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The Woman from Shunem
The lack of water that the armies experienced in the Moab campaign was just a foreshadowing of much harder times to come. Following the tainted victory over Moab, the powerful Syrian King Ben-Hadad must have decided that the Northern Kingdom was ripe for the plucking, so we began to hear rumors of threatening movements from the Syrian army. During this time, the Prophet made the decision to cross the nation, speaking the words of The God to the people. The traveling was exceptionally dusty due to the drought but The God must have prepared his followers throughout the route, for we were frequently taken in by kind people who provided for all our needs. In many cases, I was able to see the Prophet perform amazing works of The God. During this time I was beginning to accept that Elisha’s ability to bring about miracles was something real and legitimate. This might be surprising to you, the reader, because I had been provided this amazing opportunity to be present at most of the miracles. I think that all I can say in my defense is that I was more stubborn in my head at this younger age than I am now. At first I think I suspected that there may have been coincidences involved with these wonders and I might have explained them away as such. For example, perhaps putting salt in the springs that supplied water to Jericho coincided with some other event that eliminated the impurities. Or maybe the leaders of Jericho were exaggerating the poorness of their water supply and the action of the Prophet made them feel better about their water. After seeing numerous examples of Elisha’s new abilities to do these kinds of marvelous works through the hand of The God, though, I began to realize that something had fundamentally changed on the other side of the Jordan when Elijah disappeared mysteriously and Elisha assumed the prophetic mantle. One time Elisha mentioned to me something that made me ponder this. Do you realize that I had the guts to ask for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, he asked me once out of the blue. What does that mean? I responded idly, looking up from my attempt to inventory our stores of red lentils. I’m really surprised I did this, he responded with a boyish grin and a subtle wave of his left hand. I truly didn’t see myself as worthy, but I guess The God put the thought in my head. Then he made it clear that I’d asked the right thing when I saw how He took Elijah away. I regret that I wasn’t paying much attention at the time. I was probably thinking of tasks that I needed to do for the Prophet which needed doing and to my eyes, at least, emphasized my value. I spent far too much time concerned with my own image during this portion of the ministry. I was understandably proud of my position with the man who was likely the most compelling person in the country, but I dwelled quite a lot on the importance of my role. As the reader might guess, this kind of pride in self is quite blinding to more important things going on. What I should have been considering was whether I had missed out by not asking anything great from The God in the same vein as the ostentatious requests of Elisha and even Solomon. Perhaps my sights were always set far too low? Despite my growing motivational misalignment, I believe that I was still able to do very useful things for the work of The God through Elisha. During this trying time of drought, starvation, and war, these activities kept me very busy. The seven years of famine that our nation experienced during this portion of the Prophet’s work were extremely challenging. Because he was so caring, the Prophet devoted much of his energy to helping the people he encountered who were in need. I understood that this phase of his ministry tired him out greatly, even though he tried not to let it show. Much of the work he did during this time was encouragement, but occasionally I saw things that seemed honestly miraculous. One example was a wealthy lady we met in Shunem. This was a very small community situated just north of the hill country of Samaria and just south of the wide plain known alternately as Jezreel and as Megiddo. The village had a history because it was near where the Philistine enemies encamped when they planned to overthrow Saul, the first King of Israel. The valley that Shunem overlooked once saw the great Judge Gideon defeat an overwhelming army from Midian through the intervening of the hand of The God. This town had seen great events in the past, and it was about to see more miraculous works from The God through the ministry of Elisha. During our journeys, it was common for us to pass through Shunem as it was on the way to a lot of other important places. Every time we approached the village, the word would go out and a certain wealthy lady would send a servant to ask about our needs. Were we staying for a few days? Would we need food, shelter, repairs to our clothing, and so on. At one point she got the idea that she could build a second floor addition to her house where the Prophet could stay a few days and relax whenever he passed through town. This became quite a blessing to us and provided an excellent reason to route our travels through Shunem and stay for a few days. Not only did we have the room for our purposes, but we also were able to use the roof of the woman’s house when the nights were cool. Seeing the stars from a safe place to sleep was both inspiring and relaxing. As I look back, though, it may have been this time staying with this wealthy family that my priorities started to drift to places that I should have had the fortitude to resist. As the reader no doubt remembers, I was raised in an environment relatively devoid of wealth but despite that I still had a self-regard that drove me to strive to exceed the accomplishments of those around me. The hand of The God drew me towards service to the Prophet, but lurking behind His hand was also my hand, which sought opportunities to soothe my vanity. Perhaps this is sometimes how The God works? Walking with the Prophet served to remind me that I had achieved things unimaginable to people from my village but it also caused the unsupported conceit of my youth (which perhaps The God, through a mercy, had worked to tame during my early service) to spark back to life. Admittedly, this was not an impediment to my role or to The Prophet, but sometimes things and events are clearer when one looks back from a distance than they are in the moment. Seeing the wealth around me when the Prophet and I would pause in Shunem led me slowly into the devastation of covetousness. As I consider this now, I understand that this error is so subtle that we humans rarely even notice it. I would speculate that covetousness is in reality the essence of confrontation with The God regarding the worthiness of the one who has been given contrasted with the perception of worthiness of the one who lacks. Essentially, therefore, to covet is to judge the will of The God. Perhaps this is obvious and unremarkable to many, but I only gradually recognized this through hard experience. Though I have spent much time in these my latter years thinking about how gifts from The God are by nature undeserved and therefore nothing to be jealous of, at the time I often found myself angry and accusing The God of favoritism. Why is it that the wealthy are able to command hundreds of men to do what needs to be done, I would say in my accusations. And me, I am required to do all of the things that need doing myself. How is it that one man has ease when the next has unending toil? These negative ideas that had distracted me for years now began to fully infiltrate my mind and my identity. To my great embarrassment now, I spent far too much time hosting these dangerous thoughts and far too little energy considering their overall negative effect on my heart. Now in my old age I often find myself thinking retrospectively in order to understand why I was so easily misled into this miserable jealousy. My highest suspicion is that I was far too susceptible to the insidious and yet invisible idolatry of my culture that hounded my steps almost from the day of my birth. My surrendering to this false guidance blocked my ability to evaluate what was true and real and as a result I fell deeply into falsehood. That this happened so thoroughly is difficult for me to admit now, for it seems undeniable looking back in time that my life in general was unusually charmed. Perhaps my main accusation of The God now is how He allowed me to persist in my folly. It is strange to me to consider now this vanishingly small gap in our reasoning between the worship and high-regard of The God and the contempt with which our desires can level charges against Him. I believe that during this time in the ministry I traveled across that narrow gap multiple times per day. It is now painfully obvious that I should have chosen to discuss my weakness regarding this dark idol of discontent with the Prophet and take advantage of his great wisdom. Without any question he was truly wise and caring about others and would have helped me put my challenges in a more proper context. Those discussions may have been truly helpful, for I believe that the Prophet struggled with human weaknesses too, even though he worked very diligently to keep them under control. His service to The God was complete and thorough and was founded on a mix of self-discipline from the man and graciousness from The God. Yes, it might have been valuable for me to share my struggles with my master, but unfortunately, those discussions never happened and I suffered greatly as a result. Though she was rich and I was jealous of her wealth, the woman who sought to serve the Prophet was a wonderful, giving person. This may sound strange, but though I struggled against jealousy of her wealth, I cannot think of a single thing to say against her nature or works. The obvious driving sorrow in her life was that she had no children. She and her husband worked tirelessly – and I would submit, unselfishly – to strengthen their business, building houses for people in their and other villages, into something that served others. The houses that were common in this region were fairly simple, constructed of large, sun-dried bricks that were carefully stacked using traditional designs and patterns. It took many strong hands to cast and move large numbers of bricks and once the bricks were transferred to a build site, it required a craftsman with a sharp eye for detail and years of experience to ensure that the house was constructed correctly. Because of this nature of their work, they employed many men, and even sometimes women. Thus they provided for the livelihood of many members of their community. Though the couple was not old, they often served as unofficial grandparents to the many children of their employees. I’m certain that in addition to her nature that took joy in serving others, she also took a special interest in the Prophet because of his reputation as one who cared for others and who could solve hard problems. Though I was probably not a very good friend to her, I was well aware of her heart’s desire to have children, for I spoke with her and her husband quite frequently. I believe that due to her selfless nature, though, it would have been nearly impossible for her to make a special request of the Prophet. As time passed, she and her husband continued serving us whenever we passed through Shunem. Eventually, as I noted, she asked her husband to add a room onto their house where the Prophet could store his important belongings and have a place to rest. This truly lightened his load and provided him a place of respite during the difficult times that we were facing. Food was growing scarce and there were rumors in the land that the Syrian army was marching toward us. We all knew that this would worsen the famine and would provide many other difficulties. Months passed and we traveled all over the land, laboring diligently to bring the voice of The God to His people and hoping that He would take action regarding our poor state. Eventually, we passed again through Shunem and again discovered that the great woman somehow knew to have servants looking for us. As usual, they ushered us into the Prophet’s room and brought us food and water. We took rest from the road there for three or four days. On the last day that we were to remain in Shunem, the Prophet asked if I would request the woman to attend to him. He rarely spoke to anyone these days, including me, so I saw this as a great opportunity for her. I brought her into the small room and she stood expectantly. I am greatly blessed by you and I don’t have any idea why you spend so much time caring for me, he began, gesturing around the room with his left hand. You have noble work, the respect of your community, and great holdings. However, I have a wish to bless you in return for the benevolence you have showed Gehazi and me. Perhaps I could introduce you to leaders of the army, even kings? This might help you overcome challenges to your work? I waited expectantly for her response. I’m just a village woman and I rely on my people, she replied quietly, eyes downcast as if she did not dare meet the Prophet’s waiting gaze. I live here, she continued, and do not expect help from outside. The God has blessed our work and our lives. At this, she excused herself nervously, saying that some thing or another had come up in the village that she needed to look into. The Prophet looked at me with the beginnings of a smile. Gehazi, he said, smoothing his still-dark beard thoughtfully, you know what it is that she needs, for I know that you talk with her. I nodded, Yes, I do know. She desires a son. She’s much younger than her husband and she worries that time is running out for her to be a mother and have a son who can provide for her in her old age. The prophet gave me an earnest and piercing look and then proceeded to go back to whatever things had been occupying his mind before. I assumed this meant that he wouldn’t be able to accomplish what the kind woman wanted. This disappointed me, because though the reader might find my behaviors and attitudes during this time to be highly inconsistent, the nature of jealousy that I was struggling with was truly not in conflict with my desire to see her and her husband blessed by The God. All I can say is that my thinking was a mess during this time. A few hours later, the Prophet said, Gehazi, please bring Miriam, the Shunemite woman back to me. I was surprised that he used her proper name. It was not his nature to do this. Truly, sometimes it seemed like I rarely even heard my own name come from his lips. He had certain precise ways about him that allowed him to be clear about what he needed done and those ways sometimes did not require saying names. I was very pleased to be able to do this and I found her quickly. I excitedly requested her to return. I imagine that this was confusing and surprising to her. We returned to the Prophet’s room together and both stood before the Prophet in anticipation. He looked up and smiled. This time next year I plan to return to visit you and meet your new son. Miriam stepped back in surprise. Dear man of God, she said, please don’t tease me. And she departed quietly and returned to her work. I was surprised that so little emotion was demonstrated, but perhaps her response derived from the fact that she truly knew and trusted that Elisha was The God’s man in the kingdom and as such, she extended him the same confidence that she had in The God. A confidence that I was ashamed to realize that I had never really experienced at that point in my short life. We set out on a mission to the upper reaches of the kingdom shortly afterwards. One day while we were still in Shunem we had received word that one of the Sons of the Prophets who Elisha had ministered to during our journeys, Jeremiah son of Zadok, had been assassinated in his native region of Dan, in a village just south of the towering, snow-capped Mount Hermon. As with many of the Sons of the Prophets, a year or so earlier he had been suddenly called to minister back in his home community and had quickly departed from us. The message that the Prophet received indicated that the Syrian army was persecuting people of the tribe of Dan and that Jeremiah became too irritating to the Syrian commanders for them to let him continue living. I feel that there’s something we need to deal with here, Gehazi, and we have been resting for a while. I think a journey north is in order. The Prophet took up his staff with these words and waved it around as if he were ready to depart immediately. During my entire ministry, I frequently wondered how the Prophet made his decisions. Sometimes he would tell me that the decision was a response to a word from The God but other times I would have sworn he made decisions out of boredom. Looking back at the complete interconnectedness of the many small acts performed during his ministry, I believe that regardless of the reason behind them, his decisions must have always been aligned with some sort of plan. I responded, I’ll pack your stuff. When would you like to leave? Though I obeyed quickly, inside I was hesitant. The rumors of the horrible things the Syrians were doing in the cities up north made me very apprehensive about going up there. The Prophet, however, showed no signs of being concerned. Hurry up! I want to leave soon. Time is of the essence, he called out from the back room. He came out to where he could see me, and his eyes were twinkling. I think he enjoyed tweaking me when he knew I was nervous. Later that day we found ourselves making progress on our way north to the regions of Dan. We traveled as far as the small village of Nazareth, where a kind family spotted the Prophet and offered us food and lodging. We stayed in this uninteresting little town for a day, simply refreshing and restoring our energy. We knew that we would need to travel west of the Sea of Galilee before we headed north. On a previous journey in this area we had stayed in a town called Capernaum on the northern tip of the lake where there were many families who recognized the Prophet and cared for him. I presumed that would be our next stop, and I was correct. As we departed for Capernaum, rumors were shared with us about thieves lurking on the byways east of the lake. This made me very concerned that we might make a tempting target as we would be traveling through that area. I packed our gear a little tighter on the Prophet’s donkey in hopes that our possessions would look small and uninteresting. Perhaps that action is what spared us later that day when we were suddenly accosted by voices coming out of the wilderness near the road. Stop right there, both of you! Do you not realize whose territory you pass through? I require my tribute now to let you pass. We heard muffled laughter on the opposite side of the road from the voice. Clearly we were surrounded. The Prophet looked up from the road and stared into the distance appearing in general to be quite uninterested. Gehazi? he asked. Yes, master. I will treat with the thieves, I replied, trying to control my voice. Of course I was not even remotely dispassionate about this predicament. We had very little wealth to apply to any kind of ridiculous tribute and I was very concerned about my own safety. I was probably worried for the life of the Prophet too since I was charged with serving him, but I’d be very dishonest if I didn’t admit that my own life was my primary concern. The voice from deep within the wilderness drew closer saying, Do not refer to us as thieves. We are merely men who are experiencing bad fortune. We were driven from our villages near the lake by those who do not understand our ways. Your tribute will help us live. Tell me about your ways! boomed the voice of the Prophet all of a sudden. Quiet dropped down upon the wilderness like rain sinking into a dry desert land. I think even the birds stopped chirping, as if they were waiting attentively in silence for what would follow. After an uncomfortable amount of time passed, the voice replied with obvious caution, Well I perceive that you are a man of authority. Perhaps you have heard of the Master of Tyre? He is the one that Queen Jezebel introduced King Ahab to during their glorious reign. He is such a fine Master and he has empowered us to do mighty works. But when the cursed Prophet Elijah came up against Ahab and Jezebel, he caused our lives to be hurtled into disarray. Whereas before we were celebrated, afterwards no village wanted us around. Even the city of Dan, where the golden bull stands as memory to the great Masters, would not tolerate us. Fine, I say! I do not need my people’s admiration! I am a servant of the Master! Silence! roared Elisha, gesturing aggressively with his staff at the faceless wilderness. You blaspheme The One God. Do you not remember the Shema that you learned as a youth? Hear, O Israel the Lord our God is One! Where have you strayed from this truth? Your forefathers who served Jezebel have all been thoroughly defeated and how do you continue to hold up their memory? The Prophet’s anger subsided and he continued in a much lower, but no less authoritative, voice. Return now to your home villages. You will remember the One who brought your ancestors out of slavery in Egypt. He did not do this to have you return to slavery to petty Masters of the cities of other peoples. When you reach your villages you will have forgotten your treachery and you will serve The God in whatever way He calls you. Now depart. Moments passed and we heard rustling in the brush. Eventually I counted twenty-three men who stepped out of the wilderness and headed in different directions down the path. Some went north and others went south. In their shame they did not speak to or look at The Prophet. The noises of the desert resumed gradually and we continued our journey. What happened there on the path was quite challenging to me for it seemed that the words of the Prophet had persuaded this band of men to abandon their worship of the Ba’als, drop their lives of crime, and disband. Though I had seen miracles performed through the Prophet, including some that were extremely hard to explain away, many of them had struck me as possible coincidences of some sort. I believed in The God, but at that time, I guess I saw Him as something worthy of study but not Someone with power who actually cared. What just happened with these thieves, though it wasn’t a clear miracle, was something that surely couldn’t have been a coincidence or merely men responding to reason. I knew enough of the world to realize that once a man decides that he believes something to be true, whether the existence of idols or the value of criminal lifestyles, he is not often willing or able to alter those beliefs. Mankind truly has a supreme ability to convince itself of what it already believes to be true, regardless of the evidence. Here, based off of the words of a man – a Prophet in truth – twenty-three men appeared to have completely altered their beliefs about the world and immediately applied this change to their lives. I suppose that I was perplexed because at the time I did not truly trust that The God could completely change a man’s heart. Now I wait in my older years, suffering and in exile to see if He will choose do the same for me. The Prophet spoke not a word after this shocking event, instead idly collecting his walking staff and adjusting his brown, dusty robes. He looked up at the sky and I could see the setting sun reflecting reds and oranges off his uncovered head. Let us continue, we have little light left and need to reach Capernaum, he said, already moving forward at a rapid pace. We did not speak at all during the rest of the day, finally arriving at Capernaum an hour after the sun had departed below the western horizon. I felt a great urge to share what I had seen on the road with our host family in Capernaum, but something prevented me from doing so. This means, my dear grandson, that my recounting of this story to you is the first time it has ever been told.