Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

Healing seems to be the big take away from the story of Naaman.

February 12, 2012

First Reading
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Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-14

Healing seems to be the big take away from the story of Naaman.

The powerful soldier, stricken with a difficult disease, reluctantly follows the prophet’s instructions and finds his health restored. That his healing comes through his acceptance that the Jordan holds healing properties superior to the rivers of his native Syria, touches on the ethnocentricism that forms the heart of this passage. Concluding a direct connection between healing and belief in this passage remains a stretch, since it appears that access to the source of healing rather than faith in that source seems to be the critical component in the passage.

The context of military rivalry between Israel and the Arameans frames this passage. Naaman’s prominence in the text results from his military victories, the unnamed servant girl represents the spoils of war, the outrage of the king of Israel over the king of Aram’s letter reflects a state of tension between the two nations, and Naaman’s affront to Elisha’s request to dip in the Jordan belies a need to trump all things Israelite.

Evidently in this rivalry the Arameans hold the upper hand, given the capture of an Israelite girl as well as the anxieties of the king of Israel. This story, therefore, sets out to rhetorically reverse this dominance and provides propaganda for the supremacy of Israel. At the same time, the story falls within the cycle of Elisha narratives that detail his mystique.

The key elements in the undoing of the power of the Arameans are Naaman and the servants. Employing a David and Goliath motif, the texts pits the power of Naaman against the limited strengths of those who hold servile positions. In this passage, Naaman’s essence lies in his achievements and his possessions. The first verse packs the details on his life, focusing on his strength and manhood in twenty-three words. In the Hebrew, only one word is necessary to narrate his illness.

This one word coming after the powerfully descriptive phrase “mighty warrior” (literally a pile up of two adjective or noun intensifiers) frames a stark contrast. The word translated as “suffered from leprosy” stands out as the only passive verb form in the sentence. This otherwise muscular man becomes undone by illness. From here on the man who normally gives orders to others will stand on the receiving end of the directives of others.

In search for a cure Naaman follows the words of the Israelite servant girl (verse 4). While the text shows no interaction between the two, it makes clear that Naaman articulates the girl’s words exactly before the king. Later, it would be Naaman’s servants who talk him back from his refusal to follow Elisha’s orders. They repeat the words of Elijah to him and as before he acts according to the words of Elisha as mediated by the servants (verses 13-14).

The contrasts of power and resources in the passage also appear when Naaman stands alongside Elisha. Accustomed to the markers of power and influence, Naaman travels to Israel with sufficient wealth to pay for his healing (verse 5). The text provides no indication on what determines the contents of Naaman’s luggage. However, when it points to the fact that Naaman arrives at Elisha’s house with a retinue of horses and chariots (verse 9), it subtly juxtaposes Naaman’s expectations, his customary bearing, and the way his wealth constructs him with the simplicity of Elisha.

The plainness of Elisha’s prescriptions provides further divergence with Naaman’s elaborate expectations for his cure. In the end, Naaman finds healing in the act of dipping in the Jordan, the definitive waterway that marks critical moments in Israel’s history as a nation. The waters of the Jordan upstage the waters of Damascus, and importantly the God of Israel delivers a cure for Naaman unlike any other deity.

Elisha sits curiously in the background of this section of the story, essentially remaining invisible except through his speeches conveyed by messengers. This makes Elisha a passive presence in the story as compared with the activity of Naaman and the king of Aram. Elisha’s mystique proves successful in the undoing both of the sickness of the great warrior and the warrior himself. In describing the restoration of his flesh, the passage indicates that Naaman’s flesh resembles that of a “young boy.”

This description recalls the “young girl” in verse 2. As the young girl becomes captive to Naaman’s army, in Israel, Naaman becomes captive to the dominance of the prophet. Ironically his healing leads to his undoing since he becomes subject to the power of Israel’s God.

Ultimately, this passage underscores Elisha’s bona fides as a miracle worker and the extent of his reach beyond Israel. The scope of Elisha’s power and its effectiveness with Naaman indicate God’s validity in and out of Israel. Despite this, Elisha seems to be Israel’s best kept secret, given that the king is unaware of the presence of a prophet in Israel (verses 7-8), even though the young girl possesses this knowledge. The boundary lines of insider/outsider in the passage are so drawn as to invert the normal order things.
This passage appears several times in the lectionary cycle.

Despite this frequency, its pairing with gospel texts focused on leprosy may lead to it being overlooked. Preachers can despair about either not finding anything new or relevant from this passage. The discrepancies of power and access to resources of healing in the passage provide space to reflect upon health care services in modern societies. Knowledge of sources of healing, acceptance of healing protocols, even the strange ones, and understanding healing as transformation are other themes that arise in the passage.

The instinct to cheer the supremacy of Israel’s God notwithstanding, the clear ethnocentricism of the passage presents an opportunity to talk about particularity in the midst of ethnic, racial, and religious diversity. That such differences converge around the issue of healing resources opens the door to talk about the limits of God’s healing but more importantly the restrictions that humans can place upon God’s healing resources. In another direction, Elisha’s actions offer an example of sharing healing resources as a nonviolent solution to military conflict.