In today’s scripture reading, Elisha is referred to as a “man of God” eight times—that’s twice as often as he is referred to by name. I will admit that I’m not quite as convinced as the Shunammite woman that Elisha is a man of God. There are points in this story where he makes me furious and I want to yell across the centuries: “Elisha, you are not a man of God!”1
For example, when he goes into the room that this woman has had built onto her house just for him, lays on the bed she has furnished for him, and says to his personal servant, “Call the Shunammite woman.” . . . Really? “The Shunammite woman?” This lady has built him a room, bought him a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp–and he doesn’t even bother to learn her name?
And for some reason she has to come to him. He just lays there on the bed, summoning her–this woman who is probably cleaning the house or cooking supper or doing something more productive than laying on the bed. This woman has given him so much—and he can’t be bothered to go find her himself, he doesn’t even know her name; he doesn’t even know that she doesn’t have a son! “Elisha, you are not a man of God!”
As we near the end of our series on the prophets Elijah and Elisha, I am deeply aware that the problems with Elisha as a man of God go far beyond his egotism and poor bedside manner. Remember the story where he calls out a bear to maul 42 boys who have taunted him and called him “baldy”? The entire narrative of Elijah and Elisha is filled with the prophets’ proclamations and enactments of violence against their enemies.
Violence is, tragically, what happens when certain people consider themselves to be people of God while refusing to acknowledge that those around them are also people of God.
What happens is six coordinated attacks in Paris kill 129 people. What happens is two suicide bombings in Beirut kill 41 people. What happens is Syrian rebels in Aleppo kill 13 people and take 7 more hostage. What happens is roadside bombs and suicide bombs in Baghdad kill 26 people.
Just this week—that’s what happened. Because some people consider themselves and their kind to be God’s chosen, while others are expendable. Because some people divide the world into “people of God” (us) and “people not of God” (them).
While Elisha is the one with the title “man of God” in this text, I would argue that the Shunammite woman shows more godly qualities. She is generous and hospitable with her wealth and social standing. She is a fierce mother. And perhaps the most godly quality possessed by the Shunammite woman—and the one most needed in our world today–is her willingness to identify the other as a “man of God.”
Elisha, who is directly identified as being a man of God, still acts in some pretty ungodly ways. The Shunammite woman, who never receives the title “woman of God,” is the one who offers holy hospitality. The one who welcomes the other in peace and love. The difference, then, doesn’t seem to be about who gets called a “person of God.” The difference seems to be about who recognizes the other as a “person of God.”
It is because she identifies Elisha as a man of God that the Shunammite builds him a room and provides him with a table and bed and lamp. What if, instead of telling Gehazi to go get “the Shunammite woman,” Elisha had sent him to get “the woman of God”? For one thing, he might have gotten off his backside and gone to find her himself. He might have talked with her and learned about her life. If he had recognized her as a woman of God, perhaps he would have been as generous with her as she was with him.
What if those who committed terrorist acts this past week had not been so quick to claim the identity of God’s chosen exclusively for themselves, but had instead recognized that the people of Paris and Beirut and Aleppo and Baghdad are all people of God?
And what if we all, now, recognize that Muslims are not the enemy; refugees and immigrants are not the enemy; even the enemy is not the enemy?
What if we all take a cue from the Shunammite woman, labeling each other as “people of God”? And then act like it is true. Because it is.
1The following examples of Elisha’s shortcomings are discussed in the article “A Prophet Tested: Elisha, the Great Woman of Shunem, and the Story’s Double Message” by Yairah Amit. (Biblical Interpretation, January 1, 2003)