Opening The Old Testament
Wisdom from Below: Reflections on 2 Kings 5:1-14
Naaman is only eager for a cure, and perhaps his king only wishes to aid the process. But when kings get involved in essentially a private concern, problems are afoot. A diplomatic snafu has occurred, since Israel's king sees in the affair an occasion to stir up trouble between the two countries. So now the king of Israel sits on his throne, his royal robes in shambles, his chief councilors rushing to the war room, as the inevitable rattling of the sabers begins. But, thank God, the prophet Elisha hears the hub-bub from his lowly cave and urges the king to cool off. "Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me that he may learn there is a prophet in Israel." Note the less than subtle rebukes to the foolish actions of the king. Ripping perfectly fine garments at the first hint of trouble is ridiculous. One thinks immediately of the recent fraudulent reasons for starting a war with Iraq, "shock and awe" being the modern destructive equivalent of garment ripping. Also, Elisha tells the king to send the man to him, so that he can indeed learn that there is a prophet is Israel, and plainly the king in his now shabby robes is not he!
So Naaman gathers his huge company and heads to the cave of the prophet. Now the fun really begins. Instead of the prophet himself, Naaman is faced with a "messenger," not even apparently a slave of the mighty prophet, not even someone known for oracular gifts-merely a western union boy who very abruptly intones, "Go! Wash seven times in the Jordan! Your flesh will return (be restored) and you will be clean" (2 Kings 5:10). That's all. Seven dips in the muddy Jordan will do the trick, says the boy.
But this will plainly not do! Naaman has spent too long building his reputation for greatness, too long accumulating his vast wealth to be treated like this! "'I thought that for me (emphasis on the "me") he (the prophet himself) would surely come out, stand tall and call on the name of YHWH his God, wave his hand over the place and cure this stuff. Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus are better than all the rivers of Israel put together! Could I not wash in them and be clean?' So he turned and left in a raging huff" (2 Kings 5:11-12).
But as at the story's start, the proud Naaman is saved by servants. Give it a try, they say. Why, if the prophet had told you to do something hard, you would readily have done it. This is easy. What have you got to lose? So Naaman swallows his pride and lowers his aching body into the Jordan and came out of the river with the "flesh of a young boy" (2 Kings 5:14).
So what is this story about? Pride needs to goeth before a cleansing? Yes. Politicians often do not know what they are doing? Yes. Prophets have enormous power? Of course. But for me, this time, I hear, listen to those who have little power. Those of us with great power have to open our ears wider to listen to those we do not readily hear. Without the servants in this story, the little girl, the prophet's messenger, the general's slaves, Naaman would still be diseased and Israel and Aram would once again be at war. There is wisdom in low places, and we who are high must listen to what they have to say.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.