A Dip in the River – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 4C (2 Kings 5)


Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” 

He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” 
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! 12 Are not Abanaand Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. 13 But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14 So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean. 
15 Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” 16 But he said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” He urged him to accept, but he refused. 17 Then Naaman said, “If not, please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord.
                Just as was true with his mentor Elijah, Elisha was a prophet known for his miracles. He healed people, raised the dead, and fed multitudes. For the most part, the recipients of these acts were members of the prophetic community. Unlike Elijah, Elisha doesn’t seem to be at odds with the monarchy. In part that is due to the fact that Elijah’s enemy—Ahab—is no longer ruling in Israel. Although what occurs here in 2 Kings 5 doesn’t seem to be that big of a miracle—someone is healed, but without any real involvement on Elisha’s part. He gives instructions, but not much else. The person healed, however, is an important figure, as is his confession, which is why it’s odd that the lectionary creators cut the story off a bit early. Yes, Naaman is healed, but why is this important? Without the confession of faith, we’re left with a nice story but not much else. Perhaps the reason for its brevity is that it seems a bit ethnocentric, and not fitting our current needs?
                The story of the healing of Naaman of leprosy is one of those stories we may have learned in Sunday School. After all, it features a warrior and a miracle. But what else is there in this story to be concerned with?
                Let’s start at the beginning. Naaman is a general in the army of the kingdom of Aram (Damascus). He has won his share of battles on behalf of his kingdom, but he had been stricken with some form of skin disease (identified here as leprosy). The disease doesn’t seem to have limited his military prowess, but it might have limited his social interactions. We learn that in his household is a young woman, a captive from Israel. She had been taken from her home in one of the many border wars and skirmishes between two neighboring countries. While we’re not told why she offered this word of advice, she informed the general’s wife, whom she served, about a prophet in Israel who had the power to heal. If only Naaman went to visit this prophet, he could be delivered from this affliction. When informed of this possibility, Naaman went to the king and asked for help in gaining access to this means of healing. The king agreed to the request, and put together some tribute for Naaman to take with him as a sign of friendship, or at least a truce, along with a letter addressed to the king of Israel (who at the time was Jehoram. He did evil in the sight of the Lord, just not as bad as his father, Ahab).
                When the king of Israel received the letter, he was horrified, because he assumed that the king of Aram was asking him, the king of Israel, to heal this general. He was so upset that he tore his robes, as a sign of grief. If he couldn’t heal the man, then surely war was on the horizon. Although one king asked the other king for assistance, the servant girl didn’t have the king in mind, but a prophet. So, something got lost in translation. Fortunately, Elisha heard about the situation and sent word to the king. He told the king to send Naaman to him, for he was the appropriate person to deal with the situation. He was the prophet that the young woman had in mind. Elisha told the king: “Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” There isn’t a lot of compassion in this response on Elisha’s part. It seems as if he saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate the power of Israel’s God. What is about to occur is sometimes understood to be a power encounter. It is meant to be a revelation of the power of God, as opposed to other forces and deities.
                The next word we hear is that “Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house.” Naaman came to Elisha reflecting a sense of power. He had with him all the signs of his military prowess and importance. So, what would Elisha do? How would he respond?  The answer is interesting. He doesn’t even venture out from his house to greet the mighty general. He just sends word to the general, telling him to go and wash himself seven times in the Jordan. Naaman is incensed. At the very least he expected Elisha to come out and greet him, and he also expected Elisha to say some words and wave his hand over the spot. Surely there was some ritual to be performed, but why go wash in the Jordan? What’s so special about the Jordan that it would cleanse him. After all, Damascus had better rivers than the Jordan. So, he goes away, angry at being snubbed and told to do something demeaning, like bathing in the Jordan (of all places).
                Though he was angry at Elisha’s request, Naaman’s aides convince him to do as he was asked. Why is it a big deal? Elisha could have asked him to do something much more difficult. The ancient world is full of stories of difficult quests. This is pretty simple. So, Naaman, perhaps reluctantly, but still hopeful that he could rid himself of this disease, does as he was asked. Sure enough, he’s healed. The text informs us that “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.”  With this, the lectionary reading comes to a close. We can rejoice in the compassion of God, who provides healing even to a foreigner. In fact, Naaman represented an enemy of Israel. This is good news. Of course, this isn’t really the end of the story.
                By ending the passage at verse 14, the emphasis is on Elisha’s miracle power, but is that the intent of the story? Yes, it’s a story of compassion, even for the outsider (Naaman is both a foreigner and one with a disease that normally excluded them from society). But verses 15-17 speak of conversion. Is this not the point of the whole story? When Naaman returns to the house of Elisha, he confesses that “there is no God in all the earth except in Israel” (vs. 15). This confession reinforces a declaration made at the beginning of the story, that it was the LORD (YHWH) who given him the victories on behalf of Aram, victories that would have included wars and battles with Israel (vs. 1).

                So, at one level, if we continue on to the end of verse 17, we hear a word about the superiority of the God of Israel over the nations. It is a message that is found throughout the Hebrew Bible. Despite the smallness of the nation of Israel or Judah, despite its powerlessness in the face of its enemies, God is still in control. We may struggle with that image—it’s one that we who participate in interreligious conversations struggle with—but is also a reminder that God is not bound by national boundaries. It is also a reminder that God is concerned about the people of all nations, including a general from Aram, who has in his household a captive from Israel, who for whatever reason gets the ball rolling by informing her mistress that there is a prophet in Israel who can heal him of his disease. It is a word about humility—finding healing if one is willing to take a dip in a foreign body of water. It is also a word about a transformative experience of encountering the God of Israel.  And through this God is glorified.

Picture attribution: Naaman is cured from leprosy, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55732 [retrieved July 1, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Enamel_plaque_Naaman_BM.jpg.



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