The years around 850 BC were not the most propitious of times for Israel. It had been about 100 years since the great days of King David and King Solomon. Israel had been a major power then, but now it had become a second-rate nation beset by wars and threats of invasion. Besides that, there were a series of droughts and famines which afflicted the land of Israel during that time.
Israel was ruled by a king named Jehoram. The best that is said of Jehoram is that he was not as bad as his father and mother. [2 Kings 5:2]
Other than the king, the most powerful person in Israel was Elisha, a prophet who made God's words and power known in the land. Elisha had succeeded the great prophet Elijah when Elijah was taken up into heaven. There is a long series of stories about what Elisha did. They include bringing dead children back to life, neutralizing poison, increasing food supplies, and predicting the future.
The worship of God had not been abandoned in Israel, but pagan worship was continued by many, including the royal family. There doesn't seem to have been very much true religion in the country. Perhaps this is why the stories which are recorded about Elisha seem to have more to do with miracles than religion.
Our story begins in Aram. Aram is the region on the highlands north and east of Israel. Today this area is the location of Syria. Aram and Israel were fighting each other in an on-and-off border war. At the moment, Israel was about the equal of Aram, but Aram was on the rise while Israel was slowly decaying.
Naaman was a general of Aram's army. Naaman had enjoyed victory for Aram in the war against Israel, for which he received the respect of the king of Aram. Naaman was a conventional sort of man. He took the hierarchy of society for granted; he expected unquestioning obedience from his troops and asked permission from the king when he wanted to take a trip. Naaman assumed that there was nothing wrong with doing battle with Aram's neighbors. He did not question whether it was right to kill Israelite fathers and mothers or to carry off young girls as slaves.
One of these girls he had brought home as a present for his wife. I suspect that Naaman's soldiers had murdered this girl's parents in one of their raids and taken the child along with the rest of the loot. Naaman perhaps was sympathetic to the child's plight and took her home rather than let her be sold in the market in Damascus.
Naaman had one other characteristic: He suffered from a skin disease, one of the several diseases grouped under the name "leprosy". Naaman's disease seems to have been limited to one spot [2 Kings 5:11] and didn't cause him to be cut off from the rest of society as some kinds of leprosy did. Nevertheless, he naturally wished to be cured.
The young girl from Israel knew of Naaman's disease and she remembered the stories she had heard about the miracles of Elisha. Maybe Naaman and his wife had been good to the girl and made her a part of their family. Or maybe she was bragging about her homeland to her cruel masters. In any case, the girl told her mistress, Naaman's wife, that Elisha could cure the leprosy, if only Naaman would go there and ask.
Naaman's wife thought it was worth telling her husband about the girl's claim. Naaman had enough hope in the idea that he went to the king. And the king said, "Go, by all means. I'll send a letter of introduction to the king of Israel."
So Naaman went across the border into Israel. He went directly to King Jehoram and presented his letter of introduction. This was only correct protocol. Had Naaman, a chief general of Aram, simply crossed the border and gone directly to his destination, without stopping at the palace, it could have been considered an act of war.
So Jehoram received Naaman at Samaria and read the letter from the king of Aram. Put yourself in the King Jehoram's position. A very successful general comes to you from an unfriendly neighbor and presents you with a letter from his king. The letter says:
"With this letter, I am sending my servant Naaman to you for you to cure him of his leprosy." [5:6]How would you have reacted to such a message? Jehoram assumed that it was a pretext for an invasion. He knew that he couldn't cure leprosy; it was likely that the king of Aram knew it, too. Did the king of Aram blame Naaman's disease on Israel? When Naaman went back to Aram, still diseased, would that be the excuse for Aram to attack Israel? The situation smelled of a setup and Jehoram could see no way out.
Elisha, on the other hand, responded with a confidence that bordered on arrogance. Well, it would have been arrogance if it hadn't been based on knowing what God intended to do. When Elisha heard about the king's state of mind, he sent a message to Jehoram. "Let Naaman come to me," Elisha said, "and he will find that there is a prophet in Israel." [5:8]
So the king sent Naaman on to Elisha. Naaman rode up to Elisha's house in his chariot, surrounded by an honor guard and all the pomp and circumstance befitting a high officer of a foreign state.
Elisha didn't even come out to meet Naaman, but sent a messanger to the door with instructions to bathe in the Jordan River. What an insult! Naaman was a conventional sort of man. He assumed that he would be given the appropriate honors as head of the army of Aram. Even if he were not a high general, any person of worth was owed a debt of hospitality. Elisha demanded hospitality when he travelled, as had Elijah before him. Why would he ignore all convention and protocol in the case of Naaman? Was Elisha trying to provoke a fight with Aram by insulting its general?
And Naaman was insulted. He was insulted first of all that Elisha gave him no honor. Listen to what Naaman says:
Here was I thinking he would be sure to come out to me, and stand there, and call on the name of Yahweh his God, and wave his hand over the spot and cure the leprous part. [5:11]Yes, Naaman had it all figured out. He knew exactly what Elisha should do for him and exactly how it should be done. That would be the conventional way of handling the situation. And Elisha did not follow Naaman's script.
Naaman was insulted also because the instructions were too simple. Elisha had sent word that Naaman should simply wash in the Jordan 7 times. Well, he could have done that at home! "The rivers of Damascus are better than any water in Israel," he said [5:12]. He must have wondered, "Is Elisha trying to make a fool of me?" And he left in a rage.
Naaman was forgetting the reason for his trip. Had he travelled to Israel to be cured or to be honored? If he wanted honor, then the rivers of Damascus would be a better place than the territorities of Israel. Had he travelled to Israel because he already knew how to cure himself? If he had known what to do, he wouldn't have needed to ask for help.
Naaman made this journey because the knowledge and honor that he had in Damascus was not what he needed. But when he arrived, he was so caught up in his own thoughts that he would not listen to any other way. He had his ideas turned inside around and back frontwards. He was too stubborn to consider any solution but his own.
Naaman is not alone in suffering from this malady. All of us stubbornly insist on our own mistakes and short-sightedness. Martin Luther, in one of his university lectures on Paul's letter to the Romans, suggested that our sense of what is right has become curved and twisted around. Because of that, we are not able to see or accept the simple solutions that might eliminate our problems.
A preacher friend of mine once remarked that we often try to make God simple, so we can comprehend him, and at the same time we make our own lives complicated. The truth, he pointed out, is that God is so much more complicated than we can understand, and that what is required in our lives is very simple. [Rick Beck, January 29, 2000]
Is this not same point as in the passage from Deuteronomy that we read earlier?
For this law that I enjoin on you today is not beyond your strength or beyond your reach. It is not in heaven, so that you need to wonder, "Who will go up to heaven for us and bring it down to us, so that we may hear it and keep it?" Nor is it beyond the seas, so that you need to wonder, "Who will cross the seas for us and bring it back to us, so that we may hear it and keep it?" No, the Word is very near to you, it is in your mouth and in your heart for your observance. [Deuteronmony 30:11-4]We know the answers to most of our problems. We even say the right words … especially on Sunday mornings. But we are like Naaman. We don't expect a simple solution.
Our thoughts are so curved around on themselves that we don't even want a simple solution. We are so twisted in our fallen nature that we can't help but focus on things which have already been proven useless, like Naaman insisting on his honor and protocol. How are we ever to overcome our human nature? Martin Luther, in his lecture on Romans, also identified the answer.
Now this curvedness is natural [Luther said]; it is a natural defect and a natural evil. Hence, man gets no help from the powers of his nature, but he is in need of some more effective help from the outside. And this is love. [Luther, page 219]Love. The love that God gives to us and asks us to share. This is the "more effective help from outside" that has the power to set things straight.
Last Sunday afternoon, I learned a new parable which seems to illustrate this point.
This brings me back to how Naaman was healed.
A woman was shopping for garden supplies. (Her name is Shirley and she was at ShopKo - but nothing says that a true story can't also be a parable.) She picked up a large bag of fertilizer and put it on her cart. Another customer saw her with the large bag and came over.
"You should get some help with that," he said.
"Oh, no," she replied, "I'm OK." She had the cart, and the fertilizer was not completely unmanageable. She really could handle the situation without troubling others.
He said, "There are store people right here. You might as well ask them to help you." And of course he was right. Shopko pays these people to help the customers; they give out gold stars for customer service, not for stocking the shelves.
"I'm fine," she replied and went about her shopping.
Minutes later the man reappeared, a young sales associate in tow.
"Since you're so stubborn," he said, "I went and got him myself."
Naaman had come to Elisha expecting a certain kind of help given in a certain way. When he did not get what he expected, he went away mad. But his servants, that is, Naaman's staff officers, spoke to him. "My father," they said - using the proper honorific title -
if the prophet had asked you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? All the more reason, then, when he says to you, "Bathe, and you will become clean". [5:13]The officers addressed Naaman as "my father" because that was the correct form of address. The fiction was that kings and great men took care of their underlings like a father cares for his little children. It wasn't often true. But perhaps Naaman was an exception; perhaps he did treat his officers as family.
In any case, these officers treated Naaman as family. They spoke up, respectfully, to point out that he was being an idiot. Naaman's officers spoke up because his ideas had become twisted in on themselves and he was suffering because of it. They showed the love of true friendship to their general by pointing out where he was not seeing things clearly.
Naaman listened to his officers. (This may be Naaman's only lasting claim to fame, that he listened to his staff officers.) He went to the Jordan River and washed himself 7 times, as Elisha had instructed. And when he was finished, he was cured. The disease was gone. [5:14]
This story is less about the great general of Aram than it is about the general's friends. Naaman's officers proved to be his friends by speaking up and telling him that he was wrong. Naaman distinguished himself not by anything he did on his own but by listening to his friends and taking their advice when it was so clearly right.
This story is less about what God did through the prophet Elisha than it is about what God did through some loyal officers of a foreign army.
Scripture quotations from The Jerusalem Bible. Doubleday, 1966.
Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans. Translated by Wilhelm Pauck. Westminster Press, 1961.