid her arm along his shoulders. Although she had olive skin with coal-black eyes and curls; the boy had pale skin with light-blue eyes and straight blond hair.
Elijah tilted his head back. Elissa. Zimrida. Foreign names to go with the high ceiling.
“Glad to meet you, Zimrida. I am Elijah, and my big brother is Nathan. We come from Tishbe in Gilead.”
Zimrida first turned a sober glance up at his mother and then smiled at Elijah. “Happy to meet you, too, Mr. Lijah, Mr. Nathan.” His eyes rested on Nathan.
Nathan dipped his head toward Zimrida. “You show good manners, young man.”
The widow sighed and led them out to the back veranda. The air was still. Dusk touched the sky, and a few stars appeared. She pointed to the well in the yard. “With this drought, you’ll have to play out all the rope, but the water’s good to drink.”
Elijah and Nathan trotted down stairs to the back yard. As they drew water, the child’s high voice came from behind them. “My real name’s Zimrida, Mr. Nathan, but you can call me Zim. You, too, Mr. Lijah. I’m six years old.”
Elijah turned his head and smiled.
Nathan held the bucket in both hands and angled his body toward the boy.
Zim tipped his head back. “See up there, Mr. Nathan? That’s my tree house.”
Nathan looked up. “A tree house in an Absalom oak. Just like home.”
Zim slid his fingers over the bark.“Absalom?”
“That’s what we call them in Tishbe.”
“The Absalom who tried to kill his father?”
“The one.” Nathan cocked a sober eyebrow toward Elijah. “You heard about Absalom, Zim?”
Zim knit his blond brows and bobbed his head. “Professor Hashabiah says Absalom hung there for the longest time. But I never knew my tree was the one that grabbed him.”
Elijah pursed his lips. Zim’s tutor was teaching Hebrew history to this little pagan.
Zim bounced on the balls of his feet. “You’d really like the professor, Mr. Nathan. You would, too, Mr. Lijah. He’s the bestest professor in the whole world. You wanna go see him, Mr. Nathan, sir? See he lives way at the other end of town. I can show you in the morning.”
“Um, yes, I would, Zim. I’d like to meet the professor.”
Zim hopped on one foot to Nathan’s side. “That’s great, Mr. Nathan. My dad used to take me to the professor’s for my lessons. And he made things for the professor.” His hopping stopped. “I’d show you my dad’s forge, but Mom sold all that.” Zim waved at a low stone wall and a pile of ashes beyond the tree. “My dad made lots and lots of things for people all over town.”
The three took turns drinking from a long-handled gourd dipper. Elijah carried the bucket full of water and followed Nathan and Zim up to the veranda.
The widow joined them with a small barrel and a jar. She turned the barrel upside down on a goatskin and spanked out its last dusting of flour. With the jar upside down, she waited and held it for the last—the very last—dribble of oil.
Elijah gulped. Why had he jabbered so about flour? He left Nathan and Zim gazing into the oak tree and approached the widow. “I built many fires for our mother, ma’am.”
She handed him a flint and a piece of pyrite.
From the woodpile he selected leaves and twigs and poked them under the low clay baking cone. He struck the flint against the pyrite several times, and a spark landed in the leaves. Cupping his hands around the curling smoke, he blew gentle puffs and smiled when a flame sprang up. As the tiny blaze grew, he laid on three larger twigs, then four more.
Elijah reached up several times and touched the cone while he added twigs to the fire. At last the heat made him jerk his hand away.
The widow laid four tiny flatbreads on the cone and wiped a tear from her cheek. In no time the breads cooked on one side, and she flipped them. Her fingers moved as fast as Mother’s.
Elijah sighed. Because he had told the king no more rain, he might never feel Mother’s soft, slender fingers again.
“Come, boys.” She lit a candle from the coals and handed it to Zim. She carried the flatbreads into the house, and the boys all followed. Zim stood the candle in a tiny candle stick on the dining skin, and she placed the bread beside it.
They sat on goatskins on the floor around the large dining skin.
“You’re Hebrews, so we’ll let you pronounce the blessing.”
“The blessing?” Elijah wrinkled his nose. Was this pagan woman asking for a Hebrew blessing? “Thank you, ma’am. But our father says the prayers.”
“You’ll do fine, boys. I’m sure you know how it goes.”
Elijah nodded and poked Nathan. In Dad’s absence, the privilege of pronouncing the ancient words belonged to the older brother.
In slow, even tones, Nathan recited, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe Who brings forth bread from the earth. Amen.”
“Mother, may I take Mr. Nathan to my lesson?” Zim grinned at Nathan. “You’d like the professor, Mr. Nathan. He’s got blessings he says too.”
“No doubt the professor would like to meet our guests.” She stiffened her face into a cheerful mask.
Elijah winced. She had said this small fare would be their last meal. He offered a modest smile.
The widow put a flatbread on the skin in front of Nathan and then one in front of Elijah. “For our honored guests.” She broke nibbles from her bread, and Elijah did the same. He took tiny bites, chewed well, and swallowed when the widow swallowed. Nathan watched and followed Elijah, and Zim followed Nathan.
The widow focused her smile on Zim, and tears welled in her eyes.
Before the tears could spill, Elijah broke the silence. “Zim studies with a tutor who says blessings, ma’am?” If she couldn’t buy bread, how could she pay for a tutor?
She wiped her eyes and gave a crisp nod. “Professor Hashabiah is the best tutor in Zarephath.” She sat up straight.
Hashabiah? Elijah’s eyebrows furrowed and then relaxed. He didn’t need to consult with Nathan. Zim tutored with a Hebrew.
The boy squirmed and chewed and waved his half piece of flatbread. “Got the best tree house in the world and the best tutor in town. Can I take Mr. Nathan to my lesson, Mommy? In the morning, okay? Mr. Lijah, too. They gotta meet the professor.”
His mother gave him a soft smile. “If our guests are interested.” She gave a slight bow to Elijah and bit her lip.
He angled his shoulders toward the widow. “Yes, ma’am. It would be our pleasure.”
Zim pushed in the last bites, and Elijah held his breath. No way could one small piece satisfy a boy of six.
“Mommy, can I have more, please?”
The widow’s smile dried flat across her face. “I wish we could, dear.”
Elijah twisted his hands together and then rubbed the front of his tunic. When the Lord put “neither dew nor rain” in his mouth, the brook stopped flowing. He tugged on his lower lip and looked sideways at Nathan. Where had “bake up a storm” come from? The Lord or his own imagination?
He stood and pulled the flour barrel off the shelf. Would an empty barrel heft like this? Three sets of eyes helped him lift the lid. He turned the open mouth of the barrel toward the widow. “Your flour barrel, ma’am.”
She stared into the barrel. “Eh?” Her eyes widened.
He yanked the stopper from the oil jar and showed her the opening.
“Wha…” Her mouth fell open.
“So, Mommy, can I have another piece?” Zim led them onto the terrace and poked more twigs under the baking cone.
“Wow!” Elijah laughed and turned to Nathan. “Thank the Lord!”
Nathan’s mouth went slack then curled into a broad smile. “Bake up a storm, little brother.”
Her face frozen in a dream state, the widow drew out a handful of flour and mixed in oil. Finally she formed words. “I can’t believe…” She held her hand to her mouth. “Your talk out by the gate… I didn’t think you…” Tears ran down her face.
Elijah laughed. “That’s okay, ma’am. At the gate, I thought maybe it was the Lord talking, but your empty flour barrel made me wonder.”
He knelt and helped Zim push twigs into the fire. “Thank you, Lord. You brought forth this bread from the earth and into this woman’s hands.”
The widow dropped three more handfuls of flour on the skin and dribbled in a generous puddle of oil. Instead of the puny pieces of her first attempt, she spread the baking cone with giant flatbreads.
The hot bread silenced Zim until his final bite. “So, Mommy, can I take Mr. Nathan and Mr. Lijah up to the professor’s in the morning? Can I?”
Her face relaxed. “But not in those filthy rags. Go find them something of your father’s, and show them the guest room.” She tipped her head toward the stairs. “You boys are tall like my husband. I couldn’t bring myself to sell his tunics and robes. You’ll want to wash up at the well.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Elijah and Nathan spoke as one. They followed Zim to the roof, where he opened the door to the guest room. They descended to the back yard, bathed at the well in the dark, and pulled on their first clean tunics in months. Back on the roof and inside the guest room, they curled up on a goatskin.
Elijah pulled a fresh, clean robe over them. “What’s a Professor Hashabiah doing in this pagan place?”
“And how can they afford him?”