Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Commentators often focus on Naaman the Aramean as the main character of the text.1 Naaman’s story offers a powerful witness to humility and God’s ability to heal. The text takes pains to emphasize the importance and influence of Naaman, repeatedly calling him an ’ish gadol and gibbor chayil (influential man and powerful warrior).2 Naaman’s prominent status makes his skin disease not just an inconvenience but a liability.3 How do powerful people deal with their liabilities, especially ones that trigger their shame? Why, by seizing control of the situation.
Naaman does just such a thing when he appears before Elisha for healing. Dressed to impress (quite literally; see 2 Kings 5:5), Naaman struts up to Elisha with all of his wealth on display and with horses and chariots at his fingertips. Horses and chariots in the ancient Near East were not just for show; they were war machines. Unable to control his own body, Naaman instead tries to manipulate the terms by which he will receive help. He brings the tools he needs to either woo the help from the Israelites or to force it, if necessary. Either way, Naaman is in the driver seat.
Elisha is having none of it. He ignores Naaman’s attempts to control the narrative through coercion or seduction. Instead, Elisha takes Naaman’s peacock presentation and raises it to the level of the divine, where a Living God needs none of his show. Elisha places Naaman in the role of submissive recipient, and teaches Naaman a truth about bodies—and spirits—that are in need of healing.
It is a great story. Such a reading, however, remains at the surface level of the pericope and ignores what the text takes pains to highlight. Humility is not the only point of this passage. The interplay between this ’ish gadol and those of lesser status around him draws out the real preaching point of this story, one that revolves around a dynamic of listening and speaking.
The first two “minor” characters reveal this dynamic: an Israelite slave-girl (here, Anna) and her Aramean mistress, Naaman’s wife (here, Tabitha).4 Anna the slave-girl takes pride of place when it comes to speaking. That she is the first person to speak seems remarkable; that she speaks at all is extraordinary. The exceptional nature of this attention and honor are easy to miss. The only people who are called na‘arah (girl) and speak in the Hebrew Bible are Rebekah (Genesis 24), Ruth (Ruth 2), and Esther (Esther 2). A Matriarch, the Great-Grandmother of King David, a Slave-Girl and a Queen; these are the only na‘arah who explicitly use their voice in the Hebrew Bible.
Anna the slave-girl, who is no longer in control of her life and liberty, exercises her voice. Anna the slave-girl refuses to be in bondage to silence. Anna’s courage in speaking has an astonishing effect on those around her. Her mistress, Tabitha, listens to her. She then amplifies the voice of her slave, bringing Anna’s words to her husband.5 Naaman also listens, bringing the words of Anna the slave-girl to the king himself, who listens as well! Naaman’s first lesson in humility is not on Elisha’s doorstep, but on his own, where he listens to his wife and her slave-girl and honors both of their voices. Before humbly washing in the Jordan, Naaman learns to listen to the humble around him.
Preachers might ask their congregants with whom they identify in this text. Are they an ’ish gadol, who is called to healing through listening to the lowly of society? Are they Tabitha, called to both listen and speak, amplifying the voices of those who would otherwise go unheard? Are they Anna, from the lowest ranks of society, called to speak, to use their voice, to claim their ideas and their right to be heard?
Though we do not get it in our pericope, in verse 15, we hear the whole shocking impact of Anna’s speech: Naaman, this ’ish gadol, now knows that “there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” Who else do you suppose came to faith in God because of this act of healing? What healing for Anna might have occurred because of her determination to speak? The blessings and new life in this story all happen because the slave-girl Anna was willing to use her voice—and, because people listened.
- Israel and Aram were neighboring countries that vied for power in the region, much like neighboring Spain and France used to compete over their shared border territories.
- If you would like to use some Hebrew in your sermon, here are some pronunciation tips: ’ish gadol would be “eesh gah-dole,” as if one is disgusted with a certain type of banana: “Eesh! Gah! Dole!” Gibbor chayil is pronounced “gee-bore high-yeel.” “Gee” takes a hard-g sound, like at the start of the word “go;” “high” gets an extra throaty hh sound at its beginning, like the second half of the exasperated cry, “Aachh!”).
- For more on this skin disease and on the pitfalls of preaching about healings, check out Brian Jones’ Working Preacher commentary from 2019: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-14-3/commentary-on-2-kings-51-14-7.
- The topic of slavery deserves at least a moment of attention in your sermon. The lived reality of slavery and its generational ramifications have been rushed passed, ignored, and glossed over in most powerful Western countries. One of the benefits of a text like this is it allows us—calls us, really—to speak about slavery and its ramifications in our lives today.
- Tabitha’s recitation to her husband is not included in the text, but it can be assumed by the fact that Naaman somehow hears Anna’s words.
October 9, 2022