One 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. She said to her husband, ‘Look, I am sure that this man who regularly passes our way is a holy man of God. Let 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.’
One day when he came there, he went up to the chamber and lay down there. He said to his servant Gehazi, ‘Call the Shunammite woman.’ When he had called her, she stood before him. He 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.’ He said, ‘What then may be done for her?’ Gehazi answered, ‘Well, she has no son, and her husband is old.’ He said, ‘Call her.’ When he had called her, she stood at the door. He 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.’
The woman conceived and bore a son at that season, in due time, as Elisha had declared to her.
When the child was older, he went out one day to his father among the reapers. He complained to his father, ‘Oh, my head, my head!’ The father said to his servant, ‘Carry him to his mother.’ He carried him and brought him to his mother; the child sat on her lap until noon, and he died. She went up and laid him on the bed of the man of God, closed the door on him, and left. Then 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.’ He said, ‘Why go to him today? It is neither new moon nor sabbath.’ She said, ‘It will be all right.’ Then she saddled the donkey and said to her servant, ‘Urge the animal on; do not hold back for me unless I tell you.’ So 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; run 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.’ When 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.’ Then she said, ‘Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, Do not mislead me?’ He 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.’ Then 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. Gehazi 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.’
When Elisha came into the house, he saw the child lying dead on his bed. So he went in and closed the door on the two of them, and prayed to the Lord. Then 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. He 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. Elisha summoned Gehazi and said, ‘Call the Shunammite woman.’ So he called her. When she came to him, he said, ‘Take your son.’ She came and fell at his feet, bowing to the ground; then she took her son and left.
This complicated story (cf. Elijah in 1Kgs.17:17-24) involves much movement and spans many years. Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, acts as an intermediary between the itinerant prophet and the Shunammite woman, to maintain propriety. She is wealthy and hospitable towards Elisha, providing meals and a place for him to stay whenever he chose. Elisha wants to show his gratitude but she declines his offer of patronage; her people are proud of their independence.
Gehazi draws attention to her childlessness; and Elisha immediately promises that in due season she and her elderly husband will have a son, a sign of divine blessing. She fears he may be prophesying the impossible but a son is born; and the story leaps forward to when the child is working in the fields. He takes ill, is carried to his mother and dies in her lap.
In distress she lays the child on Elisha’s bed and travels to him at Mount Carmel seeking help. She by-passes Gehazi and Elisha asks what the problem is. Having heard her story he sends Gehazi with instructions to lay Elisha’s staff on the child, implying that this will be sufficient to ‘wake’ the child; but the woman insists that Elisha must come himself.
As she expected Elisha’s staff cannot work the magic. Elisha’s physical presence, his touch, his prayer, his breath, his repeated ritual, carried out in private, restores the child to life; and he is returned to his grateful mother.
It is futile trying to explain what happened, how divine power is mediated through a prophet. Nor should we leap to suggest that faith always results in healing. This story reflects a different world view from ours but it reveals much about ancient Israelite society and its beliefs.
When and how God chooses to act is mystery; but God’s word is trustworthy.
God of life, you know our deepest desires and you bless us according to your purposes. We give you thanks for all that we receive through your goodness.
Speak to us through Christ, your living word, that we might comprehend you more fully.
Help us to trust you always even if we cannot understand what is happening in our lives. Lead us in your ways and show us your love. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge