How would you respond if asked: Would you care for my pet ferret? Or would you please cut my tie? It’s caught in the shredder. Thinking about such requests might cause a smile, make us laugh or perhaps bring to mind an equally strange request you have asked someone or have been asked.
Thinking of strange requests—one of the strangest found in the Bible was asked by an Aramean1 general. And the response this great general received provides a beautiful insight into God’s nature. It can also help us in our interaction with others who believe differently. First the back story . . .
The Arameans were northern neighbours of ancient Israel—pesky neighbours at that. How do we know? Because this general’s housemaid was a young Hebrew girl, who had been abducted from an Israelite village just across the border by bands of raiders from Aram. For an army general, such actions against the enemy were a measure of success, so it was no surprise that this general was held in high esteem by his king. However, this general had a problem—he had leprosy!
If you are familiar with the Old Testament stories, you have probably guessed his name—Naaman! His story is found in
2 Kings chapter 5. In verse 1, we read:
”Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded because through him, the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.”
Arrrgh! That was like being diagnosed with stage 4 terminal cancer! Here he was—successful, influential, with a devoted wife and the respect of his king—living with a death sentence. How terrible!
Maybe you are fit, well and loving life, so this situation does not get your attention. I propose that we all know how Naaman felt—at least partly—it is the feeling of mortality. In that sense, we are all living with a death sentence. This was never the Creator God’s plan. And yes. It stinks.
Every person, says Matthew Henry, “has some but or other in his character; something that blemishes and diminishes him; some alloy to his grandeur, some damp to his joy; he may be very happy, very good, yet, in something or other, not so good as he should be, nor so happy as he would be. Naaman was as great as the world could make him, and yet the basest slave in Syria would not change skins with him.”2
In Israel, a leper was forcibly made to dwell alone. However, in Syria, leprosy was no bar to human society nor offices of trust and honour.3 We do not know how far Naaman’s condition had progressed. Even if in its early stages, all would know the signs and the disfigurement that was to come. One can only imagine the embarrassment and frustration that Naaman felt. Naaman was desperate, yet he had no solution to his profoundly personal dilemma, just as we have no answer to our profoundly personal dilemma of mortality.
Then a suggestion came to Naaman from a most surprising source—surprising because of the incredible imbalance of power between Naaman and the one who offered the idea. Remember that young girl who had been taken captive by bands of Aramean raiders? She said to her mistress: “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5:3). Wow! Can you imagine sharing such an idea in this girl’s circumstance? Having been taken captive—family members possibly killed—horribly homesick—and—and it is a big “and”—and working as a slave for the wife of the top general in charge of the marauding bands who wrongfully landed you in this situation. Adding a few curses on top of Naaman’s horrible dilemma might have been tempting for this young slave girl. “May the fleas of a thousand camels infest his armpits!” But, I digress.
Naaman listens. Hope springs in his heart. He muses: Could I be whole again? Naaman acts. He speaks with his king, who responds: “By all means, go. I will send a letter to the king of Israel” (2 Kings 5:4).
The letter was simple and direct: “With this letter, I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5:5) As befits royal and important people, the letter is backed by a large purse. Naaman left Aram “taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing” (2 Kings 5:6). In modern terms, a value of some three million dollars!
Where was the King of Israel? King Jehoram had his palace in Jezreel. This was across the Jordan River and deep into enemy territory for Naaman. Imagine his entourage’s vulnerability and caution as they travelled. It turned out that the King of Israel also felt vulnerable about Naaman’s arrival. As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said: “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!” (2 Kings 5:7). Jehoram thought that this was some trick that would backfire nastily. And he had good reason to be cautious. As a son of Ahab and Jezebel, he had no doubt witnessed his share of intrigue within his own country—let alone trusting the words of an enemy general!
When Elisha heard what the King did, he sent an urgent message: “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me, and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel” (2 Kings 5:8). So Naaman travelled still further into enemy territory with his horses and chariots until he reached the door of Elisha’s house.
One might think that Elisha’s bold invitation would mean he would be keen to meet Naaman and make sure that Naaman knew that there definitely was a prophet in Israel—and look no further—here he is! It seemed that Naaman had this picture in mind as well. How do we know? Well, Elisha never went to the door. Instead, he sent a messenger with the following instruction for Naaman: “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored, and you will be cleansed” (2 Kings 5:10). On hearing this, Naaman flew into a rage. You can imagine him stomping back to his attendants, cursing, swearing, and yelling out: “I thought that he [the prophet] would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.”
Naaman raged on. His rant focused on how much better the rivers of home were compared to “all the waters of Israel” (2 Kings 5:12). It was as if he was saying: “Look, if water is part of the solution, then let’s get some proper clean water. I know where some really good water is, and it’s not in this country!”
Naaman was missing the point. He was not the source of healing. Water was not the source of healing, even though we know that water is a great metaphor for the true source of healing—Israel’s God. Many centuries later, God’s son Jesus, the Christ, claimed that God Himself is the water of life, (John 4:14) and the source of healing. This was all new to Naaman. He had much to learn and much to unlearn—just like me. How about you?
We are fortunate when we have friends and associates who can help us to see sense in a situation we hate. Naaman was fortunate. His servants went to him and said: “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” (2 Kings 5:13)
So Naaman went . . .
As a child hearing the story of Naaman and seeing the picture books about this story, I always pictured Elisha living on the banks of the river and being able to look out the window to check that Naaman did as he was told. Not so. A Google search indicates that it takes 1 hour and 8 minutes to travel the 51.4 kilometres from Samaria to the River Jordan via Route 71 by car. For Naaman and his servants using horses and chariots, and carrying about 300 kilograms of silver,4 together with gold, clothes and supplies, the trip would have required a full day’s travel. Naaman certainly had time to ponder the instructions given to him. Would he follow through? Would you?
So Naaman went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy (2 Kings 5:14). Here was an incomprehensible moment. This was like winning the lottery! Of course, it wasn’t. This event was much, much better than that! Naaman was carrying the lottery prize money with him, and it meant nothing compared with this healing. Wow! If he yelled with complaint and protest before, perhaps now he was giving thanks in ecstatic shrills of pure joy.
We all have this need to be healed. Our first great need for healing relates to our misunderstanding of the loving God in whom many believe. Like Luther, we learn to hate the idea of righteousness because we see in it, quite wrongly, a God who is not loving.
“Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly, if not blasphemously, certainly murmuring greatly, I was angry with God, and said, ‘As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!’”5
And yet, like Naaman, who, centuries earlier, came up out of the water in ecstasy—washed and cleansed—Luther exclaimed, “I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the hatred, with which I had before hated the word ‘righteousness of God’.”6
What do you think happened next? I imagine Naaman was eager to return to Elisha to share the good news. Perhaps he strapped down the silver and goods to ensure they would not bounce out of a fast-moving chariot?
On their arrival at Elisha’s doorstep, Naaman stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. So please accept a gift from your servant”
(2 Kings 5:15). Huh? What? Elisha refused. Naaman urged Elisha to accept, but Elisha refused again.
Elisha’s refusal became a pivotal point for Naaman to make one of the strangest requests I could ever imagine being asked. Naaman said to Elisha, “If you will not [receive my gift], please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry.” How strange!
Michael Heiser asserts that “Naaman’s unusual request stems from the ancient—and biblical—conception, that the earth is the locale for a cosmic turf war. Naaman wanted dirt from Israel because Israel was Yahweh’s territory. The dirt which was in Yahweh’s domain was holy ground.’7 How would I have responded to such a request? How would you have responded? How would many church pastors and ministers have responded? Would we want to sort out Naaman’s views regarding his strange theology?
Naaman had revealed his theological heart change: “for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the Lord”. This was why he needed the dirt. Yahweh was Israel’s God and so operated in their land [Israel], right up to the borders, but not beyond. So to worship the Lord, he would need Israelite dirt. Naaman also had another problem. He outlined the problem in Elisha’s hearing: “May the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down, and he is leaning on my arm, and I have to bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this” (2 Kings 5:18).
“Go in peace,” said Elisha (2 Kings 5:19).
Wow! Naaman was heading back to his home country, committed to worshipping Yahweh only. He would be doing this in a culture without a concept of what Israel’s God was like. However, Naaman now knew Israel’s God. He had experienced Yahweh’s healing first hand. He was not going back to his other gods. He planned to worship Yahweh on his little patch of Israelite dirt and then carry his experience into all sorts of places that any Israelite would simply have refused to go.
“Go in peace,” said Elisha.
All of this—all of these amazing encounters—were initiated by a lowly servant girl. Have you ever felt insignificant and struggled to believe you can make a difference? Being open to God enables incredible transformations to take place, provided we are willing to be a servant of Jesus.
So, when I encounter those who experience the good news of a loving God, a God who brings wholeness and healing, am I tempted to persist in correcting their thinking because their lifestyles are different to mine? Am I offended because they still believe other philosophies that I do not? Do I allow their cultural quirks to irritate me? Or, am I willing to celebrate and marvel in the experience and, with Elisha, simply say “Go in peace!”
Craig Mattner is a teacher of mathematics and photography at Prescott College Southern, Adelaide, SA.
1. Aram is the name of a south Syrian kingdom, the capital of which was Damascus <oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195393361/obo-9780195393361-0278.xml>, cited 14 July 2022.
2. Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible, 2 Kings 5, <studylight.org/commentaries/eng/mhm/2-kings-5.html#verse-1-8>, cited 29 July 2022.
4. One Babylonian talent weighed about 30 kg <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talent_(measurement)>, cited 14 July 2022
5. Erik H Herrmann, “The Creedal Logic of Justification in Martin Luther”, page 42. This essay was first presented at the 2017 Theological Symposium at Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis.
7. Michael S Heiser, “Naaman in the Bible—and the important detail we forget”, <logos.com/grow/important-detail-forget-story-naaman/>, cited July 14, 2022.