Now Elisha had spoken to the woman whose son he had restored to life, saying, “Arise, and go, you and your household, and stay for a while wherever you can; for Yahweh has called for a famine. It will also come on the land for seven years.”—2 Kings 8.
Approximately two years pass. Elisha continues to watch over the woman of Shunem. He warns her of a coming famine, telling her to go elsewhere to survive the disaster. Notice that the story does not mention her husband at all, except as he might be included in “your household.” A number of years have passed since the son’s birth, and her husband had been called old well before that. Perhaps he has died in the intervening years. Perhaps he has become ill, and no longer has the strength to run things. In any case, clearly the woman of Shunem now rules the household.
If any famine can be called fascinating, this qualifies. Elisha apparently told no one else about the coming famine, we have no other mentions of it. We do not know precisely when this took place, again, for lack of other mentions. It appears that Elisha singled out this woman and her household to warn; her continuing ministry to his needs perhaps aroused a desire to similarly care for her. And having first provided her with a son, and then restoring him, it seems Elisha determined not to let that have been in vain, and so he saw to her, and her son’s, continued survival.
The length of the famine, seven years in duration, stimulates interest for another reason.You may remember that on the day of his ascension by fiery chariot, Elijah inquired what gift Elisha desired from him:
Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.”
Elisha said, “Please let a double portion of your spirit be on me.”
He said, “You have asked a hard thing. If you see me when I am taken from you, it will be so for you; but if not, it will not be so.”—2 Kings 9b-10.
As we noted, the “double portion” refers to the inheritance received by the firstborn. Since Elisha did see Elijah taken, he did receive that double portion. And part of the double portion seems to be the number of miracles Elisha performed; no one in scripture performed more miracles than Elisha, except for Jesus himself. In sheer numbers, Elisha performed many more miracles than his predecessor. But here we find one place where a 2 to 1 ration exists: the length of the famine.
The drought brought on by Elijah’s prayers lasted three and one-half years. The famine mentioned in the story of the woman of Shunem lasts precisely twice as long: seven years. We have seen that biblical authors only mention details that matter. And why the precise length of this famine—mentioned nowhere else—should matter is unclear. Unless it pertains to the double portion.
The woman arose, and did according to the man of God’s word. She went with her household, and lived in the land of the Philistines for seven years.
At the end of seven years, the woman returned from the land of the Philistines. Then she went out to beg the king for her house and for her land. —vv. 3, 4.
This is where we started this chapter. She returns to ask for her land just as the king has asked Gehazi to tell him of all the great things Elisha has done.
As he was telling the king how he had restored to life him who was dead, behold, the woman, whose son he had restored to life, begged the king for her house and for her land.
Gehazi said, “My lord, O king, this is the woman, and this is her son, whom Elisha restored to life.”
When the king asked the woman, she told him. So the king appointed to her a certain officer, saying, “Restore all that was hers, and all the fruits of the field since the day that she left the land, even until now.”—v. 5, 6.
And so we have come full circle. Elisha had first offered to speak to the king, or the captain of the army, on her behalf, but the woman of Shunem had replied, “I dwell among my own people.” Now, after seven years of dwelling not among her own people, but among the Philistines, she comes before the king with a request. But she does not come anonymously, Gehazi identifies her as the woman whose son Elisha had raised from the dead. So, in the person of his servant, Gehazi, Elisha has fulfilled his first offer, speaking to the king on her behalf.
The king orders not only that her land, but also all the ‘fruits,’ that is, all the crops that would have been harvested in those seven years from that land, be restored to her. Probably, in her absence, and during a famine, her land had reverted to possession of the king. Even today, that is what happens to unclaimed property. Restoring her land would have been a boon. But restoring to her what the land had produced, whether in actual commodities such as grain, or in value with coin, represented an act of great generosity, all the more so because it would have to have come out of the royal stores.
The preacher tells us:
Cast your bread on the waters;
for you shall find it after many days. —Ecclesiastes 11:1.
And later Jesus said:
“Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be given to you.—Luke 6:38.
Surely, the Woman of Shunem experienced that. She saw a need for Elisha to have a place of solitude and rest, and helped to provide it. We know she had no ulterior motive, for when Elisha offered to do something for her, she claimed to need nothing. But through the power of God, Elisha gave her something she could only dream of— a son. When that son tragically died, Elisha raised him from the dead. He protected her and her son again by warning her to flee from famine. And at least partially due to his influence, her land and all that she might have gained through seven years were restored to her. Truly her generosity came back to her.
But there is more to this woman than generosity or even hospitality. She demonstrated practical wisdom, forseeing Elisha’s needs; great faith, for even in the face of tragedy, she never gave way to grief or fear; level-headedness, even in the face of crisis.
As we said in the beginning, the story of Elisha and his ministry are inextricably intertwined with the story of the Woman of Shunem. Although she is married to another, and Elisha never married so far as we know, spiritually and in ministry they are each other’s strong partners. The Woman of Shunem not only facilitates Elisha’s journeys and ministry, she herself is the object of several of his greatest miracles. Remove her story, and the ministry of Elisha would be greatly diminished.