Don’t Delude Me

One of the less familiar annunciation
stories in the Old Testament is the
conversation between the prophet
Elisha and the woman from Shunem. She
was a person of wealth who showed generosity
to strangers; she had the mystical
awareness to recognize Elisha as a holy
man. She had the resources to build a special
addition on to her house for his particular
use, and the approval of her husband
to do this. Her husband was elderly, and
the story implies that his age was one of
the factors in their childlessness.

This unnamed woman does not ask
Elisha for anything. She seems content to
provide him hospitality whenever he passes
through on the way to or from Mount
Carmel. When Elisha asks her, through
his servant Gehazi, if she could use a political
favor, she replies with equal formality,
“I live among my own people.” It is Gehazi
who alerts the prophet to the fact that she
and her husband are childless. Then Elisha
calls her back and makes the familiar announcement,
“At this season, in due time,
you shall embrace a son.”

Sarah laughed; Hannah bowed; Mary
will sing; but this woman stands in the
doorway and looks the messenger in the eye
with the response, “Man of God, do not delude
me with false hope.”

Her response reveals a deep longing,
previously hidden. She would like to have
had something more, but she has made her
peace with the reality of her situation. She
has a good home, a gracious husband, and
the opportunity to show kindness through
generosity. She is respected among her
clan. That should be more than enough.
When Elisha identifies her deepest desire
and promises that it will be fulfilled, the
boldness of her response suggests the intensity
of her hidden longing: she is afraid
to have her equilibrium of acceptance disrupted
by false hope.

The woman of Shunem conceives and
bears a son a year later. Although she is not
given a song to sing, her deepened trust is
illustrated by her subsequent actions. Some
years later her young son is struck by a fever
and dies in her lap. With fierce determination
not to accept this loss, she carries the child
up to Elisha’s bed and lays him there, closing
the door and telling no one. With surprising
independence, she travels immediately to
Mount Carmel to find the prophet. Brushing
past Gehazi’s ministrations, she throws herself
at Elisha’s feet and grabs his ankles.

“Did I ask you for a son? Didn’t I say,
‘don’t delude me’?”

Elisha seems unexpectedly vulnerable
at this point in the story. He admits to Gehazi
that God had not revealed to him what
was happening. He appears to be unsure of
whether God will work through him to redress
this tragedy. He sends Gehazi ahead
to bring his staff to the boy’s body. But the
woman of deepened faith will not accept a
surrogate. She insists that Elisha come in
person, traveling with her to her home. Her
unyielding persistence gives him the confidence
to come to the room where he had
prayed so often, and to ask for something
he scarcely dared hope for.

Perhaps if she were named something
more specific than “the Shunammite,” this
woman of insight and courage would be
remembered more frequently with story
and song, not least in the Advent season.
Her struggle to balance hope with realism
is one we can relate to. Her experience of
promise fulfilled is one we long for. And her
insistence that restoration of life is the only
ending which holds integrity can give us
comfort.

Evelyn Diephouse is pastor of Pine Island Church,
Kalamazoo, Michigan.