05 The Shunamite Woman

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva   Reading the Women of the Bible: A new Interpretation of their Stories.  (Shocken Books, New York, 2002).


A Patron in Shunem  2 Kings 4:8-10

8 One day Elisha came to Shunem, where there was a woman of influence, who pressed him to dine with her. Afterward, whenever he passed by, he would stop there to dine.  9 So she said to her husband, “I know that he is a holy man of God. Since he visits us often, 10 let us arrange a little room on the roof and furnish it for him with a bed, table, chair, and lamp, so that when he comes to us he can stay there.”


The Patron’s reward  2 Kings 4:11-18

11 One day Elisha arrived and stayed in the room overnight. 12 Then he said to his servant Gehazi, “Call this Shunammite woman.” He did so, and when she stood before Elisha, 13 he told Gehazi, “Say to her, ‘You have troubled yourself greatly for us; what can we do for you? Can we say a good word for you to the king or to the commander of the army?’” She replied, “I am living among my own people.”  14 Later Elisha asked, “What can we do for her?” Gehazi answered, “She has no son, and her husband is old.” 15 Elisha said, “Call her.” He did so, and when she stood at the door, 16 Elisha promised, “This time next year you will be cradling a baby son.” She said, “My lord, you are a man of God; do not deceive your servant.”  17 Yet the woman conceived, and by the same time the following year she had given birth to a son, as Elisha had promised; 18 and the child grew up healthy.


Mother to the rescue  2 Kings 4:19-23

One day the boy went out to his father among the reapers. 19 He said to his father, “My head! My head!” And his father said to the servant, “Carry him to his mother.” 20 The servant picked him up and carried him to his mother; he sat in her lap until noon, and then died. 21 She went upstairs and laid him on the bed of the man of God. Closing the door on him, she went out 22 and called to her husband, “Let me have one of the servants and a donkey. I must go quickly to the man of God, and I will be back.” 23 He asked, “Why are you going to him today? It is neither the new moon nor the sabbath.” But she said, “It is all right.”


Confronting the Prophet  2 Kings 4:24-30

24 When the donkey was saddled, she said to her servant, “Lead on! Do not stop my donkey unless I tell you.” 25 She kept going till she reached the man of God on Mount Carmel. When he saw her at a distance, the man of God said to his servant Gehazi: “There is the Shunammite! 26 Hurry to meet her, and ask if everything is all right with her, with her husband, and with the boy.” “Everything is all right,” she replied. 27 But when she reached the man of God on the mountain, she clasped his feet. Gehazi came near to push her away, but the man of God said: “Let her alone, she is in bitter anguish; the LORD hid it from me and did not let me know.” 28 She said, “Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, ‘Do not mislead me’?” 29 He said to Gehazi, “Get ready for a journey. Take my staff with you and be off; if you meet anyone, give no greeting, and if anyone greets you, do not answer. Lay my staff upon the boy.” 30 But the boy’s mother cried out: “As the LORD lives and as you yourself live, I will not release you.” So he started back with her.


A Miracle for Mother  2 Kings 4:31-37

31 Meanwhile, Gehazi had gone on ahead and had laid the staff upon the boy, but there was no sound, no response. He returned to meet Elisha and told him, “The boy has not awakened.” 32 When Elisha reached the house, he found the boy dead, lying on the bed. 33 He went in, closed the door on them both, and prayed to the LORD. 34 Then he lay upon the child on the bed, placing his mouth upon the child’s mouth, his eyes upon the eyes, and his hands upon the hands. As Elisha stretched himself over the child, the boy’s flesh became warm. 35 He arose, paced up and down the room, and then once more stretched himself over him, and the boy sneezed seven times and opened his eyes.   36 Elisha summoned Gehazi and said, “Call the Shunammite.” He called her, and she came to him, and Elisha said to her, “Take your son.” 37 She came in and fell at his feet in homage; then she took her son and left.


Exodus and Famine 2 Kings 8:1-3

1 Elisha once said to the woman whose son he had restored to life: “Get ready! Leave with your household and live wherever you can, because the LORD has decreed a seven-year famine which is coming upon the land.” 2 The woman got ready and did as the man of God said, setting out with her household, and living in the land of the Philistines for seven years.   3  At the end of the seven years, the woman returned from the land of the Philistines and went out to the king to appeal for her house and her field.


Mistress of her house 2 Kings 8: 4-6

4 The king was talking with Gehazi, the servant of the man of God: “Tell me all the great things that Elisha has done.” 5 Just as he was telling the king how his master had restored a dead person to life, the very woman whose son Elisha had restored to life came to the king appealing for her house and field. Gehazi said, “My lord king, this is the woman, and this is that son of hers whom Elisha restored to life.” 6 The king questioned the woman, and she told him her story. With that the king placed an official at her disposal, saying, “Restore all her property to her, with all that the field produced from the day she left the land until now.”




F-K p. 64: “Several less than flattering proverbs attest in a negative way to the considerable power of women’s speech, particularly the repetitive request: “The nagging of a wife is like the endless dripping of water,” says one proverb (Prov. 19:13).  Through persuasion, women continued to influence the destiny of families.  A different portrait of a woman emerges in the tale of a Shunammite, a wealthy woman who appears in the Elisha cycle of stories which take place against a backdrop of harsh rural poverty.  In contrast to the near-starving peasantry to which Elisha miraculously supplies food, the ‘great woman’ of Shunem has the means to offer him hospitality.”


A Patron in Shunem  2 Kings 4:8-10

F-K p. 64,65: “The Shunammite is a ‘great woman,’ and as such she is representative of all ‘great’ or wealthy women.  She is not identified as her father’s daughter or her husband’s wife, for these relationships do not define her destiny or her role in the story.  She is identified by the name of her village because her attachment to a articular location will turn out to be important in her life and in her story.”

F-K p. 65: “She recognizes and acknowledges the fact that he is a prophet and holy man, and becomes his patron and benefactor.  She acts on her own, without asking her husband’s permission, as she provides food and hospitality to him on his journeys.  Her wealth may contribute to her boldness, for wealthy women have greater freedom of action than poor women, and sometimes even more than poor men.”

F-K p. 65: “Prophets are known to repay kindness.  Hospitality does not call for reciprocity, offers of which may impugn the honor of the host, but prophets transcend such consideration.  Elijah rewarded the poor widow of Zarephat with never-ending food, and Elisha looks for some way to repay his hostess.”


The Patron’s reward  2 Kings 4:11-18

F-K p. 66: “But perhaps in this instance he is creating the formal circumstances of a magnate offering largesse.  He underscores his ability to grant her request by increasing the distance between them and using Gehazi as the interlocutor.  The Shunammite will have none of such pretense.  She ignores Gehazi and speaks directly to Elisha, both when he asks Gehazi what they can give her, and when he finally addresses her directly.”

F-K p. 66: “Like so many details in biblical stories, the doorway is an allusion to another story: The Shunammite stands in the doorway much as Sarah stood in the doorway of her tent when the divine guests foretold the birth of Isaac.  The allusion is strengthened as both Elisha and Abraham’s guest use the term ‘life season,’ (et hayyah) for the time of birth.”

Genesis 18:9-14

9 “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him. “There in the tent,” he replied.  10 One of them* said, “I will return to you about this time next year, and Sarah will then have a son.” Sarah was listening at the entrance of the tent, just behind him.  11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years, and Sarah had stopped having her menstrual periods.  12 So Sarah laughed to herself and said, “Now that I am worn out and my husband is old, am I still to have sexual pleasure?”  13 But the LORD said to Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really bear a child, old as I am?’  14 Is anything too marvelous for the LORD to do? At the appointed time, about this time next year, I will return to you, and Sarah will have a son.”

F-K p. 66: “Alone among the childless women in the Bible, she is not actively seeking a child.  She is married to an old man, and may or may not be elderly herself.  Even faced with a miracle worker and given the opportunity to make a wish, she never mentions her childlessness and answers only, “I live among my own people.”

Mother to the rescue  2 Kings 4:19-23

She may not have been actively seeking a child but once she has one she becomes very protective.

F-K p. 67: “On Sabbath and festivals, women would go regularly on pilgrimages.  They could also go for help in a crisis, as the wife of Jeroboam went to Ahizah the prophet when her son fell sick (1 Kings 14:1-17).”

F-K p. 67: “…the Shunammite does not show any concern that her husband might get angry or even divorce her.  This lack of concern, her lack of desperation for a child, and her living among her own kin are all unusual behaviors that make the Shunammite stand out among women.”


Confronting the Prophet  2 Kings 4:24-30

Since Elisha brought the whole child-thing up – he has a responsibility now to care for him


A Miracle for Mother  2 Kings 4:31-37

F-K p. 69: “The Shunammite was right to demand that Elisha come himself: Gehazi could not revive the child.  The power is not in the staff, it is in Elisha, who uses intercessory prayer and what seems like a combination of artificial respiration and anti-shock treatment.”

Reminiscent of the disciples of Jesus when they could not cast out the demon in the epileptic boy?


Exodus and Famine 2 Kings 8:1-3

Elisha warns her to leave the land for 7 years (reminiscent of Joseph).  She complies.  No mention of the husband who may be dead by this point.




Mistress of her house 2 Kings 8: 4-6

F-K p. 71: “Crying to the monarch is a fairly standard legal procedure, and she can expect him to restore the land.  But he not only restores the field to her, he gives her the produce for the period that she was gone.  Near Eastern law indicates that owners can reclaim a field, but the ‘usufruct,’ the produce, should belong to the people who worked the land.  People who plant can expect to reap: not being able to do so is one of God’s dire punishments (Deut 28:33), and eating the food someone else has planted is a special mark of divine benevolence.”

Gospel parable – I reap what I did not sow.

War situations – stolen art; Israel and Cuba – can people still reclaim what had been theirs?

F-K p. 71: “Many years earlier Elisha had asked if there was a matter about which she would wish him to speak to the king.  Then there was not, but now the very fact of their proven close relationship is enough of an “intercession” to allow her to reap the king’s largesse.”

F-K p. 72: “The Shunammite’s story has four unusual elements that may all be interrelated.  The land is hers.  She expressed no need for a child and is markedly independent of her husband.  These three abnormalities may all relate to the answer that the Shunammite gave when Elisha first asked if he could do something for her: I live among my own people.   Most women marry outside their kin and go to live with their husband’s family.  …   A woman who had no brothers owned her land for her lifetime and married within her father’s extended family.”



F-K p.74: “The Shunammite may be an example of how women act when the economic constraints of patriarchy are removed.  This is why she is identified by locale rather than by name or as “Mrs. Somebody”.  Her location remains her identity in a way that most women’s do not.”

F-K p. 75: ‘The limitation of women’s property rights is the economic linchpin of patriarchal structure; it made women dependent first on their fathers, then on their husbands, and ultimately, on their sons.  Even the humanitarian injunctions of the ancient world to care for the widows and the fatherless were an outgrowth of this male monopoly: if widows could inherit land, there would be no need for humanitarian injunctions to care for them.”




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