The farming village of Shunem sat on the west end of the Hill of Moreh, south of Mt. Tabor and within the plain of Jezreel, the scenes of Israel’s early battles with Canaanites, Midianites and Philistines.
Shunem became the scene of a very different battle during the ministry of the prophet Elisha. Second Kings 4:8-37 relates this charming interlude in Elisha’s turbulent career.
The prophet’s activities regularly took him through Shunem on his way to Mt Carmel. A wealthy woman of the village showed the prophet such gracious hospitality that he felt moved to ask how he could show his gratitude. On learning that the woman and her husband had no son, Elisha called for the woman and said, “At this season, when the time comes round, you shall embrace a son.”
Elisha went about his affairs and the Shunammite gave birth to her son the next spring– God’s gift of a new life in the season of new life. The little family celebrated a victory over the shame of barrenness, and all went well until the first year the boy was old enough (maybe seven years) to to into the fields to help his family with the harvest.
Heat exhaustion or sunstroke overcomes the lad, however, and he dies in his mother’s arms.
Not one to surrender a God-given gift, the woman lays her son on Elisha’s pallet and asks her husband for a donkey so she could find Elisha.
Her husband hesitates, because he still has a harvest to gather.
The woman will not abide by his fatalistic acceptance of her loss; she has her way and leaves for Elisha’s retreat at Carmel.
The prophet observes her approach from his vantage point and sends his servant to greet her with the words, “Look, yonder is the Shunammite; run at once to meet her, and say to her, Is it well with you? Is it well with your husband? Is it well with the child?”
The Shunnamite tells him merely, “It is well,” and hastens to meet the waiting prophet.
Dismounting, she kneels and clasps Elisha’s feet.
The officious servant tries to protect his master from indecency and pushes the Shunammite. Elisha, however, feels her distress although God has not told him about it.
He listens to her tale, which concludes, “Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, Do not deceive me?”
Tears come to Elisha’s eyes, but he ignores them as he directs the servant to take his staff, run ahead of him to Shunem, and lay the staff of the boy’s face.
He escorts the woman back to Shunem, where his waiting servant reports, “The child has not awaked.”
Either the prophet’s shepherd staff in the hands of an unbeliever has no value or Elisha has no telepathic healing powers.
Elisha does not hesitate. He goes straight to the roof chamber the Shunammite had built for him, where the boy lies lifeless. He and the Shunammite pray together. Then, closing the door behind him, the prophet stretches himself out over the boy’s body, mouth to his mouth, eyes to his eyes, and hands to his hands.
Some would say that Elisha administered a form of mouth-to-mouth resucitation. We can recognize elements of that procedure in the biblical account, but here must have been more to Elisha’s ministrations. He and the Shunammite, waiting downstairs, must have continued their silent prayers, for warmth returns to the boys body and then breath–in a fit of sneezing that clears his head and airways of congestion.
The boy opens his eyes, and Elisha’s voice shakes as he returns the boy to his grateful mother.
We have witnessed a battle of faith and prayer against forces as virulent as death itself–the human weaknesses of fear, fatalism, disbelief, and failure of trust and faith–forces that evil will exploit until the final battle at Armageddon. That battle will have the same outcome as Elisha’s.
Strengthened by the bread prepared by God’s messenger, Ahab journeyed to Horeb, as instructed.
The Lord appeared to Elijah, as you will find in 1 Kings 19:9-18, Elijah told the Lord why he had fled from Jezebel’s wrath.
You might expect that God would send Elijah right back to Jezreel to confront Jezebel again.
Not a word about the woman. As far as we know, Elijah never met her.
God gave Elijah instructions that would bring his judgment on Ahab and Jezebel. First, God told Elijah to anoint Hazael as king of Syria in place of Ben-Hadad. Second, Elijah was to anoint Ahab’s successor, and, third, a successor for himself.
The first two appointments seem logical enough, for they lead to Ahab’s eventual defeat and the end of the Omride Dynasty. But why the third appointment?
I consider it a validation of Elijah’s life and ministry that he was permitted to anoint his successor, Elisha, a man who would follow him for a few more years and have a powerful prophetic witness of his own.
Ben-Hadad and Ahab had no say about their successors.
In any case, Elijah returns to Jezreel a few years later–after the affair of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21:1-16). Only then does God send Elijah back to Jezreel with a message for Ahab:
“‘This is what the LORD says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood–yes, yours!’” (1 Kings 21:19).
For good measure, Elijah adds the same sentence for Jezebel (1 Kings 21:19),
God defers Ahab’s sentence after he repents (1 Kings 21:19), but the confrontation with Elijah has humbled him–albeit briefly. Nevertheless, blood soaks the ancient battle ground of Armageddon once more–the blood of Naboth and his sons and then Jezebel’s blood (2 Kings 9:30-36). Ahab dies in battle at Jabesh Gilead, east of the Jordan, however. The washing of his blood-soaked chariot occurs at the prostitutes’ pool in Samaria, where dogs licked Ahab’s blood.
Although Elijah’s second confrontation with Ahab lacks the drama of Mount Carmel, it shows us the nature of the emerging struggle between the Lord’s prophets and paganism. Their struggle focuses increasingly on matters of social justice, in which the aristocracy supports Baalism. Throughout, God intercedes for the weak and helpless against their faithless oppressors.
In the moment of his triumph over the pagan prophets at Mount Carmel Elijah has let himself be bluffed out of finishing the war against the disgraced cult of Baal. Jezebel, the Phoenician wife of King Ahab, merely sent a messenger to tell him, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that on one of them.” Elijah gave in and fled in disgrace.
Even now, alone and far away in the Negev, beyond Beersheba and beyond the clutches of the queen, Elijah trembles. Fear has chilled his heart and self-pity has sapped his strength. The farther he goes, the more hopeless his plight appears to him. At last he collapses in the scant shade of a spindly broom shrub and sobs, “I have had enough, LORD. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
Elijah has hit rock bottom, as we say.
Instead of granting his death wish, The Lords sends his messenger to light a fire on that proverbial rock bottom while Elijah sleeps. Thick, dry roots from a dead broom tree heat smooth, flattish stones from the wadi floor to nearly red heat while the messenger grinds wheat and barley between two flat stones, mixes dough with water and a dash of salt and olive oil, and pats the dough into flat loaves. He rakes the fire off the hot stones and lays the loaves on them to bake.
As soon as the first loaf has baked to perfection on both sides, the messenger takes it to Elijah. The aroma of fresh bread is enough to arouse most of us, but Elijah has fallen so sound asleep that the angel has to shake him.
“Rise and eat,” he tells the prophet.
“He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a pitcher of water. He ate and drank and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came again and touched him a second time, saying, ‘Rise and eat; the journey is too much for you.’ He rose and ate and drank and, sustained by this food, he went on for forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.” – 1 Kings 19:6-8, NEB
“Great things are done when men and mountains meet,” as William Blake wrote. God entered into this equation at Horeb, and the Bible records that greater things were done. The Lord could have granted Elijah his death-wish, for that matter, but it is his way to give us garlands of flowers to replace signs of mourning (Isaiah 61:3). His angels may have ministered to Jesus after in the in much the same manner, but that happened only after his victory over the Tempter. The fact that he sent an angel to minister to Elijah in the depths of his defeat tells us of the depth of God’s concern for his servants. When they do hit rock bottom in spite of everything, he bakes bread on the rock to bring them closer to him on the mountain.
Among God’s servants today, ministers do suffer from an occupational liability to hitting rock bottom in the line of duty. We need not dwell on case histories but we should bear in mind that God has given us a share in the angels’ ministry of bearing up his servants (Psalm 91:11-12).
The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians at Philippi, “Now I have everything I want – in fact I am rich. Yes, I am quite content, thanks to your gifts received through Epaphroditus. Your generosity is like a lovely fragrance, a sacrifice that pleases the very heart of God” (Philippians 4:18, Phillips).
The fragrance of that generosity may very well have resembled the aroma of freshly baked bread, surely one of the most irresistible fragrances on earth.