The Widow of Zarephath in Word and Image
Sarah Fein, MTS candidate, Harvard Divinity School
Abstract: This project examines the interpretive history of 1 Kings 17:8-24, known as “Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath” from a feminist critical perspective. It places the text in a topos of petitioning mothers, which occurs both in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Jewish literature. Finally, it analyzes the third-century Dura Europos synagogue wall painting depicting this scene in light of this topos. It ultimately argues that the painting serves as visual midrash which rewrites the Widow as an active character with more agency than in the biblical text.
The Prophet Elias and the Widow of Sarepta
Bernardo Strozzi, c. 1640-1644
Upon first examination, the widow in I Kings 17:8-24 is an unremarkable character. Over the centuries, commentators, including the authors of the Targumim and the Septuagint, have made little of the widow’s role in this story. Upon first reading, it appears to be just one more tale demonstrating the power of a prophet, common enough in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. Modern feminist scholars have mostly ignored the widow in favor of other, more dynamic female characters in the Hebrew Bible.[i] Broadening the scope of study beyond the Masoretic text (MT) to the wider world of “rewritten Bible,” [ii] however, reveals further yet-unexplored aspects of this character, to whom I shall refer as the Widow of Zarephath.
The various “rewritings” of this narrative occur in diverse forms. An example of the rewriting of the story of the Widow of Zarephath is found in a wall painting in the Dura Europos synagogue, located in modern-day Syria and dating from the middle of the third century CE (see Image A). The Widow is featured prominently in this painting. On the left side, she hands a limp figure, presumably her recently deceased child, to the prophet Elijah, who reclines on a couch in the center of the painting. On the right side, the Widow holds up her now animated child, who extends his hand to the left, as she extends hers to the right. Above her hand, and between her head and Elijah’s, the hand of God reaches downward from the sky. The Widow’s actions, namely her giving of her son to Elijah on the left and her outstretched hand on the right, are not described in the MT. Viewers are thus left to wonder what the significance of these actions could be, and on what basis the Dura Europos artist made his interpretive leap from the text of the MT to the image on the synagogue wall.
The easiest way to answer this question would be to examine other interpretations of the story of the Widow, contemporary to the interpretation of the Dura Europos synagogue painting. Unfortunately, no such interpretations exist. The Aramaic Targum and the Septuagint version of this text do not change the story or the Widow’s role within it in any significant way, nor are there pseudepigraphal or apocryphal legends that might help us to understand what the Widow’s gestures could possibly mean. Thus, in the quest to understand this painting, we shall have to cast our interpretive net wider than I Kings 17:8-24.
In this paper, I will first argue that the MT version of the story of the Widow of Zarephath belongs among a biblical topos of mothers who pray to God in times of crisis. I will then explain how Second Temple Jewish literature amplified and developed this topos, especially in making the biblical mothers petition on behalf of their children. Finally, I will situate the painting of the Widow of Zarephath among the other images of the Dura Europos synagogue, arguing that it was part of a larger artistic program that depicted biblical characters acting as necessary catalysts for divine action. Given this interpretation, I will ultimately argue that the Dura Europos artist was influenced by both textual and visual developments of the topos of the active, petitioning mother and thus portrayed the Widow of Zarephath as physically acting to restore the life of her son.
A Call to Action
The story of the Widow of Zarephath begins with the prophet Elijah. In I Kings 17:9, the LORD orders the prophet to go to the land of Zarephath, in Sidon, where the LORD has commanded a widow to feed him. Elijah obeys, and in Zarephath he takes up residence with an unnamed, impoverished widow who somehow provides for him (as well as herself, her son, and her household) for “many days” (I Kings 17:15).[iii] Some time after this, the son of the woman falls very ill and presumably dies, for in the next verse the Widow cries in despair to Elijah: “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to bring my sins to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” (I Kings 17:18). Elijah takes her son, carries him to an upper chamber of the house, and, by stretching upon him and crying to the LORD, brings the boy back to life. The chapter ends with the Widow’s enthusiastic testament to the legitimacy and truth of Elijah as a prophet.
The Widow’s cry in verse 18 is a pivotal moment within the chapter. Without her words, it is unclear whether Elijah would have moved to resuscitate her son of his own accord. Thus, it is likely that it is her speech that has moved the prophet to action. The chapter provides a parallel for the Widow’s words as necessary for affecting change: in verse 22, the text states that “the LORD listened to the voice of Elijah” who had been crying out for the revivification of the Widow’s son, and brings the son back to life. As the LORD is moved to act due to the cries of Elijah, Elijah is moved by the Widow’s cries to take steps to resuscitate the boy. In both cases, the voice acts as a catalyst for divine action. It is possible that the most powerful part of the Widow’s rebuke of Elijah is her choice to call him “man of God.” By doing so, she reminds him of his powerful capabilities and almost dares him to prove himself by enacting a miracle. After he has restored her son to her, she affirms his legitimacy by saying: “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth” (17:24). By questioning Elijah’s legitimacy, she has effectively petitioned him to change her situation, and thus happily affirms his status once he has granted her desire.
Yochanan Muffs argues that the Hebrew Bible consistently depicts the necessity of human request or intercession for divine action to occur. In describing Abraham’s bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, he states that “God’s hands are tied until Abraham, a human being, makes a request, that is, until a prophet intercedes.”[iv] While Muffs restricts his discussion to the intercessory role of prophets, his argument holds true when considering the Widow of Zarephath and other mothers in the Hebrew Bible who petition third parties on behalf of their children. As in Muffs’ discussion of Abraham, these mothers’ prayers usually occur at times of danger or affliction.[v] Patrick D. Miller argues that women’s prayer in difficult times exemplifies one of the “primary thematic threads of Scripture—the outcry of an oppressed and afflicted sufferer who complains and pleads to God and the delivering response of God. Nothing is more fundamental to the biblical story or to its understanding of God than this.”[vi] Though she does not explicitly pray to God, but to his vessel, Elijah, the Widow’s lament can still be understood as part of this “thematic thread”: the Widow cries out when she is afflicted and suffering from the death of her child, and her cry, as I discussed above, implies a request for deliverance from a source of divine power. Miller cites Hagar, another biblical mother, as an example of this pattern. Genesis 21 describes the expulsion of Hagar and her son Ishmael from the safety of Abraham’s camp. Hagar, certain that the two will die in the wilderness, pleads to an unspecified audience: “Do not let me look on the death of the child,” and lifts up her voice and weeps (Gen. 21:16). Miller argues that “it is likely that the words of Hagar are the prayer of a sufferer who lifts her distress to God, that distress being the imminent death of her only son. Her weeping is typical to those who cry out to God in affliction.”[vii] Confusingly, the text states that God hears the voice of “the boy,” but it is to Hagar the angel of God calls, reassuring her that she and her son will not die, but will instead be blessed. Miller explains this confusion of Hagar and the child’s voice by stating, “It is the weeping of the mother and the crying of the child, the prayer of the mother and the need of the child, all wrapped up together, that elicit a divine response.”[viii] A similar conflation of the child’s need and the mother’s voice occurs in I Kings 17: the Widow vocally appeals to divine power to save her child, and is answered in the affirmative by a divine intercessor.
I would add Lamentations 1:16-17 and 2:18-19 as a further example of a mother praying for her children. Though in this case the mother is metaphorical – Zion personified as a mother – the passage provides an even more explicit example of a mother petitioning to God on behalf of her children. In 1:16-17, Zion bemoans the fate of the people of Jerusalem, her metaphorical “children.” She describes how she weeps, for “her children are desolate” (1:16), and “stretches out her hands” (1:17), though she receives no comfort. In 2:18-19, Zion again weeps and cries out, acts that are typical of one praying to the LORD at a time of affliction, as I argued above.[ix] In 2:19, the omniscient narrator of Lamentations commands Zion to “lift your hands to [God]/for the lives of your children,” that is, to petition the LORD on behalf of her suffering offspring.[x] Lamentations describes actions that are typical of a mother who acts as intercessor on behalf of her suffering offspring: namely, weeping, crying out, and petitioning the divine. Like Zion, the Widow of Zarephath cries out in distress and turns to a higher power in the hopes of moving that power to relieve the suffering of her child.
A Mother’s Prayer
There are not enough instances of women praying on behalf of their afflicted children in the Hebrew Bible to consider it a topos in and of itself. However, the examples of Hagar and personified Zion can be considered part of a larger, more general topos of women praying within the context of motherhood. As above, this usually occurs at times of suffering or affliction. Genesis 25:22 describes how Rebekah laments the struggling of the twins in her womb; in Genesis 30:24 Rachel, jealous of her sister Leah’s many children, requests another son; and Hannah prays desperately to conceive a son in 1 Samuel 1:10-15. Other examples of women’s prayer that do not occur at times of suffering or affliction include Genesis 29:35, where Leah praises the LORD for the birth of Judah; the women blessing Naomi at the birth of “her” son in Ruth 4:14; and Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving for Samuel’s birth in 1 Sam. 2:1-10.[xi] The Hebrew Bible, then, consistently presents women praying as mothers, and almost as consistently presents these mothers praying in times of crisis or affliction.
This rather broad topos becomes even more developed in the literature of the Second Temple period (roughly 530 BCE-70 CE). During this time, commentators and translators of the biblical text expanded women’s prayers that already existed in the MT and added many prayers that were not there originally. While the petition of the Widow of Zarephath to Elijah is not explicitly expanded in this way, later readers of the Bible and other extracanonical literature, such as the Dura Europos artist, were likely to be aware of this trend toward adding and expanding women’s prayers. Two examples illustrate this developing topos particularly well: the prayers of Hannah in Midrash Shmuel and the prayers of Rebekah in Jubilees.
The prayers of Hannah are greatly expanded in extracanonical literature, in some sources so much that she comes to assume the role of prophetess in her Song of Thanksgiving in 1 Samuel 2.[xii] My main concern, however, is how Hannah becomes a petitioner for the life of her son, a theme that is completely absent in the MT. Midrash Shmuel expands upon the scene in MT 1 Sam. 1:21-28, in which Hannah takes the three-year-old Samuel to the “house of the LORD” (v. 34). In the MT, mother and son bring a sacrificial bull to the “house,” where it is slaughtered without incident. In the midrash, however, the young Samuel instructs a non-priest to slaughter the bull, a serious violation of sacrificial law. When the high priest Eli discovers what the boy has done, he becomes enraged at his boldness and seeks to kill him. Hannah, in defense of her son’s life, says to Eli “I lent him to the Lord. Whatever betide, he belongs neither to you nor to me, but to God.” [xiii] In an example of “incredible bravery …one might say boundless audacity,”[xiv] Hannah challenges Eli’s presumed right to harm her son, and succeeds: Samuel’s life is spared, and a grateful Hannah sings her song of thanks in the next chapter. This story nicely complements the story of the Widow of Zarephath. In both cases, a woman shows “incredible bravery” and “boundless audacity” by challenging a “man of God” (in one case a prophet; in another, a priest) who she believes threatens the life of her son. It is possible that the Dura Europos artist was aware of this particular midrash or a similar legend which developed Hannah’s role of petitioner, and allowed it to inform his depiction of the Widow of Zarephath, who, as I will argue later, is a much more active petitioner in the painting than she is in the MT.
While Rebekah does not petition for her son Jacob’s life at the moment when it is threatened, her prayer in Jubilees (second century BCE) is significant for a variety of reasons. First, as I demonstrated above, post-biblical literature greatly expands a mother’s prayer from its original wording in the MT. In MT Gen. 27:41-46, Rebekah has just become aware that Esau is seeking to kill Jacob for stealing his birthright. She deals with the situation efficiently and authoritatively, commanding Jacob to flee the area and stay there until she calls him back again. Jubilees 25 addresses a similar situation, that of Jacob’s leaving his homeland. Yet in Jubilees his life is not threatened and Rebekah is not attempting to preserve it. She instead takes the opportunity to bestow on her son a lengthy blessing of peace, righteousness, and increase. Second, Jubilees’ description of Rebekah’s physicality will have important implications when later considering visual adaptations of biblical narratives. When praying, Rebekah is said to have “lifted up her face to heaven and extended the fingers of her hands, and opened her mouth and blessed the Most High God, who had created the heaven and the earth, and she gave Him thanks and praise” (Jub. 25:11-12). Jubilees 25 thus establishes two trends of which the Dura Europos artist was likely aware: the role of mothers as intercessors on behalf of their sons (though in this case the mother is asking God for blessings, not preservation or restoration of life), and the physical posture a woman adopts while praying.
Painting the Picture
In making the transition from text to image, artists depicting biblical scenes often could not rely on the text to provide them with physical descriptions of the characters and action. Such was the case when the artist of the Dura Europos synagogue paintings sought to adapt I Kings 17 to a visual medium.[xv] Their task, then, was to convey through image the dominant understanding of a scene’s characters and actions. While this may have involved an interpretive leap on the part of the artist, it was ultimately rooted in a community’s, not an individual’s, interpretation. In the case of the wall painting of the Widow of Zarephath in the Dura Europos synagogue, her curious gesture on the left side of the painting – handing Elijah her deceased son, rather than having him taken from her, as the MT specifies[xvi] – is based upon a prevailing understanding of her role in the text. This understanding drew upon not only 1 Kings 17 but other scenes in the MT, as well as in Second Temple period Jewish literature. While the MT itself suggests the Widow’s assertiveness and the important role her speech plays in getting Elijah to bring her son back to life, ancient interpreters likely considered the passage intertextually[xvii] with other stories of women, both in the Hebrew Bible and in extracanonical literature, who pray or petition on behalf of their children (such as Hagar, Hannah, and Rebekah). These women comprise a topos of mother-as-intercessor, a topos in which these interpreters, and thus, the Dura Europos artist, would have considered it perfectly appropriate to include the Widow of Zarephath. As these women’s assertiveness is their most defining characteristic, so the Widow’s assertiveness became hers. The artist thus chose to contradict the MT’s description of Elijah taking the Widow’s son from her (which emphasizes the Widow’s passivity) and instead depicted the Widow giving her son to Elijah, which makes her a much more active and assertive figure. Thus, the Widow’s initiative finds expression through her physicality. While it would have been simplest for the artist to portray the Widow’s physical stance as it is depicted in the MT, contemporary understanding of the Widow as part of a topos of active, petitioning mothers compelled the artist to visually depict her as active, as well.
To depict the Widow as such, the artist first turned to descriptions of praying mothers from the MT and extracanonical literature. As discussed above, both Lamentations and Jubilees provide descriptions of mothers’ physicality when praying for or on behalf of their children. Both descriptions focus on the women’s hands: Lamentations describes how mother Zion “stretches out her hands” (1:17), and “lift[s] [her] hands [to God]” (2:19), and Jubilees states that Rebekah “lifted up her face to heaven and extended the fingers of her hands” (25:11) when asking for divine blessing for Jacob. In these passages, the women’s physical poses accompany the assertive action they are taking on behalf of their children. The Dura Europos artist’s choice to depict the Widow as stretching out her arms (with her child in them) on the left side of the painting, and extending her arms in a slightly different manner on the right side (which I discuss further below), represents a deliberate attempt to associate the Widow with these other active and assertive mothers who petitioned the deity to better their children’s situation.
To more fully comprehend the Widow’s gesture on the right side of the painting, it is necessary to consider the image as part of the larger artistic program of the Dura Europos synagogue. While it is unlikely that one individual was responsible for creating every single one of the paintings depicted therein, the paintings are similar enough in style and content that it is reasonable to imagine that a single team or studio of artists working under one dominant worldview was responsible for all of the synagogue paintings.[xviii] Within this artistic program, certain motifs signify certain meanings that would be readily understood by their audience. For our purposes, the most important of these motifs is that of the human hand and its relationship with the deity. There are many examples of this motif in the Dura Europos synagogue paintings; I will consider two.
First, the painting of Moses striking water from a rock (Image B) depicts Moses surrounded by several Israelites who raise their hands to the sky. Figures who hold this raised-hands position are known as orants (singular orans), a term which refers to the figure of a praying person, usually (but not always) female, with outstretched arms and an upturned face. This image proliferated in Christian art from the second to the sixth centuries CE.[xix] When characters from the Hebrew Bible appear as an orans, their gestures most often serve to communicate thanksgiving after being divinely delivered from threatening circumstances. Examples include Jonah, Daniel, Noah, Susannah, the three youths in the fiery furnace, and once, Abraham and Isaac.[xx] The Israelites in the Dura Europos painting of Moses are no exception. In this image, they raise their arms to express gratitude to God for the water Moses has struck out of the rock; this event constitutes as divine deliverance because, as Numbers 20:1-11 attests, the Israelites had previously been wandering in the desert and surely would have perished had they not found water. In the Dura Europos painting, as elsewhere, the biblical orans is a figure grateful towards, but implicitly dependent on, divine favor.[xxi]
As the gestures of the orans figure were used to convey a certain kind of relationship with God, so too were the gestures of the Widow on the right side of the painting used to convey a similar relationship. It is unclear whether the Widow can be considered a full-fledged orans. She extends only one of her own arms, and gestures not unambiguously skywards, but rather in a more outwards motion. She holds her revivified son in her left (the viewer’s right) arm, and thus cannot extend that one in a similar manner. However, her son reaches outward with his own arm, creating the appearance that the Widow is holding both of her arms outward in a pose very similar to that of the orans.[xxii] Her physicality unmistakably evokes the pose of the orans, and would most likely have done so for ancient viewers as well. If we consider the Widow to be an orans (or something very similar), we can apply to her what we know about other biblical characters who were depicted as orants in early Christian and Jewish art. As in the case of these other figures, divine intervention (the miraculous restoration of her son’s life) has just delivered her from extreme suffering. The Widow’s gestures, then, are also meant to convey thanksgiving for divine aid. The fact that the Widow is expressing gratitude for divine aid says little about her agency. However, it is significant that it is the Widow, and not, for example, her son, who is expressing this gratitude. The artist deliberately chose to focus attention on the Widow as being part of this special relationship with God, albeit one where she appears to be merely the passive recipient of divine aid. That the Widow and the LORD are depicted as being in a certain kind of relationship will help us understand how she can have agency in regards to the divine.
While it at might first appear that the Widow and her son are merely passive recipients of God’s miracle, further examination proves that the Widow is a very active partner in her relationship with the divine. The Widow’s extended hand is located, significantly, directly below the hand of God that reaches downward from the sky, and the two almost echo each other. The hand of God is a well-established motif in early Jewish art, one that indicates a miracle has taken or is taking place, and it “serves here as elsewhere to indicate the divine intervention involved in the revivification of the widow’s child.”[xxiii] The relationship between the two hands, however, suggests that more is going on than God’s intervention in worldly affairs. There is a precedent within the Dura Europos synagogue paintings for portraying human and divine hands in a certain relationship in order to show human agency in the course of events. In the series of four paintings of scenes from the book of Ezekiel, especially the first scene (Image C) the hand of Ezekiel, a biblical prophet, reaches upward towards the hand of God, which reaches downward. Kraeling posits that this artistic choice corresponds to Ezekiel 37:9-10, which describes how Ezekiel acts as the recipient and transmitter of the divine message.[xxiv] Thus, Kraeling concludes, “where the appearance of the Hand is combined with gestures on the part of the person concerned, we must conclude from the fact that the emphasis is … upon some divine act requiring human participation.”[xxv] While Kraeling argues that in scenes where humans do not reach upward, a human request may be implied but more active human mediation is not,[xxvi] I would contend that a human request can have just as powerful an effect as mediation: without the request, God (or God’s intermediary) would not act and no change of the situation would occur. Muffs agrees and argues that in the case of prophets who act as intercessors, the “divine strong hand” (literally depicted both here and in the painting of the Widow of Zarephath) “does not lobotomize the prophet’s moral and emotional personality.”[xxvii] Divine will, in other words, does not necessitate that mortal will and initiative is nullified. In fact, as we have seen above, mortal will and initiative may even be required for divine action to occur.
The extended right hand of the Widow of Zarephath is deliberately placed in particular relation to the hand of God to signify that she has a more meaningful relationship with the divine than does the average orans. Not only is she the focus of divine-human relations, as I argued above, her gestures suggest that like Ezekiel, she is a necessary participant in God’s plan. Her hand echoes God’s in both its angle and position of the fingers; it is so similar, in fact, that when we consider that in the Dura Europos paintings, physical attributes are used to represent certain internal characteristics, the parallel physicalities of the two hands suggest that they both represent similar non-physical qualities. Thus, if the hand of God represents divine power that is used in this context to bring the dead child back to life, the Widow’s hand similarly indicates that she played an important role in this revivification process. Her hand, echoing the hand of God, suggests that while she is not an equal partner in God’s plan, she at least shares a bit of his power to affect change upon the world.
As I have discussed, it is extraordinarily difficult to trace the interpretive trajectory of the Widow of Zarephath alone. Ancient commentators and modern scholars simply considered her too minor a character to warrant extensive discussion. However, when considered in the context of contemporary biblical exegesis on human beings and their relationships with divine power, a fuller picture of this woman begins to emerge. Starting from the MT, I have followed the development of the topos of the praying woman as it was amplified, expanded, and clarified in extra-canonical literature. My argument culminated with the artist of the Dura Europos synagogue wall paintings, who, I argue, depicted the Widow as she was understood by the ancient Jewish community: part of a group of mothers who actively prayed and petitioned on behalf of their children, especially in moments of crisis. I hope that this methodology will provide inspiration for others who seek to more fully understand the many unnamed and oft-ignored women of the Hebrew Bible. If we, as scholars, want to give each and every biblical character their due, we will have to go beyond traditional ways of looking at text and tradition and open ourselves to innovative, creative, and unexplored ways of thinking.
The Widow of Zarephath, Her Son, and the Prophet Elijah
Moses Striking Water from the Rock
Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones
[i] The best exception that I have found is Jopie Siebert Hommes’ “The Widow of Zarephath and the Great Woman of Shunem: A Comparative Analysis of Two Stories,” in Samuel and Kings: A Feminist Companion to the Bible (Second Series), ed. Athalya Brenner (Sheffield, Eng.: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 98-114.
[ii] I shall follow Erkki Koskenniemi and Pekka Lindqvist in defining “rewritten Bible” as an umbrella term referring to “various types of the afterlife of the Old Testament,” including: “1) Works in which large parts of the Old Testament are retold…2) Single stories, which were retold later…3) Reworked psalms..4) Legal texts, in which a single commandment of the Torah is rendered in the later tradition…5) Re-used Old Testament prophecies, either in larger units or smaller fragments…6) Translations, which may follow the content of the text accurately, as the LXX mostly does, or which clearly reveal the history of interpretation of the biblical texts, as the targumim generally do.” Erkki Koskenniemi and Pekka Lindqvist, “Rewritten Bible, Rewritten Stories: Methodological Aspects,” in Rewritten Bible Reconsidered: Proceedings of the Conference in Karkku, Finland, August 24-26, 2006,” ed. Antti Laato and Kacques van Ruiten (Eisenbrauns: Abo Akademi University, 2008), 16.
[iii] Unless otherwise noted, I will use the New Revised Standard Version for biblical quotations.
[iv] Yochanan Muffs, Love and Joy: Law, Language and Religion in Ancient Israel (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary, 1992), 11.
[v] Patrick D. Miller, “Things Too Wonderful: Prayers of Women in the Old Testament,” in Biblische Theologie und gesellschafrtlicher Wandel, ed. Georg Braulik, Walter Gross, Sean McEvenue (Freiburg, Germany: Herder, 1993), 240.
[vii] Ibid., 239.
[viii] Ibid., 241.
[ix] Yochanan Muffs adds that “crying out” is a synonym for prayer and/or petition. Muffs, Love and Joy, 11.
[x] The description of Zion “stretching out” and “lifting” her hands will become significant later, when I discuss visual portrayals of women’s prayer.
[xi] These passages were provided by Miller, They Cried to the LORD: The Form and Theology of Biblical Prayer (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 413, n. 2. He also adds women’s prayers that do not concern motherhood: Ex 15:21, Judg. 5:1-31, Ruth 1:8-9, 1 Kgs 10:9, and Ps 131.
[xii] I am indebted to my colleague Sarah Rubin for this information.
[xiii] Midrash Shmuel 3, 53. in Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, vol. 4, Bible Times and Characters from Joshua to Esther (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1913), 60.
[xiv] Muffs, Love and Joy, 11. While Muffs is specifically referring to the prophet’s bravery and audacity in acting as an intercessor to God, the qualities Muffs assigns to the prophet are applicable to Hannah here: bravery and audacity are always required for a mortal being to challenge divine will, even if that will is manifested in a human being (i.e., in this case, a priest).
[xv] “Adaptation can be a transpositional practice, casting a specific genre into another generic mode, an act of re-vision in itself. It can parallel editorial practice in some respects…yet it can also be an amplifactory procedure engaged in addition, expansion, accretion, and interpolation…Adaptation is frequently involved in offering commentary on a sourcetext…can also constitute a simpler attempt to make texts ‘relevant’ or easily comprehensible to new audiences and readerships via the processes of proximation and updating.” Julie Sanders, Adaptation and Appropriation (Oxon: Routledge, 2006), 18-19.
[xvi] My interpretation that the Widow is giving Elijah her child is consistent with Carl H. Kraeling’s. Carl H. Kraeling, The Excavations at Dura Europos: Final Report vol. 8, part 1, edited by A.F. Bellinger et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), 143.
[xvii] Julie Sanders describes intertextuality as “how texts encompass and respond to other texts both during the process of their creation and composition and in terms of the individual reader’s or spectator’s response.” Sanders, Adaptation and Appropriation, 2.
[xviii] This is the assumption under which most other scholars work. See for example Edwin R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, vol. 9, Symbolism in the Dura Synagogue (Toronto: Bollingen Foundation, 1964), 19 where Goodenough discusses the deliberate plan of the art on the synagogue walls.
[xix] Karyn Jo Torjesen, “The Early Christian Orans: An Artistic Representation of Women’s Liturgical Prayer and Prophecy,” in Women Preachers and Prophets Through Two Millenia of Christianity, ed. Beverly Mayne Kienzle and Pamela J. Walker (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 43, 42. Traditionally, the orans has been interpreted as personifying the church, which was usually gendered female, or the soul, due to the ubiquitous placement of the orans in catacombs and on sarcophagi (Ibid., 42).
[xx] Robin Margaret Jensen, Understanding Early Christian Art (London: Routledge, 2000), 36.
[xxi] This motif of human hands signifying an important relationship with God has its roots in the MT. See for example Ex. 17:11-13: “Whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed, and whenever he lowered his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands were steady until the sun set. And Joshua defeated Amalek and his people with the sword.” The implication of this text is that Moses’ upraised hands cause God to turn the tide of the battle in favor of the Israelites.
[xxii] I am indebted to my colleague Elizabeth Segroves for this observation.
[xxiii] Kraeling, The Excavations at Dura Europos, 145. This motif also has its roots in the MT. See for example Ex. 8:19, where Pharaoh’s magicians declare to Pharaoh that the plague of gnats afflicting Egypt is “the finger of God” (emphasis mine).
[xxiv] Kraeling, The Excavations at Dura Europos, 188.
[xxv] Ibid., emphasis mine.
[xxvii] Muffs, Love and Joy, 11.