Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-14
The story of the healing of Naaman is about entitlement, power, and pride.
It is about the shame attached to a chronic and visible bodily abnormality. And it is about divine power that flows through humble channels rather than through the pomp and power that humans esteem.
A key detail of the story is that Naaman was a leper. But leprosy then and now are different conditions. The Hebrew term translated ‘leprosy’ is tzara‘ath. It refers to skin blemishes and eruptions that rendered one ritually unclean and, consequently, resulted in social stigma and exclusion. The term does not refer to Hansen’s disease, commonly referred to today as leprosy, a disfiguring and disabling bacterial disease. Although the Bible gives remarkably precise descriptions of tzara‘ath, we are not certain of the nature of the skin conditions to which the term referred. It probably referred to more than one: fungal infections, leukoderma (see verse 27), impetigo, psoriasis, and eczema are all possibilities. Leviticus 13–14 provides instructions for determining a leprous condition and segregating those so afflicted. It also specifies the rituals of cleansing and reintegration, should the condition resolve.
Surprisingly, even walls and clothing could have tzara‘ath, in which cases the term probably referred to fungus or mold. The important point is that it was an obvious skin condition and indicated ritual uncleanness and possible divine judgement, as the sacrifices specified for cleansing indicate (Leviticus 14:10–32; see 2 Samuel 3:29). Touching a leper made one unclean, just as touching a human corpse or carrion did. Lepers were marked and excluded so that they would not transmit ritual impurity. Avoiding the spread of disease contagion is a modern concept, and most of the skin conditions categorized as “tzara‘ath” would not have been communicable.
Naaman commanded the army of Aram (Syria) and was himself a “mighty warrior,” a man of both physical strength and personal charisma. But he was a leper, a condition that made him ceremonially unclean and socially isolated, though it is possible that his high social status blunted the social ostracism that accompanied the disease. The story underlines Naaman’s exalted status in several ways. The king of Aram so esteems him that he endangers a fragile truce with Israel so that Naaman might seek healing. Naaman controls great wealth. He brings with him about 1,000 pounds of silver, 150 pounds of gold, and ten suits of clothing — huge treasure! And he comes with an entourage consisting of “horses and chariots,” a procession of power. The man who rolls up in front of Elisha’s house that afternoon, horses tossing their heads, chariots gleaming, boxes of silver and gold ready to buy a cure, is accustomed to bows of honor and unquestioning obedience. If there is a prophet in Israel powerful enough to heal him, Naaman definitely has the means to persuade that prophet. He assumes that what he needs he will get.
Such is the way of the world, but the ways of the God of Israel run counter to this. The humble and unlikely channels of God’s power are hinted at from the beginning of the story. Naaman learns how he might be healed from a humble source, a young Israelite girl, a powerless slave. To his credit, he values the word of the servant girl passed on through his wife. This is a hopeful sign. The true test of Naaman’s openness to the humble and humbling ways of the LORD is the scene in front of Elisha’s house. The prophet dishonors the great man at his door. He does not show himself; instead he sends a messenger. And the message offers further humiliation for Naaman. No special rite of healing will be performed. The prophet will not meet with him at all. “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times.” Elisha sends Naaman off to take a self-serve, third-rate-river cure. Outrageous! Furious, he slams the chariot door and drives off. Perhaps it is only Naaman’s desperation for a cure that keeps him from burning down the prophet’s house.
Again, it is the courage of servants that saves Naaman. What temerity they have to confront their master and reason with him! And we see a second time that Naaman has the grace of being able to hear advice from outside the bubble of his privilege. He swallows his pride and treks down the long, steep road to the Jordan valley. He “went down.” The Hebrew verb is from the same stem as the name Jordan, a name meaning simply “descender.” The narrator compresses the healing process into the space of a single verse. The scene at the lowly Jordan, more of a stream than a river, less glorious by human standards than the rivers of Damascus, is the nadir of Naaman’s humiliation. While his entourage watches, he dips himself seven times in the humble Jordan. The specified number of immersions recalls the priestly rituals of cleansing specified in Leviticus 14. And then he is clean (tehar, which denotes ritual purity). His skin is like that of a young boy (na‘ar, which can, significantly, also mean ‘servant’).
Not only Naaman’s skin but his very self is remade. Like the tenth leper healed by Jesus, Naaman returns (shuv, which can also mean ‘repent’) to give thanks. He comes and stands before the prophet, a phrase that denotes the posture of a supplicant. He confesses his new-found faith in the God of Israel, the only true God, and offers Elisha the presents he has brought. Now the wealth he has brought is not an incentive, but truly an offering. Elisha makes it clear that the power of God is not for sale. It is a gift, a grace. The genuine transformation of Naaman’s religious world is made clear in his request for sacred soil on which to worship the LORD back home, and this is further underlined by his plea for leniency when he is required to attend his king in the temple of Rimmon. “Go in peace,” says Elisha, which must mean leniency is granted. He returns home a different man, a clean man with loads of foreign dirt on which to worship the true God.
The story contains a danger which the preacher must recognize and possibly address head on. The idea that pride stands in the way of physical healing has obvious potential for harm. It might lead to guilt and self-blame in someone suffering a chronic illness. The story must be handled with care in this regard.