Three women of Shunem (Sulam)

The Bible mentions three women from the town of Shunem and one of the important resurrections of a boy took place there, in the days of Elisha. Shunem is now an Arab city located 50 km south east of Haifa in the lower east Galilee and 10 km south west from Mount Tabor. It was originally allotted to the Tribe of Issachar (Joshua 19:18), but due to failure of Israel to take the land was the camp of the Philistines during the time of Saul (1 Samuel 28:4).

1. Abishag (1 Kings 1:3, 2:17, 21-22)

We first come upon Shunem when King David is very old, and due to the cold weather, and no method to heat beds, a young virgin is sought to keep him warm and to care for him in is old age (1 Kings 1:2). To a modern westerner this sounds perhaps odd if not bizarre, but was common practice in the days of King David. The woman's name was Abishag and she was very beautiful; selected after searching out the whole land of Israel for a "lovely" or "beautiful" young woman (1 Kings 1:3). She was not only beautiful, but both intelligent and diligent, as all three women of Shunem were. 1 Kings 1:4 states that she was of service to the king. And verse 15 of the same chapter indicates her service was to him in his bedroom. David being very old (v.15) and infirmed probably needed help in matters related to his personal hygiene, getting ready for bed, and getting up in the morning – in some respects Abishag was his personal nurse (v. 2). But note Abishag was not a prostitute and indeed this was not her role. Verse 4b of 1 Kings 1 states that sexual union did not take place, and in any case, David probably was too old for sex. Notwithstanding, it is evident she was considered to be David's wife, or at least his concubine, in view of the law, because she remained in David's palace after he died being found there during the early days of Solomon's reigned (2 Kings 2:17, 21-22). If she was merely a servant of the king she would have returned to her father's house. Evidence that she had more formal ties to King David is that Adonijah, the oldest living son of David, wanted to marry Abishag in order to better secure the right to the throne, which was promised Solomon (2 Kings 2). He ordered his mother to petition Solomon to give Abishag to him as his wife. Other than being illegal Solomon saw through Adonijah's request, knowing that this would be a direct threat to his reign, and ordered Adonijah's execution (1 Kings 2:24)[1].

Little more is known of Abishag. Given the period, Abishag probably had little say in any of these matters, and therefore making the most of her situation, diligently carried out her duties. So what can we learn from this episode? A couple of things come to mind. Although a person saved is predestined for heaven, it does not necessarily change or enhance one's life on this earth in terms of wealth or status – salvation has nothing to do with prosperity, a heretical gospel preached by modern liberal churches. Indeed Jesus comments that those who follow him are likely to suffer, and life is not likely to be easy. He also said: "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me." (Luke 9:23). We are to be content in all things, knowing that our short life ends with our elevation to be with the Father – which is exceeding greater than all we can achieve on earth. The JND version puts it "Be… satisfied with your present circumstances" (Hebrews 13:5b). Abishag is taken from her parents and placed into the king's house and ordered to do one of the most difficult tasks one can do for another – attending to the personal hygiene of the person, toileting, washing and bathing, and perhaps dealing with incontinence and other bodily malfunctions, then sleeping with him to keep him warm. Yet we do not find Abishag complaining, but she is found quietly doing her allotted job (1 Kings 1:15). As believers we to should be found quietly doing what God has willed, whatever it may be, and be willing to say, as Paul said: "For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV).

2. The Shunammite woman (2 Kings 4)

Unlike Abishag, we know a little more about the Shunammite woman of 2 Kings 4, but not her name, which is important. The Shunammite woman was a prosperous woman who had a heart for serving those that she came upon, when the narrative of her life begins in the Bible. Again the custom is typical of the time, and although less so now, the art of hospitality has not been lost entirely in the Middle East. The Shunammite woman saw Elisha, realised he had not eaten and urged him to have a meal with her and her husband. Evidently she did a good job, and formed a friendship with Elisha, for in 2 Kings 4:8 we read that whenever Elisha passed through Shunem he would eat at the Shunammite's home. In this we see this woman was one who understood practical application of love.

We know little of her husband, but in each case, although she took the initiative, as a loving wife, and knowing her God given place (role), deferred any decisions to him. This is something the western world hates. Yet God has given defined roles to men and women. The man is the head of the family; final decisions must be made by him: "But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God" (1 Corinthians 11:3 NKJV). This also illustrates the humbleness of the Shunammite woman, who appears to be the stronger of the two spiritually, and in doing so obeys God.

It was evident to her that Elisha undertook long journeys, being a prophet, much used of God, and Shunem was a place of transit. Elisha was from Abel-meholah, halfway between the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee in the Jordan Valley, some 35 km from Shunem, thus requiring a stopover. The Shunammite also recognised Elisha's status as a "holy man of God" who would require a quiet place to be in communion with God. She had the ability to recognise people's needs and their place before God. Her practical love was played out in the hospitable way she treated Elisha. So she urged her husband to build a room on the house so whenever Elisha came past, he could not only eat with them, but could sleep in the privacy of his own room, and have a place to write and study. 2 Kings 4:10 indicates the room had a bed, chair, table and lamp. This custom is rare – most homes of the time only had two rooms – the animals slept in one and the household the other.

We do know at the time the narrative began, her husband was old and she had no children. Whether the Shunammite woman was old is unknown, but having no children was a curse for families in those days, especially for Jews, who connected the notion of disgrace with that of being childless[2]. Elijah after seeing what the Shunammite woman had done for him, he wanted to repay the woman and seeks out what he can do to recompense her (2 Kings 4:13), and learns she is childless. It is interesting to see that being childless was a greater burden to her than status or position, in that her response to Elisha's servant, who questioned the Shunammite on behalf of Elisha, was that she was in need of nothing in terms of position in society. She "dwelt among her own people" and clearly did not want to dwell among any other, however rich. It is clear Elisha had connections to the King of Israel (Jehoshaphat, e.g. 2 Kings 3:13) and high ranking officials, and could have elevated this family's status by bringing the family into the King's court. However, she did not want this and replies "I dwell amount mine own people" (2 Kings 4:13b). What does she mean? She means that she was content and satisfied with her lot – she was happy being with her own people, and did not want any status. What about you? Are you always seeking to 'elevate' yourself, to become more important than those around? This is pride at work, which Scripture reminds thus: "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall." Proverbs 16:18. This woman was meek and epitomises the type of person Jesus speaks of in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 – 7), "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth." Matthew 5:5. Indeed it appears Scripture does not name her because it would have seriously embarrassed her – her life's goal was to please others, not to make a name for herself.

Of importance to this woman was having children. It is something our modern western society needs to relearn. Having and raising children has infinitely more satisfaction and joy than all the riches and status a career or connections can bring. Material things cannot, and should never replace people – women and men do not want children but a career, which only satisfies self. This is an act of defiant selfishness that reduces the riches of the community. A career rarely leaves a legacy, and in most cases is soon forgotten, but children create a lasting legacy. The Bible states "Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth." (Psalm 127:3-4). Not only are the modern generation hurting society as a whole, they are denying the pleasures of their parents of seeing grandchildren – a natural delight for all with children. Proverb 17:6 states "Grandchildren are the crown of the aged, and the glory of children is their fathers." The evil of satisfying self with material wealth and momentary pleasures has invaded the churches; it needs to be rooted out and banished. It is much better to die poor with children than die rich having a prosperous career: ""Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal." (Matthew 6:19-20).

The Shunammite woman was the antithesis of the modern woman: humble, gracious and happy with her lot, obedient to her husband, yet had initiative especially for helping others. Elisha had the ear of the King and ministers, but the Shunammite wanted nothing of their glory or prestige; she just wanted a child.

By God's grace, Elisha sees the hurt of the Shunammite, promises her a son within a year, which Jehovah makes good. However, when the boy had grown enough to be of use around the farm (2 Kings 4:19), and was out working, he suffered a major headache, returned home and died in the arms of his mother (2 Kings 4:20). Obviously the Shunammite woman was extremely upset, but realising the man of God, Elisha, would be able to help, places the boy's body in Elisha's bed, and takes a donkey to where Elisha was – Mount Carmel and finds Elisha. Scripture records this as an exercise of faith (Hebrews 11:35). Elisha eventually goes to the boy, prays to Jehovah who raises the boy. Some believe Elisha performed CPR on the child and he was revived, but scripture clearly states he was dead, and the Carmel Range is some way from Shunem – the exact location of Elisha is unknown, but at best some 24 km away. CPR would not have raised the boy, for given the time of travel and the procrastination of Elisha, the body would have commenced decomposition – in the same manner Lazarus's body decomposed (John 11).

This episode is also recorded in scripture for the purpose of demonstrating faith. Her faith is not ill placed. God had given her a son; would he be taken away (2 Kings 4:28)? Not only was her only child dead, but Elisha was far away. However, this woman did not fall down in total despair howling and weeping her eyes out, although no doubt she wept. Her faith is demonstrated in that she did not begin burial preparations, which her culture demanded (those that died have, even to this day, to be buried within 24 hours). Nor did she complain to God, but rather approached her husband, as a wife aught, and sought permission to go to Elisha (2 Kings 4:22). Her husband's response also tests this woman's faith. His walk and hers although joined, where spiritually disconnected. He thinks she wants to perform some religious service (2 Kings 4:23), when in fact she seeks faithfully for an avenue to have her son restored. Of interest in this narrative is the father's distinct lack of interest in the welfare of the boy. There is no "how is he doing?", since the boy was with the father when he first fell ill. His wife's silence on his son's death perhaps points to a discordant relationship between the two – perhaps she wanted a son, and he had no real opinion. Such a marriage is difficult to bear, which all the more demonstrates this woman's pious and humble nature, for each step she seeks her husband's permission.

So, although clearly dead, she mounts a donkey and seeks the man of God, who she knows has access to God. Her logic is complete and unambiguous: Elijah had raised the woman of Zarephath's son (1 Kings 17) and Elijah's spirit now rested on Elisha. Indeed a double potion now rested on Elisha (2 King 2:9, 15). In keeping with the narrative of 2 Kings, the Shunammite woman is not named in Hebrews 11 but her action is recorded in the annuals of the faithful: "women [who] received their dead raised to life again" (Hebrews 11:35) stating that these women, including the woman of Shunem, obtained a good report through faith (Hebrews 11:39). There is nothing greater than this the Father wants – faithful servants, who obtain a good report through their actions. Faith without works is dead, states James.

The book of Hebrews also demonstrates we now have a new and living way to the Father; so rather than seeking out a holy man of God, we can approach the Lord Jesus Christ boldly (Hebrews 10:19-23) and directly. There is no need for a priest – Jesus Christ is our priest, indeed out Great High Priest, with access to God the Father. We can therefore approach Jesus Christ directly, in prayer. We also see the narrative is also descriptive of the resurrection found in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. "Jesus said unto her, I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live" (John 11:25). If one reads 2 Kings 4 carefully you will see that the actions of man fail. Resurrection is entirely of God. Gehazi, servant of Elisha is sent to the boy with a rod, and he fails to revive the boy (2 Kings 4:31). Elisha teaches that any resurrection of the boy will be the will of the Father. It is when Elisha prays that the power of God is evident. A lesson for all people; effective fervent pray must always be the first recourse to any situation.

Note however this resurrection was not to a new life, in that the boy eventually died. One could better describe what happened as a restoration. There is another type of resurrection, first demonstrated by Jesus Christ – in this case the person raised is no longer subject to physical death: "knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him." (Romans 6:9). A person raised to resurrection life whether saved or not (believer or non-believer) cannot die again – their physical body is changed from natural (as humans experience the physical world) to spiritual.

The response of the Shunammite woman is most natural (2 Kings 4:37): (1) she falls down at Elisha's feet in profound gratitude and reverence for the "Holy man of God" and (2) she picks up her son in upmost joy and gladness – the boy who was once dead is now alive. This should be our response to the Lord Jesus Christ – we need to bow before the Father in humble reverence, and we need to, in upmost joy and gladness fix our eyes on Jesus Christ.

This unnamed woman was humble, meek, obedient and faithful.

3. The Bride of Song of Solomon

We learn from the sixth chapter of the Song of Solomon that the Bride (often referred to as she) in the poem, is a Shunammite, that is a woman from Shunem, also known as Shulnem. Some suggest this woman is Abishag, a beautiful girl, and at David's death the most important woman in the palace. However, this is conjecture.

It is most sad that Christians do not read this beautiful book. Indeed once, after preaching from this book, a pastor in the congregation stated that he had never heard a sermon from the Song of Solomon, and he was more than 70 years old! Yet it is full of beautiful imagery, illustrating the thoughts and actions of two people who have absolute and full love for each other. We allow our young folk to watch TV, see movies and interact over the internet, whose content all portraits a warped, lustful and evil side of sexuality and love. If you really want to understand love and sex, read carefully the Song of Solomon. If you want to understand the love of Christ for his Church, read the Song of Solomon. For young people guidance may be required, but the teaching is clear – the body of a woman belongs to her husband, and the body of a husband belongs to his wife. It is not shameful, as some Christians would have it, to gaze upon the naked body of a spouse. It is sinful to gaze with lust upon the naked body of someone who is not your spouse. That is, sex can only be exercised in all its fulness between a married man and woman who are truly in love with each other. The Song of Solomon poignantly expresses this in song. Often miss-interpreted, the Song of Solomon is about love not sex; but as the Bible points out, one cannot speak about love in a marriage without speaking about sex.

The ballad is about love, union and communion between two people: the bridegroom and his bride, being a metaphor for Christ and his Church. In essence it is an allegory, which Paul uses in Ephesians to remind Christians of what the Church is: "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.'" (Ephesians 5:22-31 ESV).

In this song the Shunammite woman understands deeply the full meaning of love. Her first response – and she is given the first word – is one of demanding peace. One cannot kiss an enemy. The tenderest affection is afforded when a woman kisses her spouse on his mouth. This is truly an intimate action. She has kept herself for him; her focus is on him and what please him. She is a virgin, undefiled, perfect (6:9). "Virgin" is a word expunged from modern English, but it symbolises purity, where one has kept oneself from sex and kept one's body for one's spouse only. She has kept herself for him (5:2).

She has studied him, and sees the beautiful and lovely in him. "As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste." (2:3). Her spouse has conquered with his love; in his victory he brings her into his house, victorious: "He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love." (2:4). The victory was due to his love for her; his love rallies around her, lifting her up, protecting her, filling her with ecstasy and joy. She is safe and fulfilled.

They are not yet married, but engaged - espoused. She wants him and longs for him, in the same way a Believer wants and longs for the coming of Christ. We are espoused to Christ, the head of the Church, the bridegroom, and someday He will come for his bride – we should be waiting with the same values, notions, thoughts and feelings for Christ as the Shunammite is for her beloved. And as in traditional Middle Eastern culture, the bride knows not when the bridegroom comes (although the Father does).

She is graceful, beautiful, perfect in all ways; clean and bright like sheep shorn and washed - white (4:2). Her love is much more than lust: it encompasses the whole mind, body and soul. This is where many Christians get it wrong. Song of Solomon is not about sex, but about agape: love that causes a man to give his life for another. It is about sacrificial love; indeed "love is strong as death" (8:6); a fervent zeal (not a word we use much today) for each other. As Christ died for the Church so should the depth of love of a man be for his wife (Ephesians 5). Death conquers all; such was the love of Christ. Such love brings about a response. She sees him as more than a lover. He is her friend, her beloved (e.g. 5:16). A woman's spouse needs to be her best friend. She sees him as altogether lovely: in his actions, word, work and interaction and communion with those around him – she sees nothing lacking, as a Believer sees nothing lacking in the Lord Jesus Christ.

This Shunammite woman perfectly illustrates the woman in love with the man she will marry. The illustration is beautiful to behold and a lesson to all. The love expressed by this woman should not cease, but grows upon marriage.

Modern day Shunem (Sulam) an Arab village in Israel (31 May 2015) (click for enlarged view)


[1] Leviticus 18:8 forbids a man marrying his father's wife, even if the father dies – such a sexual union is forbidden.

[2] Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset & David Brown (1871) Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible: 2 Kings 4:13-16. This volume can be found on-ine in many places e.g. < > accessed 10 June 2015.

David L Simon
14 June 2015
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