On his travels, the prophet Elisha forges a lasting friendship with an unnamed Shunammite woman (II Kings 4:8-37; 8:1-6). Their relationship begins when the “prominent” woman provides the prophet with a meal (II Kings 4:8 NASB). This starts a tradition as not only does the prophet repeatedly return to the Shunammite’s home, throughout the centuries grateful clergy have been fed by parishioners.
Russell H. Dilday (b. 1930) relays:
II Kings 4:8 says that the woman “persuaded” (KJV: “constrained”) Elisha to eat the food that she had prepared. What preacher has not had an identical experience—a talented cook in the church family who delights in frustrating every good intention of pastoral weight control by “constraining” him to eat a second helping...? No wonder Elisha “as often as he passed by...would turn in there to eat some food.” (Dilday, 1 & 2 Kings (Mastering the Old Testament), 294)The two grow closer and eventually the Shunammite woman asks her husband to build an addition on to their home to host the prophet (II Kings 4:10)!
Please, let us make a little walled upper chamber and let us set a bed for him there, and a table and a chair and a lampstand; and it shall be, when he comes to us, that he can turn in there.” (II Kings 4:10 NASB)August H. Konkel (b. 1948) speculates that the prophet’s holiness led to the addition of the extra room:
Elisha has occasion to pass the location regularly on his journeys from Carmel (II Kings 4:9); like Samuel (I Samuel 7:15-17), he probably follows a circuit in the administration of his duties. Elisha is regarded as a holy man, distinguished from the other prophets who continue to have regular vocations. This status may have been the reason for providing a separate room for him; separate quarters protect the family from having inappropriate intimacy with this man of God. The woman’s reverence is also expressed in the vocabulary used to describe her hospitality (II Kings 4:13); Elisha says she “trembled” (hāradt) with “fear” (berādâ) for him, expressing the care she has taken not to infringe on his sanctity as a man of God. (Konkel, 1 & 2 Kings (The NIV Application Commentary), 413-14)This dwelling is ideal for the prophet as he travels to and through the Jezreel Valley. Marvin A. Sweeney (b. 1953) details:
Joshua 19:18 locates Shunem in the territory Issachar. It is identified with the modern site of Sulam at the foot of Mount Moreh in the northern portion of the Jezreel Valley opposite Mount Gilboa and the site of Jezreel to the south. The site is strategically located as it guards the eastern approaches to the Jezreel Valley and the western approaches into the northern regions of the Jordan Valley around Beth Shean. It thereby aids in controlling the trade routes through the Jezreel that connect the Transjordan to the Mediterranean coast. Elisha’s relationship with the Shunammite woman portends the growth of a base of support for the prophet, who will be instrumental in the recovery of her own property (II Kings 8:1-6) and in Jehu’s revolt (II Kings 9-10). (Sweeney, First and Second Kings: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 289)Volkmar Fritz (1938-2007) adds:
Shunem, which is also mentioned in Joshua 19:18 and I Samuel 28:4, is to be found at Sōlem on the eastern border of the Jezreel plain. (Shunem is also the place of origin of Abishag, who cared for David toward the end of his life; see I Kings 1:1-4.) The geographical position requires that Elisha would occasionally leave his sphere of influence in the south of Israel, although the destination of his wanderings is not mentioned. (Fritz, 1 & 2 Kings: A Continental Commentary, 250)The Shunammites expand their home upward as the prophet’s quarters were located atop the roof. J. Robinson (b. 1927) details:
Why not build...a little roof-chamber: the N.E.B. has paraphrased because the Hebrew is not entirely clear. The houses had flat roots which were often used to provide extra accommodation. Tents could be pitched on the roofs or temporary wooden rooms built. The suggestion here is that a permanent rather than a temporary room should be provided. The wall of the house would be higher than the roof to provide a parapet. The N.E.B. makes the woman suggest that a part of the wall should be raised and a permanent room built against it. She may have suggested building a walled chamber anywhere on the roof (cp. the Revised Standard Version). The justification for his expense and for the luxurious conditions provided – travellers usually sat, ate and slept on the floor – was her acknowledgement of Elisha as ‘a holy man of God’. (Robinson, The Second Book of Kings (Cambridge Bible Commentaries on the Old Testament), 43)The room was large enough to walk around in (II Kings 4:35) and was apparently spacious enough to also host Gehazi, Elisha’s servant (II Kings 4:13). The prophet’s apartment was furnished modestly with predominantly indispensable items. One of the items was a “lamp”, pottery containing oil and shaped to hold a wick.
The only reference [in the Bible] to a household lampstand (měnôrâ) is included in a list of furnishings in Elisha’s quarters (II Kings 4:10). Ordinarily lampstands were used in cultic rather than domestic contexts. (King and Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (Library of Ancient Israel), 30)It was not the opulence of the room that was noteworthy, but its availability. Such edifices have been built for traveling holy people many times since and are commonly referred to as the “Prophet’s Chamber”.
Christine D. Pohl (b. 1950) chronicles:
The possibility of welcoming Jesus into one’s home shaped ancient church teachings on home-based hospitality. John Chrystostom [347-407] instructed his parishioners: “Make for yourself a guest-chamber in your house: set up a bed there, set up a table there and a candlestick. [cp. II Kings 4:10]...Have a room to which Christ may come; say, ‘This is Christ’s cell; this building is set apart for Him.’” Christ’s room, Chrystostom wrote, would be for the “maimed, the beggars, and the homeless.” Even if it were inadequate, “Christ disdains it not.” (Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality As a Christian Tradition, 154)Have you ever had a room in someone else’s home? Why does the Shunammite make the offer to host the prophet? Have you ever demonstrated hospitality when it was inconvenient? Do you have a guest room? Who is welcome there? What do you do to show gratitude to the holy people in your life? What does your pastor need that you can provide? (Definitely the most self serving question in the blog’s history.)
Despite not being identified by name, the woman is described by the Hebrew word gadowl (II Kings 4:8). This word has produced a wide array of translations: “great” (ASV, KJV), “leading” (MSG), “notable” (NKJV), “prominent” (HCSB, NASB), “rich” (CEV), “wealthy” (ESV, NLT, NRSV, RSV), “well-to-do” (NIV).
Despite these many interpretations, the word is quite simple - the woman is great. Jesse C. Long, Jr. (b. 1953) comments:
The Shunammite is literally named “a great woman” (...’iŝŝāh g’dōlāh), with the nuance of a person of wealth. By the end of the story, however, there will be reason to believe that the narrator intends more in this designation than financial means. (Long, 1 & 2 Kings (College Press NIV Commentary), 311)Robert L. Cohn (b. 1947) praises:
Although she is unnamed, she is called a “great woman,” and by the end...we know why...Not only does she urge Elisha to stay and eat on this first occasion but she provides for him each time he comes to Shunem. Moreover, she declares to her husband her intention to furnish a guest room for he “holy man of God” for his use whenever he is in town. The initiative is all hers; Elisha asks for nothing and her husband does not encourage her. Indeed, everywhere in the story he is defined in relationship to her: “her husband.” Her “greatness” is also reflected in her recognition of the holiness of this man of God before he offers any demonstration of it. (Cohn, 2 Kings (Berit Olam: Studies In Hebrew Narrative And Poetry), 28)The woman demonstrates great initiative as she, not her husband, is the catalyst for the action in the story. (Though in my experience, the woman being the one to suggest a house addition is as cliché as being the cook in the family.)
Warren W. Wiersbe (b. 1929) admits, “We get the impression that her husband lacked his wife’s spiritual insight, but at least he didn’t oppose her hospitality to the itinerant preacher (Wiersbe, Be Distinct: 2 Kings & 2 Chronicles), 42).”
Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943-2006) admires the Shunammite’s remarkable independence:
She is not identified as her father’s daughter or her husband’s wife, for these relationships do not define her destiny or her role in the story. She is identified by the name of her village because her attachment to a particular location will turn out to be important in her life and in her story...The Shunammite is strikingly free in her dealings with the prophet...She acts on her own, without asking her husband’s permission, as she provides food and hospitality to him in his journeys. Her wealth may contribute to her boldness, for wealthy women have greater freedom of action than poor women, and sometimes even more than poor men. But poor women could also be close to the prophets. The prophet Elijah lodged with a poor widow without worrying about gossip, and no one would react badly to the Shunammite’s entertaining Elisha. A wife can dispense food without her husband’s supervision: another woman of means, Abigail, brought great amounts of food to David without her husband’s knowledge. The Shunammite brings her husband into the picture only when she wishes to add an addition to her house. (Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories, 65)Claudia V. Camp (b. 1951) exalts:
The portrayal of this unnamed woman is one of the most remarkable in the Bible. Both independent and maternal, powerful and pious, she brings to mind a number of other female characters, yet surpasses them all. She is observant in both practical and spiritual ways: she notices not only Elisha’s regular passing through Shunem but also the aura that marks him as a “man of God.”...The Shunamite takes the initiative that might have been her husband’s. She has an upper room built and furnished for Elisha’s use (compare Elijah’s lodging with the Sidonian woman). (Carol Ann Newsom [b. 1950] and Sharon H. Ringe [b. 1946], The Women’s Bible Commentary: Expanded Edition, 113)His connection to the great Shunammite woman will add to the prophet’s own greatness. The account of her house addition is only the background exposition to the story which follows (II Kings 4:11-37). Alice L. Laffey (b. 1944) notes:
Elisha acts...on behalf of the powerless...Though married and wealthy, she is nevertheless dependent upon her husband in the society’s social structure. Elisha rewards this woman who provided lavishly for him and for his servant by promising her that she will bear son. (Laffey, First and Second Kings (New Collegeville Bible Commentary), 98)The Shunammite’s hospitality pleased the prophet so much that he looked for a way to bless her (II Kings 4:11-14). She had yet to bear children and the prophet promises her a child (II Kings 4:15-17). He eventually will raise that child from the dead, a feat which rivaled his predecessor (II Kings 4:28-37).
Paul R. House (b. 1958) compares:
Despite all he has done, Elisha has not yet matched Elijah’s greatest feat, for he has not been used to raise the dead. Even this difference is removed when a...woman and her family enter Elisha’s life. (House, 1, 2 Kings (New American Commentary), 267)In making room for the prophet in her home, the Shunammite also makes room for a miracle in her life.
There are many explanations drawn from many lenses as to why the Shunammite woman was “great”. Most simply, Elizabeth George (b. 1944) appraises:
So what did the Shunammite do that was so great? So heroic? She did what you and I could do and should do—She looked out and saw a need, she reached out and extended a helping hand, and she gave out of a heart of love for another person. (George, Young Woman After God’s Own Heart, 183)What makes this woman great? What makes any person great? Does Christian hospitality always bring reciprocal blessing (Luke 6:38)? What needs do you see in your community? How can you personally meet them?
“We don’t need more strength or ability or opportunity. What we need is to use what we have.” - Basil S. Walsh