While researching the story of Jonah I encountered some rather startling details, some of which came from the Midrash, which is a collection of Jewish commentaries on the Hebrew Scriptures dating back to the first century BC. Among the Rabbinic writings is the idea that Jonah was the son of the woman of Zarephath that was raised from the dead by Elijah. So that is where I began the story of Jonah:
The young widow gazed into the barrel, knowing its contents would be the same meager grains she had left there the night before. She gripped the rim and slowly lowered the large earthen jar onto the floor, propping it against the rug she had rolled up to stabilize it with. By kneeling on the floor, she could reach her right arm into the barrel up to her shoulder. There, with a knife and her fingers, she began to scoop the remaining meal into a wooden bowl.
The knock at the door startled her.
“Mother, there is a visitor,” her young son called out. Afraid he would answer it, exposing her in an awkward position, she dropped her tools, stood up, and immediately set the barrel upright again, the bowl and knife now inside.
“Jonah, please sit on your stool,” she whispered as she adjusted her shawl to cover her head.
Her pale, hungry son meekly obeyed. The knock came again, but she had moved across the room and was able to open the door even as the man’s hand was lifting for a third tap.
The widow did not recognize the man, and she immediately thought of the law regarding the giving of hospitality to strangers. Despair crossed her face, for she knew there would not be enough meal.
But the man spoke before she could invite him in. “Go to the city gate to gather sticks for a fire. There the Lord’s servant will find thee.” Then he turned and walked away.
For a moment she watched his retreating form disappear into the shadows of the approaching twilight. However, three minutes later she had reassured her son and carefully closed the door of her home behind her. She did not know which bewildered her more, the surprise command by the messenger, or that she had left her son to go do as the stranger had directed. . . .
She left the city by the narrow, southern gate where the road to Tyre stretched. . . Outside the gate, she obediently began to search for sticks beneath the dying trees of the drought-filled land. The ground had already been gleaned of dry twigs, and most of the lower branches of the trees had been broken off. Then she saw two sticks that had blown down during the night that had not yet been claimed. She stooped to pick them up, reflecting that she was not in need of a big fire for so small a meal.
She raised her head when she heard the footsteps along the road, and there she saw a man with a long, gray beard, wrapped in the rags of what had once been fine robes. She waited as he drew nearer. “Fetch me,” he called out hoarsely, “I pray thee, a little water in a vessel that I may drink.”
Clearly, this old man was worn from his journey. The young mother gently helped him to sit in the shade beneath a tree that still clung to a few shriveled leaves. Then, scooping to
pick up the two meager sticks she had set down, she assured him, “There is still water in the well of the town. I will hasten there and return quickly.” She gathered up her skirts with her
right hand so that her feet would be unencumbered by them.
She was concerned that she was away from her son too long, and hurried toward the city gate as quickly as her own feeble strength would allow. She stopped short when she heard the old man call after her again. Turning around slowly she heard him ask what she had feared.
“Bring me, I pray thee, a morsel of bread in thine hand.”
His voice pierced her heart, but she knew she could not refuse. She had been commanded to come by the messenger, who said this man was the servant of the Lord, but she would have obeyed regardless; the tradition of hospitality was too strong. Still, it was so much to ask! In weak protest she explained, “I have not a cake, but only a handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse.” Then to emphasize her plight she held out the sticks in her left hand and added, “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.”
Her pitiful words hung in the dry, windless day, then seemed to drift away into eternity. Then the man said, “Fear not; go and do as thou hast said; but first make me a little cake of the meal, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son.”
She opened her mouth to protest again, but then she closed it and turned with her head bowed to do as he bid. What did it matter? But the raspy voice called to her again, and though there was now more distance between her and the old man beneath the tree, she heard each word clearly. She turned to stare at him even as he spoke.
“For thus saith the Lord God of Israel” —the voice was surprisingly strong— “the barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the Lord sendeth rain upon the earth.”
She gasped as she stood there, and the words repeated themselves in her mind. Then the leaves above her rustled in a breeze and several broke free to fall around her like a soft, brown rain. Suddenly her heart rejoiced. “I will return.”
Back in her small home, she again tipped the barrel and dug out the meal. She mixed it with some water and the drops of oil from a clay bottle, making a cake the size of her palm. Then
she built a tiny fire with the two sticks and baked the small cake in a flat pan on the fire.
Her son watched her silently, but when she wrapped the cake in a cloth, picked up their now empty water vessel, and reached to open the door, he spoke, “Mother, where do you take our cake? Will there be no supper for us?”
“Jonah, there will be supper for us, but you must wait a bit longer. I am taking this cake to a man who serves the Lord.”
“Where is this man?”
“He is outside the city gate. I will not be long.” Then she was gone and hurrying to where she had left the older man. . .
After the old man had sat down, [in her home] there was an awkward moment as she realized she had promised her son she would return to make him a meal. Then Elijah spoke, “Do not be afraid to look in the barrel. The Lord has promised there would be enough. You demonstrated your faith by serving his prophet, putting the will of the Lord before your own concerns. Go and prepare the cakes for you and your son.”
Slowly the widow walked to the large earthen jar. She did not look inside as she positioned the rug and again lowered it by the rim to the floor. Somehow it seemed a bit more stable as if the bottom had been weighted. Then, as she knelt to scoop meal into her bowl, she looked into the shadowy depths and realized the knife would be inadequate.
The bottom was covered with rich golden meal that was now spilling toward her. She gasped a great sob back and withdrew to get a cup.
“Mother!” Jonah called with concern. “Why are you crying?”
“Come see, Jonah,” his mother held out her hand for him, tears streaming down her face. “Come see the miracle the Lord has provided.”