There’s an incredible saga hidden in the narratives of the Hebrew Bible that deserves more attention. It begins in 2 Kings 4, and then shows up again in 2 Kings 8. Maybe the whole bit would get more air time if it had a better title, but for now lack of one it’s called the story of the Shunammite woman. What a mouthful.
The Cracker Barrel of the Ancient Near East
Shunem was a small town just off of a major international roadway, known as the Via Maris. The Via Maris was a major trade route in the Ancient Near East, going from Egypt through Israel up to Damascas (Syria), where it then connected with other routes to Assyria or Babylon. This was a major pipeline for trade in the ANE, and the people who lived along the route had a chance to profit by the travelers and live in a wider world due to the trade potential. To help you get your bearings, we’re talking about a place a good bit north of Samaria, just north of Jezreel (about five miles). You might remember that in Jezreel there was a royal residence—one that was the site of some infamous moments in the sagas of Ahab and his descendants. (Naboth’s vineyard was around Jezreel.) So this town, Shunem, was in a region that we know the prophets were active, but it’s away from Elisha’s home base in Samaria. We don’t really know where he was going while he was passing through Shunem, but it makes a lot of sense that he needed somewhere to land when he was in this region.
This saga that begins in 1 Kings 4 really revolves around this woman who notices the traveling Elisha, and shows him hospitality by giving him some food. Elisha makes a habit of stopping in whenever he travels that way, and over time she recognizes that he is a holy man. The woman and her husband build a small room on their house for Elisha to stay in when he passes through, and he becomes a regular guest in their home.
Elisha wants to repay the hospitality, and so he (in an odd, indirect way, I think) asks her how he can repay the favor. Perhaps his royal connections can help them? She responds that she and her husband don’t really need anything more than what they have, they are self-sufficient. Elisha continues to ask his servant what should be done, though, and Gehazi (the servant) responds by pointing out that she didn’t have any sons, and that her husband was old.
Elisha calls her in again, and tells her that in the next year, she would have a son. She wasn’t fishing for this offer, and had really become resigned to not having a son, and responds almost angrily. “No my Lord, oh man of God. Do not lie to your servant.” She doesn’t want false hope or empty promises. Things were fine how they were already—no need to interfere, thank you very much. But, things turn out just the way Elisha had said, and that seems like a pretty good ending to a classic miracle story. But, the story goes on.
The child grows up, and one day goes to his dad who is working as a harvester, and while he’s there he cries out because his head hurts. His dad has him taken to his mother, and the kids sits on her lap until noon, when he dies. So, she takes his body, and she takes it up to Elisha’s guest room, and lays it on the bed, and then takes off to go see Elisha. She confronts him bitterly, “Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, ‘Do not deceive me?'”
Resurrection, Elisha Style
Elisha sends his servant to go quickly intervene, by placing Elisha’s staff on the corpse. Almost as if she knows that’s not enough, the woman insists that Elisha himself go, and so he does, and finds that indeed the attempt to resurrect by proxy didn’t work. So, Elisha himself goes into the room where the body is—his room. Reading the account, you get the sense that this is a miracle Elisha really has to work for. He prays, lays himself on the body in a sort of weird CPR, and then he gets up and paces around for a while. He goes up and does it again, and the boy sneezes seven times and comes back to life. Weird story, but in the end Elisha gives the boy back to his mother.
The persistence in the story, both of Elisha and the woman, gives me a real feeling of urgency. The story fills with tension, because you get the sense that Elisha has really gotten in over his head, that he’s messing with things that are almost outside of his authority, and he might not be able to pull it off. Is Elisha (and by extension, the Lord) just messing with the woman? The stakes are so high, the woman feels betrayed, and Elisha can’t give up on making things right. He seems to be insistent here on taking the role God has given him past the limits. Elisha is far from an impersonal passive prophet in this episode, he is deeply invested in this family.
A final episode of the Shunammite saga pops up in 2 Kings 8. The woman had gotten a tip from Elisha about a famine that would last seven years, and so she takes her whole family and they leave. Seven years later, they come back, although her lands have been taken over—perhaps by the land-grabbing royal family! She makes her way to the king to appeal for her lands back, and when she gets there she happens to walk in while Gehazi is telling the amazing story of her son’s death and resurrection! The king is so astonished that he immediately orders the woman’s lands restored to her, along with anything that’s been grown on the land while the family has been away. The way this saga becomes woven into the narrative of the royal family in this last episode is fascinating to me. It’s almost like the king realizes here that he had been unknowingly oppressing someone who had been remarkably blessed by the Lord, and he too realizes that he might be in over his head—the power dynamics get flipped because she has an unseen but powerful ally.
The whole beautiful story is full of hope, faith, persistence, and hospitality. It’s got crazy twists as the woman’s fortunes rise with Elisha’s coming, and blessing of a baby, then fall when the boy dies. They rise again with the boy’s resurrection, then fall when the famine comes. The famine passes away, but the family has lost everything they have, until they are finally restored in an act of surprising justice. Altogether, the story is something of a vignette of life between the people, the prophet, and the king. I don’t know that it’s easy to boil it down into “the story means THIS:_______”, but it seems to me to be a tale of how one woman gets wrapped up in the prophet’s life with the Lord, and how that contrasts with her interactions with the king. The story makes me want to be careful about taking advantage of people. It makes me want to be careful about making promises to people, particularly on God’s behalf. It makes me want to work hard to make things right for people, and it gives me hope that hospitality can bring some great, if messy, blessings.
Practice Hospitality. It’s one of the ways God heals the world.