The article of the month

IS THAT IN THE BIBLE? by Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p.

The Ravenous Prophet

From Romulus and Remus to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, it is not uncommon to meet stories of ­animals sustaining stranded persons. What is odd in 1 Kings 17 is that the ravens who come twice daily at God’s command to bring Elijah his breakfast and dinner apparently have a baker and a butcher at their disposal, for the Lord commands them to bring the prophet bread and meat. The oddity was observed by ancient interpreters who speculated where these birds might have acquired their un-birdly fare. One school cleverly suggested that the birds stole the food from houses and markets, like flying vagabonds lifting pies from windowsills. Another theory was that the God-sent cuisine was cooked in an angelic kitchen and should be imagined along the lines of the manna.

A more modern idea—painfully modern—is that the text actually meant to say not “ravens” (‘orabim) but “Arabs” (‘arabim), the vowels in Hebrew always being an open question of interpretation. Thus: “The Arabs brought him bread in the morning and flesh in the evening” (to follow the crepuscular deliveries as the Septuagint renders the passage). If compelling charity from local Bedouin disenchants the story a tad too much—a rationalistic absurdity with no sense for the strange and miraculous ways of God—it does serve as a good reminder to keep on reading. For the charity of a Phoenician woman, commanded by God to feed Elijah as the famine grows fiercer, will in the very next verses replace the food service of the ravens. And lest this concession to human agency seem a mundane manner of keeping the prophet nourished, the unfailing supply of meal makes the earlier, bird-based assistance look rather tame as miracles go.

Yet a question remains. Moses in the desert required no birds to mediate his manna. In the lions’ den, Daniel had his lunch delivered by a flying prophet (Dn 14:33-36). Why use here these very particular ministers of meat? The Fathers again have various answers. Saint Caesarius of Arles thinks the ravens represent the Gentiles, being unclean. Odd as this thought might seem (and be) on the surface, uncleanness is indeed this carrion bird’s connotation in a Jewish mind, and the parallel with the widow of Zarephath makes the idea genuinely plausible.

In Luke 4, the widow’s charity becomes Jesus’ image for the nations’ welcome of the rejected prophet. As such, it becomes a prophecy and type of Christ’s own career. When the Promised Land itself refuses to produce its fruit, the Lord’s Servant must seek his harvest elsewhere. In this optic, the ravens swarming around Elijah are, like the widow herself, an image of those unclean nations offering the food of faith that Israel withheld.

Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God and wander about for lack of food? (Jb 38:41). Like a raven at God’s mercy, the widow is out gathering sticks to prepare a meal for her young son crying at home for food. The prophet’s reward she wins for offering the prophet a cup of water is that, like the ravens who have neither storehouse nor barn, God feeds her and makes of her jar a bottomless barn (Mt 10:41-42; Lk 12:24). As one who strives for the Kingdom by thus offering alms, rather than worrying about what she herself will eat and drink, she wins a still greater prize for the son whose life she means to save, but is ready to lose in an act of love of neighbor: a share in the power of the Resurrection (Lk 12:29-33; 1 Kgs 17:17-24).


 Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p., is a Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and professor of the New Testament at the École biblique de Jérusalem.