Lectionary Reflections on 2 Kings 5:1-14
Epiphany 6 Sunday February 12, 2012
This last Sunday of Epiphany, occurring before another Ash Wednesday leads us into Lent and finally Easter, offers one of the Bible's great narrative texts. The delightfully funny and profoundly serious story of General Naaman and his surprising confrontation with the servant of the prophet Elisha is one of those tales that stays with you long after the week's sermon has been preached. Because that is so, all the more reason to get the story clear and take its details to heart. For as we all know, the fun is in the details-not only the Devil resides there!
General Naaman is introduced to us as a great man, loved by his soldiers and the people of Aram (modern Syria), and highly favored by the king. Despite his fame and glory, he suffers from a terrible skin disease. Though many translations read the Hebrew word as "leprosy," this irritating and embarrassing condition is clearly not Hansen's disease, that often fatal horror that causes the body's extremities to wither and fall off. Naaman's problem is more unsightly, making public appearances difficult, bringing excess pain in body and an equal pain to his psyche and self-esteem.
One day, a captured Israelite slave girl informs Naaman's long-suffering wife that her husband should make the short journey to Israel where he would find a prophet who would make quick work of the nasty disease. Observing appropriate diplomatic protocol, Naaman rushes to his king to ask permission to make the trip, and the king is only too delighted to help his favorite by offering to write a letter to the king of Israel about the matter. One gets the impression that Naaman is very eager to try this latest possible cure; he has perhaps, like the woman with the flow of blood in the Gospel of Mark, tried many possible cures, all of which have failed.
Because he is a rich and powerful man, Naaman heads west with an enormous retinue of soldiers and an uncountable cache of cash: ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten full sets of sumptuous garments. It is always difficult to calculate in modern terms just how much all this would be, but suffice it to say that the silver alone weighs some 750 pounds or about four-tenths of a ton. Use your own imagination!
The letter he carries from his king to Israel's king reads, "When this writing the Hebrew often means 'book'] reaches you, look, you will know that I have sent my servant Naaman in order that you may cure him of his disease" (2 Kings 5:6). It may be that Aram's king did not mean to terrify his fellow monarch, and that all he wanted to do was to introduce his general to Israel's king. But that is hardly the effect of the missive! Israel's king takes the letter as a demand that the king himself must cure the general of his disease. And looking at the vast riches and power of Naaman's company, the king of Israel reacts in horror. "He tore his clothes (the ultimate sign of middle-eastern dismay) and cried, 'Am I a god that I can kill or give life that this man sends me someone to cure of his illness? It can only be that he is trying to set me up for failure" (literally: "to seek an occasion," perhaps "to pick a quarrel with")!
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.