After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah,
‘What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!’
But he said to her,
‘Give me your son.’
He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the Lord,
‘O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?’
Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the Lord,
‘O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.’
The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, ‘See, your son is alive.’
So the woman said to Elijah,
‘Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.’
Many ancient oriental societies regarded death as a deity to be feared; but the Hebrew scriptures proclaim a belief that all matters relating to life and death are determined by the will and power of Yahweh. This passage makes the traditional link between sin and death; and Elijah’s words acknowledge Yahweh as the bringer of death. As God’s representative Elijah accepts the legitimacy of the widow’s challenge and his need to mediate God’s response.
He withdraws to a private place to pray and perform a ritual over the dead child; and only returns to the mother when the child has revived and can be restored to her. It is clear that what Elijah said or did is immaterial to the story. What matters is the outcome, which demonstrates that Elijah is a man of God, a prophet, and that he speaks the truth. The boy’s revival also affirms that God’s ultimate purposes are to bring life and hope into a situation of guilt and despair.
Similar stories of apparently dead children being restored to life and returned to a distraught parent are also recorded in the New Testament (Mark 5; Luke 8; and Acts 20). In these Jesus and Paul, like Elijah here, enact God’s life giving word in a dramatic form rather than speaking it.
In today’s world God’s restorative power is often enacted through the work of medical practitioners and the application of scientific advances; and we should remember to give thanks for these modern day prophets. As Christians, though, let us never shirk our personal responsibility to engage with God in prayer about the life and death issues that challenge us, trusting that God will make clear to us how we should respond in prophetic word and action to those who are seeking answers.
Lord Jesus, you came into our world to show us the meaning of life in all its fullness and to open up the way to eternal life.
Grant that my life may proclaim your truth; and that all I say or do this day may be life affirming for this world and all peoples, offering hope wherever it is needed. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge.