Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)

The text this week centers on a common theme: the faith of a servant acted out on foreign soil.

February 15, 2009

First Reading
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Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-14

The text this week centers on a common theme: the faith of a servant acted out on foreign soil.

Naaman, at the outset of the story, is not the unexpected one with great faith. The narrator chooses to describe him differently. Instead, he is the commander of the army of Syria. He is a “great man.”

Subsequently, the text reads that through Naaman the “LORD had given victory to Aram.” This may come as a surprise to some readers, yet it is consonant with Israelite theology. Because Israel confessed their God as the one true God, supreme over all other gods, the only way to explain a defeat like the one suffered at the hands of the Arameans (1 Kings 22) was to interpret it as God’s will. Thus, the opening declaration is not so much a statement about Naaman’s status before God (i.e., he was favored by God), as it is a reflection of the theological worldview of Israel. To be sure, what happens to Naaman at the end of the story is not the result of his favored status before God at the beginning of the story. Instead, it is the result of the faith exhibited by an unnamed young girl. At the beginning of the story, Naaman is portrayed as a powerful military leader, unstoppable on the battlefield. In the last line of verse 1, however, the narrator introduces the point of tension in the story: “Although he was a great warrior, he was a leper.” Naaman was able to “save” his people from foreign threats, but he could not save himself from leprosy.

The next figure introduced into the story is the antithesis of Naaman. Naaman was described as a “great man,” but in verse 2, we encounter a “young woman.” He has a name, she does not. He was a great warrior, she was a captive. He lived a life that demanded respect, she was a servant. Yet despite being on foreign soil, and despite being a captive of war, she had the one thing that could rid Naaman of the condition that plagued him. The unnamed woman who had been delivered into the hands of the Arameans speaks of this prophet in Samaria who could deliver him from leprosy.

Beginning in verse 4, the conversation and concern present within an Aramean household (Naaman, his wife, and their servant girl) shifts to the international and political realm. Naaman tells his king, the king prepares letters for the king of Israel (presumably Jehoram), and considerable wealth is gathered in an effort to buy the favor of the Israelite king.

Diplomatic correspondence between kings in the Ancient Near East was not unusual. In letters exchanged between Hebrew and Aramaic parties, the opening line of the main section typically began, “And now.”1  In 2 Kings 5:6, the opening line of the letter actually reads, “And now,” according to the Hebrew text. (The NRSV chooses to omit this word.)

It is worth noting that the narrator goes into great detail to depict this correspondence between the two kings. The response of the king of Israel suggests that such a letter carried with it great weight and significant political ramifications if such a request was not met. But the question remains: why would the narrator highlight the exchange between these characters? Some might argue it was done simply “to tell the story,” however, it is also possible that the narrator has drawn attention to the kings intentionally.

In this story, there has been a building of “power structures.” The unnamed captive Israelite woman speaks to Naaman’s wife. Naaman’s wife speaks to Naaman. Naaman speaks to the Aramean king. And now the Aramean king writes to the Israelite king asking that Naaman be healed. It would appear that the Israelite king is at the “apex” of the power structure. Each conversation has led to this final conversation with him. And yet the king himself declares, “Am I God to give death or life?” The one with the power not only confesses that he is powerless, but equally shocking, appears unaware of what everyone else in the story knows; that there is a prophet, a man of God, in his land who can heal leprosy.

Elisha hears of the king’s anguish and gives the king an order, instructing him to send Naaman to him (suggesting who really has the power in this story). Naaman appears at Elisha’s house, and instead of coming out to greet the “great warrior” and his entourage, Elisha sends out a messenger with instructions. Rather than follow these instructions though, Naaman is angered by Elisha’s apparently flippant response. It seems that Naaman wants a grand theatrical event, complete with shouts to the deity and a little “hocus pocus.” After all, he is the “great warrior.” He wants the attention demanded of such a great man. Yet the one with power is not Naaman. Contrary to his own self-perception, it is Elisha. So angered is Naaman by Elisha’s response, or lack thereof, that Naaman prepares to return home.

Finally, the narrator returns to the theme present at the beginning: the faith of a servant acted out on foreign soil. It was the faith of a servant girl that started this venture. Now, it is the faith of Naaman’s servants that ensures its completion. They chastise Naaman for his pride and remind him that had the requirement been a difficult task, he surely would have done it. Naaman consents and does “according to the word of the man of God.” In effect, Naaman concedes that he does not have the power to end his leprosy. At long last, Naaman exhibits a faith that is acted out on foreign soil, just like the young Israelite woman in his household and the servants with him. His cleansing comes not as a result of his power, but out of his willingness to believe.

1 Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, “Some Notes on Aramaic Epistolography,” JBL 93 (1974): 201-25 and Dennis Pardee, “An Overview of Ancient Hebrew Epistolography,” JBL 97 (1978): 321-346.