The Widow of Zarephath: A Story of Empowerment in Marginality

                                                                                                            wellsprings_theologicalreflect

Quynh-Hoa Nguyen, Northern Illinois Annual Conference

This article represents a Vietnamese woman’s reading of the story of the widow at Zarephath in the context of the Christian marginality of women. The marginal widow of Zarephath, as this reading articulates, represents divine empowerment in her marginality. This is not a scholarly reading of a biblical text; rather, it is a reading of an”ordinary reader” who socially engages a biblical story to retell her own. I am interested in women’s stories and how they inform the meaning-making of biblical texts. The story presented here is drawn from the ethnographic research that I conducted at evangelical churches in Saigon in 2007. These particular churches belong to the Evangelical Church of Vietnam, which was established in Vietnam by the Christian and Missionary Alliance in 1911.

People all have stories to tell, stories of celebration or anguish. Vietnamese Christian women also tell their stories, identify themselves with biblical stories available to them, and make meaning out of those stories. Wesley Kort, professor of religion, argues for the ubiquity and primacy of narrative in human life. In Story, Text, and Scripture, Kort asserts that “narrative undercuts the distances and differences, however great they may be, between cultures, so that the culture of ancient Israel, different and distant from our own in so many respects, is also joined to our own in this way.”1 Narrative is ubiquitous and fundamental to human understanding because it carries timeless human experiences across time, space, and race. Vietnamese Christian women can recognize their stories in ancient biblical narrative because they are both connected with the divine, the sacred that together constitute the lasting values for making meaning in human life.

My research data shows that one of the markings of Vietnamese Christians is marginality in relation to Vietnamese society. Women, in particular, face double marginality as Christians in the society and as women in the patriarchal structure of the church. Here I am focusing on the Christian marginality of women. Marginality, in this context, is to be marginal or peripheral to the ecclesiastical power structure that traditionally and biblically subjects women to male dominance. The marginality of Vietnamese Christian women, however, does not necessarily assume the experiences of living”in-between,””in-both,” or ‘in-beyond” as presented in the views of the dominant groups and of the immigrants themselves regarding the existence of ethnic minorities in the United States.2 Rather, the Christian marginality of women is closely associated with the experiences of submission, subordination, silence, inferiority, and nothingness. Marginal experiences are not characterized by alienation, separation, and tension with the power center that produces them. Marginal women seem not to challenge the patriarchal structure of the church because they have been shaped by long-held patriarchal cultural ideology strongly reinforced by biblical traditions. The most fundamental determinant of marginality of Vietnamese Christian women is gender, which makes women vulnerable to a sociocultural and religious system dominated by male power and authority. In such a system, women become marginalized not because of their education, occupation, economic status, or spiritual maturity, but precisely because of their gender.

At first sight it appears that Vietnamese Christian women perceive female biblical figures as symbols of virtue and godliness. The virtuous, godly woman is primarily filial, faithful, prayerful, giving, self-sacrificing, and courageous. When asked about their favorite women in the Bible, Vietnamese women choose Ruth as a model for filial obedience; Jochebed and Hannah as those mothers who raised their children with faith; Anna as one who was fervent in prayer; Rahab as a woman of faith; Esther as one who feared God and was willing to sacrifice for her people; Mary, whose anointing of Jesus demonstrated wholehearted and quiet giving; and the women at the cross as role models of faithfulness and courage. The images in these readings predominantly reflect the traditional roles of women and reinforces their subordinate place in the patriarchy. It is perhaps because Vietnamese Christian women are deeply embedded with those values of the Christian tradition that they readily identify in these biblical stories the virtues traditionally set out before them. They find in these women’s stories the experiences and values that have been significantly upheld in the family life, if not public life, of the Christian community. Feminist theologians have appealed to women’s experience as a source of theology and biblical interpretation, yet the experience of women in this case corresponds with the traditional image of woman constructed by the patriarchal system, rather than confronting it. This resonates with what Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza would call the”common sense” experience of the oppressed that can’t be used as a criterion of feminist interpretation. She argues that since wo/men have internalized and are shaped by kyriarchal (i.e., lord, master, father, husband) “common sense” mind-sets and values, the hermeneutical starting point of feminist interpretation cannot be simply the experience of wo/men, but must be critically reflected experience of injustice and struggle against kyriarchal dehumanization.3

It is perhaps because Vietnamese Christian women are deeply embedded with those values of the Christian tradition that they readily identify in these biblical stories the virtues traditionally set out before them.

However, a closer reading of Vietnamese Christian women’s engagement with biblical stories reveals a desire to claim divine empowerment despite the marginality of their gender. This claim is biblically grounded in the story of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8–24). Niem T. Vu, a forty-five-year-old woman, found her own story mirrored in the biblical account of the prophet Elijah and the unnamed widow. The story unfolds as she recalls the days after the fall of Saigon when her family encountered political-economic powerlessness:

My family lost everything including our house and our basic needs for survival in this event . . . You know, life was very hard after 1975 . . . My father was sent to a reeducational camp because he was an officer of the old regime, so my family was in great difficulty. In those hard times I remembered the story of Elijah. Elijah was also in a very difficult situation, but God used ravens and a widow to feed him. We prayed together, telling God,”You fed your prophet through the ravens and the poor widow; now please provide for us too.” We just prayed in the morning, and the ravens and widow came in the afternoon.4

The larger context of the biblical story engaged here begins with Elijah’s announcement to King Ahab of the coming great drought. Consequently, he is sent to the Wadi of Cherith and Zarephath, where God commands ravens and a widow to feed him respectively. The prophet who once has power to confront the king becomes politically vulnerable and economically disadvantaged. It is more striking that he has to rely on the ravens and the widow—the neediest—for his survival. However, it is the prophet, not the widow, who is generally presented by academic scholars as the focus of the story. Reading the story in the socioeconomic context of the Omrid dynasty in nineteenth-century Israel, Tamis H. Rentería depicts Elijah as a “resistance figure” who represented an alternative power to the monarchy. It is against the conflict between the Israelite king and the peasants—the victims of land acquisition, heavy taxes, and labor—that Elijah is seen as a hero who provided the marginalized with an alternative to despair.5 Frank S. Frick describes Elijah as a “miracle worker” who saved the widow and her son. He argues that the story of the widow of Zarephath reveals the prophet’s concern for the oppressed and socially marginalized. It also serves to affirm Elijah’s larger national mission, which included a foreign widow, socially and religiously located outside the Israelite society6 Similarly, Jopie Siebert-Hommes views the presence of the widow of Zarephath (along with the Shunammite woman in 2 Kings 4) as a “literary device” used to acknowledge the legitimacy of the prophet.7 Also, Claudia V. Camp links the story with the prophetic recognition and authorization as well as with prophetic power.8 In these interpretations, the widow of Zarephath comes across primarily as a backdrop to propaganda for the figure of Elijah.

It is interesting that in her reading the Vietnamese woman credits the starving widow, not the prophet who works miracles to preserve the lives of her and her son. It is the poor widow who provides the persecuted prophet with food and home. Relating her family’s desperation to Elijah’s, she identifies him as a persecuted prophet who takes refuge in the widow’s home. In her experience of sociopolitical and economic vulnerability, she does not encounter Elijah as a miracle worker or a hero of the country who is divinely empowered to reverse the hopeless situation created by the society in which marginal people live. Rather, she remembers the poor widow as God’s never-ending provision for those socially and financially marginalized. In her memory, the widow remains as one who turns a desperate situation into hope and fulfillment.

As the above reading shows, the widow represents empowerment in marginality in the sense that she is socially and financially vulnerable, but she is able to carry God’s mission. She appears to have nothing to give, but she eventually can empower the prophet even in her dire circumstances. The life of a widow in ancient Israel, according to the Hebrew Bible, is commonly associated with poverty and dependency. The poor are described in the law codes generally as those “socially inferior, politically powerless, economically needy and therefore dependent on the rich and the powerful for their survival.”9 The image of the widow is also predominantly constructed as one who is poor and virtuous throughout Israelite literature.10 The widow of Zarephath, though not belonging to the Israelite society, does not escape the socially underprivileged condition particularly typical of widowhood. Her difficulty is certainly more challenging than other widows’ because she also has a son to take care of in the great drought. The widow of Zarephath thus is not only a widow but also a mother of an orphan, both of which by all means belong to the most disadvantaged in the patriarchal society. The starving widow, nonetheless, turns into empowerment to fulfill the divine command despite her marginal status.

The Vietnamese woman reader of this story challenges the concept of marginality as being weak, subordinate, inferior, or nothing. The widow is defined as marginal within her society and even a “non-entity” in a patriarchal religious society,11yet her marginality does not render her powerless and helpless. Despite her marginal existence, the widow actually demonstrates that having little or nothing becomes something significant. The patriarchal ideology of the Vietnamese church stresses traditional virtues of the woman so much that these become the defining values of Christian culture prescriptive for women. That necessarily subjects women to male authority and makes their position marginal to the structure and exercise of ecclesial leadership. For Vietnamese Christian women, marginal existence includes the reality of subordination and the feeling of inferiority, having little value to offer, especially to the public arena of the church. Women don’t have much worth to offer, and that keeps them from participating in significant ways in the power structure of ministry. The above reading of the story of the widow of Zarephath asserts that women can empower others even in the face of marginality. The widow of Zarepath thus can be seen as a figure of empowerment for many marginal women in the church. The appropriation of the Bible by Vietnamese women, though not escaping from the patriarchal domination, reveals a new voice that allows women to claim power in those places where they are deemed marginal.


1 Wesley A. Kort, Story, Text, and Scripture: Literary Interests in Biblical Narrative (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988), 8.

2 The concept “marginality” was first presented in 1928 by Robert E. Park, an American sociologist, to describe the existence of ethnic minorities in the U.S. as those who live”in-between” two different cultural worlds without fully belonging to either. From an Asian American perspective, theologian Jung Young Lee argues for a new definition of marginality, which affirms the positive experience of being”in-both,” and proposes a view of being”in-beyond” which simultaneously affirms and transcends both negative and positive experiences of marginal existence. See Robert E. Park,”Human Migration and the Marginal Man,” American Journal of Sociology 33 (1928): 881–93; Jung Young Lee, Marginality: The Key to Multicultural Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 47–76.

3 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza,”Invitation to ‘Dance’ in the Open House of Wisdom: Feminist Study of the Bible,” in Hee An Choi and Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, eds., Engaging the Bible: Critical Readings from Contemporary Women (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 85.

4 Niem T. Vu, interview by investigator, transcript of tape recording, Saigon, August 13, 2007. Name has been changed to protect the subject.

5 Tamis H. Rentería,”The Elijah/Elisha Stories: A Socio-Cultural Analysis,” in ed., Robert B. Coote, Elijah and Elisha in Socioliterary Perspective (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992), 113–17.

6 Frank S. Frick,”1 Kgs 17:8–24: Widow of Zarephath,” in Carol Meyers, gen. ed.; Toni Craven and Ross S. Kraemer, assoc. eds.,Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament(Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001), 272.

7 Jopie Siebert-Hommes,”The Widow of Zarephath and the Great Woman of Shunem: A Comparative Analysis of Two Stories,” in Althalya Brenner, ed., A Feminist Companion to the Bible, Samuel–Kings, 2nd series 7 (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 102–3, 114.

8 Claudia V. Camp,”1 and 2 Kings,” in Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe, eds., Women’s Bible Commentary, exp. ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), 112.

9 Robert Wafawanaka,”African Perspective on Poverty in the Hebrew Law Codes,” in Gerald O. West and Musa W. Dube, eds., The Bible in Africa: Transactions, Trajectories, and Trends (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2001), 494.

10 Karel van der Toorn,”The Public Image of the Widow in Ancient Israel,” in Jan N. Bremmer and Lourens van den Bosch, eds., Between Poverty and the Pyre: Moments in the History of Widowhood (London: Routledge, 1995), 19–30.

11 Siebert-Hommes in Brenner, A Feminist Companion, 103.

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