The Morning After
Bible Stories for Grown Ups : Naaman the Syrian
Over the next two weeks we will be wrapping up this iteration of our Bible Studies for Grown Ups series. Next week we are going to talk about the book of Daniel, which contains several iconic, well known, flannelgraph-able stories. This week I want to look at a story that is less well-known, and after we do I want to show you how this story pops up in Luke’s story about Jesus.
Our story this week is found in 2 Kings 5, and it’s in a cycle of stories about the prophet Elisha. Elisha was the understudy / apprentice of the prophet Elijah, who was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire, drawn by horses of fire, in a windstorm. Elisha then steps into that prophet role. Let’s dive in.
2 Kings 5:1, CEB
Naaman, a general for the king of Aram, was a great man and highly regarded by his master, because through him the LORD*** had given victory to Aram. This man was a mighty warrior, but he had a skin disease.
*** The common perspective was that God/the LORD was essentially responsible for everything. The claim here isn’t that Naaman or the king of Aram were aware that the LORD had given victory, but the assumption is if they won a battle, the LORD must have been behind it. In 2020, this perspective is no longer convincing for many (most?) people. God isn’t the great puppet master, or arranging all the events of our lives***
Right out of the gate we are being told that Naaman is somebody important. He’s a general for the king of Aram, which is called Syria today. Aram and Israel were enemies. In chapter six, which is the next chapter, the Arameans actually attack Israel. Beyond his role as a general, Naaman is called “a great man,” which in Hebrew is the phrase “ish gadol” (it’s a ton of fun to say…go ahead…give it a try. I’ll wait. See? Fun.
Further, Naaman isn’t just a general, and an ish gadol—a great man, he’s also highly regarded by the king and known to be a mighty warrior.
But. Yep, there’s a but: He has a skin disease that is often called leprosy. The problem with that is that the condition we would think of today called leprosy, also known as Hansen’s Disease, and what the Bible refers to is probably aren’t the same thing. The point is that this great man, this revered and respected warrior, has been affected by whatever this skin disease is. This is the set up, the conflict that will launch the plot and create the action of the story. This great man has a skin disease.
2 Kings 5:2-4, CEB
2 Now Aramean raiding parties had gone out and captured a young girl from the land of Israel. She served Naaman’s wife.
3 She said to her mistress, “I wish that my master could come before the prophet who lives in Samaria. He would cure him of his skin disease.” 4 So Naaman went and told his master what the young girl from the land of Israel had said.
If we needed a reminder that Aram and Israel were in conflict, this detail about the young girl who was captured and enslaved by Naaman is it. She, this young Israelite woman, is the one who shared the information about a prophet in Samaria (in Israel) who could cure Naaman’s disease. In some ways, this unnamed girl is the hero of the story!
2 Kings 5:5-7,CEB
5 Then Aram’s king said, “Go ahead. I will send a letter to Israel’s king.”
So Naaman left. He took along ten kikkars of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. 6 He brought the letter to Israel’s king. It read, “Along with this letter I’m sending you my servant Naaman so you can cure him of his skin disease.”
7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he ripped his clothes. He said, “What? Am I God to hand out death and life? But this king writes me, asking me to cure someone of his skin disease! You must realize that he wants to start a fight with me.”
The king feels threatened, as if this visit was the pretext for war. When Naaman goes home and still has this skin disease, it’s going to be on, he thinks. In response to this worst-case scenario, the king of Israel tears his clothes, (I imagine Hulk Hogan style, just without all the flexing and confidence) which was a public, symbolic act that expressed grief and mourning, the news of which would travel fast.
2 Kings 5:8, CEB
8 When Elisha the man of God heard that Israel’s king had ripped his clothes, he sent word to the king: “Why did you rip your clothes? Let the man come to me. Then he’ll know that there’s a prophet in Israel.”
Elisha! This prophet’s got swagger! He’s not the least bit unnerved by this request. He’s got this, and he knows it.
2 Kings 5:9-10, CEB
9 Naaman arrived with his horses and chariots. He stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent out a messenger who said, “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored and become clean.”
Naaman arrives in his military gear and with, apparently, his full entourage. That’s the meaning of ‘horses and chariots’. This is essentially like pulling up in front of Elisha’s house in a tank. What’s the point of something like that? Why is that that totalitarian regimes and wanna be totalitarian regimes like to show off all their bombs and tanks? To intimidate, perhaps? It’s a way of posturing, of trying to create a sense of control. This sort of thing reflects insecurity, not security. A lack of control, not control.
Naaman then goes to the door, but Elisha doesn’t come out. He sends a messenger who tells Naaman to bathe seven times in the Jordan River and he will be good to go. How do you imagine Naaman will respond to these directions?
2 Kings 5:11-12, CEB
11 But Naaman went away in anger. He said, “I thought for sure that he’d come out, stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the bad spot, and cure the skin disease. 12 Aren’t the rivers in Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all Israel’s waters? Couldn’t I wash in them and get clean?” So he turned away and proceeded to leave in anger.
This is the worst-case scenario the king of Israel was worried about, right? Naaman has been offended and left in a huff. I imagine the king is back at the palace putting on more clothes so he can tear them again. Naaman’s response is anger and disbelief. After all, the “man of God” didn’t even come out to see him. Naaman had expected a little show with his healing. He was looking for something more fantastic, more abracadabra-y than the simple prescription to take a bath. After all, the waters back home in Aram are far better than anything Israel had to offer. This was beneath him. What a waste of this ish gadol’s time!
2 Kings 5:13-15a, CEB
13 Naaman’s servants came up to him and spoke to him: “Our father, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? All he said to you was, ‘Wash and become clean.’” 14 So Naaman went down and bathed in the Jordan seven times, just as the man of God had said. His skin was restored like that of a young boy, and he became clean.
15 He returned to the man of God with all his attendants. He came and stood before Elisha, saying, “Now I know for certain that there’s no God anywhere on earth except in Israel.
Fortunately for Naaman, cooler heads prevail. He does what Elisha prescribed, and he is healed. “His skin was restored like that of a young boy.”
Naaman goes back to Elisha, healed and humbled, and on the spot he converts to monotheism. The experience leaves him grateful and he tries to pay Elisha for his service.
2 Kings 5:15b-19, CEB
Please accept a gift from your servant.”
16 But Elisha said, “I swear by the life of the LORD I serve that I won’t accept anything.”
Naaman urged Elisha to accept something, but he still refused. 17 Then Naaman said, “If not, then let me, your servant, have two mule loads of earth. Your servant will never again offer entirely burned offerings or sacrifices to any other gods except the LORD. 18 But may the LORD forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master comes into Rimmon’s temple to bow down there and is leaning on my arm, I must also bow down in Rimmon’s temple. When I bow down in Rimmon’s temple, may the LORD forgive your servant for doing that.”
19 Elisha said to him, “Go in peace.”
Elisha refuses the gift, then Naaman asks for something that seems totally strange to us: He asks to get a couple buckets of dirt to take back home, because he will no longer worship any other gods but the LORD. Remember that, as we saw with Jonah last week, the ancient world believed gods were tied to the land, to specific soil. Naaman needs the dirt from Israel so he can make a sacrifice to the LORD, so that the LORD will be present with him. It seems silly, but think about the way a church building/space has been thought about in our own culture. There’s sacred ground and space, and then there’s profane ground or space. That’s what people mean when they call a church building “God’s house.” It’s not that God sleeps on cot somewhere in the back; it’s that somehow, we think, God is more present here than elsewhere. Fortunately, “the earth is the LORD’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1). There is no un-holy ground, there is no place that is not drenched in the Divine. The real task is awareness—having eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts that remain open to the everywhere-ness of God.
Then there’s this stunning moment where Naaman asks for preemptive forgiveness for the moments he will have to kneel beside his king in the temple of Rimmon (a storm god, and the national god of Aram). Elisha’s response? He essentially responds, “No worries. Go in peace.” That’s a bit shocking, isn’t it? We might expect Elisha to pull out some cliches to guilt Naaman…
You have to stand up for God.
If you deny God, the God will deny you.
The Bible says…
None of that follows. Instead, Elisha sends him in peace, which is shalom, the presence of wholeness, which is brought about by the presence of the Divine.
What a fascinating story, right? Before we wrap up, here are a few takeaways that I have, and I’d love to hear what resonated or popped up for you while we worked through this story.
The expectation of the spectacular.
Why is Naaman angry? Because he feels like there should have been more of a production. He wanted Elisha to come out, perhaps say some lofty words, and Benny Hinn the situation. After all, did I come all this way…for this? Bathing in an inferior river?
Before we a too critical of Naaman here, I think we have to acknowledge the bent in most of us to gravitate toward the spectacular and the extraordinary. In those moments we use language about God “showing up,” but what if we are the ones who have shown up? We live most of our lives in ordinary time and ordinary moments. How many gifts are we missing because we are looking for the next extraordinary moment? The reality is that God isn’t just found in the bigness of a moment or in the pyrotechnics of the situation. We live, move, and exist in God. God is the water, we are the fish. This is a lesson Naaman learned, at least in part, and one that will be transformative for us when we embrace it
The grayness of everything.
How many of us were taught that everything is black and white? That if there are any gray spaces or situations, that means we are compromising our faith in some way? The reality is that life is often one big gray space. We do the best we can, but there are moments, and lots of them, where it’s just not clear what we should do. So much of life is lived in tension, in unknowing, and the idea that the closer we get to God, the more things become black and white just hasn’t proven true. The reality is the more we lean into the Mystery of the Divine the more gray things become. When you begin to let go of certainty it becomes harder and harder to exclude people, to decided who’s in or out, pure or impure, acceptable or unacceptable.
One of my favorite Jars of Clay songs is a tune called Fade to Gray, and there’s line in the song that says, “And if you follow me / You’ll see all the black, all the white fade to gray.” I have found this to be profoundly true in my own experience.
Jesus interacted with this story in a similar way. He preached a sermon in his hometown (Luke 4) and toward the end, while everyone was pretty impressed, he brings up this story of Naaman.
Luke 4:27-29, CEB
There were also many persons with skin diseases in Israel during the time of the prophet Elisha, but none of them were cleansed. Instead, Naaman the Syrian was cleansed.” When they heard this, everyone in the synagogue was filled with anger. They rose up and ran him out of town. They led him to the crest of the hill on which their town had been built so that they could throw him off the cliff.
Jesus is challenging the black and whiteness, the insider / outsider perspective and people get so angry they want to kill him. (We must be careful when approaching these kinds of stories because they have been used in terrible ways by those who spew the hatefulness of anti-semitism. This isn’t a Christian vs Jewish story; it’s an intra-family conversation, and Jesus is offering a challenge to his tradition.)
Taking the next right step.
Naaman is sent home in peace by the prophet, without the grayness of the tension being resolved. I think maybe the point of life is to just do the next right thing, to take the next right step. We can spend our time and energy planning the next ten steps or ten years, but the only thing we can actually do is put one foot in front of the other, one step at a time.
Living in a bigger story.
The story of exclusivism that has permeated the Christian Tradition makes everything feel so small. A story where only people who hold our interpretation are somehow beloved and united with God…that God feels small. That story feels small. What we begin to glimpse here in the Elisha’s response to Naaman is a growing awareness that we are living in a bigger story than we first thought, and that whatever the word God points toward, it’s more expansive and universal than we dared imagine.
Maybe that really is the point. Maybe that is really all we are responsible to do, the next right thing, the next right step—toward love, compassion, kindness, generosity, and freedom. Maybe the point is embracing the awareness that we really are living in a bigger story, one that is far more expansive than so many of us were taught.
What would this mean for you?
What would the next right step look like at this point?
The sermon this week ended with a song from my friend Ben Grace called, “A Little Story.” I’d encourage you to give it a listen / a moment of reflection.You can find Ben’s brand new album (that includes this track) “As if Words Could Heal the Wounds” on Apple Music and Spotify, and more about his work at https://www.bengracemusic.com/#home-section.