Victoria and Albert Museum

“The departure of the Shunammite woman,” by Rembrandt (1606–1669). The never-named heroine of 2 Kings 4:8–37 embarks on a desperate journey to the prophet Elisha after her young son succumbs to a sudden—and apparently fatal—illness. Elisha earlier had prophesied that the woman, despite her husband’s advanced age, would bear a son as reward for her hospitality to Elisha.

The lovely light bathing the woman and the gentleness of the composition belie the urgency of the moment. At his wife’s request, the husband—not grasping the reason for her mission to Elisha—provides her with a donkey and a servant that she “may quickly go to the man of God.” The woman from Shunem then instructs the servant: “Urge the beast on; do not slacken the pace for me unless I tell you.”

Though the woman is the focus of this painting, she has for generations been overshadowed by the figure of Elisha in the minds of Bible readers and commentators. The biblical text presents her story as just one of many miracle-working episodes in the career of Elisha, and commentators, both in the theological and the scholarly traditions, have focused on the prophet and not on the woman. Author Long here seeks to redress the balance by offering a fresh reading of the story that puts a spotlight on the Shunammite woman. (Interestingly, until 1966 this painting was believed to depict Abraham sending Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness.)