God Saves… Go in Peace: Wholeness affirmed or Promotion piece? (Part. II)

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This is part two of a two part series. Part One can be found here.

Two requests

Soil

Naaman then asks for two dispensations, likely to help him facilitate this task of serving the One True God. Ironically, the man used to gaining spoils from war, now asks for soil from Israel in order to make an altar or a place of prayer. He recognized an association between the presence of the One True God and that of land. Formerly he had denigrated even the waters in Israel (vs 12), and now he wants a memorial from the “God of the whole earth”. Maier sees this as a visible “witness to Naaman’s family, servants, and neighbors of his belief in Yahweh, the God of Israel”.[1] There would be no secret reception, one can be sure, of a healed, now-servant-like army commander, with his retinue and two mule-loads of soil. It is as if the great Warrior-King is leading the formerly proud commander back to Syria as a prisoner of war, humbled, divested of his hands full of clothing and money, with a couple of mules bringing soil.

This calls into question the suggestion that somehow Naaman might be a champion of the insider movement. Sure, he returned to his own country. Sure he remained a Syrian by passport. Sure he could foresee remaining useful in the king’s service. None of these; however are unique to a certain special class of “insider” believers. Whereas much of the insider strategy talks of secretiveness, one does not see this with Naaman. He seems to be more aware than some, that it is the public, in-the-marketplace, nature of Christianity that causes it to be reviled. For good reason there was a public ministry of Jesus, a public entrance into Jerusalem, a public crucifixion, a public resurrection, and a public ascension.

Naaman’s request was in effect, that the same presence of God that lived in the land of Israel would go with him to the land of Syria.[2] In the book of Acts, another army commander, Cornelius, also a Gentile, is the recipient of the “the gift of land” in the ”territory” that Jesus has won by the cross. He is indwelt by God’s presence that now lives in the believer by the Holy Spirit. Thus the “holy” place, once restricted to the physical temple in Jerusalem, is already, in the story of Naaman, no longer restricted to a piece of geographical territory. This also foreshadows the dismantling of the dividing wall of Jews and Gentiles that would be fully realized at Pentecost.[3]

Pardon

Naaman’s second request has caused commentators no small amount of discussion.[4] The text reads: (Heb.) “When my master enters the house of Rimmon to bow down there, and he leans on my hand and I bow down [in]the house of Rimmon, when I bow down [in]the house of Rimmon, may the LORD forgive your servant for this thing.”[5] Cohn lays out the verse as a chiasm[6] in the following form:

A For this thing
B may the LORD pardon your servant

C when my lord comes to the house of Rimmon to worship[7] there

X and he leans on my hand,
C’ and I worship in the house of Rimmon

B’ may the LORD pardon your servant

A” for this thing[8]

Frequently, the “punch line” of a chiasm is found in the center. What is the point? As Cohn states, “and he leans on my hand”, appears to be an idiom denoting not that Naaman was his physical support but, rather, his “right-hand man” (cf. 2 Kings 7:2, 17). One can’t help but wonder if there is a touch of irony going on here. Verse 1 started out with a long description of Naaman’s exploits. He is called a mighty warrior,[9] the same epithet that is given to Baal. Curiously he also serves a king whose name is “Son of Baal”. Ironically, Naaman’s exploits, unknown to him, are all due to I AM’s intervention i.e. they come from His hand. They leave him with his resultant arrogant attitude, but his encounter with the God of Israel left him describing himself like a servant.

His eyes have been opened to the pretenses of power. He has seen that real power lies with one like “the little maiden”, the word of the LORD through Elisha, and the power of the God of Israel to heal, through the instrumentality of Jordan River water. One can not help but wonder if the narrator of the story has a double meaning with Naaman saying this somewhat facetiously, like “this king really needs me as his right hand man? I don’t think so. He needs to know that “every high official has a higher one set over him”.  He needs the God of Israel to support him. The God of Israel is the True Mighty Warrior-King. His worship of this false god is a sham.” (For background on the verb “to lean” see footnote [10])

Cohn also shows that the “hand”-“house” pairing will be used for contrast in the next scene with the opportunistic “servant” of Elisha. Gehazi, who unlike Naaman uses his hand to support his master as he is doing his religious duties in the house of his god, uses his hands to take the loot out of Naaman’s servants’ hands, and bring it to his own house.[11] (vs 24) Assis, however feels that this interpretation is forced, that the center of the chiasm should not be over-emphasized, and prefers to see the chiasm as a way of showing that Naaman’s speech is premeditated. He states:

The structure functions here to expose Naaman’s inner life at this point. Naaman’s confession may have derived from his admiration and appreciation, but not from his sincere intention to worship Israel’s God. The formation of Naaman’s words in a chiastic structure characterizes him as one who speaks in a premeditated manner; the reader realizes that Naaman is aware of the conflict between belief in God and worship in the temple of Rimmon.[12]

Gerhard von Rad pointed out that this verse would have the effect of a shock-wave on the Jewish audience.[13] First of all, Israel’s God had turned on them by giving victory to a Syrian. Jesus, similarly, uses the same example in Luke 4 to shock his audience, by stating that although Israel had many lepers at the time, it was the outsider, Naaman that was healed. Then he heals this same Syrian who has a Jewish girl as a prisoner of war in his house. Then God seems to sanction an action expressly forbidden in the Decalogue. To paraphrase Graeme Goldsworthy’s question, we must ask, “What is God up to?”[14] This is exactly the point of the passage.

God, through the inspired narrator, seems to be using this verse as a polemic against Israel. He has started this in verse one and is continuing on the same theme. It has much less to do with how one performs their state-sanctioned duties in their line of work, as important as that is (see below), as a question of loyalties. If one reads this with a purely anthropocentric view, the result will necessarily read as follows:

Namaan’s second request is even more directly related to our question about possible biblical precedents for Insider Movements. Naaman asks Elisha to forgive him because when he returns to Assyria he will accompany his king into the temple of Rimmon to bow down in worship there. Elisha’s response? Go in peace. Now Naaman is one “convert”, not a movement. And Elisha’s “Go in peace” is given in response to a request for forgiveness. But the text is an example of a follower of another religion who becomes a believer in the true God and yet continues to worship the true God within the religious life and practices of his prior religion. Not only is it a description, but also the text includes the clear blessing of the prophet upon the practice. In this text we find at least one case where God blesses “remaining inside”.[15]

Logically, with an anthropocentric reading, backed by a desire to make the text say what he wants it to say, Kevin Higgins found his “proof text”. Yet, it would seem that he has drawn overly hasty conclusions with little respect for the genre of the text, the immediate context, and its larger theological contexts. How quickly it seems to be overlooked that Naaman calls himself the servant of Elisha. This same Elisha is called a man of God, and the servant of Elijah from whom he asked for a double portion of his spirit. It was Elijah who castigated Israel for “limping between two opinions” and set out to demonstrate “…if God be God…” It is this same Naaman who has been taken as a “prisoner of war” by the Divine-Warrior King. How is it possible that this author thinks that Naaman considers himself free to do as he pleases “within the religious life and practices of his prior religion?”

Another way to look at this passage is to ask the question: “Is God is saying something to Israel, through the voice of Naaman, an outsider?” This would not be entirely surprising as Yairah Amit notes that God used the mouths of foreigners such as Jethro, Rahab and Naaman to bring across his message. [16] Additionally, Robert Long notes that in the milieu of ambivalence and hostility to prophets such as Elisha, God used miracle stories to drive home a message in a parabolic way.[17] Might I AM be saying the following to Israel, in light of their track record?

“As much as you profess to honor me with your lips, your hearts are far away from me. Compare this to Naaman, an uncircumcised Syrian foreigner who honors me with his lips, refuses to sacrifice to any other god, and even considers my gift of land as something sacred. You in the meantime pollute my land with idols; you sacrifice to any foreign god that comes along, and even use your lips to kiss the Baal idols. Your own king Azariah seeks out Baal prophets (2 Kings 1) and a foreigner seeks out my prophet.”

“As much as you consider yourselves to be scrupulous in your religious practices and worthy of I AM’s favor by virtue of your ethnic origin, your apostasy is so far gone that you have no regard for any appearance of evil by making altars on high places, thinking nothing of the word abomination and even burning your children to Molech. Compare this with this unworthy Syrian who refers to himself as a servant and who is genuinely worried about any kind of appearance of evil. He knows the connection between a religious action, such as bathing in the river Jordan, and a spiritual result. He sees the connection between the religious action of bowing down in a temple, and a spiritual acknowledgement and submission to the authority of that deity. You do not seem to make the connection.”[18]

“As much as you flaunt your sins in my face, and do not consider that any kind of pardon for them might be needed, this formerly arrogant pagan knows the meaning of the word ‘shub’. He asks for pardon two times while voicing a request in a way that even would allow for a refusal of that very request. He is genuinely worried about divided loyalties and the possibility of serving with a divided heart.”[19]

“A restored army general has more concern about the service of his king, than an Israelite servant of a prophet has for his master’s business. The former is selfless in his actions, and the later, selfish. The dishonorable attitude encapsulated by Gehazi stands as an example for the attitude of all of Israel.”

In essence God is saying to Israel, “shame, shame, double shame, everyone knows your lover’s name.” It is Baal and company. Jeffery Salkin, a Jewish writer, attempts to crawl into Naaman’s skin with the following soliloquy:

Look, God, I have to prepare you for something that is bound to happen. I might believe in You now, but I still have official duties to the king of Aram, who, as You Surely know, is still, well, a worshiper of Rimmon, which, as You know, is another name for the chief god of us Arameans back in Damascus, whom You probably also know as Baal-Hadad”.

I may not like it any more than You do, but a job’s a job. Just to let you know – it is going to appear to You, God of Israel, that I am bowing down before Rimmon. In fact, I will only be appearing to be bowing low, because my master will be leaning on my arm. He will be bowing low and I will be supporting him. So don’t hold it against me. I, personally, as You know, no longer have any use for Rimmon. I care nothing for Rimmon, but my king is still my king.[20]

The dismissal

“Go in peace”. What is Elisha saying? Von Rad describes the statement as almost “bewilderingly brief”.  Ngan pointedly asks:

How can Naaman be permitted to bow down to Rimmon if he is truly a Yahweh worshipper? It seems outrageous that he knows it is wrong and asks for forgiveness in advance. Why doesn’t Elisha reprimand him for not standing up for his faith? Where is the demand for faithful witness regardless of cost? When Elisha sends Naaman away with his blessing, does this not encourage all sorts of compromises?[21]

Answers vary:

  • An example of the “first non-directive counselor”.[22]
  • A response to a request for pre-forgiveness.
  • No rigorist or purist solution, only Elisha’s non-committal, but
    non-judgmental, “shalom” (vs 19a) giving tacit approval to
    Naaman’s practical compromise.[23]
  • It does not suggest cheap theological compromise, but rather
    recognition of the realism and integrity of Naaman’s commit-
    ment.[24]
  • A subtle way of “not indicating specifically whether or not he
    grants the requests. Instead the two conditions of YHWH worship outside the land of Israel are allowed to stand without comment”.[25]
  • An ‘amphibologia’ – a double meaning. “If he had said, ‘Yes; you may bow’, that would have been to sanction idolatry. And if he had said, ‘No; you must not bow’, that would have been to put Naaman’s conscience under a yoke of bondage to Elisha”.[26]
  • Ralbag (R. Levi ben Gershom) suggests, “that the brevity of the reply implies the granting of the requests”.[27]
  • Von Rad suggests Naaman is returning to a “very threatened existence”,52 and “leaves him completely to his new faith, or better, to God’s hand which has sought and found him”.[28]
  • “One case where God blesses ‘remaining inside”.[29]

One commentator calls Elisha’s response a “controversial enigma”.[30] That seems dismissive. Compare Paul House who summarizes his findings by stating:

First, Keil notes that Naaman simply asks whether or not God will forgive him.  He does not ask permission to worship Rimmon. Second, Naaman has stated his opinion of Rimmon and has declared his intention to serve and offer sacrifices to Yahweh. Third, he must create what amounts to a personal outpost of Yahwism in Syria. He can pray, but there is no opportunity for community worship, nor is it likely that he can come back to Israel to worship. Elisha understands these realities and lays no more guilt on Naaman than Elijah did on Obadiah. Again, his commitment to the Lord is already greater than all but a remnant of the faithful.[31]

To do justice to our passage, and to avoid proof-texting, or agnostic dismissiveness, the Semitic, well-wishing phrase of “Go in shalom”, needs to be examined in the larger Biblical context. Other accounts of healing linked to the same phrase will shed some light on its usage. Additionally the contexts for its usage must be considered.
Jesus used the phrase, “Go in shalom” to two women who had formerly had an “unclean” status (Mark 5:24-34, Luke 7:36-40). In their desperate situations they took social risks to approach and touch him, and found the wholeness they were looking for. This wholeness was affirmed by Jesus with the tender words, “daughter, [in the Mark passage]your faith has made you well… [be on your way for the rest of your life enjoying this wholeness.” Author’s addition]”. Schweizer saw this as a send-off of one “restored to a proper relationship with God”.[32] In the one case, the woman was described as unclean due to her flow of blood, and in the other, as a sinner. In many ways they are outcasts due to their gender, or their physical or moral condition. Naaman, likewise, needed the same touch by the “God who saves” as these women did from Jesus.

In the Old Testament the phrase “go in peace” had been used by others in authority or in positions of power in sending people off. Jethro, the priest of Midian sent his son-in-law Moses on the his perilous mission back to Egypt where he was an outcast from Pharaoh’s court, and not in much better standing with his own people with the same words. (Ex 4:18) The priest Eli dismissed a once distraught, barren woman named Hannah to go back to her place of former rejection with the words of shalom saying, “May the God of Israel grant your petition…” (1 Sam 1:17) Another priest, a Levite, responded to the request of the men of Dan, regarding their potentially perilous journey and affirmed likely successful outcome with the same words…” The journey on which you go is under the eye of the Lord” (Judges 18:6). As well the words are found on the mouth of king David who responded to a request like that of Moses, “Please let me go” to his own son Absalom with his blessing. (2 Sam 15:9) Thus the words of send-off, wishing wholeness and that the “eye of the Lord” would be on that particular person, are found in the mouths of prophets, priests and kings. Elisha, it would seem was affirming the following facts:

  1. That the “eye of the Lord” God would go with Naaman (cf. Judges 18:6);
  2. That Naaman should walk in the wholeness that he had received due to sheer grace and live it out (cf. I Sam 1:17);
  3. That the same I AM who had given him victory over his enemies (vs 1) would give him victory when battles of an ethical nature would come his way. (cf. Ex 4:18; Judges 18:6);
  4. That he as a representative of the “God of the whole earth” was confiding Naaman into the care of the Mighty-Warrior-King.

There may be a dark irony in the send-off as well, as the foreigner; Naaman is being commissioned with God’s blessing to bring “light to the Gentiles”, whereas the stand in for Israel at the time, namely Gehazi, is eventually sent off as well, but in a leprous condition. A great reversal has happened. Absalom, the son of David had been sent off in peace, (2 Kings 15:9) but to his destruction. Could this be a dark foreboding for Israel as well? Exile is not far off.

Is this send-off by Elisha so much different from New Testament send-offs that somehow it can become the justification for a movement? Did Jesus not send leave his disciples with shalom, “my peace I give you?” Did he not say that he would be “with you even until the end of the age” (Mat 28) as he was giving out his supreme marching orders? Did not Paul give his send-off to the recipients of the books of Romans and Philippians with the words, “May the God of peace …guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”? (Rom 15:33; Phil 4:7) Anyone who is a disciple needs the same send-off. It is a send-off needed because the world is occupied enemy territory. Elisha realized that a military commander like Naaman needed this most.

Conclusion

The text has clearly shown that Elisha, as one who stands before God, avoided any kind of suggestion that he had initiated something. This stands in contrast to some advocates of the insider movement who are quite proud to have initiated something. Whereas the insider movement advocates secrecy, Naaman was about to go public. Whereas the insider movement does not seem to have a great problem with divided loyalties, it was front and center in Naaman’s mind. Likewise, the suggestion that this text gives a blessing to those who “…. continue[s]to worship the true God within the religious life and practices of his prior religion” is nothing less than poor Biblical scholarship and has a look and feel more of propaganda, than fact.

Naaman’ story contains a powerful message to those who would “rightly divide the word of truth”. As much as a cursory reading of the text may yield “valuable” information for a proof-text like usage for a particular agenda, the text will not allow itself to be forced into a small mold. It is sure to disappoint moralists with their “dare to be a Naaman, or Elisha, or the little girl” agenda.

Front and center is the “God who saves”. By virtue of the Divine Warrior’s power and will to save, He accepts no competitors. Thus He wages a polemical war against the effects of sin in this world, against false gods who cannot save, and against the waywardness of the people he had delivered out of slavery. He demonstrates that his salvation plan will go global. The miracles of Jesus help to demonstrate His power over the moral and physical effects of sin, and underscore the wholeness that He gives. In a similar way, Elisha sends off Naaman as God’s representative in “enemy territory” with a promise that the same God, who had brought about his healing, will go with him.

 

Footnotes:

  1. Maier, p. 189.
  2. Nelson, p. 179, states: “His request in verse 17 is based on the idea that a god was tied to a home territory (Deu 32:8) and that worshiping Yahweh from a foreign land might present a problem (Ps 137:4).” See also 1 Kings 20:23; 2 Kings 17:26 for the notion of a territorial deity. Jonah, as well, thought that by leaving Israelite soil, he could escape the presence of God.
  3. See Larrimore Crockett, “Luke 4.25-27 and Jewish-Gentile Relations in Luke-Acts”, in Journal of Biblical Literature, 88 No 2 (June 1969), pp. 177-183.
  4. As early as the first translation of the Hebrew text into Greek, this verse has been a challenge. The Septuagint translators tried to clean it up by saying “With the king leaning on my arm I will bow down in the temple of Rimmon… In his bowing down in the temple of Rimmon may YHWH forgive his servant for this.”  See also the 1840 work by Friedrich Wilhelm Krummacher, Elisha (Philadelphia: Wetham, 1840) especially pp. 365-385 for a very nuanced exposition.
  5. Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible (Biblical Studies Press, 2006).
  6. “A chiasm is a symmetrical literary device in which items in the first half of the piece are recapitulated in a balanced fashion in the inverse order in the second half; ordinarily the items in the center represent the focal moment of the narrative, either the moment of greatest dramatic tension or the features of central interest to the author.” Raymond B. Dillard, p. 15, Word Biblical Commentary: 2 Chronicles, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), p. 5. See, however the work of Elie Assis, “Chiasmus in Biblical Narrative: Rhetoric of Characterization,” Prooftexts (2002, Vol 22; Part 3), p. 293, who feels that the above description is far too simplistic. Assis uses numerous OT examples to show that chiasms were rhetorical tools employed by narrators for the specific effect of revealing the inner life of the character.
  7. Worship = bow, bow in worship, prostrate oneself, i.e., make a low stance as a sign of honor, worship, and homage of deity, with an associative meaning of allegiance to that deity. James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages With Semantic Domains: Hebrew (Old Testament), electronic ed. (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), DBLH 2556, #2.
  8. Cohn, p. 179.
  9. Chisholm, p. 270.
  10. Harris, Archer & Waltke, p. 945, say that the verb means primarily to lean on something or someone, as on a staff  (Eze 29:7), a spear (2 Sam 1:6), or an arm or hand (2 Kings 5:18; 7:2, 17). The latter use probably refers to the relationship of a king to his confidant or second in command. Most importantly the verb is used figuratively of an attitude of trust. Thus in Prov 3:5 we are told not to “rely on” our own understanding. Rather we are to trust the Lord.
  11. Cohn, p. 182.
  12. Assis, p. 282.
  13. Von Rad, “Naaman”, p. 52, quoted by Lai Ling Elizabeth Ngan, “2 Kings 5”, in Review & Expositor, 94 No 4 (Fall 1997), p. 593.
  14. Goldsworthy, Lecture Series “And Beginning with Moses and All the Prophets: Biblical Theology in the Church, the Academy, and the Home.” http://www.sbts.edu/pdf/Gheens/The_Necessity_and_Viability_of_Biblical_Theology. pdf (11/29/2009)
  15. Higgins (2004), p. 158.
  16. See the observation of Yairah Amit in his Hidden polemics in biblical narrative: “The choice by the author of a foreign hero to articulate his monotheistic-universalist declaration strengthens its effect— a technique that, as is known, is repeated in biblical narrative. Biblical interpretation series, 25.(Leiden [u.a.]: Brill.), 63.
  17. Burke O. Long, “Social setting for prophetic miracle stories” Semeia, no 3 (1975), 57 42 Leland Ryken,, Jim Wilhoit, Tremper Longman et al., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000, cl998), 528.
  18. As Richard Nelson has observed, “every faithful person who does not simply abandon the world is confronted by the wrenching issue of divided loyalties. There is no easy answer that works every time.” Richard D. Nelson, First and Second Kings, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987), p. 183 cited by Maier, pp. 194-195.
  19. Salkin, Jeffrey K., Righteous Gentiles in the Hebrew Bible: ancient role models for sacred relationships (Woodstock, Vt: Jewish Lights Pub. Righteous Gentiles, 2008), pp. 101-102.
  20. Ngan, p. 593.
  21. Patrick Miller, Israelite religion and Biblical theology: collected essays, JSOT Series 267 (Sheffield: Sheffield Acad. Press, 2000), p. 662.
  22. Nelson, p. 180.
  23. Moore, p. 80.
  24. Cohn, p. 179.
  25. Ethelbert William Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible (London; New York: Eyre & Spottiswoode; E. & J. B. Young & Co., 1898), p. 804.
  26. Cohn, p. 179.
  27. Cohn, p. 179.
  28. Von Rad, “Naaman”, p. 54; also in Ngan, p. 593.
  29. Higgins (2004), p. 158.
  30. Abdul Asad, Unpublished document, 2009.
  31. Housep. 274. See also two responses to insider’s use of 2 Kings 5: Bill Nikides, ”Evaluating Insider Movements”, in St. Francis Magazine, 4 (March 2006, p. 6, also his ”A Response to Kevin Higgins’ ‘Inside What?’, in St Francis Magazine, 5:4 (August 2007), p. 105; Timothy Tennent, “Followers of Jesus (Isa) in Islamic Mosques”in International Journal of Frontier Missions 23:3 (Fall 2006), p. 108.
  32. Robert A. Guelich, vol. 34A, Word Biblical Commentary : Mark 1-8:26, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002), 299 citing E. Schweizer The Good News According to Mark. Tr. D. H. Madvig. (Richmond, VA: John Knox Press, 1970), 118.
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About Author

John Span has worked with his family in West Africa among an unreached 'Fulani' people group for the last ten years. His mentors have challenged him to think theologically, especially in the area of missions to Muslims and he desires to inspire others to do the same. In the last year he has been a frequent contributor to the St. Francis Magazine.

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