Before leaving the topic of hospitality, two more examples come to mind. Both are in the Old Testament and both involve anonymous women—one a widow and one apparently a person of means.
The widow of Zarephath
Things were not good in the nation of Israel. King Ahab committed a great sin and married Jezebel, the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Zidonians. She brought with her a pagan religious system complete with 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah (I Kings 18:19). Her husband allowed the idolatrous system to exist and even thrive.
Herbert Lockyer says, “Baal had no more dedicated devotee than Jezebel” (All the Women of the Bible, “Jezebel”). Full of religious enthusiasm she sought to convert all Israel by attempting to exterminate the worship of the true God.
“The pagan religion imported by Jezebel horrified devout Israelites, and it also found many new followers….for centuries the Israelites themselves had often given in to the temptation to blend the Lord and local gods into a single cult. Within a few years, many of the people of Israel had embraced paganism” (Great People of the Bible and How They Lived, Reader’s Digest, 1974, page 207).
Deliver the message and go!
As a result fear and religious turmoil prevailed, and more importantly, God was highly displeased with Israel. As a result He sent his prophet Elijah to deliver a stern message to King Ahab: “As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1). Anticipating a murderous reaction, the word of the Lord instructed Elijah to flee to the safety of the Kerith Ravine where there was water, and where he would be miraculously fed.
Eventually even the brooks and tributaries of the Jordan dried up. The Lord told Elijah to move on to Zarephath, a Zidonian town in the very homeland of his furious adversary, Jezebel. “I have commanded a widow there to provide for you” (verse 9).
Not enough to spare?
Now picture this non-Israelite widow as the prophet of Israel’s God approached and requested the customary amenities of hospitality: water and bread. Imagine the distress in her voice as she replied, “As surely as the Lord your God lives, I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug” (verse 12). These meager amounts represented a last meal as she and her son prepared to finally succumb to starvation.
Elijah pledged if she filled his request for precious sustenance, she would never run out of flour or oil as long as the drought lasted. What a test of faith! She took him at his word, prepared him some food, and lived to experience the miraculous “hospitality” of God, just as He had promised.
The Shunammite woman
Now it happened one day that Elisha went to Shunem, where there was a notable woman, and she persuaded him to eat some food. So it was, as often as he passed by, he would turn in there to eat some food. And she said to her husband, “Look now, I know that this is a holy man of God, who passes by us regularly. Please, let us make a small upper room on the wall; and let us put a bed for him there, and a table and a chair and a lampstand; so it will be whenever he comes to us, he can turn in there” (2 Kings 4:8-10)
What a different set of circumstances for Elisha to encounter. Here we have a prominent woman in the community voluntarily extending hospitality to him as a holy man of God. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary mentions that this woman was well-to-do, literally in the Hebrew, “a great woman.” (See 2 Kings 4, Note 8.) The Note continues, “Being a pious woman, her concern for the prophet was purely spontaneous and bears the impress of a genuinely godly sense of hospitality.” Her home became a frequent way station for Elisha as he traveled the countryside.
It’s interesting to consider the actions and reactions of these two women. Both extended hospitality. However one did so by request and the other voluntarily out of her plenty. One complied with certain misgivings, thinking she was sure to hasten impending starvation; and the other acted out of an innate sense of respect and altruism, having no threats of looming consequences.
Both enjoyed the Lord’s graciousness. The widow and her son avoided death by starvation. But later her son became ill and died; the distraught mother came to Elijah asking why? Elijah turned to God in passionate prayer, and her son’s life was mercifully restored.
The prominent woman had at least one ongoing sorrow: She was childless. As a result of her generous ministering to Elijah’s needs, God miraculously granted her a son. Like the widow, her son, too, got sick and died. Elisha followed Elijah’s example, placing his petitions for mercy before the Lord. God heard, and the woman’s son enjoyed life once more.
It is my hope that these series of posts will add a new dimension to Bible reading by alerting readers to the many subtle threads of hospitality woven throughout the fabric of its pages. We have only touched the surface.