Get your copy of “Messiah: Biblical Retellings” here, or download a free chapter here. (Published under my pen name, C.A. Gray)
Today’s podcast is a meditation on and retelling of the story of the Shunammite Woman in 2 Kings 4, her son’s miraculous birth and the second story of the dead being raised in the Bible.
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This is the transcript of my retelling, though the podcast also includes the original text and a discussion:
We had all heard the stories—Elisha was legend, as was his master Elijah before him. We’d heard that Elijah had been caught up into the clouds in chariots of fire, and that Elisha had seen him taken. We’d heard of the miracles of both great men. Most recently, the story that Elisha had multiplied oil for the woman in a nearby town, which she sold to pay off her debts so that her sons would not be sold into slavery.
So when Elisha came through Shunem, I was sure to invite him to our home for a meal. At first he resisted my hospitality, but I insisted. Soon, this became his habit, as Elisha passed through Shunem regularly. We always set an extra place at the table for the great man of God. Presently, I pressed my husband to build on an extra room in our home for Elisha’s use whenever he passed by us. My husband usually allowed these expenditures of mine—we had plenty, and he was familiar enough with my pet projects to have learned not to protest. Elisha often traveled with a servant named Gehazi, so we built the room with one bed, but space for another person to sleep on the floor if necessary.
One day when Elisha and Gehazi were staying with us, Gehazi approached me at Elisha’s instruction and said, “See, you have taken all this trouble for us; what is to be done for you? Would you have a word spoken on your behalf to the king or to the commander of the army?”
I was touched at this inquiry, but truly, I had not offered room to Elisha in order to receive a favor from him. I simply admired and respected the man of God, and wished to bless him. I had no need of anything I could think of from the king or the commander of the army; my husband and I were already well off. I was briefly surprised that Elisha knew both men, though, and had favor with them. But then I realized, if I had heard stories of him long before I’d met him, then surely those same stories had reached the king and the commander as well.
“I dwell among my own people,” was my demure reply—which I knew Gehazi, and by extension Elisha, would understand to mean that I asked for nothing in return. Gehazi took this reply back to his master. He then returned to me, and said, “My master Elisha wishes to speak with you.” So I followed Gehazi to the chamber which we had built for Elisha, and stood in the doorway.
Elisha looked me in the face, and announced without preamble, “At this season, about this time next year you shall embrace a son.”
I staggered a bit, and held on to the doorframe for support. My eyes spontaneously filled with tears. He had voiced the deepest desire of my heart, one I had ceased to long for consciously, as my husband was now certainly too old to father children. What came from my mouth was, “No, my lord, O man of God; do not lie to your servant!” It was not that I doubted his word, but I did not want to hope and be disappointed again. The pain of disappointment month after month, year after year was too great. I had closed the door on that pain long ago. Yet now, unsolicited, that door had been reopened.
Elisha assured me that he meant what he said, and went on his way.
About this time next year, I thought. So in three months…
I tried not to think of it. I did not tell my husband what the man of God had said, because I knew he might scoff, and snuff out the tiny flickering hope within me. I held the word closely, meditating on it almost by accident in unguarded moments, remembering the other miracles Elisha and his teacher Elijah had performed. Multiplying the oil. The axe head that floated. The fire from heaven on Mount Carmel. The widow’s son raised from the dead. The chariot of fire into the sky. Surely, if any man had the power to open my womb after all this time, to heal my husband’s seed–it was Elisha. A double portion of Elijah’s spirit was said to rest upon him, and even Elijah had the Spirit of God…
At the third month, I was not sure whether I had conceived or not. I still had what looked like a monthly flow, and at first my hopes were dashed–but then I noticed that it was significantly lighter than usual. When it did not come at all the month after that, I knew for certain. A month later, I began to show. Only then did I tell my husband, and also told him what the man of God had said—when it was too late to laugh.
In the springtime, I bore a son, just as Elisha had said. He and Gehazi continued to stop in Shunem every few months or so, and he watched my son grow with pleasure. I was so proud, so filled with joy.
One morning when my son was seven, old enough to work in the fields with his father and the reapers, he started complaining that his head hurt. His father told one of the other reapers to carry him inside to me. When I saw the reaper come inside carrying the boy, I dropped what was in my hands at the time—I could never even recall later what it was—and ran to take him. Ordinarily my son would have been too heavy for me to carry, but I found the strength now and took him into my arms. He was insensible at first, but began moaning once his weight transferred from the reaper to me. I settled his head on my lap, and stroked his sweat-damp hair as he moaned and thrashed, cooing to him soothingly even though I could do no more. Fear clutched my heart and squeezed hard as the boy’s breathing grew shallow and his face pale. Then his breathing stopped altogether. My fingers flew to his throat. No pulse.
Grief should have come next. But before it could smother me, one word came into my mind: No.
Just that. No. I would not accept his death. I had not asked to have a son, but I had one anyway, at Elisha’s word. Therefore, this boy’s life was Elisha’s responsibility. Elisha was not here, but that did not matter–I had a good idea where to look for him. Summoning my strength from my trembling arms, I scooped the boy up and carried him to Elisha’s room, laid him on the bed, and closed the door behind him. Then I took one deep, steadying breath, and went out to the fields, beckoning my husband to my side. He wiped the sweat from his brow, and approached me, shielding the sun from his eyes.
“Send me one of the servants and one of the donkeys, that I may quickly go to the man of God and come back again,” I said.
My husband frowned. “Why will you go to him today? It is neither new moon nor Sabbath.”
My husband was–aloof at best, shall we say. This had often frustrated me in the past, that he seemed to have no awareness of what was going on in my world. He had only a few hours ago sent his son inside from the fields, so ill that he could not walk by himself–and yet I told him now that I needed to quickly go to see the man of God, and he did not even make the connection. I wouldn’t put it past him to have forgotten that his son ailed at all.
At the moment, though, I was actually glad for my husband’s cluelessness. I could have told him everything, but I was barely keeping myself together as it was, and had I spoken of what had just happened, I feared my faith would fail. That frail no in my spirit could withstand no fear from anyone else. So I spoke not of the situation in the natural, but only one word that encompassed it all: “Shalom.” All is well. It shall be well. The word meant complete in number—and there were three of us in this family, not two. It meant nothing missing, nothing broken, and certainly no one dead. Perfect provision. Perfect peace.
I gritted my teeth and clung to that shalom with all that was within me as I rode out to Mount Carmel saddled on a donkey, another mounted servant at my side.
“Urge the animal on,” I told the servant, “do not slacken the pace for me unless I tell you.” There was not a moment to lose. Not because my son was in danger; the danger was passed, technically. I was the one in danger–of losing hope. I could not keep the fear at bay for much longer.
Fortunately, my guess had been correct: Elisha and Gehazi were indeed on top of Mount Carmel. Gehazi came down to meet me, intercepting me on my way to Elisha. He asked, “Is all well with you? Is all well with your husband? Is all well with the child?”
I looked at Gehazi, and decided, as I had done with my husband, not to speak my fear. “Shalom,” I said again. All is well. But onward I rode to meet Elisha.
Gehazi and my servant trailed behind now until I came to Elisha. I dismounted when I saw him, the last of my faith now giving way to terror as I clung to his feet, trembling all over. Gehazi approached to pull me away from his master, but Elisha said, frowning, “Leave her alone, for she is in bitter distress, and the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me.”
I looked up at Elisha, my face now streaked with tears. Still I would not say the dreaded word, but what I said instead was, “Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, ‘Do not deceive me?’”
He heard my meaning. He understood that something had happened to my child, and that I expected him to make it right—the boy was his promise, his doing, and his responsibility! Elisha set his jaw and looked at Gehazi.
“Tie up your garment and take my staff in your hand and go. If you meet anyone, do not greet him, and if anyone greets you, do not reply. And lay my staff on the face of the child.” He thrust his staff toward his servant. Then Elisha looked down at me, gesturing with his chin for me to follow Gehazi. But no way was I leaving with the servant only. I came here for the master, and the master I would get. I was taking no chances with my son’s life. I stood up, lifting my chin, and met the man of God stare for stare.
“As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.”
Elisha watched me too for a long moment, and then I thought I saw just a hint of a smile of respect reach his eyes. He gave me a tiny nod, and saddled his own donkey to follow me.
When we arrived back at my home, the sun had set. Gehazi and my servant had had a head start on Elisha and me, so when the man of God and I arrived, Gehazi hurried back outside to meet us. He said to his master, “The child has not awakened.”
Elisha cast a sharp look at me, understanding. Gehazi’s word had implied sleep, but Elisha seemed to suspect that this was a euphemism for death. Still, I had never spoken the word aloud. We dismounted, tied up our donkeys, and I led Elisha inside to the room we had added on for him. There lay my son, ghostly pale and unmoving. Elisha met my eyes once, stepped inside the room, and closed the door behind him, right in my face.
I took a step back from the door, and another. No one spoke. I retreated to my own bedchamber, falling to my knees before the God of Israel.
Presently I heard the man of God’s door open. I leapt up and ran to see what had happened. Elisha paced about the house, back and forth. My limbs began to tremble. But again that voice came to my spirit: No. Elisha returned to the room, and again shut the door behind him. Likewise, I returned to my bedchamber and to my knees. But I could no longer pray. I had no more words.
I don’t know how long I remained there. It felt like a few minutes, though it might have been much longer before I heard a knock on my bedchamber door. I turned and saw Gehazi standing there, his expression softened with a smile.
“Come,” he said.
I stood at once, and hurried to Elisha’s room on limbs that would scarcely support me. He stood by the bed, where my son still lay. But his color had returned, and he blinked up at me.
“Pick up your son,” Elisha said.
All the pent-up emotions from the day burst out of me at once, in a loud cry. I fell at Elisha’s feet, bowing low before him, unable to even utter my thanks. But he understood, placing one hand upon my head. I released him then, turning now to my boy who held out his arms to me. I lifted him up, clung to him, and wept.
I did not hear when Elisha and Gehazi took their leave. I simply clung to my son, repeating over and over again in my mind the word that had sustained me.
Shalom. Completeness in number. Safety and soundness of body. Peace in covenant with the Lord of Israel.
All is well.