Peculiar Passages: The Prophet, the Dead Boy, and Some Very Strange Events

Carl Laferton | August 22nd 2019

2 Kings 4 v 14-37 is strange. We’re in Israel in about 800BC, and a barren woman living in Shunem gives a room to (well, builds a room for) Elisha, God’s prophet, and is given a son by God (v 14-17). Years later, the boy complains of a headache and dies (v 18-20). The woman lies his corpse on the bed Elisha had slept in when he visited, and goes to find Elisha and bitterly tells him what has happened (v 21, 27-28). Elisha sends his servant Gehazi to lie his staff on the boy, but that has no effect (v 29-31). When Elisha gets there he prays, stretches himself out on the corpse, twice… and the boy sneezes seven times and opens his eyes (v 32-35). Happy ending! But a weird story.

Why did God give this woman a son and then let him die?

Because God is always at work to show his power and goodness. There’s echoes of Isaac here – the son who was given and who was then (almost) taken away. And think about the Shunamite woman – she learned to praise God in his gifts, and then trust God in her loss, and then witness his life-giving miraculous power. Often we need to lack, or lose, in order to learn to rely on God.

Why didn’t the staff thing work?

Let’s ask a prior question: Why did Elisha send Gehazi with his staff? There’s no biblical record of a prophet’s staff having life-giving power (even Moses’). Perhaps it was because Elisha didn’t know what to do: when the mother came to him he said of the details of her plight ‘The LORD has hidden it from me and has not told me why’ (v 27). Even a mighty, miracle-working prophet does not always have the answers or know what to do. And perhaps Elisha needed to learn something himself; to pray (v 33). Strange though it is, the more God works through us, the easier it is to forget that it’s about him, not us. Beware being used by God, and then thinking you have no use for prayer.

Why did Elisha stretch himself out on a dead boy?

Honestly? I don’t know. And for 21st-century ears, the idea of a man going into a room with a dead child in it, closing the door, and stretching out on top of him, ‘mouth to mouth’ (v 34) is worrying. Here’s my best guess what Elisha was doing: associating himself utterly with the child (the child who he had promised the woman in the first place). Touching a dead body made you unclean (Numbers 19 v 11-13); so here, the “man of God” makes himself about as unclean as it is possible to get. And yet somehow, by doing so he brings life (or rather, God brings life through him). Why does he do it twice? I don’t know, except that all the way through this we see this “man of God” not being in total control of events, or knowing quite what to do. So again here, life does not return instantly or easily.

What’s the significance of the boy sneezing seven times?

Dead people don’t sneeze. God is so powerful that a literally fatal illness was turned into a slight head-cold. Also, in the Bible, seven is the number of perfection or completion, so perhaps that’s the significance of how often he sneezed. Or maybe it’s simply that this is a real (albeit strange) event, and that this is simply what happened, and has no significance beyond that!

A question we wouldn’t think to ask, but should…

Where is Shunem?

It’s on the other side of a small hill from Nain. And centuries later, just outside Nain, another man of God would see the corpse of an only son. Another man of God would touch the dead body, making himself unclean. Another man of God would see life return and give the boy back to his mother. This man of God, though, was always in full control. And this man of God did not pray, because he did not need to. Read Luke 7 v 11-17, and enjoy meeting the greater Elisha, who ultimately became far more unclean than Elisha did in order to offer new life to every corpse—including yours.  

Carl Laferton

Carl Laferton is Editorial Director at TGBC. He is author of Original Jesus, Promises Kept and The Garden, the Curtain and the Cross and series editor of the God's Word For You series. Before joining TGBC, he worked as a journalist, a teacher, and pastored a congregation in Hull. Carl is married to Lizzie and they have two children, Benjamin and Abigail. He studied history at Oxford University.

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