Reading with the family

The woman conceived and gave birth to a son at the same time the following year, as Elisha had promised her.
The child grew and one day went out to his father and the harvesters. Suddenly he complained to his father, “My head! My head!” His father told his servant, “Carry him to his mother.” So he picked him up and took him to his mother. The child sat on her lap until noon and then died. (2Kings 4:17–21 HCSB)

The devastatingly short biography of a promise.

Look at how the ancient story-teller constructs the tale. The first phrase is a repetition of the words of Elisha. The prophet’s words in the narrator’s voice. This is how we know the prophet speaks for God: the ‘what will be’ of a man describing what is not, becomes the ‘And it came to pass that…’ of the narrator who always says what is.

But what a desperately short life.

The boy who grew so fast in verse 18, so fast that it takes him merely one sentence to spring from conception to joining his father at the reaping, declines just as steeply. He withers and passes, like the summer grasses. Two sentences and he is dead.

The speed at which this happens shocks us: suddenly he grabs his head. He is rushed to his mother, already unable to walk.

Wait though, it is the next phrase that breaks your heart. The ancient story-teller, not given to spending unnecessary words, burns us with an image of the mother. Voyeuristic, embarrassed, helpless, I sit there all morning, mourning, as the child dies in her lap.

That little detail is the genius of this mini story. Disciplined to be concise by the nature of the available resources, the story-teller can’t give us unlimited description. He chooses his words carefully. This discipline creates a spare, taunt, tightly sprung imaginative world. And all that force recoils through the elected detail.

The story is itself a detail within the the tightly sprung narrative of Yahweh’s redemption of his people. The death of this promise child echoes with generations of questions asked: about Yahweh’s faithfulness, about the security of the future, about the holy discontentment which loving Yahweh provokes and alone can satisfy.
These are my questions because the Shunammite mother is one of my people. Any reader who doesn’t read like this, doesn’t really read. This is a story about how I got to be here, why I hope for the things I hope, about other people’s decisions which have charted my course. So, when I meet the detail within this detail of this (our) story, it unloads upon me with not just narrative, but affective force.

Does this story need to be made relevant to me? She is one of my people! My Auntie. What kind of pathologically insensitive person would need to be taught how to feel about this, this death in the family? Even if I know more about the reasons and the answers, how can I not feel the darkness opening beneath her, the precariousness of her faith, and want to hold on to her and tell her its going to be ok?
But then I discover that she’s comforting me, my auntie in the faith. She steps out from among the great crowd of witnesses, the family tree, sits with her child on her lap, invites me to put my head down there for a while too, and tells me her story.


image by yazeed

2 thoughts on “Reading with the family

  1. Beautiful. Why do YHWH's promises seem so vapourous? Or is this what life is like on the outside? I suppose I have always considered that the follow-up to the story (Elisha's resuscitating the boy) was a parable of the state of Israel in relation to YHWH – God has not neglected the child of promise even to the point of death. Ezekiel sees the ultimate expression of this in the advent of the exile maybe.


  2. I think your instinct is right, except that I think the promise child is the remnant community not the entire Israelite nation. The story is essentially about the power of the divine promise: that YHWH is able to even snatch people back from death. It's interesting that this story connects the OT's 'miracle birth' and 'resurrection' motifs. It's like meeting someone who was both John the Baptist and Lazarus.

    It's the pathos of the story-telling that really grabbed me though: the little details. And the way the interference of YHWH in the woman's life moves her from contended independence to desperate dependence.

    I preached from this passage a couple of weeks ago. It blew my mind.


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