Sneeze Seven Times
There’s a story in the Old Testament which –
Oh. Don’t worry. I’m not going to say anything particularly evangelical. This is one of them there ‘Bible as Literature’ moments. It works the same whether you’re a Sunday-go-to-Meetin’ type or a backslidden heathen of some sort. Just work with me here, people.
There’s a story in the Old Testament which has always kinda done ‘spoke to me’. It involved the prophet Elisha, who was one of the heavies. Following in the footsteps of Elijah, he was a high-octane, kinda-scary weird-guy-in-the-wilderness type prophet. This was the guy who, when mocked by some young men for being bald, had God bring two bears out of the woods to maul forty-two of them to death.
Not judging here, just saying this isn’t ‘Distant Stare’ Jesus with toddlers on his lap. This is an OLD Testament guy.
So Elisha has shown favor to a man and his wife, who have in turn taken him in from time to time (II Kings 4). He promises the woman she’ll have a son, which she has trouble accepting, as her husband is a tad ancient. The woman nevertheless spawns a lad, which makes her pretty happy, until one day the kid dies out of the blue from a brain aneurism or some such thing. Pretty tragic stuff, especially after his seemingly miraculous arrival.
The woman hunts down Elisha and begins chewing him out – rather bold, given his recent bear activity.
“Did I ask you for a son, my lord?” she said. “Didn’t I tell you, ‘Don’t raise my hopes’?”
Elisha’s reaction is interesting. He reacts with urgency – almost a touch of panic:
Elisha said to Gehazi, “Tuck your cloak into your belt, take my staff in your hand and run. Don’t greet anyone you meet, and if anyone greets you, do not answer. Lay my staff on the boy’s face.” But the child’s mother said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So he got up and followed her.
There’s a lesson here about stubborn supplication, but that’s not where I’m going with it this time. I also have to wonder about a miracle baby who dies young then gets alive again in terms of the foreshadowing, but… also not where we're heading on this occasionally inspirational but essentially secular edu-blog. (See, I told you it wouldn’t be evangelical! Trust issues, much?)
Gehazi went on ahead and laid the staff on the boy’s face, but there was no sound or response. So Gehazi went back to meet Elisha and told him, “The boy has not awakened.”
So THAT’s discouraging.
When Elisha reached the house, there was the boy lying dead on his couch. He went in, shut the door on the two of them and prayed to the Lord. Then he got on the bed and lay on the boy, mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes, hands to hands. As he stretched himself out on him, the boy’s body grew warm.
Set aside your 21st century terror of perverts lurking around every corner and visualize a holy man laying himself down in the shape of a cross to redeem another. The Old Testament LOVES these echoes of the New, for those of you who ain’t currently redeemed and thus aware of such things. Steinbeck and Kingsolver got nuthin’ on Jeremiah when it comes to Biblical allusions – and his were preemptive!
Elisha turned away and walked back and forth in the room and then got on the bed and stretched out on him once more. The boy sneezed seven times and opened his eyes.
There it is. That’s the part that gets me every time. “The boy sneezed seven times… and opened his eyes.”
What a messy, embarrassing way to come back to life. I hate sneezing – it’s almost as unbearable as the hiccups. What kind of cruel universe would even allow such developments in the human beast? Forget wars, racism, greed, and lust – sneezing and hiccupping are THE WORST.
Compare this to something far glowier, like Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, or emerging himself several chapters later. The rays of light, the music, the angels in the background, maybe a goose pimple or two. Instead, here, we get snot hitting your arm while you try not to flinch. Yuck.
If you think about the things in your life, or your teaching, or your marriage, or your child-rearing, or whatever, which have brought you the FURTHEST towards real understanding, real breakthrough, real life… are they the glowy happy times, or the messy chaotic what-the-freaking $#%&* times?
The things that really wake us up or propel us into lifier aliveness are often awkward and embarrassing. Literal birth itself is a disgusting mess no matter WHAT sort of shiny rhetoric you throw at it; how appropriate, then, that rebirth be at least somewhat problematic.
And that’s OK.
Elisha summoned Gehazi and said, “Call the Shunammite.” And he did. When she came, he said, “Take your son.” She came in, fell at his feet and bowed to the ground. Then she took her son and went out.
Finally, it’s a nice ironic flourish that life returns through sneezing in this story. Our customary “Gesundheit!” or “Bless you!” when another sneezes is generally thought to stem from the fear their spirit might shoot right out of their body. This is the precise OPPOSITE of that – what we in the business call "a lil' twist."
Then again, sneezing was also sometimes interpreted as a sign of blessing in the ancient world – the PAGAN world, that is. You probably remember that Telemachus fella’ from the Odyssey sneezing and making Penelope laugh. She recognized this as an omen that her enemies would all die at the hands of Odysseus – so, good times on that! But that's MUCH less cool as a final not-even-a-twist AND tends to push the Old Testament closer to the camp of other ‘ancient’ literature or mythology. I’m not sure I want to do that here. Josh Brecheen would flip!
Either way, remember when you’re feeling awkward, or foolish, or pretty sure you’re screwing up, that life and growth happen in those sneezes, and by extension in those hiccups, messes, foolishness, and failure. Death was not only certain – it had arrived, and already done its damage! Yet somehow, through enough involuntary snotting and convulsions, the miracle returns. Life is back, and requesting a tissue.
May your world bring you effective sneezes.