You’ve heard of Elisha—prophet, successor, and rhetorical antithesis of his predecessor Elijah.
Elijah was dramatic; Elisha was retiring. Elijah was bold, confrontational, and compelling; Elisha was modest, undramatic, and effective. Elijah faced down King Ahab, poked his finger in his eye: “Long live King Ahab. And it isn’t going to rain except I say so” (see 1 Kings 17:1). By contrast, Elisha conciliated with King Jehoram. Elijah slaughtered false prophets; Elisha developed schools to train true prophets (2 Kings 6:1-7). Elijah and his God put on their sacrifice-consuming “fire from heaven” display (1 Kings 18), and other soldier-consuming “fire from heaven” as appropriate (2 Kings 1:9-12); Elisha did no “fire from heaven” shows. Instead, he and his God healed people so meekly that they almost missed the miracle for its lack of histrionics (2 Kings 5). Elisha even resurrected people without trying (2 Kings 13:20, 21). And while God commissioned an angel to cook for Elijah (1 Kings 19:3-9), Elisha got food and lodging because someone observed him and felt moved to build an apartment for him (2 Kings 4:8-10).
His fabulous host has immortalized the village name of Shunem by her genius that modeled unforgettable lessons of Christian stewardship, of holy exclusiveness, of relationships between humans and God in general, and between God and each of us in particular. Lacking her name, we stand enthralled by her excellence. And by association we repeatedly signal her village as a place of paramount virtue by constantly speaking of its famous citizen as the woman of Shunem.
Her village, a site near the Jezreel Valley, is given to Issachar when Joshua divides up the land of Canaan for all Israel’s tribes (Joshua 19:17, 18). Centuries later the Philistine army encamps there before the battle that kills Israel’s first king, Saul. A generation later sees Abishag, one of its stunningly beautiful young women, become caregiver to Israel’s second king, David, during the dying moments of his life. After his death the almost irrepressible Prince Adonijah tries to use her as part of a royal ascension strategy (see 1 Kings 1).
Abishag notwithstanding, it is another woman of her town and of another century, the ninth B.C., who will come to be known as
We first find her developing an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the ministry of Elisha, whom she labels “a holy man of God.” We are told, rather interestingly, that “she persuaded him to eat some food” (2 Kings 4:9, 8). Further along, she persuades her husband to build him an apartment (verses 9, 10).
There is faithfulness. And there is the reward of faithfulness. But there is no payment.
This Shunammite seemed to enjoy hospitality ministry. Needless to say, Elisha’s famously greedy servant Gehazi also did. A man who will run to catch up with horses in the effort to procure himself a bit of gold and a few gilded garments would surely have appreciated the Shunammite’s tasty food and the apartment’s tasteful fixtures. A man who would sin his soul to acquire good stuff even though he didn’t need it quite likely welcomed the chance to sleep in a rich man’s house and feast at his table. There is strong moral innuendo in the narrative juxtaposition of the Shunammite and Gehazi stories, 2 Kings 4 and 5 respectively.
Our focus, though, is on the Shunammite. For her, it was the opportunity to be of service to her pastor, to do what she could for his ministry, to advance his missionary initiatives as best she could. For Gehazi, material profits should be appreciated and pursued. For her, insight into life was insight into service, and duty to serve appropriately. She saw that she could change the world for the better. She preferred providing over procuring, believing it “more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). So she gave rather than kept, having grasped the concept of Christian stewardship at its most fundamental level: “The yoke of service Christ Himself has borne in humanity. He said, ‘I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart.’ Ps. 40:8. ‘I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me.’ John 6:38. Love for God, zeal for His glory, and love for fallen humanity brought Jesus to earth to suffer and to die. This was the controlling power of His life. This principle He bids us adopt.”1
The Shunammite may or may not have been of intellectual turn of mind. But her actions give the breath of life to the term oikonomía, “stewardship,” literally, “house rules”: rules of sleep, work, eating, dish washing and garbage disposal, cutlery and furniture, vehicles and garden tools, etc. She evidently knew, by devotion to betterment or open-minded attention, which visitors are welcomed with handshakes and which with food; why the electricity is better used than wasted, or why the child should not be punished as severely as may have first appeared.
Perhaps graciousness, hospitality, and compassion for hungry men all come more naturally to her gender, while war and cutthroat competition come more naturally to men and their survival theories. Her attitude powerfully contributes to the understanding that from the first, and in the final analysis, Christian service, the demonstrated outworking of Christian stewardship, is a matter between the individual Christian and their God.
Its lived initiatives find their best motivation in the knowledge and conversation that impelled Elijah the prophet on the road back from Mount Horeb, and Saul the arrested rebel groping around on the road where he has just been flung. The response they both model is neither to convention or whim, but to duty, going to Damascus under heaven’s orders: whether to anoint the Arameans’ next king (1 Kings 19:15), or to sit there in darkness and wait for instructions (Acts 9:6-19). True, we benefit from counsel,2 and yes, we are “to act in concert, moving forward as one.”3 Still, we do not always honor God by waiting to see who else will, before we discharge our duty; or by arguing with conscience that the collective silence is proof that our notion was clearly insane—no one else ever mentioned it, even in quips at the drinking fountain. Instead we ask, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” (Acts 9:6). He answers, “Arise,” and we arise. He says, “Go,” and we do, ever aware that “each steward has [their] own special work to do for the advancement of God’s kingdom.”4 We arise and go; we serve in our stewardship constrained by Christ’s love. The love that left Him no choice does not leave us any either.
The Shunammite’s extravagant service surged out from a heart so grateful for all God’s blessings toward her that, presented with the option to ask God for anything she wanted, she could think of none. On one of his visits the holy man instructed Gehazi to call and present the Shunammite with an offer that most humans do not see themselves refusing: “What can I do for you? Do you want me to speak on your behalf to the king or to the commander of the army?” (2 Kings 4:13).
Her answer, in effect: “Everything’s fine” (see again verse 13). The holy man is totally unaccustomed to such an answer. It gives him no clue how to discharge his burden of gratitude. He canvasses his servant, wondering if he could think of anything that might be done for her. Gehazi’s answer is explosive: “She has no son, and her husband is old” (verse 14).
Explosive? Absolutely. Because now we must struggle to process Lady Shunem in context of all our Bible knowledge about women and having sons: postmenopausal Sarah and Elizabeth;
two-decades-married-and-no-babies Rebekah; a female quartet of women giving offspring to the same man, Jacob, with taunts of scorn and furies of frustrated jealousy driving the cohabitation confusion along. A fight breaks out for aphrodisiacs to buy a night with the man because of faith that it will help you make him babies (Gen. 30:13-16). A suicide threat sounds out that allegedly only pregnancy will mollify (verse 1).
And all the while, we are forced to acknowledge that the stories aren’t too much about conception or bearing offspring: they really are about producing sons; including the story of the five fine females: no brothers, therefore no inheritance for dad Zelophehad (Num. 27; 36), despite all five vouching for his goodness as a dad. No sons makes for desperate participants in any scene of that play. Except, now, for the serenity of Lady Shunem, contentedly living the best life possible, with no son and no lack. Who is this nameless wonder of a woman?
This Shunammite, who gives with abandon, feels no need to receive. Rendering voluntary, unrequitable service brings her high joy and total satisfaction. Nothing in this world, nor all the world itself, can repay such ministry. For it is the very spirit of heaven, the liberality that salvation brings: “Freely you have received, freely give” (Matt. 10:8). The Shunammite of yesterday and the Christian steward today serve only because the Son of man has already served us His life (Matt. 20:26-28). Through eternity we shall be receiving new gifts from His hand. But no payment for our noble response will ever be forthcoming. There is faithfulness. And there is the reward of faithfulness. But there is no payment: “Be faithful . . . , and I will give you . . .” (Rev. 2:10). The Master acts without consultation, answering all queries with His own: “Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things?” (Matt. 20:15). He is obligated to no business partner or shareholder: everything is exclusively His. He does as He wills, and we participate neither from deception nor under coercion. No, it is only out of God’s enabling grace—His invariable, inexhaustible, unmodifiable, and empowering grace—that we and the Shunammite may serve.
God will give her a son. He will die, and her heart will break. And when she’s asked what the matter is, she will say again, “Everything’s fine” (2 Kings 4:23). No emotionally evocative narrations that bring her mother’s soul-commiserating sighs and embraces. Somehow this gracious, caring, sensitive mother has learned to live her life between herself and her God. When life hurts, she takes the pain to Him through His holy man (verses 27, 28, 30, 32-37). But no one else. God does for her what He alone can do. Through quiet and attentive Elisha, He raises her son. It’s the reason she can tell the world, and it’s the validation of her insistence on telling the whole world, “Everything’s fine!”
Lael Caesar is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.