What Nain and Shunem teach us about Jesus

Geography was one of my least favourite subjects in school, but I’ve found that having a Bible atlas open when you read the Bible can make the biblical stories come to life.

A place called Shunem

Around the 9th century BC, the prophet Elisha was a frequent visitor to the home of a prosperous couple who lived in Shunem. Their home was on the lower slopes of Mount Moreh, and just a mile or two from the International Coastal Highway – a major trade route that stretched from Egypt to Damascus and was one of the three most important roads in Judah.

When he wasn’t travelling, one of Elisha’s bases was Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:19, 2 Kings 2:25, 4:25), about 20 miles to the northwest of Shunem, as the crow flies. When Elisha’s ministry took him from there to Galilee or other areas to the northeast of Judah, he’d travel along the International Coastal Highway (also known as the Via Maris or the Great Trunk Road). And when he did so, Shunem would be about a day’s journey from Carmel. In short, it was an ideal place for Elisha to rest at the end of a long day of travel.

So Elisha passed by the Shunammite couple’s home regularly, so much so that they built a guest room for him on the roof of their home (2 Kings 4:9-10). In response to their kindness, Elisha prophesied that the Lord would grant a son to them, as they were childless. And the following spring, their son was born.

Some years later, however, the son took ill and died in his mother’s arms. She raced to Carmel on the back of a donkey, urging her servant not to slacken the pace. When we read this account, our mindset is governed by instant communication and fast travel, and the urgency of the mother’s quest can give us the impression that Elisha returned to the woman’s home in a matter of hours. But as the boy didn’t die until noon (4:20), she would not have reached Carmel until the evening – far too late to attempt a return journey the same day. Just as Elisha had spent the night in the room the couple built for him, so she must have spent the night in Elisha’s home. By the time they would have returned to Shunem, the boy would have been dead for at least 24 hours.

Two emphases

As the narrator tells the story, two emphases come across. The first is the woman’s single-minded determination that only Elisha can help. When her son dies, she lays him not on his own bed, but Elisha’s (4:21). She calls her husband not for help with her son, but for help with saddling a donkey to visit Elisha. When he enquires further, she says simply, ‘All is well’ (shalom). When Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, greets her, she brushes him aside with another shalom and falls at Elisha’s feet (4:26). When Elisha equips Gehazi with his staff and sends him back to Shumen with instructions to lay the staff on the boy’s face, the woman refuses to go with him (4:29-30). As far as she is concerned, only Elisha can help.

Except Elisha seems very much out of his depth, which is the second emphasis in the story. When the woman arrives at his home, he’s forced to admit that although he can see she is in bitter distress, ‘the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me’ (4:27). He only goes with the woman to Shunem because she insists on it. His first attempt to raise the boy (by equipping Gehazi with his staff), results in ‘no sound or sign of life’ (4:31). His second attempt is this time accompanied by prayer but is only slightly more successful. This time he lies on the child, and the child’s flesh becomes warm. It’s only when he repeats that process that finally, the child opens his eyes. Finally, he can tell the Shunammite woman that she can take her son.

There’s no doubt it’s a great miracle – one of only three raisings of the dead in the whole of the Old Testament. But at the same time, Elisha’s struggle to raise the boy gives the story a strangely muted feel – an impression exacerbated by the silence with which news of the boy’s raising is greeted (4:37).

The city of Nain

Let’s fast-forward 800 years, and visit the same location, or at least a town just three or four miles away. By the time of Jesus, Shunem was no more, and the main body of population had moved to a city called Nain, a few miles from the International Coastal Highway.

It’s very likely that even 800 years later people living just a few miles away from Shunem would remember this story as part of their folklore. (If a great biblical miracle had occurred a few miles from your house, you’d be proud of that, wouldn’t you?)

When Jesus approached the city of Nain, he discovered a great crowd coming towards him. But the crowd wasn’t coming to see him – it was a funeral procession making its way to the burial ground outside the city. And as with Elisha, earlier, the boy who had died was the only son of his mother.

Luke records that Jesus had compassion on the mother (Luke 7:11-17), and a few short minutes later, the boy is raised and returned to his mother.

Given that there were only three raisings from the dead in the whole of the Hebrew Bible, it’s can hardly be a coincidence that this miracle of Jesus happened just a few miles from Elisha’s similar miracle. A clear example of biblical parallel, perhaps?

Great contrasts

Except there are more contrasts than parallels. Whereas the Shunammite women raced to bring back a seemingly reluctant Elisha, Jesus himself approaches the widow from Nain. Where Elisha stands aloof from the woman (until the boy is healed, he speaks only to Gehazi), Jesus has compassion on the woman and speaks gently to her: ‘Do not weep’. Where Elisha looks initially to the power of his staff in Gehazi’s hands to raise the boy (perhaps to avoid either of them becoming defiled by the corpse), Jesus starts by touching the coffin himself. Where Elisha vividly acts the miracle by lying on the boy and then arising, Jesus simply says ‘Young man, I say to you, arise’. And, perhaps most importantly of all, where Elisha’s miracle is dependent on prayer, Jesus’ miracle is dependent only on his own power.

So whereas reaction to Elisha’s miracle is strangely muted, the reaction to Jesus’ miracle is marked by a great crowd glorifying God. But their conclusion is wrong. They reckon that ‘a great prophet has arisen among us!’ – another Elisha, in other words. But the contrasts between this and Elisha’s story tell us something different. This Jesus is not merely repeating the miracles of the greatest prophets of the Hebrew Bible – there’s much more to him than that. And it will only be when another only Son is raised from the dead that the people will realise just how much greater Jesus is than even Elisha.