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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Occam’s razor and the woman of Shunem

Today’s sermon was on “kindness rewarded”. It’s a fine idea --  kindness you do for others, without no thought of reward, may be returned to you later in some mysterious way.  The minister even handed out small posters from http://www.randomactsofkindness.org/

But it was impossible for me to listen to the bible story upon which the sermon was based without thinking that Occam’s Razor / the Law of Parsimony would suggest a much simpler, more straightforward explanation than the miracle in the story.

The Shunammite’s Son Restored to Life

8 One day Elisha went to Shunem. And a well-to-do woman was there, who urged him to stay for a meal. So whenever he came by, he stopped there to eat. 9 She said to her husband, “I know that this man who often comes our way is a holy man of God.10 Let’s make a small room on the roof and put in it a bed and a table, a chair and a lamp for him. Then he can stay there whenever he comes to us.”

11 One day when Elisha came, he went up to his room and lay down there. 12 He said to his servant Gehazi, “Call the Shunammite.” So he called her, and she stood before him.13 Elisha said to him, “Tell her, ‘You have gone to all this trouble for us. Now what can be done for you? Can we speak on your behalf to the king or the commander of the army?’”

She replied, “I have a home among my own people.”

14 “What can be done for her?” Elisha asked.

Gehazi said, “She has no son, and her husband is old.”

15 Then Elisha said, “Call her.” So he called her, and she stood in the doorway. 16 “About this time next year,” Elisha said, “you will hold a son in your arms.”

“No, my lord!” she objected. “Please, man of God, don’t mislead your servant!”

17 But the woman became pregnant, and the next year about that same time she gave birth to a son, just as Elisha had told her.

One could imagine the origins of this story in an affair between the prophet and the woman of Shumen, resulting in a child.  One could even imagine the husband being a voluntary party to this – he’s an old man, and there was no Viagra for erectile disfunction in those days. Perhaps this is the way to get an heir and keep his young wife happy.  But once the child appears, people are bound to talk, and it’s best to try to cover it over with a miracle involving charitable acts all around.

What people might have believed at the time is not known; we have only the written record from the priests surviving.

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