2 Kings 4:8-37 on Reverence in the Ministry

She was a woman of Shunem. Her place is given but her name is not.

So the question is, why?

Where’s Shunem? In the Jezreel valley up north. Shunem is where the Philistines encamp on that fateful night when Saul goes to En-dor. Next day he’s slain. We have the name of one of the Shunemites, Abishag, also associated with the conclusion of a man’s reign: David. Her position is an enigmatic one: intended as a concubine she never is used as one. That she somehow serves to comment on the conclusion of David’s reign seems obvious, and that it is not a positive comment seems probable, though exactly what it works out to I am not sure. She is the occasion later for more trouble between the sons of David: the death of Adonijah at the hands of Solomon’s killers. The place Shunem is hardly a place of glad memories for the careful reader of Scripture.

The woman is generous and wants to use what she has to refresh and honor the prophet. He in turn believes she has some other motive. When it is plain she does not, he still feels compelled to reward her, as if her generosity required something from him. He turns to the dubious Gehezai, a man with an instinct for noticing what comforts in this life other people may be lacking. I think it is a bad move on Elisha’s part. And because of this I think the woman’s reply works out to: “This is not what your powers are for. Please don’t joke with me.” Not directly, but in an ironic way. She means no disrespect whatever. But I think what she says accuses him of being frivolous, or self-important (related concepts, it seems to me).

Turns out he wasn’t joking.

When the boy dies, the woman puts on a public serenity that is astonishing. “What is wrong?” asks the husband who has sent the ailing child home. “Shalom,” she says. She goes to see the prophet and will speak to no surrogate. She does not even say the child is dead or ailing, only she reminds him she was content and asked for nothing. She said what she had said before, but now those words take on new meaning, don’t they?

Gehezai who has been so awfully helpful at the beginning, is pathetic now. She will not even have a serious exchange in her greeting with him. He runs, he works the magic staff, and he fails spectacularly.

Elisha arrives and shuts the door. What does it mean that he shuts the door? Why does he shut it? I think there is a bit of desperation which is supported by what follows. He walks around, he pleads, he prays, he does this thing where he seems to be offering himself for the child. At last, to his relief, the child’s revived.

Notice how terse he is with the woman at the end. I can see him sitting on a stool, leaning back, collapsed, gesturing without even looking at her or the child, “Take up thy son.”

She responds with reverence. She has more reverence than the prophet for his high and holy calling. She knows that to serve and aid the man of God is to serve and aid God, and that’s reward enough. I think Elisha should not have fretted with the reward, being a servant. He was led astray by his own shrewd but dubious servant. He became God’s Gehezai; but what is adequate in servants of men, is not adequate in servants of God. Elisha was very nearly burned. He had to save face. Hear how he must have heard the woman’s words! It shows also what a great prophet he was that to save face he goes to great lengths and then successfully raises someone from the dead. No, he is not God’s Gehezai after all.

The child sneezes seven times–as if to complete the illness, recovering rather than dying. And to offer God’s commentary: sneezing in the prophet’s face not once or twice or five times, but the entire seven. For this reason God gave the son, and afflicted and killed him, and then gave him life again: that he should sneeze thoroughly in the prophet’s face. Remember who has what, who does what, who serves whom–the way that nameless Shunemite remembers.

Don’t mess around with holy things, Elisha, O prophet of the living God.


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