The Woman Who Built a Soulmaking Room



John August Swanson’s image “The Jester” seems to capture the story of the Shunammite woman who builds a room for the holy. Support more of John’s incredible art and revolutionary vision (in affordable cards, prints) at

By Dee Dee Risher. Part of the continuing series on biblical women.

The Bible comes to us out of a patriarchal culture. At the same time, I believe firmly that the hand of the Spirit of God shaped what was recorded, however troubling or puzzling; however these recordings may reflect the dynamics of oppression in this world rather than the creative liberation I feel is core to the reign of God. I hold these two realities in tension.

Because of this conviction, I pay constant attention to the stories of women who do break into Scripture. Most of them are, predictably, relegated to the margins. They can appear sidekicks to the “real” stories of the (male) prophets, kings, patriarchs, warriors, and holy men. Yet hidden precisely within these “narratives of the margins” are the rankling questions that upset the power structures and interrogate our assumptions about God.

For more than ten years, I have been working with the Shunammite woman of 2 Kings 4:8-37. You may remember this woman—she offers to build an upper room for the prophet Elisha to stay in when he comes to town. In return (and unasked) Elisha tells her she will have a son. (She does.) When the boy is twelve, he is struck down with sudden illness while working in the field and he dies. She lays his body in the holy room, the room she built for the prophet to stay in, and goes, unaccompanied by her husband, to find the prophet. Ultimately, the prophet himself comes, though he does send some intermediaries, and after some fits and starts, the child comes back to life.

Thus goes the narrative. Yet read more closely. Buried in text are some astonishing holy insurrections. Like the following:

  1. The holy man asks her what she would like in return for her generosity (while making it clear that he has the ear of powerful other men, kings and generals.) She looks at him and says, simply: “I live among my own people.” She refuses the game of paybacks. I love this boldness, and I have spent a lot of time asking myself who my own people are. Which is a way of asking myself about identity as well as remembering what grounds me. These are rich, holy questions to ask ourselves.
  2. This woman does not fall for the culture of favors. She does not ask for a son. Since she doesn’t play the game, Elisha and his servant, Gehazi, decide that she could use a son to which she has a cheeky and amazing response: “Don’t lie to me.” (Really, you have to go read this story! It is peppered with feisty surprises.)
  3. When the child dies, she boldly lays the dead body on the bed in the room of the holy prophet. Not telling her husband any of her plans, she sets off to find Elisha on her own. She won’t deal with his intermediaries. She insists that he himself come. When she finally does reach him, she repeats one, haunting line: “I told you not to lie to me.” (Twelve years later, she remembers that first interchange. She wants him to understand her pain, and she will not be silenced. Often the women whose stories make it into Scripture are “those women”—the ones who will not shut up, who do not follow convention, who positively insert themselves into the text.)
  4. Elisha, holy man who had asked for a double portion of his mentor Elijah’s power, has to work hard to bring this child back. He tries three different things. The final step is to lay himself out on the child’s body. Scripture tells us that he does this “eye to eye, mouth to mouth.” It is powerfully, creepily intimate. The story is in Scripture because he succeeds, but the hidden narrative is how closely he flirts with failure. This is important, because this is much more our human experience—not the grand, triumphant successful gesture, but the stumbling persistence, and the experience of failure.

As a long follower of Jesus, I know this failure, and I want to be as honest and bold as this woman is in this text. I want to talk back with God, ask God why the gifts God put in my path die, and find spiritual understandings that include failures, with all their hidden powers and gifts.

If we cannot deal with failure, if we do not know how to put our deepest losses in our holy room, and if we do not know who our people are, we can never fully join the joy and power of God’s story. Many of my Christian mentors did not teach me to navigate these waters with more than simple truisms about God working in mysterious ways and having a plan that I didn’t grasp. I don’t disagree with either of those, but they are simplistic ways to shorten a spiritual journey that could be much deeper and more complete.

For the last few years, I have been working on these themes and this upstart woman whom I love. The fruit of this working is my first book, The Soulmaking Room, published, appropriately, by the Upper Room Books, later this month. It is an exploration of becoming authentic. I love that a woman thousands of years ago who decided to build a holy room is still such a powerful teacher.

Dee Dee Risher’s book, The Soulmaking Room, further develops this story as a way of talking about radical hospitality and living out justice over the long haul. Dee Dee edited The Other Side magazine, and CONSPIRE magazine, published by the Simple Way and a larger group of Christian communities. She is grateful to have been part of the Word and World community since its inception. At present, she is doing property rehab with the Vine and Fig Tree community, an intentional community in Philadelphia.


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