Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-15a
In the Year 1 cycle of the Narrative Lectionary, this story about Elisha’s healing of Naaman
provides a hinge between the Old Testament’s narrative accounts of the ancient Israelite
monarchy (represented by readings from 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings) and the prophetic
literature that overlaps with the monarchic era (represented by readings from Micah, Isaiah, and
Habakkuk). Like those prophets whose names serve as titles of biblical books, Elisha
communicates the will of God to the people; unlike them, Elisha’s work focuses more on
performing miracles rather than delivering oracles. In a nutshell, we might say that Elisha’s prophetic vocation is less about talking and more about doing.
Like Elijah before him, Elisha works many wonders on behalf of the poor, even as he also locks horns with kings. Both prophets are referred to in the text not only by the generic Hebrew word for prophet, nabi’, but also by the more specific title “man of God” (’ish ha-’elohim). Whereas a nabi’ mediates between the human and the divine in any number of ways, the ’ish ha-’elohim typically embodies divine power, acting in the name of the God of Israel and demonstrating that Israel’s God is both real and dominant.
In Naaman’s story, Elisha sends a messenger to instruct the Aramean commander to wash seven times in the Jordan river. Naaman is thoroughly disappointed by Elisha’s response. Naaman has made a grand entrance into Israel, stopping his entourage at Elisha’s front door (verse 9), and Elisha will not even come out to meet him himself! If getting relief from his condition is simply a matter of bathing in the better river, then Damascus surely has the advantage.
Moreover, Naaman is a powerful person who is used to people doing what he tells them to, and he demands the five-star treatment from Elijah. It’s as though he has arrived in Israel expecting a private suite in a private hospital, and instead he’s been offered a bed in the hallway.
What Naaman soon learns, though, is that his healing is not simply the result of magical bathwater, nor is it something only he has access to because he is important. Rather, Naaman’s healing is a result of the power of the God of Israel. It is a power that surpasses his own authority, as well as that of his king and of Israel’s king (see also verse 7).
Naaman’s declaration of faith is remarkable for its exclusiveness: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel” (verse 15a). This is not simply an affirmation that Israel’s God has skills or power and is worthy of recognition; this is a declaration that the God of Israel is the only God. Elisha has told the king that Naaman will “learn that there is a prophet in Israel,” but Naaman’s revelation has gone well beyond that. In a world where every region had its favorite deities, and the fortunes of nations mirrored conflicts between their patron gods, entertaining the idea that only one God mattered or even existed was rare.
In this story, even Elisha’s “doing” on behalf of God recedes into the background, showing that Naaman’s miracle is not about Naaman, nor about Elijah, but about the unrivaled oneness of the God of Israel.
The healing of Naaman calls to mind several other stories from both the Old and New Testaments, underscoring its key themes of the power of the God of Israel, the humbling of the mighty, and promise of God’s power as a force for healing, hope, and justice in our everyday lives:
2 Kings 1
The Naaman story is in many ways an inside-out version of the account of King Ahaziah’s death in 2 Kings 1. After being hurt falling out of a window, King Ahaziah of Israel sends messengers to Ekron, a Philistine city, to inquire of its god through its prophets. Elisha’s mentor Elijah intercepts these messengers, sending word to Ahaziah, “Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?” (2 Kings 1:6)
Upon hearing Elijah’s question, Ahaziah sends a military officer with fifty men to fetch Elijah:
He went up to Elijah, who was sitting on the top of a hill, and said to him, “O man of God, the king says, ‘Come down.’” But Elijah answered the captain of fifty, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” Then fire came down from heaven, and consumed him and his fifty. (2 Kings 1:9-10)
This pattern repeats itself until a third captain pleads for mercy from Elijah and receives it. Elijah prophesies that for Amaziah’s unfaithfulness, he will not recover from his injury, and the king soon dies.
The Israelite king who looks to a god outside of Israel, for a word of hope for his healing, dies; the Aramean captain who goes to Israel for healing is cured. Taken together, these two stories, particularly as part of the broader framework of the Elijah-Elisha tales, serve as a kind of narrative apologia for the superiority of the God of Israel.
The role of the slave girl in this story may also call to mind Acts 16:16-24, in which a slave girl making money for her owner follows Paul around and declares, “These men are slaves of the Most High God.” In both stories the least powerful character has insight into the truth of the God of Israel, while the powerful people in the story have difficulty seeing beyond their own self-interest.
The wonder-working of Elijah and Elisha is echoed in many of the miracles of Jesus described in the Gospels. Like those two Old Testament men of God, Jesus heals, feeds, and even raises the dead. Both sets of stories–Elijah/Elisha and Jesus—point to God’s interest in helping and healing human bodies. The power of God is not simply a collection of lofty words, nor only a promise of eternal life, but also a transformative presence in the lives of human beings on earth.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Healing God, you healed your servant Naaman of his affliction when he came to you, through Elisha, for help. Heal our afflictions, and make us faithful servants. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
For all the saints ELW 422, H82 287, UMH 711, NCH 299
I sing a song of the saints of God H82 293, UMH 712, NCH 295
Lift high the cross ELW 660
The souls of the righteous, T. Tertius Noble