Elijah’s Miracles at Zarephath
The Prophet Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath, c. 1630, Cornelis van Poelenburch, Dutch, 1594/1595 – 1667, National Gallery of Art
by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson June 27–July 3; 1 Kings 17-19
We read in 1 Kings 17:8, “And the word of the Lord came unto him [Elijah the Tishbite], saying, Arise, get thee to Zarephath, which belongeth to Zidon, and dwell there: behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee. So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, the widow woman was there gathering of sticks: and he called to her, and said, Fetch me, I pray thee, a little water in a vessel, that I may drink. And as she was going to fetch it, he called to her, and said, Bring me, I pray thee, a morsel of bread in thine hand. And she said, As the Lord thy God liveth, I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, 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. And Elijah said unto her, Fear not; go and do as thou hast said: but make me thereof a little cake first, and bring it unto me, and after make for thee and for thy son. For thus saith the Lord God of Israel, 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. And she went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, did eat many days. And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord, which he spake by Elijah.”
So, how do we understand miracles like this one – and Jesus’ miracle of feeding the five thousand?1 This story tells us that “the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail” for “many days.”
I have had a problem with this story since the time I was taught it in Junior Sunday School and Primary. It made no sense to me. Where did that extra meal and oil come from? Food doesn’t just appear from thin air – even if you are the prophet Elijah – or does it? I have speculated many times about possible answers: Maybe the barrel of meal and cruse of oil weren’t actually completely empty. Maybe the widow of Zarephath was hypnotized and just thought she and her son had been eating the meal and oil for several days. Maybe the story was just made up and no miracle actually happened. But the God I worship is not a deceiver. He is not the father of lies. He is the God of miracles. The extra meal and oil must have been physically present and come from somewhere. If you or I had been there in the widow’s house for those many days, when the meal and oil wasted not, what would we have seen? Would we have seen meal and oil, as it were, seem to appear in the barrel and cruse out of thin air?
The answer is that I have no idea, but that is not going to stop me from putting forth a hypothesis or two – even crazy hypotheses – very weird, off-the-wall hypotheses. At present, these hypotheses are not testable, but they may become testable at some time in the future.
Here’s a key: In 1947, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to Max Born in which he said of quantum mechanics, as roughly translated from the original German, “I cannot seriously believe in it because the theory cannot be reconciled with the idea that physics should represent a reality in time and space, free from spooky action at a distance.”2 Einstein's problem stems from his assumption, and ours, of a reality in time and space. Actually, there is no space-time independent of measurement. Einstein also stated, after learning of the death of his life-long collaborator and closest friend, “Now he [Michele Besso] has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”3 Could God, who alone knows how at present, have pushed that barrel and cruse backward in the space-time continuum to a time when they contained meal and oil and then brought them back to a time when they were needed?
Will there ever come a time in our future when we will learn how such a feat is accomplished? In the eighteenth century, Isaac Newton proposed a thought experiment in which a stone is carried to the top of a very high mountain and thrown with great velocity into space. If there were no forces of gravitation or air resistance, the stone would follow a straight line away from Earth, in the direction that it was thrown. If a gravitational force acts on the stone, it will follow a different path depending on its initial velocity. If the speed is low, it will simply fall back to Earth, but if the velocity is sufficiently high, it will go into orbit around the earth, just like the moon.4 Newton was never able to perform his experiment in reality, but on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union successfully launched a 23-inch, 184 pound “rock,” called Спутник 1 (Sputnik 1) into space atop their Sputnik 8K71PS rocket. Maybe on October 4, 2357, someone will be able to send an empty meal barrel back in time and return it full of meal.
Or maybe there is another way to fill an empty meal barrel. Now here is an idea that you're going to find really weird, and I am putting this out there as only an idea. What if the extra matter was there all along and God knew how to tap into it?
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught the following concept to the Saints gathered at Ramus, Illinois, May 16 and 17, 1843: “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.”5 I have always found this scripture to be at once strange and alluring.
Fifty eight years later, in 1901, at a meeting of the British Science Association in Glasgow, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) described the rotation of stars within the Milky Way galaxy. He proposed that the velocity of their rotation required a much greater mass to the galaxy than could be accounted for by the stars we can see in the galaxy. Thomson thought those “dark bodies” were “extinct,” burnt out stars, as did Henri Poincaré, who in 1906 coined the term “dark matter,” or “matière obscure” in the original French, to describe them.6
The idea that there were more burned out stars in the universe than visible ones remained barely a footnote in physics textbooks over the next seventy years. Then, in 1976, the whole scientific world was turned upside down, when the American astronomer Vera Rubin published a paper that shattered the existing, comfortable view of the universe. Because most of the stars in spiral galaxies are clustered near the center, astrophysicists assumed that most of the mass – gravity, and dark stars – would be clustered near the center as well. With the mass of the galaxy focused in the center, the speed of stars near the center should be greater than that of stars farther away – similar to Mercury’s speed around the sun being much greater than that of Neptune’s. What Rubin found, however, was that stars in the outer reaches of spiral galaxies were moving just as fast as stars near the center. The implications of this discovery were staggering. Rubin calculated that there was ten times more dark matter associated with each galaxy than visible matter – not inside the galaxy, as was assumed, but surrounding the galaxy like some great halo.7
The concept that Galaxies are rotating so fast that the gravity generated by their observable matter cannot possibly hold them together has continued to grow in popularity since Rubin’s original 1976 paper. Scientists think that dark matter, which we cannot see, or as yet detect in any other way except its gravity, is providing the extra mass necessary to hold the galaxies together. Unlike “normal matter,” dark matter does not interact with any part of the electromagnetic spectrum. It does not absorb light, reflect light or emit light, making it, as yet, impossible to identify directly. None-the-less, dark matter makes up about 27% of the universe; with dark energy accounting for a huge 68%; that leaves less than 5% of the universe for normal, visible matter. The dark matter in the universe outwieghs the visible matter by a factor of nearly six to one.8
Normal matter is comprised of the subatomic particles: quarks, leptons, and bosons; which, in turn, form primarily protons, neutrons, and electrons. Those combine in various numbers to form the 118 known elements. It is assumed that dark matter is comprised of some, as yet undiscovered, particle/particles as well. It is possible, but as yet complete conjecture, that “dark subatomic particles” could combine to form “dark elements,” thus forming what could be a parallel “dark universe.”
With that, rather SciFi idea in mind, let's now turn back to Joseph Smith's statement. He said, “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter...We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.”9 We believe that the matter from which our spirits are formed has always existed: “Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be.”10 Then we intelligences were organized into spirits as sons and daughters of God.11
In 1935, Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky, and Nathan Rosen published a mind-blowing paper in which they proposed a strange phenomenon known as quantum entanglement, or the EPR paradox.12 Even though Einstein was co-author on the paper, he was very uncomfortable with the idea. He and others considered such a concept to be impossible because it violated the idea of realism and local causality. Einstein referred to the concept as “spooky action at a distance.”13 None-the-less, the idea of quantum entanglement has been verified numerous times by Erwin Schrödinger and others.14 It turns out that our comfortable idea of reality is not real – rather, reality is much larger than we ever imagined – and this is not Science Fiction.
Quantum physicists and astrophysicists have been discussing the concept of entanglement with multiverses and parallel universes for quite some time – ever since Hugh Everett first proposed the notion of multiverses in 1957.15 It has been calculated that there may be 1010^122 distinct possibilities of particle configurations in multiple universes.16 What if every particle of “normal matter” on this Earth has a parallel in what science calls dark matter, but which religion calls spirit, and at a ratio of nearly six to one?
With that expanded view of reality in mind, let's now return to the issue of the meal and oil. Apparently, God wanted the prophet Elijah, the widow of Zarephath, and us, 2800 years later, to experience an expanded notion of reality. Perhaps He taught Elijah that the meal and oil he needed to feed the widow and her son, were, literally right at hand. All Elijah had to do was reach out his hand into that entangled, dark, parallel universe and retrieve as much meal and oil as the widow needed. Once that meal and oil were pulled into our universe, they were indistinguishable from the original meal and oil. The fact that such a feat was done is testified in the scriptures, but the information as to how it was done remains unknown. Apparently, “...when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.”17
But we don’t have to wait until we are dead and purified to reach out for the mysteries of the universe, including God’s miracles; we can start today. Einstein said, “We have been endowed with just enough intelligence to be able to see clearly just how utterly inadequate that intelligence is when confronted with what exists. If this humility could be imparted to everybody, the world of human endeavors would become more appealing.” He also said, “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries to comprehend only a little of this mystery every day.”18
Virologist Nathan Wolfe said, “Don't assume that what we currently think is out there is the full story. Go after the dark matter, in whatever field you choose to explore.”19
Astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson has said, “In terms of the most astonishing fact about which we know nothing, there is dark matter and dark energy. We don't know what either of them is. Everything we know and love about the universe and all the laws of physics as they apply, apply to four percent of the universe. That's stunning.”20
If you're not inclined to follow this weird, but apparently reality-based explanation of the miracle of the meal and oil, or related miracles, then I will fall back to the nearly 2800-year-old explanation: I haven't a clue. While this latter explanation may make most people perfectly happy, it has been driving me crazy for the past sixty-five years or so. Therefore, I am very happy, at present, to present an alternative “spooky” explanation, which I find to be more satisfying than no explanation at all.
Read more about the interaction between dark matter and normal matter in my book: The Infinite Creation: Unifying Science and Latter-day Saint Theology, Cedar Fort, 2020
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD
1. Matthew 14:15-21
2. That correspondence has been published in: The Born-Einstein letters: correspondence between Albert Einstein and Max and Hedwig Born from 1916–1955, with commentaries by Max Born. Macmillan. 1971. p. 158.
3. Paul Mainwood, Doctorate in the philosophy of physics, on Quora, forbes.com
4. This thought experiment appeared in Newton’s posthumously published work, De Mundi Systemate; also published in English as, A Treatise of the System of the World, 1728, pp. 5-8.
5. Doctrine and Covenants 131:7-8
6. Bucklin, Stephanie M., A history of dark matter, Ars Technica, arstechnica.com/science/2017/02/a-history-of-dark-matter, 2017
7. Randall, Lisa, Why Vera Rubin Deserved a Nobel, The New York Times, 4 January 2017
8. CERN: Dark Matter; home.cern/science/physics/dark-matter#:~:text=Dark%20matter%20seems%20to%20outweigh,the%20content%20of%20the%20universe!
9. Doctrine and Covenants 131:7-8
10. Doctrine and Covenants 93:29
11. Abraham 3:22-23; Acts 17:28
12. Einstein A, Podolsky B, Rosen N, Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality Be Considered Complete? Phys. Rev. 47: 777–780, 1935
13. Bell, J. S., Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics, PDF, 1987
14. Schrödinger E, Discussion of probability relations between separated systems, Mathematical Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 31: 555–563, 1935; Francis, Matthew. Quantum entanglement shows that reality can't be local, Ars Technica, 30 October 2012
15. Folger, Tim, Crossing the Quantum Divide, Scientific American, 28-35, July 2018
16. Howell, Elizabeth, Space.com; space.com/32728-parallel-universes.html, May 9, 2018
17. Doctrine and Covenants 131:7-8
18. These quotes are taken from The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Princeton University Press.