Elisha and the Son of the Shunamite


Failed Miracle

Like much of the Elisha narrative, the story of the birth of the son of the Shunamite and his revival revolves around miracle making.  At first glance, the story is not unique, except perhaps in the scope of the miracle.  The chapter, like others, appears to look favorably on Elisha, highlighting the power of the prophet.  However, on closer inspection, the incident is puzzling, for, in contrast to the rest of Elisha's miracles, the miracle of the birth is overturned. Though Elisha successfully brings the boy into the world, the wonder is short-lived as the boy suddenly dies while still a child.  How are we to understand the death of the boy?  What, if anything, does the failure of the miracle say about Elisha?  Is this a story about the greatness of the prophet or about his limits?

Long Road to Success

The second half of the story is similarly perplexing.  Though it ends with the successful revival of the boy, success does not come easily. Time and again, the story hints that something is amiss in Elisha's power:

  • "י"י הֶעְלִים מִמֶּנִּי וְלֹא הִגִּיד לִי" – When approached by the distraught Shunamite after the death of her son, Elisha is oblivious to the reason for her distress, and he acknowledges knowing nothing of the plight of the boy.  Why did Hashem keep the knowledge of the boy's death from him?  What message lies in this lack of prophetic insight?
  • "לֹא הֵקִיץ הַנָּעַר" – Elisha sends Geichazi ahead of him with his staff, presumably to revive the child. Yet, Geichazi fails to do so.  Why is this initial attempt at resuscitation unsuccessful?  Is this due to a flaw in the servant or his master? 
  • "וַיָּשֶׂם פִּיו עַל פִּיו" – Two full verses describe Elisha's efforts at resuscitation.  He lies on top of the boy, matching his body to that of the child, and warms him.  He then paces around the house, only to return and once again lie on the boy.  What is the significance of these various actions? If the boy is being brought back to life miraculously, why does Elisha not suffice with a declaration as he had for the birth? Moreover, why does Elisha stop his efforts mid-way to walk around the house? Does this suggest that Elisha's first attempt, too, had failed?

Additional Questions

Several other questions are raised by the story which might be connected to the issues raised above:

  • "אֲבָל בֵּן אֵין לָהּ" – Why is it Geichazi rather than Elisha who mentions the Shunamite's barren state and thinks of granting her a son? Did Elisha not know on his own that she was childless?
  • Indirect speech – When conversing with the Shunamite in the first half of the story, Elisha has Geichazi act as an intermediary between them.  Why does he not address her directly?
  • "אַל תְּכַזֵּב בְּשִׁפְחָתֶךָ" – Does the word "תְּכַזֵּב" mean "to tell a falsehood" or  "to disappoint"? Regardless of which definition is chosen, is this not a disrespectful way to reply to the prophet?  Is the Shunamite implying that Elisha might not carry through on his word?
  • Biblical parallels – Our story recalls that of the birth of Yitzchak, as both the content and language of the narratives are strikingly similar.1  What is the significance of the allusion?