The lectionary readings for this Sunday include 2 Kings 5:1-14, which the English Standard Version titles “Naaman healed of leprosy.” It’s another of the puzzling stories God has caused to be recorded for us.
If you’ve read my previous column, you’ll know of another puzzling story: the “appointment” of Hazael as king of Syria by a prophet of the enemy, Elisha of Israel (the text actually says “of Samaria.”)
Naaman was the top commander of the Syrian armed forces – the force YHWH was intent on using to punish Israel. Naaman was the chief, the head honcho. He reported directly to the king of Syria.
The narrator begins by telling us of the social standing of the commander: a great man, in high favour, mighty man of valour. Then he bursts the bubble. He writes: “but he was a leper.”
Leprosy was a horrendous thing. It isolated people. It ended careers. It infected its victims with helplessness.
What to do? The solution comes from a war trophy acquired in Israel. A little girl. A little girl reduced to servitude in the commander’s home. The little girl tells Naaman’s wife a prophet in Samaria can fix his problem.
Naaman clutches at the straw. He goes to his king. He explains. He applies for leave to go get help.
The narrator is enjoying this: The king of Syria writes a letter to the king of Israel, to be hand-carried by the commander of his army, his army renown for wreaking destruction on those who don’t do his bidding.
The king of Syria tells the (hapless) king of Israel to cure Naaman.
The grand Israeli king doesn’t know what the little Israeli girl knows. He only knows he can’t cure leprosy. He can see himself becoming a war victim. He can see his empire being wreaked. He weeps.
News gets to Elisha. Elisha rebukes the king. He says don’t worry. I can fix this. The king clutches at the straw. He sends Naaman to Elisha.
Naaman rides up grandly. To the entrance of Elisha’s compound. Horses neighing, chariots shining.
Elisha isn’t impressed. Elisha doesn’t even care to meet the commander. He sends his servant out with a simple message to Naaman:
Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean. (2 Kings 5:10b)
The prophet doesn’t care to meet Naaman. He doesn’t care to showily “heal in YHWH’s name.” The prophet just sends his servant.
Naaman feels the insult. Like Prime Minister Ismail Sabri when he arrived in Saudi Arabia and wasn’t given a grand welcome.
Naaman’s aides calm him. They urge him to give it a shot. He agrees. He dips seven times in “Israel’s” river. The narrator tells us the result:
His flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean. (2 Kings 5:14b)
Don’t miss the words “little child.” The simple faith of the “little” girl results in the tough commander receiving the skin of a “little” child.
Read the passage.
Don’t miss the fact that the name YHWH is uttered by the commander, not the prophet. The narrator is telling us the prophet healed in his own name. But the non-Israelite, the unbeliever, knew the healer was YHWH.
The lectionary selection ends at verse 14. If you continue reading, you’ll see we’re told the commander informs Elisha that when he returns to Damascus, he must and will continue the worship of Rimmon, “god” of the political-civil religion of Syria. Elisha understands. He doesn’t object!
Even if we don’t directly attribute to God, the Holy Trinity, the works that we do, others see that our service is an outcome of our faith in the 3-in-1. We don’t need to make a show of it. They know whom to thank. They’ll feel uncomfortable every time they exercise their social-political faith.
Don’t miss the fact that the New Testament writers recorded for us Jesus’ mention of Naaman:
There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian. (Luke 4:27)
Healing isn’t for everyone. Sometimes it’s for unbelievers, not us. Faith is filled with strange stories.