The Shunammite Woman

Hooves fell on hard ground. Her weary back throbbed. Leaning forward in the saddle of the donkey, her legs shook from adrenaline.

The threshers looked up in time to see her retreating form disappear over the northwest horizon. Her husband had by now rejoined them, his mind on his son, how he’d held his head and cried in pain. “Carry him to his mother,” he had urged, turning back to the threshing field. He did his best to shake off worry.

A headache. His mother will know what to do.

When he saw his wife at noon, she had been short of breath.

“Have one of your servants bring me a donkey, so I may go quickly to the man of God!”

“But why today? It is not new moon. It is not Sabbath,” he looked at her.

“All is well,” was all she would say.

Why had he not pressed her? What she said he wanted to be true. Now she was hurrying off to find the man of God.

The little boy had lain on her lap most of the morning, whimpering with intense pain before finally passing out. She had watched his anguished breaths, stroking his head as she often had when he was a baby– a baby she believed she would never have. Her age, and the age of her husband, had indicated that. Some dreams were simply out of reach.

Stopping to rest in the guest room she’d had built for him, the man of God, on one such occasion a few years ago, had sent for her. Up on the roof, the night air was chilly. In the rectangle of light cast by the oil lamp she herself had carried up and placed on the table in the prophet’s room, she stood in the doorway, waiting. The man of God spoke these words to her as if they were possible.

“This time next year…”

A shiver shook her body.

“You shall embrace a son.”

How can he know? “No, my lord. O please do not lie to your servant!”

He had not lied. She conceived soon after that night. A baby boy arrived the following spring.

That baby had smacked his teething gums against her bare neck as she bore him on her hip to walk through their village. As the man of God passed through town and stopped to rest in the guest room, the boy went from trying to crawl the steps to reach him, to carrying up to him a drink of water, careful not to spill. A full-of-life child, old enough to hunt for lizards and run out to the fields to join the wheat harvest, this day he had gone out early, armed with a promise from his father that he would have a turn guiding his favorite donkey as she pulled the threshing board behind her. He was going to be so disappointed, having taken ill, missing his big chance.

My poor baby.

“Wait!” she had called after him that morning. “You have to eat breakfast first!” Reluctantly, he had turned around and come back to receive the bread from her hand. “I’m not very hungry,” he’d said. “Are you excited to lead the donkey?” she lowered her head to catch his gaze. “Yes,” he had beamed. Very proud. She’d stood to watch him walk quickly toward the fields, breaking off a piece of bread as he went.

Suddenly the weight of him changed. Too still. His head too heavy on her lap. She pressed her face against his and feeling nothing, called his name, quietly at first. “Wake up! Wake up, my son! Little one, wake up!” She was alone in the house. She stumbled upward, clutching his limp body in her arms.

The man of God. The man of God. She would take him to the man of God. He had prophesied her child, spoken him into being. He would do it again. No. No. She must find him and bring him. Here.

She had carried her boy’s tiny body up to the guest room. Up to the roof. Her foot had fallen asleep under the weight of him. A shooting pain went up her leg as she ascended the stairs. The heaviness of death tugged on the limp body in her arms. Here. On the bed where the prophet sleeps. Here. She’d pulled up the covers, as if tucking him in for his afternoon nap. Kissing his still-warm forehead, she’d closed the door, and fled down the stairs.

She rode northwest along the Jezreel Valley, the afternoon heat beating overhead. The donkey, growing weary, slowed. She urged him on. Woman and donkey covered the final paces of the 30 kilometers to Mount Carmel.

The old man saw her coming. “Look, there is the Shunammite. Gahazi, run at once to meet her and ask if all is well with her.

“Is all well with you? With your husband? Is all well with the child?”

“All is well,” she dismissed his questions, riding right past him up the mountain path to find the man of God.

When she found the prophet Elisha, the woman caught hold of his feet. Gehazi scrambled after her and tried to prevent her from disturbing him. But the prophet said, “Leave her alone, for she is in bitter distress, and the Lord has hidden from me the cause.”

The woman’s voice came from deep within her trembling body,

“Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, ‘Do not deceive me?!’”

Elisha then understood, and directed Gehazi, saying, “Tie up your garment and take my staff in your hand and run. If you meet anyone, do not greet him, and if anyone greets you, do not reply. Run to Shunam and lay my staff on the face of the child.”

“As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you,” the woman persisted.

Elisha stood up and followed her.

Their shadows stretching under the afternoon sun, the pair followed behind Gehazi.

When he met them outside, Elisha’s servant said, “The child has not awakened.” He had gone up and laid the staff upon the child’s face, but nothing changed.

Entering the room, Elisha shut the door, and prayed to the LORD.

He went over to the bed where the dead child lay, and stretched himself out on him, putting his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands. And as he breathed against the child’s cold flesh, it became warm.

Elisha stood up again, and paced the house, while the boy’s mother waited outside. A second time, the man of God went up and stretched himself upon the boy. The child sneezed seven times, and opened his eyes.

“Gehazi, call the Shunammite.”

“Come.”

The woman entered the house and again climbed the stairs. She again stood in the doorway and again heard the man of God utter words that seemed too good to be true.

“Pick up your son.”

She fell at the prophet’s feet, bowing to the ground. Then, walking quickly to the bed, she gazed into the eyes of her son. Reaching down, her entire body sore and spent, she lifted her child’s warm body against hers, and carried him down the stairs.

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