He [Elisha] said, “Call her.” When he had called her, she stood in the door. He said, “At this season, when the time comes around, you will embrace a son.”
She said, “No, my lord, you man of God, do not lie to your servant.”
“Do not lie to me” sounds somewhat harsh to our ears. It is important to remember that biblical Hebrew consists of only a few thousand words, and so there are few choices. We might say, “Are you serious?” or “Don’t tease me like that!” and express approximately the same thing: amazement, and reluctance to be disappointed so deeply. Contented she may have been, yet her words, however reveal how great a blessing she sees this to be. Apparently, with her husband aging, she thought it beyond possibility for her. Even though she had not expressed the least concern about being childless, this promise of Elisha’s reveals her inner desire.
True to the prophet’s word,
The woman conceived, and bore a son at that season, when the time came around, as Elisha had said to her.
But life was harsh in those days, and death lurked in every circumstance. And tragically, it struck this son of promise.
When the child was grown, one day he went out to his father to the reapers. He said to his father, “My head! My head!”
He said to his servant, “Carry him to his mother.”
When he had taken him, and brought him to his mother, he sat on her knees until noon, and then died.—vv 18-20.
Enough time has passed so that they boy reaches the age where he can accompany his father into the fields at harvest, but he’s still young enough to get carried away in the excitement of the harvest, and remain forgetful about his own needs. Harvest, of course, best takes place on a sunny day. In fact, most grains cannot be harvested when the plants are wet. Sometime during the day, the boy begins to experience headaches, not uncommon for one who has become overheated. One of the servants carries the boy home to his mother, who cares for him. But around midday he dies in her arms.
Few experiences devastate one as much as losing a child. We would expect the mother to be hysterical with grief. But not the woman of Shunem. Yet again, she behaves in an extraordinary way.
She went up and laid him on the man of God’s bed, and shut the door on him, and went out.
She called to her husband, and said, “Please send me one of the servants, and one of the donkeys, that I may run to the man of God, and come again.”
He said, “Why would you want go to him today? It is not a new moon or a Sabbath.”
She said, “It’s alright.”—vv. 21-23.
We can but wonder at this woman’s seemingly calm demeanor. Her only son has just died, and her actions appear orderly, even businesslike. Clearly she has a plan. First, she places the boy on Elisha’s bed and—the author thinks it important to note—shuts the door. We are not told why. Then she calls to her husband, requesting a servant and a donkey, so that she “may run to the man of God, and come again.”
Puzzled, her husband notes that it is neither a new moon nor a Sabbath. Given that she has a lengthy journey in view—she wants a donkey—in this case the Sabbath mentioned is not the Sabbath. New moons and certain other days were considered sabbaths, that is, feast days. Given her habit of hospitality, she probably often invited Elisha to their home for such celebrations. But this is not one of those days, as the husband mentions; it is neither a new moon nor ‘a’ Sabbath.
Her reply, “it’s alright,” is amazing under the circumstances. Her prophetically promised only son has just died, and “it’s alright?!” How can she make such a calm reply? We have already seen, when asked what Elisha can do for her, that the woman of Shunem possesses an exceptionally practical nature. Surely that comes into play here. But I think there may be two more reasons.
First, Gehazi told Elisha that her husband was old nearly a year before the child was born. Several years have passed since the boy’s birth, so the father has aged as well. It may well be that the woman of Shunem fears that if she tells the aging man that his only son and heir has died, the shock and grief might do him in. The fact that she shut the door on the room where the child’s body lay may indicate that she does not want the father to know.
Second, I believe that she has steadfast faith: God gave her child, and He will not let the child be taken from her so soon. Her plan—to go see Elisha—and her subsequent actions carrying out that plan demonstrate that faith.
Then she saddled a donkey, and said to her servant, “Drive, and go forward! Don’t slow down for me, unless I ask you to.”
Exactly what she wants the servant to “drive” is unclear. But her words leave no doubt that she wants to go to the prophet with all haste—as fast as she can take it.
So she went, and came to the man of God to Mount Carmel. When the man of God saw her afar off, he said to Gehazi his servant,
“Behold, there is the Shunammite. Please run now to meet her, and ask her, ‘Is it well with you? Is it well with your husband? Is it well with your child?’”
Elisha sees the woman at some distance, no doubt because he is at a high elevation (Mount Carmel). He probably makes the same calculation her husband did: “This is not a new moon or a Sabbath,” he thinks. “Why is she coming to me today, and in such haste?” Alarmed, he sends his servant on the run to meet her and inquire about the welfare of herself and her family. Her subsequent action seems quite out of character.