The Biblical narrative reports thousands of children’s deaths, from warfare, plague, even as a side effect in the Passover story. In addition there are four accounts of dead children brought back to life. Do those fortunate kids have anything to say to us today?
The first story is found in 1 Kings 17. The prophet Elijah, on the run from King Ahab, hid out with a poor widow and her son. He had miraculously caused the woman’s food supply to be never-ending, so the three of them were provided for. But the boy soon became ill and died. Elijah carried the boy into his own bedroom, prostrated himself on the child’s body, and prayed. The story says that God listened to Elijah and the boy’s life returned.
Elijah’s successor Elisha had a similar experience, recorded in 2 Kings 4. Elisha had a standing invitation to stay with a childless couple in the town of Shunem. As an expression of his gratitude for their hospitality and friendship, he prophesied and prayed so that the couple had a baby boy. Some years later though, this miracle baby, now a healthy child, died from an acute illness. With desperate hope, his mother laid him on the bed in the guest room and went on a donkey to get Elisha, not with a request, but a reproach, “Did I ask for a son? You gave me the hope and the joy and then they are torn away. That is the cruelest thing of all.” Elisha must have learned his resuscitative technique from his mentor, because he performed the identical ritual with the same result; the resurrected boy was returned to his mother.
The gospel writers describe Jesus raising two different children from the dead. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record the story of the 12-year-old daughter of a religious leader named Jairus. This girl developed a grave illness and died as her father was seeking help from Jesus. Jesus, after managing to heal a woman with a hemorrhage on the way, puts up with ridicule from the mourners, then privately raises the girl. Only Luke tells the story of the only son of a widow in the town of Nain who was raised because of Jesus’ compassion on his mother.
The parents in these stories are all presented as somehow particularly worthy of the miracles that they benefited from. The Hebrew mothers had shown hospitality to the prophets, Jairus was a faithful leader of the synagogue in his Galilean community, and with widow of Nain was particularly needy.
But how many dead children did the ancient prophets not raise? Even more problematic, this same miracle-working Elisha earlier cursed some kids who teased him about his baldness, and 42 boys died of mauling by a bear. In Roman Palestine, children’s funerals were certainly commonplace, yet Jesus only intervened these two times.
The disconnect between the lives of children fortunate enough to be born into families with financial means and that of the far greater number struggling daily with poverty and hunger has reached chasmic proportions, and the global pandemic has made intervention, even by those who care enough to try to act, increasingly problematic and dangerous. I wonder how the parents of the four resurrected kids felt about their neighbors’ families who were not so lucky. Could the fortunate four in the midst of multitude of sickness, death, and grief be showing us just how unfair the world we have created is? Jesus admitted the reality that we would always have the poor with us, but his message, just like that of the Hebrew prophets, was that those of us with riches, especially since most acquired wealth is raised on the backs of the laboring poor, bear particular responsibility for those called the “least of these.”
Child photo by Annie Spratt on UNSPLASH