The prophet Elisha rejects the gifts of Naaman, Pieter de Grebber, 1637, Frans Hals Museum.
October 13, 2019
2 Kings 5:14-17
Today’s reading may seem the simple recording of a miracle. Indeed, the story is certainly miraculous, but it is more than that. The Old Testament is not primarily interested in personal spiritual experience, but the development of the Jewish people and this must always be our primary focus.
The cure of Naaman the leper was through Elisha the prophet. Elisha was active between 850 and 800 BC in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. It was a time of great instability and conflict in the area. That Naaman is a general of Aram is not incidental. As we will see, it is a young Israelite woman taken captive by the army of Naaman who persuades him to seek a cure for his leprosy in Israel and the king of Aram will lead his army against Israel in the very next chapter (2 Kings 6-24-7:20. There was constant stress and tension and the author and future editor of Kings are primarily interested in how the Israelites should proceed.
The story begins with Naaman’s servant saying to her mistress:
“If only my master would present himself to the prophet in Samaria,”
she said to her mistress, “he would cure him of his leprosy.”
(2 Ki. 5:3)
Naaman is so desperate that he receives permission from his king to ask his enemy for help:
“Go,” said the king of Aram.
“I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”
So Naaman set out, taking along ten silver talents,
six thousand gold pieces, and ten festal garments.
(2 Ki. 5:5).
Note however the change between what the slave girl said and what the king did. She said to “present himself to the prophet in Samaria” but the king sent “a letter to the king of Israel.” The prophet was ignored. They would need to learn that the truest power does not come king to king, but from God through prophet.
The king of Israel knew that he did not have the power to cure and so his reaction makes sense:
When he read the letter, the king of Israel tore his garments and exclaimed:
“Am I a god with power over life and death,
that this man should send someone to me to be cured of leprosy?
Take note! You can see he is only looking for a quarrel with me!”
(2 Ki. 5:7)
When Elisha, the man of God, heard that the king of Israel had torn his garments,
he sent word to the king: “Why have you torn your garments?
Let him come to me and find out that there is a prophet in Israel.”
(2 Ki. 5:8)
The next scene is meant to be comic.
Naaman came with his horses and chariots and
stopped at the door of Elisha’s house
The prophet sent him the message:
“Go and wash seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will heal, and you will be clean.”
(2 Ki. 5:9–10)
Naaman with his impressive retinue arrives at the house of Elisha and expects to be greeted with elaborate courtesy and deference. After recognizing his position, a suitably solemn ceremony to cure him of his leprosy could follow. Instead Elisha does not even leave his room and tells Naaman though a servant to go to Jordon and wash seven times.
Immediately, we can see why Naaman would be annoyed: he is a general and he is being ignored by this mere prophet of an unimportant nation. Also, he would have been insulted not to have an elaborate ritual performed on and for him.
I thought that he would surely come out and
stand there to invoke the LORD his God, and
would move his hand over the spot, and thus cure the leprosy
(2 Ki. 5:11)
There is also a more hidden reference. The Jordan was a small muddy river and would have struck Naaman as rather unhygienic. All of this reinforces the point that Elisha is making, it is not the title of the minister nor the elaborateness of the ritual but the power of God that matters.
His servants however reason with him:
“If the prophet had told you to do something extraordinary,
would you not have done it?
All the more now, since he said to you,
‘Wash and be clean,’ should you do as he said.”
(2 Ki. 5:13)
This is where our reading today takes up the story.
Naaman does the prescribed bathing and is cured of his leprosy. He returns to Elisha and wishes to give him the gifts he brought. Elisha refuses but allows him to take two mule-loads of earth, for as Naaman tells him “I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other god except to the LORD”. (2 Ki. 5:17).
That the prophet would not become distracted by mere gifts show several things.
The power is from God, not the king nor elaborate ritual nor even himself. As we read the prophets who will follow Elisha, we will see that kings will put their trust in ether their own military might or ability to maneuver between larger nations. Both the northern kingdom, Israel, and the southern, Judah, were to falter accordingly. They never learned the meaning of the Psalm:
Put no trust in princes,
in mere mortals powerless to save.
When they breathe their last, they return to the earth;
that day all their planning comes to nothing.
The other lesson is that as we have seen the Jewish people have a very special mission from God to be a light to the nations (Isaiah 42:6, 49:6, 52:10 and 60:3) and to lead everyone to worship the one true God (Zechariah 8:23). This would have been more clearly seen with the last editing of the Book of Kings after the exile in Jerusalem after 500 BC, but we see it developing as early as Elisha.
It is not only the what, however, it is the who, and the next section of this chapter is rarely read but should be heard nonetheless.
Elisha had a servant Gehazi who thought:
“My master was too easy with this Aramean Naaman,
not accepting what he brought. As the LORD lives,
I will run after him and get something out of him
(2 Ki. 5:20)
He catches up with Naaman and tells him that Elisha now needs two talents of silver and two festal garments. This he receives and returns to Elisha.
Elisha asked him, “Where have you been, Gehazi?” He answered, “Your servant has not gone anywhere.” (2 Ki 5:25). Elisha knows he is lying and in punishment Gehazi “left Elisha, a leper white as snow.” (2 Ki. 5:27)
Ours is an age that cries out for prophets and we have seen some very unlikely examples from Martin Luther King to Dorothy Day, through Jean Vanier and St Pope Paul 6th. There are more to come from we know not where. It may even be you or a neighbor or friend. Let us pray that should an Elisha arise in our midst we will show the deference of Naaman and not the venality of Gehazi.