Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Set amidst international politics is a remarkable story about healing, humility, and universalism, which centers around the character of Naaman.

October 10, 2010

First Reading
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Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

Set amidst international politics is a remarkable story about healing, humility, and universalism, which centers around the character of Naaman.

Verse 1 introduces us to him by first noting his military status and his foreign nationality: he is the head of the Aramean army. Next, the verse praises him for being “a great man before his lord (i.e. the king of Aram),” and goes on to give the reason for his greatness, “for by him the LORD had given victory to Aram.” Though this assertion is quite clear in the text, it is surprising: the God of Israel has been supporting military victory of Aram?

Aram has appeared a number of times in the biblical narrative before this text as one of Israel’s major adversaries (2 Samuel 8, 10, 1 Kings 15, 20, etc.). Its most recent reference was in 1 Kings 22, when Aram was responsible for the death of the Israelite king Ahab. Moreover, the word translated as “victory” when referring to military encounters is the word teshuah, which also means “salvation” or “deliverance.”

Those who refer to God in the Old Testament as playing favorites with Israel have not taken into account this text. Naaman continues to be extolled in this first verse as a “valiant warrior,” but his introduction concludes with what will become the major problem in the story: he suffers from a skin disease. That is, in addition to his status, his greatness, his victory, his skill as a warrior, he is not healthy. Most often, the skin disease is translated as “leprosy,” but that translation is debatable, especially when we notice that Naaman’s particular disease did not prevent him from interacting with others in a variety of social contexts. However, even if Naaman was not a social outcast, his greatness is marred by his disease.

The second verse introduces a second character to the story: a little Israelite girl. She has been captured by the Arameans in one of their military raids (a detail that makes concrete the implications of the victory God gave Israel), and she becomes a servant to Naaman’s wife. Her lowly status is emphasized by the way the text describes her: she is a young, a na’arah, but this word is itself modified by the adjective, “little” (qatanah). Frank Spina explains, “Thus she is a ‘little little girl.'”1 But this unnamed Israelite slave girl is concerned for Naaman’s health, and she tells his wife about a “prophet in Samaria” (2 Kings 5:3) who has the ability to heal Naaman’s skin condition.

The lectionary text omits the verses where Naaman reports to the king of Aram what the girl said, and the king of Aram gives permission for Naaman to go to Israel. The Aramean king sends along with Naaman some lavish gifts: ten talents of silver (roughly seven hundred fifty pounds), six thousand shekels of gold (about one hundred fifty pounds), and ten sets of clothing. The Aramean king also sends a letter to the Israelite king, which commands the king of Israel to heal Naaman from his skin disease.

Our pericope picks the story back up when the king of Israel reads that letter, and responds with anguish: tearing his clothes, wondering aloud if the Arameans have taken him for a deity with the power to give and take life, and complaining that the king of Aram “is trying to pick a quarrel” with him, as the NRSV and NIV translate.

There is some humor amidst his anguish. First, the lack of mention in the letter about a prophet has led to the king of Israel’s assumption that he is responsible to heal Naaman. And second, the gift to the king included a number of new garments, which could presumably replace the ones he tore! But Elisha intervenes in verse 8, telling the king to send Naaman to him so that “he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.”

Naaman goes to see Elisha, but instead of meeting with him, Elisha sends a messenger to him with instructions to wash seven times in the Jordan River. Two things stand out in this series of events: first, Naaman comes to Elisha with the trappings of his greatness, “his horse and his chariot” (5:9). Second, Naaman is “at the door of the house of Elisha” (5:9), but even so, Elisha does not come out. Naaman gets angry at this apparent snub, and the text reveals his reasons: “I thought he would come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place, and remove the skin disease” (5:11). Naaman also makes an ethnocentric objection, stating that the rivers of Damascus are superior to any water in Israel, and verse 12 ends with his departing, in anger.

At this point, it is Naaman’s own servants who intercede. They suggest that if the prophet had asked him to do a “great thing” (dabar gadol), he would have done so, and they encourage him to follow the simple instruction to wash. Verse 14 is the climax of this text that resolves the initial problem introduced in the first verse: Naaman does “according to the word of the man of God,” and the results are what Elisha predicted. His flesh is restored (shub), and compared to that of a little child, and he is made clean. Thus, the great man (verse 1), through the intercession of the little girl (verse 3), is made like a little boy (verse 14).

Though the problem has been resolved, our text continues with Naaman’s return (shub) to Elisha in verse 15. This time, he stands before Elisha, whereas previously he expected Elisha to stand (verse 11). This time, he does not only know that there is a prophet in Israel (verse 8), but he confesses his knowledge that the only God is the one in Israel. And, in the final clause of chapter 15, the one that is cut out from the lectionary text, he refers to himself as Elisha’s servant. This great, foreign military leader has come to faith in Israel’s God, and he has come to see himself as a servant after becoming like a little child.

Naaman appears in Luke 4:27, when Jesus provokes anger among his listeners by reminding them that, although there were many in Israel with “leprosy,” only the foreigner Naaman was healed. It is a fitting sequel in a gospel that emphasizes reversals (Luke 1:52-53, 6:21-25), and where Jesus himself counsels his disciples that the kingdom of God belongs to those who receive it as a little child.

1Frank Spina, The Faith of the Outsider. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005, p. 78.