Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-14
The text for this week is populated by an unusual number of characters, the effect of which is to generate an intricate interplay of perspectives. Hebrew narrative tends toward brevity in describing characters and is typically threaded by the interaction of just two characters. The narrator begins this account, however, in a strikingly unconventional way, that is, with a name and a detailed description. Beginning with the name “Naaman,” rather than the usual wayyahi (“and it was”) that typically opens a narrative unit, directs our attention to personhood and identity, while the following description elaborates the attributes that determine the character’s identity. In quick succession, we learn that Naaman is the general of the Aramean army, a man of considerable esteem, a victorious and heroic soldier, and a leper.
We also meet an anonymous Israelite girl who was kidnapped and enslaved during an Aramean raid, an unnamed Aramean king, an unnamed Israelite king, a group of Naaman’s slaves, and Elisha the prophet, who is identified as “the man of God,” and a messenger.
The story takes place against the backdrop of intensifying aggression by the king of Aram, who has likely seen an opportunity when Israelite power and influence declines after the death of Ahab (2 Kings 6:8-23; 6:24-7:20; 9:14, 32-33, etc.). Naaman, in short, commands the forces that have brought violence, loss of life, homes, and livelihood, and untold suffering to the people of Israel. Naaman is an individual who, we may assume, is feared and hated by the Israelite populace.
The text’s dense multiplicity of characters generates an interplay of perspectives. There is the perspective of kings, who see only adversaries and who communicate with ambivalence. The Aramean king grants an unusual request to a valued general and sends him, with a letter, to a rival monarch. The Israelite king sees the letter as a pretext for goading him into a new round of hostilities. Then there are those at the opposite end of the spectrum, namely, Naaman’s slaves, who express compassion for their oppressor. Thirdly, there is the perspective of the man of God, who facilitates the healing of an enemy. And finally, there are the conflicted perspectives embodied by Naaman himself, whose exploits elevate his status but whose leprosy renders him a shunned outsider.
Kings see things differently than slaves and prophets. The inability of either king to heal Naaman exposes royal pretensions to ultimacy, expressed pointedly by the Israelite king’s exasperated question, “Am I God, able to kill or revive?” The only cords of compassion are struck by the slave girl who tells Naaman about Elisha and the slaves who urge him to follow Elisha’s instructions. The prophet stands in the middle, leaping into action to defuse the Israelite king’s vexation and to alleviate Naaman’s suffering.
In the course of the narrative, Naaman’s perspective shifts as dramatically as his health does. When the man of God sends a servant to tell him to wash in the Jordan, without showing him the courtesy of talking with him, he leaves in a huff, muttering about the superiority of his own land. He appears oblivious to the possibility that the Israelite prophet does not want to meet a man who has caused so much suffering or that Elisha’s response gives him a dose of his own dehumanizing medicine. Nevertheless, when he follows the urging of his slaves and the directions of the Israelite prophet, his leprosy disappears.
Naaman is indeed a new man when he exits the Jordan with the skin of a boy. He continues, beyond the boundary of the passage, to relate deep and genuine gratitude both to Elisha and to the God who has done what no earthly power or deity has been able to do. The healed Naaman is deferential rather than prideful: “I now know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel. Please accept a gift from your slave” (verse 15).
The changes in Naaman’s speech reveal that his mind has been as diseased as his body. Now healthy again, the enemy general expresses gratitude and defers to the prophet. The connection between mind and body is replayed later in striking counterpoint, when Elisha judges his servant Gehazi for fraudulently seeking payment, declaring, “The leprosy of Naaman will now cling to you and to your descendants forever” (verse 27). Enemies may be humanized by healing grace; insiders can be as wicked as enemies.
The story as a whole, then, precipitates a radical shift in the reader’s perspective and humanizes the enemy. Yahweh’s prophet, who will advise Israel’s kings in future battles with the Arameans, here heals an enemy who suffers. As a consequence, we see Naaman, no less than his Israelite victims, as a human being worthy of caring and kindness.
The Gospel of Luke reminds readers of the scandalous import of Naaman’s story. When, in Nazareth, Jesus lifts up Naaman as an illustration of the expansive scope of God’s love, the congregation turns against him (Luke 4:27-28). Later, Jesus heals the slave of a Roman centurion, an officer of another oppressing power (Luke 7:1-10). Another centurion praises God and proclaims the innocence of Jesus at the cross (Luke 23:47). And a third centurion becomes the first Gentile recipient of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44-48).
The Old Testament account does not ignore the horrendous suffering that Naaman has inflicted (see verse 2). Yet, it prompts readers to resist the hateful caricatures and the leprous demonizing of enemies, even when the demonizing is well-deserved. The enemy who perpetrates violence and brutality is no less a human being than those who are its victims. Enemies can be healed, and even victims can fall prey to a diseased soul. Or, as a modern prophet proclaimed1, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
- Martin Luther King, Jr, “Loving Your Enemies.” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute. https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/loving-your-enemies-sermon-delivered-dexter-avenue-baptist-church. Accessed March 23, 2022.