Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-14
This fascinating story takes place in the midst of a section that showcases Elisha’s amazing prophetic powers (2 Kings 4:1-6:7).
Elisha succeeded the great Elijah in 2 Kings 2 and since then has been very busy. Beginning in chapter 4, he provides food for a poor widow (4:1-7), gives life to the deceased son of a rich woman (4:8-37), and then provides food for hungry people (4:38-44). However, with the healing of Naaman in chapter 5, the structure can be seen as less an envelope, which invites comparisons between the parallel elements:
a Food miracle (4:1-7)
b Healing miracle (4:8-37)
a’ Food miracle (4:38-44)
then a set up for the next miracle in the unit — the cleansing of the general from Syria. The structure, then, is nicely two-fold:
a Food miracle (4:1-7)
b Healing miracle (4:8-37)
a’ Food miracle (4:38-44)
b’ Healing miracle (5:1-27)
In the case of the two healings, both are quite long, with extended dialogue among several different characters. Both also concern people of means: the rich woman of Shunem in 4:8-37 and Naaman, “a great man and highly regarded … a mighty warrior” in 5:1. While both individuals have means, they also have need. The woman lacks for a son (4:14); Naaman, despite his military prowess, has skin disease (5:1). A crucial difference between the two accounts is that Naaman is a foreigner: a Syrian in the military employ of the king of Aram.
Naaman’s skin condition needs brief discussion. Three observations are important: (1) First, the skin disease in question has traditionally been referred to as “leprosy,” but the disease designated by Hebrew ?ara?at (in 5:1 it is a verbal form of the root ?-r-?) is almost certainly not what we call leprosy today (Hansen’s disease) — or at least it isn’t only that. Now what, exactly, ?ara?at is, is unfortunately not altogether clear, but, (2) what is clear is that this is the same malady discussed at length in Leviticus 13-14. (3) Finally, the condition that afflicts Naaman is at some odds with the note that “through him the LORD had given victory to Aram” (2 Kings 5:1) insofar as ?ara?at in Leviticus renders a person (or thing) in a state of ritual impurity that, if unchecked, could lead to long-term, perhaps even permanent separation of the person (or thing) from the community, from its worship, and therefore from God.
What, then, to make of this note in the text that the Lord had given victory to Aram through a foreign general who had a ritually impure skin disease? Each of the italicized bits are cause for exclamation points, not just a question mark. Is the divine agency at work through Naaman one that he is aware of or does it take place unbeknownst to him — part of God’s general providence and work in the world, outside Israel and the Church, that is, as much as inside? Did it take place before his skin disease or even after its appearance? We do not know because we are not told. All we know is that a young Israelite slave girl works in Naaman’s household for his wife (2 Kings 5:2). She notices the skin disease at some point — as the Leviticus material suggests she should, given the seriousness of the condition and what it means to those in contact with one afflicted by it — and she tells her mistress about a prophet in Samaria who could cure Naaman (v. 3). Naaman takes it up with his boss, the king of Aram, who grants him a leave of absence and promises to smooth the way by writing a letter to Israel’s king (vv. 4-5).
Here is the first in a series of events that gets things off track in this narrative. The Israelite girl has communicated correctly to her mistress, as evidently, has Naaman’s wife to Naaman himself. On the basis of 2 Kings 5:4, Naaman is also said to have accurately reported “what the young girl from the land of Israel had said.” But the king of Aram now miscommunicates, making this a matter of official diplomacy, an exchange between two heads of state. But this is no political matter — not, at least, one between Israel and Aram; this is a matter between a leper and a prophet. It is no wonder, then, that upon receiving the letter from Aram, the king of Israel (who goes unnamed in this story) is worried. The letter after all, says that the Aramean monarch was sending Naaman to the Israelite king “so you can cure him of his skin disease” (v. 6). And now, in front of the king, stands Naaman with an exceedingly generous gift of silver, gold, and clothing (v. 5), which is clearly payment for services rendered.
The Israelite king knows that this is above his pay grade. The matter of ?ara?at was one for priests — as Leviticus 13-14 shows. But even in Leviticus the priests didn’t cure the disease so much as watch it, contain it, quarantine it, and manage its effects. If anyone cures skin disease, then, it must be God, as the Israelite king clearly recognizes (2 Kings 5:7). So, in the context of international diplomacy, what the Aramean king has requested is humanly impossible. It must be a ruse, an excuse to instigate military conflict. “The Naaman Incident” will, in perpetuity, be known as the cause of the Third Aramean-Israelite war (see 1 Kings 20 and 22).
The tragedy of such an event would be compounded by the fact that — like so many modern military actions — it would have been predicated entirely on a miscommunication or, better, a misunderstanding. Once again, this is not a matter between two heads of state, but between a leper and a prophet. It is not surprising that the Aramean king does not realize the role of Israel’s prophet, or take him into account. He is Aramean, after all, and they no doubt have their own religious ways and means (cf. v. 18). It is somewhat surprising that the Israelite king doesn’t think immediately of the prophet, however. Then again, he is too busy worrying about the imminent international debacle that is on his hands.
Thankfully, the latest installment in the ongoing Aramean-Israelite conflict is avoided, at least for the moment (see 2 Kings 6:8; 13:4; etc.). It is avoided, not by shrewd statecraft, but by prophetic intervention. Somehow Elisha hears of the Israelite king’s distress and sends word that Naaman should be sent his way: “Then he’ll know that there’s a prophet in Israel” (2 Kings 5:8). This last line is less one of braggadocio, then, than it is getting the situation back on track. It is, one more time, precisely not a matter of politicking but one of healing — which is exactly what the young Israelite slave girl discerned from the very start of the story (cf. v. 3).
And so Naaman with entourage goes to Elisha’s house, but not in quite the right frame of mind. He, too, has evidently forgotten what he reported to his majesty, the king of Aram (2 Kings 5:4); he has apparently succumbed to the rhetoric of his king’s letter, reinforced by the response of Israel’s monarch, and is under the impression that the situation is a matter of great pomp and circumstance, formal reception, gift exchange, and miraculous spectacle (cf. v. 11). It is none of the above. It is not the great prophet himself who receives the great general, just the prophet’s messenger. And this messenger does not usher the mighty warrior into an audience with the miracle-worker, but just gives him straightforward if somewhat obtuse instructions: to wash seven times in the Jordan River (v. 9).
Naaman is nonplussed and not impressed. He goes away “in anger” (two times: 2 Kings 5:11a and 12b) recounting the great display that he had expected (v. 11). What’s even more insulting is that he has come all this way to bathe in a river, when there’s plenty of water in Aram that is not only much closer but just as good — no, better (v. 12).
And maybe it is. But that isn’t water that the prophet has spoken of or commanded washing in. And the disease that Naaman has is no ordinary one, but one specifically known and worried about in Israel: ?ara?at. And it is the prophet in Israel (2 Kings 5:4, 8) who can redress this problem, which explains why this washing is not to be done just once, but seven times — a symbolic number which evokes perfection, fullness, completion: “Wash in the Jordan River fully, completely, perfectly.”
Only Naaman’s aides talk him down, reframing for him what, exactly, is at stake. “This isn’t an affront, General Naaman, this is easy! Why make it harder than it is? Stop thinking about matters of state — pomp and circumstance and all the trappings of power — and think about getting well. Don’t you want to be healed?” (cf. John 5:6).
Naaman listens. Then Naaman obeys. He washes in the Jordan, as commanded; seven times, just as instructed. Fully. Completely. Perfectly. And then, what he had hoped for and what we’ve been waiting for ever since v. 1 takes place: “His skin was restored like that of a young boy,1 and he became clean” (v. 14). As is clear from the rest of the story (see esp. vv. 15, 17-18), it isn’t just his skin that has changed.
There’s more to the story (there always is!), but that’s enough for Naaman (and the lectionary), at least for now (see further 2 Kings 5:16-27 and Luke 4:27).
Frank Anthony Spina, “2 Kings 5:1-14,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts: The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (ed. Roger E. Van Harn; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 249-51.
G. Robert Jacks, “Just Do It,” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin 17 (1996): 202-210; online at: http://journals.ptsem.edu/id/PSB1996172/dmd011 (accessed 10/10/14).
1 The language here harkens back to that used for the “young girl” in v. 2. In some way, these youngsters who seem so small (Hebrew √q-?-n; vv. 2, 14) hold the key amidst all the powerful individuals who otherwise dominate the story (a general, two kings, military advisors/entourage, a prophet and his messenger).
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