In the first part of the story, the prophet seemingly overlooks the fact that God had taken away his clairvoyance so he was unaware of the woman’s situation. In the second part, when he sends his staff with his servant to resuscitate the boy, he learns that he no longer possesses magical powers that can be used by remote control. He learns that to retain his place as a Man of God –in everything he does he must appeal directly to God.
Our story for today tells of the relationship of the Prophet Elisha with a woman of substance who gives of her resources to meet the needs of others. It is set in the small village of Shunem located north of Jezreel and south of Mt. Gilboa, near the ancient city of Nazareth. It is where the Philistines encamped when they came against Saul in 1st Samuel 28 and the home of David’s late life companion Abishag. Elisha frequently traveled through Shunem. He became the recipient of the Shunemmite woman’s hospitality and she provided him a bed and a place of privacy in addition to eating in her home. Yairah Amit of Tel Aviv University says that this story is in a class by itself in that it incorporates both a miraculous resusitation and a miraculous birth.
In First Testament miraculous survival stories God, directly or indirectly, interferes to save a child from death. Moses, Ishmael and the woman of Zarephath are examples of miraculous survival stories. Not so in this story. In miraculous birth stories a woman gives birth thanks to divine intervention. Isaac, Esau and Jacob, Leah and Rachel, Samson and Samuel are examples of miraculous birth stories. In these the herald is either God of God’s messenger. Not in this story. Here the announcement is made by the prophet Elisha, a mere mortal. In stories about the birth of national figures, the child in named immediately. Not so here. He is described as “the son”, “the child,” “the boy,” but he remains nameless throughout. But Elisha, on the other hand, is called by name three times and called “Man of God” eight times. This story, which on the surface has the characteristics of miraculous birth and survival narratives seems to have quite a different purpose. The story teller is clear, the focus of his story is Elisha.
Some heavenly messengers act like human beings, eating and drinking to disguise their divine nature or to hint at their supernatural nature they avoid human behaviors. but regardless, they always speak directly to the people concerned. Elisha, in this story maintains a professional distance from the Shun-am-mite and communicates with her through his servant Gehazi. He seems to be a captive to his own holiness, that is, his separateness. This runs throughout the story for in the second part, when the woman comes to the “man of God” on Mt. Carmel and clasps his feet, his servant moves quickly to push her back. Here may be a clue to what’s going on in this story, because Elisha stops Gehazi, sensing that in separating himself from the woman he has also separated himself from God.
The author also makes clear that although this woman has offered Elisha great hospitality including making an addition onto her for him to stay while on his travels, yet Elisha doesn’t even know her name. He refers to her as “that Shunammite”, or “she”. Not only that, though he has been a repeated guest in her home and then a guest in the room provided for him by her, he doesn’t know that the woman has no sons. Such a fact wouldn’t be a secret and it wouldn’t require clairvoyance on his part. What is demonstrated is a shameful lack of interest. He seems to be grossly unaware that his woman who has taken the trouble to shelter and feed him is a woman of note. He is so into his own role as Prophet and out of touch with her that he offers to speak to important people such as the king or the commander of the army on her behalf. The woman actually informs him that she doesn’t need any assistance from him, she has connections of her own—thank you!
You would assume that a prophet, finding himself at a loss would turn to God for quidance – but not is this case. When he learns that the woman doesn’t need his connections he asks his servant “What then can be done for her?” Gehazi informs Elisha that she has no son and her husband is old. Instead of asking God, he relies on his servant.
Patriarchal tradition assumes that every childless woman is eager for children. We don’t find that in this story. She clearly doesn’t beg God to give her a child. She is described as wealthy and with a strong supportive family and not looking for a miraculous birth. The story hints that Elisha actually imposes on the Shunammite woman. Matter of fact she seems indignant when she says: “Did I ask my lord for a son? Didn’t I say ‘Don’t mislead me’”. It raises the question of whose need is being addressed is this story, the woman’s or Elisha’s?
The woman asked Elisha not to give her something that will eventually fail her. She picked up on the fine points of Elisha’s statement, hearing a difference between just ‘a son’ and a son to hold that is a son to embrace. It implied that the child would not live past the stage of being held. We learn that she was right to be concerned, for as the child begins to reach maturity, that is no longer needing to be held – he does in fact die. God provide exactly what Elisha requested and not more. Could it have been she was childless primarily to avoid the grief a parent knows if a child dies?
In announcing the coming birth of the child he fails to mention God at all. Throughout the book of Kings when we encounter such an announcement the phrase, “The word of the Lord” preceded the prophet’s name: “The word that the Lord had spoken through his servant (dot dot dot)”, but not here. This miraculous birth is not a divine initiative and not the outcome of an ardent appeal to God. The prophet undertakes to perform a birth miracle on his own. He acts arrogantly not only toward the woman but also toward God. And beyond his arrogance, he also imposes on God to participate in his miracle.
Let’s hear the story: Reading 2 Kings 4:8-37
8One day Elisha was passing through Shunem, where a wealthy woman lived, who urged him to have a meal. So whenever he passed that way, he would stop there for a meal. 9She said to her husband, “Look, I am sure that this man who regularly passes our way is a holy man of God. 10Let us make a small roof chamber with walls, and put there for him a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp, so that he can stay there whenever he comes to us.” 11One day when he came there, he went up to the chamber and lay down there. 12He said to his servant Gehazi, “Call the Shunammite woman.” When he had called her, she stood before him. 13He said to him, “Say to her, Since you have taken all this trouble for us, what may be done for you? Would you have a word spoken on your behalf to the king or to the commander of the army?” She answered, “I live among my own people.” 14He said, “What then may be done for her?” Gehazi answered, “Well, she has no son, and her husband is old.” 15He said, “Call her.” When he had called her, she stood at the door. 16He said, “At this season, in due time, you shall embrace a son.” She replied, “No, my lord, O man of God; do not deceive your servant.” 17The woman conceived and bore a son at that season, in due time, as Elisha had declared to her.
18When the child was older, he went out one day to his father among the reapers. 19He complained to his father, “Oh, my head, my head!” The father said to his servant, “Carry him to his mother.” 20He carried him and brought him to his mother; the child sat on her lap until noon, and he died. 21She went up and laid him on the bed of the man of God, closed the door on him, and left. 22Then she called to her husband, and said, “Send me one of the servants and one of the donkeys, so that I may quickly go to the man of God and come back again.” 23He said, “Why go to him today? It is neither new moon nor sabbath.” She said, “It will be all right.” 24Then she saddled the donkey and said to her servant, “Urge the animal on; do not hold back for me unless I tell you.” 25So she set out, and came to the man of God at Mount Carmel. When the man of God saw her coming, he said to Gehazi his servant, “Look, there is the Shunammite woman; 26run at once to meet her, and say to her, Are you all right? Is your husband all right? Is the child all right?” She answered, “It is all right.” 27When she came to the man of God at the mountain, she caught hold of his feet. Gehazi approached to push her away. But the man of God said, “Let her alone, for she is in bitter distress; the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me.” 28Then she said, “Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, Do not mislead me?” 29He said to Gehazi, “Gird up your loins, and take my staff in your hand, and go. If you meet anyone, give no greeting, and if anyone greets you, do not answer; and lay my staff on the face of the child.” 30Then the mother of the child said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave without you.” So he rose up and followed her. 31Gehazi went on ahead and laid the staff on the face of the child, but there was no sound or sign of life. He came back to meet him and told him, “The child has not awakened.” 32When Elisha came into the house, he saw the child lying dead on his bed. 33So he went in and closed the door on the two of them, and prayed to the Lord. 34Then he got up on the bed and lay upon the child, putting his mouth upon his mouth, his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands; and while he lay bent over him, the flesh of the child became warm. 35He got down, walked once to and fro in the room, then got up again and bent over him; the child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes. 36Elisha summoned Gehazi and said, “Call the Shunammite woman.” So he called her. When she came to him, he said, “Take your son.” 37She came and fell at his feet, bowing to the ground; then she took her son and left.
So, what appeared to be a story of praise for the prophet Elisha and his miraculous powers turns out to be a story that exposes his limitations and weaknesses. It is intended to cut him down to size, to show him that he is merely an instrument of God. It is not only important for the prophet to know that about himself but for everyone to know that as well.
In the first part of the story, the prophet seemingly overlooks the fact that God had taken away his clairvoyance so he was unaware of the woman’s situation. In the second part, when he sends his staff with his servant to resuscitate the boy, he learns that he no longer possesses magical powers that can be used by remote control. He learns that to retain his place as a Man of God in everything he does he must appeal directly to God.
By taking the boys life and then restoring him to health God demonstrates to Elisha that miracles can be nullified and that everything depends on God’s will. It isn’t until the very end of this story that Elisha turns to God.
Do you think there may be lessons in this story for those of us who seek to join God where God is at work in the world. Are the miracles we desire more about us than those in need? Does our sense of holiness serve to separate us from the people with whom we relate? Are we scornful of those with whom we minister? Do we, like Elisha, show a genuine lack of interest in the lives of those we feel called to serve? Do we demonstrate Elisha like arrogance when we impose our design on others? And most importantly, are we aware how all of our ministry must find its initiation in our relationship with Christ?