If you want to read the story first, the text for 2 Kings 4:8-37 is here
The story takes place in a territory in northern Israel at the foot of the slopes of the Hill of Moreh. The town of Shunem was about15 miles away from where the prophet Elisha had a home, but just a few miles from Tabor where there was an Israelite Sanctuary.
This episode occurs during the reign of Jehoram (or Joram), second son of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, roughly 850 BC. From all indications, King Jehoram gave lip service to God, allowing Elisha freedom to preach and travel, while at the same time granting similar freedom to pagan religions. While he wasn’t as heinous as his infamous parents, I guess he just liked to keep his bases covered.
Like last week’s story, our hero is Elisha, a man of God, a prophet, but second only to him in this story is oddly enough a woman, a wealthy woman who invites town visitors into her home for meals and conversation. When she recognizes Elisha as a man of God, she persuades her husband to build Elisha a room on top of their house for whenever he passes through town. (Holy men were often put in rooms on top of homes to be kept free from the profane and mundane rituals of the household).
The Rabbis who read this ancient text praise the hospitality of the Shunammite woman and learn from her conduct that everyone should bring a Torah scholar into their house, give him food and drink and let him enjoy all that they possess. The Shunammite woman is mentioned by the midrash as one of the twenty-three truly upright and righteous women who came forth from Israel.
The woman’s name is not given, but she is described as “a great woman.” In Hebrew, the word translated “great” in the KJV and “well-to-do” in the NIV has several nuances of meaning, wealthy being only one of them. This description was used of Abraham in Genesis 24 and is often used to describe an attribute of God. Being great included character and influence. Even though her husband was generous, the wealth belonged to him and his male heirs. Her greatness in the eyes of God and the prophet Elisha was not dependent on her economic status. Her wealth gave her the means to support Elisha’s ministry. It was her kindness and generosity that made her great as well as her continual worship of God.
Pretty cool! We like strong women here!
So Elisha accepts this giving woman’s hospitality and as a blessing to her asks her what she would like to receive from God. Insisting that she has all she needs, yet another noble attribute of contentment and humility, Elisha eventually learns that this rich old woman is barren and gives her the gift of a child.
Reminiscent of Sarah and Hannah and Elizabeth, this unnamed and barren but remarkable woman gives birth, of course, to a son.
Some years later though and while the details are scanty, most commentators suppose the child falls victim to sunstroke, a heatstroke caused by direct exposure to the sun. Out in a field of grain, the boy must not have had any protection from the intense rays of the Mediterranean sun. Being a child, he succumbs quickly, feeling the first symptom as a massive headache before fainting.
When her husband sends the complaining child in from the fields, the Sunnammite woman feeds him and nurses him. But when the child dies in her arms, the she lays him in Elisha’s bed in the back of her house and leaves on her donkey hollering back to her husband that she has to go see Elisha immediately, and is off… 15 miles to go.
Elisha spots her from some distance and sends his scoundrel of a servant, Gehazi to go check on her. Now Gehazi was probably Elisha’s assistant like Elisha had been to Elijah, but unfortunately Gehazi lacks the integrity and spirit of his forerunners. We learn about his misdealings in the next chapter and what his envy for Naaman’s money makes him do. But Gehazi doesn’t come off so well in this story either.
Gehazi reports back to Elisha that the old woman is fine, but when she finally reaches Elisha, she clasps his feet in a true sign of submission and desperation. Gehazi steps forward to push her away from his master. Interestingly, the midrash understands “le-hodfah” or “push away” as an abbreviation of two Hebrew words meaning the “majesty of her beauty,” and surmises from this that when Gehazi went to rebuff the Shunammite woman, he pushed the majesty of her beauty, that is, between her breasts. The Rabbis observe that although Elisha was extremely careful in sexual matters, Gehazi acted differently. Although the latter was a man of great Torah scholarship, he had several shortcomings including licentious behavior.
But as the narrator in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever says of those rascally Herdmans, “And that’s not all,” the midrash has a few other stories to tell on Gehazi.
Like, he did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.
Elisha took his staff and instructed Gehazi: Go and place the staff on the face of the boy, that he may live, but say nothing on the way. According to Jewish tradition, Gehazi thought that Elisha was sporting with him, and he did not do as the prophet had told him. On his own initiative, Gehazi turned to everyone he met along the way and asked them: “Do you believe that this staff can resurrect the dead?” I picture him kind of like Wormtail in Harry Potter, scurrying around doing what his master tells him to all the while thinking he’s all that and a bag of chips when he’s just not. According to another tradition, when someone met him on the way and asked him: “From where have you come and to where are you going?” he would reply: “I am going to resurrect the dead!” Consequently, when he came to the son of the Shunammite woman, his efforts were for naught. And so it is Elisha who must come to the boy in his room. Elisha lay upon the dead child and placed his mouth on the boy’s mouth and his eyes on the boy’s) eyes, and began to pray to God. True to the ancestry of Elijah his mentor, through the Spirit of God Elisha brings the dead boy back to life.
I don’t even want to go there. It’s very strange. The whole story reminds me of my friend Frank who had cancer and went to a Chinese doctor in Illinois to have him lay hands on his salivary glands or something. This guy, who also works with the Chicago Bulls I think, had a dead fish in his fish tank and when he secretary buzzed back to tell him that Frank was in the office, she also mentioned the unfortunate predicament of the fish. Not to worry. That little doctor of Eastern medicine came out and scooped the fish out of the fish tank and put him in his hands and blew on him and I’ll be darned if that fish didn’t come back to life. Frank was standing right there watching!
Thankfully he healed my friend Franks glands too, but I think you get my point.
Our Halloween story about a dead boy suddenly turns into something straight out of A Chinese Ghost Story or something.
I mean it’s weird. Lay on the boy and transfer God’s Spirit or your qi (chi) or whatever and the kid comes back to life?
Man, sometimes God calls us to do some pretty scary things.
Sometimes we live up to the challenge, like Elisha. Through us God is able to do some amazing things. You should have heard the testimony last night of Caroline Boudreaux who started the Miracle Foundation for orphans in India. One woman has brought so many dead and empty children back to life; she even puts Elisha to shame. You can change the world if you follow God’s call!
But other times we end up doing our own little cowardly dance like Gehazi, very Gollum-esque, tossing God’s call back and forth across our tongues deliberating what to do, and from one hand to the other, weighing the idea of where following God might get us and what it might demand of us.
“Open your door to God,” Preacher Will Willimon writes, “O.K. Just remember: this is a real God, not some make-believe image of ourselves, not some tame deity you can have over for a chat. Break bread at the table of the living God, you don't know how you'll be surprised.”
The Shunammite woman opened her home to a holy man and look what happened to her life. A holy friendship, a son, a death a resuscitation, and as we read earlier in the service, eventually an evacuation from the town due to famine and upon returning seven years later receiving all her land back full fold.
Imagine what would happen if we opened up our hearts.