Shunem—Marked by Love and Violence
IN SOUTHERN Galilee, at the eastern end of the low plain of Jezreel, lay the city of Shunem. This small city witnessed two of the most significant battles of Bible history, but it was also renowned as the birthplace of two women who exemplified loyal love.
Behind Shunem rose the hill thought to be Moreh, while across the plain, about five miles [8 km] away, stood Mount Gilboa. Between those two hills, there was a well-watered, fruitful land—one of the most productive regions of all Israel.
This lush countryside around Shunem provides a setting for one of the most enchanting love stories ever told—The Song of Solomon. This song tells about a beautiful country girl who preferred to marry her shepherd companion rather than accept the offer of King Solomon to become one of his wives. Solomon employed all his wisdom and wealth to win her heart. Time and time again, he praised her: “Who is this woman that is looking down like the dawn, beautiful like the full moon, pure like the glowing sun?” And he promised to pamper her with all the jewelry she could imagine.—Song of Solomon 1:11; 6:10.
To give her a taste of the royal life, Solomon had her accompany him to Jerusalem as part of his cortege, accompanied by 60 of his finest soldiers. (Song of Solomon 3:6-11) He housed her in his royal court, a court so impressive that when the queen of Sheba saw it, “there proved to be no more spirit in her.”—1 Kings 10:4, 5.
But the girl from Shunem was loyal to the shepherd boy. “Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest,” she said, “so is my dear one.” (Song of Solomon 2:3) Let Solomon rejoice with his thousand vineyards. One vineyard—along with her loved one—was sufficient for her. Her love could not be shaken.—Song of Solomon 8:11, 12.
Another beautiful woman lived in Shunem. We know nothing of her physical appearance, but she was certainly beautiful of heart. The Bible says that she ‘restricted herself’—or went to a lot of trouble—in order to provide the prophet Elisha regular meals and accommodations.—2 Kings 4:8-13.
We can imagine Elisha returning thankfully after a long, fatiguing journey, to the little roof chamber she and her husband had prepared for him. He probably visited their home often, since his ministry spanned 60 years. Why did this Shunammite woman insist that Elisha stay at their home every time he passed that way? Because she valued Elisha’s work. This humble, selfless prophet acted as the conscience of the nation, reminding kings, priests, and commoners of their duty to serve Jehovah.
No doubt the Shunammite woman was one of the people Jesus had in mind when he said: “He that receives a prophet because he is a prophet will get a prophet’s reward.” (Matthew 10:41) Jehovah granted a special reward to this God-fearing woman. Although she had been barren for many years, she gave birth to a son. Years later she was also given divine assistance when a seven-year famine devastated the land. This moving account reminds us that the kindness we show to God’s servants never goes unnoticed by our heavenly Father.—2 Kings 4:13-37; 8:1-6; Hebrews 6:10.
Two Decisive Battles
Although Shunem is remembered as the home of these two loyal women, it also witnessed two battles that changed the course of Israelite history. There was an ideal battleground nearby—the plain between the hills of Moreh and Gilboa. Military commanders in Bible times invariably camped where there was a generous water supply, high ground for protection, and, if possible, a dominant position overlooking a dry valley plain with sufficient space to maneuver hordes of men, horses, and chariots. Shunem and Gilboa offered such advantages.
During the time of the judges, an army of 135,000 Midianites, Amalekites, and others were camped in the plain in front of Moreh. Their camels were “as numerous as the grains of sand that are on the seashore.” (Judges 7:12) Facing them across the plain, by the well of Harod at the foot of Mount Gilboa, were the Israelites under Judge Gideon, who had only 32,000 soldiers.
During the days before a battle, each side would try to demoralize the other. The hordes of jeering troops, the war camels, the chariots, and the horses could strike fear into the foot soldiers. Doubtless, the Midianites—who were already in place while the Israelites gathered—proved to be a frightening spectacle. When Gideon asked, “Who is there afraid and trembling?” two thirds of his army responded by abandoning the battleground.—Judges 7:1-3.
Only 10,000 Israelite troops now stared across the plain at 135,000 enemy soldiers, and soon Jehovah reduced the number of Israelite soldiers to a meager 300. Following the Israelite custom, this small band was split into three divisions. Under the cover of darkness, they spread out and took up their positions on three sides of the enemy camp. Then at the command of Gideon, the 300 smashed the jars that had concealed their torches, held aloft those torches, and shouted, “Jehovah’s sword and Gideon’s!” They blew their horns and kept on blowing. In the darkness, the startled mixed crowd of soldiers imagined that 300 bands were attacking them. Jehovah turned each one against the other, and “the whole camp got on the run and broke out into shouting and went fleeing.”—Judges 7:15-22; 8:10.
A second battle took place near Shunem during the time of King Saul. The Bible reports that “the Philistines collected together and came and pitched camp in Shunem. So Saul collected all Israel together and they pitched camp in Gilboa,” just as Gideon’s army had done years before. But Saul, unlike Gideon, had little trust in Jehovah, preferring to consult a spirit medium at En-dor. When he saw the camp of the Philistines, “he became afraid, and his heart began to tremble very much.” In the ensuing battle, the Israelites took to flight and were heavily defeated. Both Saul and Jonathan lost their lives.—1 Samuel 28:4-7; 31:1-6.
So it was that the history of Shunem became marked by both love and violence, trust in Jehovah and reliance on the demons. In this valley plain, two women showed constancy in love and hospitality, and two Israelite leaders fought decisive battles. All four examples illustrate the importance of relying on Jehovah, who never fails to reward those who serve him.
[Picture on page 31]
Modern village of Sulam at the site of ancient Shunem, with Moreh in the background
Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.