Opening The Old Testament
Looking for God in All the Wrong Places: Reflections on 2 Kings 5:1-14
In horror, the Israelite king tore his royal robes in abject misery and the deepest mourning, wailing, "Am I god, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure someone of leprosy? Surely, this wily king is doing nothing else than finding a way to pick a fight. Once I fail to effect the cure, which I will certainly do, the Arameans will fall on me and my kingdom, claiming that I did not do what was asked of me. Surely they know I cannot cure anyone! What am I to do?" And Naaman stood quietly before this whining king, perhaps thinking, "Why in the world have I wasted my time by coming all this way to witness the ravings of a nincompoop?"
Meanwhile, at the house of the prophet Elisha, the prophet had heard of the king's clothes-ripping episode; this king was forever tearing his clothes in the face of potential catastrophe, rather than using the brain that YHWH had given him. The prophet wrote a very calm note to his king. "Why tear your clothes, majesty? Send this leprous man to me so that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel." So Naaman went to Elisha's house along with his horses and chariots, not to mention the silver, gold, and fancy clothes. And the great general waited for the man of magic power to come out and cleanse him of his disease.
Instead out from the pathetic little house, not at all like the Aramean house of general Naaman, came not Elisha, the prophet, but a poorly dressed, ill-speaking servant, wiping his hands on a filthy dish towel. The tiny man looked up directly into the eyes of the general, seated on his finest horse, and muttered, "Go, wash in the Jordan seven times; your flesh shall be restored and you will be clean."
But Naaman became apoplectic! "Who does this pipsqueak think that he is? How dare he speak to me in such a way! I thought that for me, general Naaman—scourge of my enemies, first among my own people—that this so-called prophet would deign to come out of his hovel, stand in front of me, call upon the name of YHWH his God, would wave his hand over my scarred face, maybe utter a spell or two in an ancient tongue, and thereby cure my leprosy. But, no! I am commanded by a slave, no less, to dip my magnificent body into the muddy Jordan River, which is more creek than river in any case. Our great rivers of Aram are far superior to that bog. I could have just stayed home and dipped in Abana or Pharpar and been made clean!" And with that, the mighty Naaman turned his steed around and headed east toward home.
But his servants stopped him by saying, "Father (they clearly had a very intimate relationship with their general), if this prophet had asked you to do something hard in order to find a cure, would you not have done it; stand on one foot for a day or recite the sacred texts of Aram backward? It is only a quick wash in a small body of water; why not? What do you have to lose?" And so the mighty Naaman did just that. He dropped his great body into the Jordan seven times, just as Elisha's servant had commanded, and his flesh was instantly restored like the flesh of a young child. In short, he was clean, his leprosy gone forever.
Is it not interesting that in this ancient tale, all the great men are fools, while the servants pipe the tune? Both kings misconstrue the simple problem of a man's disease, the king of Aram demanding the cure be made by his royal Israelite counterpart, when the servant girl clearly stated that only the prophet could do such a thing. And the Israelite king, seemingly unaware of the great prophet in his own city, in response to the Aramean letter performs outlandish actions of the deepest mourning, convinced that the Arameans are using Naaman's leprosy as a ruse to foment war. And Naaman himself, playing the part of the puffed-up great man, refuses to perform the tiniest request that could lead to his cleansing. Indeed, the servant girl starts the story, the servant of Elisha delivers the command, and the servants of Naaman save the day, urging their arrogant master to do what he must to find a cure. In this story, the cleansing actions of God are found in the unlikeliest of places.
Is it possible that even we tend to look for God in all the wrong places? After all, while Caesar Augustus, whose doings were always on page one, ruled the known world, while Quirinius, the Syrian governor whose doings were always to be discovered in the pages of the Metropolitan section, controlled the vast Roman east, a little pregnant, unmarried teenager was about to give birth to history's most significant baby. Her action found no place in any paper of that day. Yet, two billion of the world's people now revere this child as savior and Lord. In whom do we find God acting today? Are we looking for God in too many wrong places?
Don't Forget! I will be lecturing on the book of Job on a "Baltic Capitals Cruise," September 3-13, 2014, sponsored by Educational Opportunities, www.eo.travel.com. I would love to see you on board as we go from Copenhagen to Berlin to Tallinn, Estonia to St. Petersburg to Helsinki to Stockholm and back to Copenhagen.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.