This is a two part series:
- Part I (Below)
- Part II
With what seemed to be a wave of a nonchalant hand and a non- directive voice, Elisha the prophet sent the cured, former “generalissimo”, Naaman, on his way. “Go in peace”. This three-word phrase has been seized upon by certain missionaries as the carte blanche for permission to continue adhering to one’s religion and its practices and by extension even to prostrate oneself at the house of a foreign deity. But is everything in this story from 2 Kings 5 what it has been made out to be?
In order to fully appreciate the story we must know its macro con-text, and then look at its more micro-contexts, knowing that it falls into the genre of historical narrative. Additionally it will be prudent to examine the story of the healing and subsequent request of Naaman for a dispensation to continue in his role of royal service in the light of a greater Elisha [= My God saves], namely Jesus, who is the God who saves, and similarly dismisses a healed person with the same three- word sendoff. Graeme Goldsworthy in his According to Plan, shows that many hermeneutical mistakes are made by failure to interpret the OT through the lens of Christ and elsewhere he suggests that narrative passages must be approached with the question “What is God doing here?” rather than just focusing on the humans in the story. These seem to be mistakes made as well, by some missiologists on a mission for a justification for their methodologies.
Background to 2 Kings 5
The Elijah and Elisha stories of 1 and 2 Kings serve as polemics against the brokenness of the world due to sin, against the propensity of the people of Israel to prostitute themselves with foreign gods, and against the reputations of the foreign gods themselves. They are found in the larger context of the books of Kings in which the True, Faithful, Just and Covenant Keeping King is portrayed against the backdrop of false, faithless, unjust and fickle earthly gods, kings, and the people of Israel. Paul House describes the story of 1 and 2nd Kings being “that Israel went into exile” but that the underlying plot is that “Israel went into exile because of its unfaithfulness to God”. With an even wider circle, House describes the larger message of the OT, namely “The Lord your God is one”, or as Bruce Waltke described it “the inruption [= breaking in from without] of the kingship of the holy, merciful and only God”.
The story in 2 Kings 5:1-19
Masterfully using the tools of Biblical narrative, including plots, sub-plots, multiple characters, word repetitions, double entendres, ironic reversals, chiasms, and plays on words in this story (2 Kings 5:1-27), the divinely inspired narrator introduces us to the “big man”: Naaman the Great. No time is spared to get the reader into the story. The commander of the army of Aram [RSV ‘Syria’] is called ‘… a great man before his lord…… in high favor… a mighty man of valor [Heb. “a man of substance”] …. leprous … with victories given by YHWH’.
Cohn describes verse one as “a kind of précis in code, not deciphered until the story is complete”. This should alert us to spend some time with this verse. Only as the story progresses will we come to know who are truly people of substance. Elisha will be shown to be such due to his standing before his LORD, the Mighty-Warrior who is of ultimate substance (vs 16). Eventually Naaman, too, once rid of all the worldly trappings that contribute to his status, will declare that there is no great God but the one in Israel, and become a man of substance (vs 15).
With a masterful touch, two polemics are engaged in verse 1. To a Jewish audience, the fact that “their God I AM [=YHWH] gave this unclean Syrian victory would have made them less than at ease. Gerhard von Rad observes: “The remark is brief, but in ancient Israel no one would have missed it”. The theme that Israel would have expected was that the Divine-Warrior went out to battle for his people and won decisive victories for them. Instead, the LORD of hosts has declared war on his own wayward, idol-adoring, treaty making “adulterous” wife Israel, and he is using the Syrians.
The second polemic that is engaged is that for all his outward pomp and circumstance, Naaman is an outsider, someone who by Jewish law should cry out “unclean, unclean”. (Later we will see that Jesus reached out to another who had the same label of unclean, and sent her away whole). The affect of Adam’s fall has reached both the body and soul of Naaman. He is proud of his country and race (vs 12), uses money to buy his way (vs 5), wants healing on his terms (vs11), is not afraid to use people for his advantage, and a leper. No wonder the narrator commences verse 11 with the egotistical words “to me” Literally:
“To me he [Elisha] will surely [or most certainly] come out.” He is a model of the results of the fall.
The third polemic is one that has already started with the cycle of the Elijah miracles and continued with the ministry of Elisha. Each of these miracles, like the plagues of Egypt directed against the gods of Egypt, was a direct offensive against Baal worship. Bronner identifies eight such offensives. Thus it is no surprise that water in a river is used to bring healing in another display that “there is no God, but the God” of Israel (vs 15). This might put us on the alert whether or not I AM would be about to use this story as a sanction for someone to go to a temple of the Syrian rendition of Baal, namely Rimmon, and worship there along with his master, presumably Ben-Hadad II, which was the Syrian form of “Son of Rimmon” or the “Son of Baal”.
A broken man made whole
With an ironic touch, a prisoner of war, a servant girl (Heb. a little maiden) who stands in the service of Naaman’s wife, utters a wistful comment that sets the husband of her mistress on the path of wholeness. “Oh that my master…” (vs 3). This nameless, strategically placed maiden follows in the same line of others like Obadiah (1Kings 18), Esther, Mordecai, Daniel, and Jeremiah, who exercise their faith in places of duress and in foreign lands. In some way they are model “outside-insiders” as they are foreigners in the culture in which they find themselves, yet because of their trust in I AM they are able to exercise incredible influence.
The “little” servant girl, deliberately set in contrast to Naaman the Great, recognizes that the key to Naaman’s healing is not in method, but in a change of submission to authority, and thus dictates the terms of healing. Moore notes that Naaman who is under the authority of the King of Aram, needs to come under the authority of the prophet of Israel. He summarizes: “In order to experience a transformation of physical condition, Naaman must experience a transformation of allegiance.” The theme of submission pervades the entire passage, as the servant girl stands in submission before her mistress, Elisha before God, Naaman before his king (vs 1), the servants before Naaman, Naaman before Elisha, Naaman before God, and Naaman’s king before his god. Notable contrasts in feigned submission are made in the Gehazi scene (vss 19-27). It is little wonder that one Hebrew scholar called this story, “Every High Official Has a Higher One Set over Him.”
With the tools of the trade of protocol between kings and military commanders who think they hold power, but are actually pawns in the hand of the great King, the quest for healing is put into place (vs 4ff). The actions of both the Israelite and Syrian kings, and Naaman’s thought that he can buy his healing, are made to look like the work of foolish boys. The Syrian king sends his official letter demanding a healing as if it is a commodity to be gotten. The Israelite king tears his clothes at the thought of a suggestion of a provocation for more war. The audience of the story is alerted to the fact that perceived power might not be all it is “hyped up” to be. The audience might also start to see that the King of Syria, who later will need Naaman at his right hand, might not be the great-warrior, contrary to his own name.
Elisha, who stood in the presence of God, avoided taking center stage. He would have none of the bait that he had caused the healing or had “initiated” something. Compare this stance to the invitation to a conference, which was entitled “Initiating Incarnational Insider Movements”. Elisha would have had none of it. He would not even go to the door to welcome the “big man”. Everything Elisha did seemed counter-intuitive. Was there a reason for this “humiliation” and offending his visitor? It is in this dismantling of all of Naaman’s worldly props that Elisha prepares him for his eventual return to Syria and effective service for I AM. Elisha sent a simple proclamation. Wash. The man whose name meant “pleasant” or “charming” showed his true colors. Naaman’s arrogance and rage-filled dismissiveness of a divinely ordained method might also warn us about any kind of “obsession with greatness” or with technique. He wanted magic and mystery, “a great thing” (vs 13) to impress his retinue, and received none of it. It was his servants, ironically, who help him to get on to the path of servanthood. (vs 15)
Finally, the big man consents to Elisha’s prescription. There is more than meets the eye in the description of Naaman’s decent into the Jordan. It was a physical “going down” and yet, much more, a spiritual abasement. Matthew Henry, however, shows that in effect, healing came in a counter-conditional way, because rather than “washing” in the Jordan as directed, he only “dips” himself. This may be semantic hair-splitting, yet God is gracious and heals Naaman, in spite of his lack of filling all the correct conditions. He comes out of the water with skin “like a little [–with a nuance suggesting— servant] lad”. (vs 14) His flesh literally had a “turn around” and it was then that he could “turn around” to face the prophet. (vs. 15) For good reasons, the narrator of the story uses two words, both derived from the Hebrew šûb a key Old Testament word that is used to denote repentance or a return back to the point of departure. Naaman has taken on the same form as the servant girl and five times uses the word “servant” in his dialogue with Elisha, and even took a servant’s posture in making a detour to pass by Elisha’s place on his way back to Aram.
The physical healing shows the power of I AM over sickness, and pronounces another deathblow to the foolishness of trusting in Baal. Additionally the healing of Naaman’s arrogance deals a deathblow to the proud and arrogant storm-god, Baal. Robert Chisholm observes:
By exhibiting His sovereignty over Baal’s traditional spheres of authority, Yahweh established His right to Israel’s undivided loyalty. Israel must look to Yahweh, the one true God (18:24, 37, 39) for the necessities of life. Baalism was not an option.
As a result of this miraculous intervention, Naaman declares words that are reminiscent of those of Jethro who witnessed the deliverance of the Israelites from the Egyptians as he declared: ‘Now I know that YHWH is greater than all gods, because he delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians’. (Ex 18:11) We read that Jethro offered sacrifices to God, and eventually left for his country of Midian. Naaman, with the declaration, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel” (vs 15) declared that he would not offer any sacrifices or bow down to any god (vs 17) and affirms positively, that like Jethro that he would only offer sacrifices and bow down to YHWH. He too will return to his own country. Rahab, another foreigner, as well makes a positive declaration of the greatness and uniqueness of I AM with the words, “YHWH your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Josh 2:11).
In a curious twist, Naaman attempts to bring a blessing [Heb. berakah] to Elisha. This might have been a gift to show genuine thankfulness, or it could have been a subtle way of using the old dynamics that he as a big man only knew, namely payment for services. The refusal by Elisha to receive any kind of a payment, prefaced with the words, “As surely as I AM lives”, served to underscore the free gift of grace that Naaman had received. Elisha knew his place. It was the living “God who saves”. It was then that Naaman pronounced his knowledge of the existence of the True God, in words reminiscent of the servant girl who suggested that he should come to know that there was a prophet in Israel. (vs 3) One cannot help but think that Naaman also began to make mental comparisons between the god Rimmon, whom he had previously served and bowed down to, and the Living I AM. This is reinforced by the narrator’s use of the words “…there is no God… except…in Israel” (vs 15) and he would offer burnt offerings and bow down to no one “except…to the LORD”. (vs 17) The exclusiveness of the God of Israel could not be put in stronger terms.
This is the end of Part I. Part Two will be Published next Week.
- John Travis, “Messianic Muslim Followers of Isa: A Closer Look at C5 Believers and Congregations” International Journal of Frontier Missions 17.1 (Spring 2000); Kevin Higgins, “The Devoted of Acts” International Journal of Frontier Missions 21:4 (Winter 2004), p. 158 and by same author:”Inside What? Church, Culture, Religion and In- sider Movements in Biblical Perspective” St Francis Magazine, 5:4 (August 2007), pp 90-91.
- See Bruce Waltke and Charles Yu. An Old Testament Theology: a canonical and thematic approach (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2007), ch 4 and V. Phillips Long, The Art of Biblical History, Vol 5 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994).
- Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan: The Unfolding Revelation of God in the Bible, (Downer’s Grove, Ill.: IVP, 1991), pp. 54-57.5
- Lelah Leih Bronner, The Stories of Elijah and Elisha as Polemics against Baal Worship (Leiden: Brill, 1968) as cited by Waltke, pp. 746-7.
- Paul R. House, vol. 8, 1, 2 Kings, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001, c l995), p. 61.
- House, p. 74, “If Old Testament theology could be summarized in one sentence, it probably would read, ‘There is no god but the Lord’.”
- Waltke, p. 144 note. I am following Waltke’s convention of using I AM for the name of YHWH in his Old Testament Theology.
- Robert L. Cohn, “Form and Perspective in 2 Kings V”, in Vetus testamentum, 33 No 2 (1983), pp. 171-184, and his commentary Berit Olam: 2 Kings – Studies in Hebrew Narrative and Poetry (Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 2000). Also Walter A.Maier III, “The Healing of Naaman in Missiological Perspective”, in Concordia Theological Quarterly, 61 No 3 (July1997), pp. 177-196, especially p. 180.
- Burke O. Long, 2 Kings, FOTL (Forms of Old Testament Literature) 10 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), pp. 66-77, for a plot analysis of this chapter.
- Cohn, p. 174.
- Gerhard von Rad, “Naaman: A Critical Retelling,” in God at Work in Israel, trans. John H. Marks (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), p. 48.
- Tremper Longman III, “The Divine Warrior: The New Testament Use of an Old Testament Motif”, in Westminster Theological Journal 44:2 (Fall 1982), p. 292.
- Maier, p. 180
- Cited by Waltke, p. 746, where the Ugaritic Baal epics celebrate Baal’s power in “fire, rain, oil and corn, child giving, healing, resurrection, ascent, and defeating the River God”.
- See Esther Menn, “A little child shall lead them: the role of the little Israelite servant girl (2 Kings 5:1-19)”, in Currents in Theology and Mission, 35 No 5 (October 2008), pp. 340-348.
- Rick D. Moore, God saves: lessons from the Elisha stories (Sheffield: JSOT Pr, 1990), p. 73.
- Y. Zakovitch, Every High Official Has a Higher One Set over Him: A Literary Analysis Of 2 Kings 5 (Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1985 [Hebr.]) as cited by Long in his bibliography.
- Moore, p. 76.
- See R. Laird Harris, Robert Laird Harris, Gleason Leonard Archer and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, electronic ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1999, c1980), p. 909.
- Robert B. Chisholm Jr., “The Polemic against Baalism in Israel’s Early History and Literature”, in Bibliotheca sacra, 151 No 603 (July-September 1994), pp. 267-268.
- Jo Bailey Wells, God’s Holy People: a theme in Biblical Theology (Sheffield, Sheffield Univ. Press 2000) Series: Journal for the study of the Old Testament / Supplement series, 305), p. 174, states “Twenty occurrences of a verb related to knowing God are found outside of Ezekiel, all follow from the experience of divine blessing or curse, twenty occurrences relate to Israelites knowing God and eight to non-Israelites knowing God. ‘Of these 28, 17 are presented on the lips of YHWH, 3 on the lips of Moses, 3 of the Psalmist, 2 of Solomon (1 Kings 8:43, 60), one of Manasseh (2 Chron 33:13), one of Jethro (Ex 18:11) and one of Naaman (2 Kings 5:15).”
- Wells, pp. 174-175.
- For an analysis of the constituent parts of conversion in the OT, including examples of Naaman, Rahab, and Abram see William D. Barrick, “Living a New Life: Old Testament Teaching about Conversion”, in The Master’s Seminary Journal 11/1 (Spring 2000), pp. 19-38.