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“The Kindness of Strangers”: The Widow of Zarephath

“The other reality is that my parents don’t want to eat non-Korean food; they want to hold on to what they know. What else do they have but the taste of those familiar dishes”, writes Korean-American novelist Chang-Rae Lee in “Magical Dinners: An Immigrant Thanksgiving”, in The New Yorker (69). Lee explores in this personal essay how the deep memories associated with food informed his family’s immigrant experience. With little money for luxuries, the family could not afford to eat out often [“We dine out maybe four times a year,” recalls Lee (69)]. The custom of meals at the table with his mother, father, and sister was a constant in his home life.

The communal practice of eating is an occurrence shared by people from all cultures. The rituals of the table commemorate times of joy and sorrow. The sourcing of ingredients, preparation, cooking, and eating, encompass a larger, collective experience which lies in the strengthening of ties amongst friends and family. Hospitality is manifested at these occasions, but perhaps this principle is only genuinely observed when offered to an unfamiliar face. In 1 Kings 17, food is shared between strangers — the prophet Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath — at a crucial moment in the Widow’s life. Upon Elijah’s request for water and food, the Widow replies: “As the Lord thy God liveth, I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die” (v. 12). This revelation discloses the Widow’s dire circumstances, but as the story unfolds, her actions exhibit sacrifice, generosity, and kindness (vv. 13-15).

Certainly a common reading of this encounter is that it is a story of faith on the part of the two central characters: the prophet Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath. Elijah and the Widow both must trust that God will take care of their physical needs (1 Kings 17:7-16). And later in the chapter, their faith is tested again when the Widow’s son dies (vv. 17-24). Her decision to serve Elijah food and water when she and her son are at the point of starvation is probably seen as her great act of faith. Arguably, however, it is not the Widow’s trials that are meant for our scrutiny. Rather, her experience reveals the impact of Elijah’s trust in God as evidenced in her pronouncement in the final verse of chapter 17: “Now by this, I know that thou art a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in thy mouth is truth” (v. 24).

In the larger context of Elijah’s life this account is another example of his capacity to follow God’s leading. When we read this chapter, we are more likely to concentrate on Elijah’s hardships since it is his life that is the focal point of several chapters in I Kings. By journeying to Zarephath in Sidon (or “Zidon” in the KJV), Elijah leaves his homeland and becomes a person in exile. In contrast, there are few known facts about the Widow. We know her marital status, where she physically lives, and her socio-economic position. She is poor, a widow from Zarephath, and has a son to support. Despite the fact that we do not know her name, we recognize that this Phoenician woman is a generous and kind individual; she allows a stranger to partake in the last meal she will create and share with her son. Heidi Neumark reflects on the Widow’s behavior in “The Widow’s Hand” published in The Christian Century by describing it as “risky generosity” (943). Understandably some readers may perceive her judgment to be precarious. Except we cannot ignore that it is the Widow’s giving and receptive spirit that prepares her to accept a non-Phoenician man, who possibly has the equivalent standing of a refugee, into her home. Her decision is not “risky”; it is exceptional.

Unlike the grief expressed by the Widow at the death of her son in verse 18, we can only imagine how she felt prior to Elijah’s arrival as she began to plan for what she believed to be the final meal with her son. The Widow’s emotions likely mirrored Chang-Rae Lee’s mother’s fierce attachment and love for him. Reprinted in the anthology, Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: I & Eye Lee recalls in the essay, “Coming Home Again” that when he was a young boy:

She [Chang-Rae Lee’s mother] reminded me daily that I was her sole son, her reason for living, and that if she were to lose me, in either body or spirit, she wishes that God would mercifully smite her, strike her down like a weak branch (98).

It is unlikely that any mother would want her child to die, however the reality the Widow faced was probably watching her son die of starvation. Upon the arrival of Elijah, the private time left to mother and son to reminisce about happier periods or for the son to confide in his mother about his fear of death was disrupted. Likewise the remaining meal to be eaten alone by the Widow and her son would now include a third person. The value of this meal was not to be found in its quantity, quality, or sustenance, but in repeating the traditions of the table: renewing relationships and displaying generosity.

Lee articulates a similar insight when remembering that while his mother was dying from stomach cancer [“I’ve always thought it was particularly cruel that the cancer was in her stomach, and that for a long time at the end she couldn’t eat” (97)], the family would still maintain the tradition of eating together (“Coming Home Again” 96). Lee admits, “I wasn’t cooking for my mother but for the rest of us. . . . she [Lee’s mother] was still eating, though scantily . . . The point was simply to sit together at the kitchen table and array ourselves like a family again. . . . crammed in the center was all the food I had made . . . dishes that in my youth she had prepared for us a hundred times” (“Coming Home Again” 95-96).

Towards the end of “Magical Dinners” Lee contemplates why he, his sister, and conceivably his parents, were eager to sample American dishes in spite of their distinct contrast to Korean cuisine (72). He decides that American fare represented “. . . food without association, unlinked to any past; it’s food that fixes us to this moment only, to this place we hardly know” (“Magical Dinners” 72). The truth of Elijah’s life in Zarephath resonates in Lee’s account. In his exiled state, Elijah, too, was physically detached from home and the past. Whereas in America, Lee and his family had the opportunity to evoke memories of Korea through every bite of his mother’s cooking, Elijah was not privileged with a similar situation in Zarephath. However, by feeding Elijah the Widow bestowed upon him acceptance which as someone living in exile would not have felt. The flavor of the Phoenician food & water, while alien to his tongue, granted Elijah his first intimate interaction with this foreign environment, such as Lee thoughtfully acknowledged: “. . . it’s food that fixes us . . . to this place we hardly know” (“Magical Dinners” 72).

While there are remarkable acts of faith evident in 1 Kings 17, the gift of hospitality shown by a humble woman to a stranger is conceivably why the story still continues to be meaningful for a twenty-first century audience. Even though, God instructs his prophet, Elijah to go to the pagan city of Zarephath because “behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee”, could it be that an ordinary woman was chosen because she was already demonstrating extraordinary deeds of kindness to strangers (1 Kings 17:9)? If so, the Widow is not an unmemorable character in this narrative; she is extraordinary.

NOTE: The title is taken from the chapter of the same name, “The Kindness of Strangers” in Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility (New York: Schocken Books, 2005).

Works Cited

The Bible. [King James Version]

Lee, Chang-Rae. “Coming Home Again.” Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: I & Eye. Ed. Minh Nguyen and Porter Shreve. New York: Pearson Education, 2005. 95-102.

____________. “Magical Dinners: An Immigrant Thanksgiving.” The New Yorker. 22 November 2010: 69-73.

Neumark, Heidi. “The Widow’s Hand.” The Christian Century. 117.26 (Sept 27, 2000): 943-44.

Sacks, Rabbi Jonathan. To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility. New York: Schocken Books, 2005.

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