5.74 2 Kings -- Naaman
As the widow of Zaraphath was the "gem" of 1 Kings, so the story of Naaman is the "jewel" of 2 Kings -- in terms of racial teaching. Both have the following characteristics in common:
-- they are both "interruptions" in the account of the military and political decline of Israel
-- they are both exceptions to the "proper" relations of Israelite and foreigner
-- they both involve the chief prophet of Israel and a miracle of God
-- they demonstrate God's willingness to bless those outside of the borders (and race) of Israel
Naaman was Israel's enemy. He was the commander of the army of Aram, under King Ben-hadad II.
He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram (2 Kings 5:1).
This does not mean that Naaman was a worshipper of God, or that God's favor was upon Aram. As the NIV says, "this victory is attributable to the sovereignty of the God of Israel, who is seen as the ruler and controller of the destinies of all nations, not just that of Israel" (p.531). So even a nation that was at war with Israel was subject to God's actions, even if her rulers didn't acknowledge Him. In one recent battle with Israel, Aram had killed King Ahab, fulfilling Elijah's prophecy (1 Kings 22:31-38).
In their frequent raids, Arameans had taken Israelites captive, one of whom was a servant girl in Naaman's house. Naaman's illness has generally been translated "leprosy," yet there is considerable scholarly disagreement over the exact medical diagnosis. This is not relevant to our study. In any case, it was some form of disfiguring skin disease. The servant girl told Naaman:
"If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy" (2 Kings 5:3).
This is an interesting statement. It shows us that Elisha made his home in the king's capital at least part of the time, and not always on Mt Carmel. Also, his whereabouts and powers were well-known in Israel. Third, how did she know the prophet could cure leprosy? Only if Elisha had a reputation for performing miraculous cures for others by the Spirit of God, healings that have not been recorded in the Bible!
The king of Aram sent Naaman to the king of Israel (probably Joram), expecting him to direct Naaman to the prophet. But it is interesting that Joram took the letter of introduction personally, as if he himself were supposed to work miracles. He got very upset, thinking that Ben-Hadad was trying to pick a quarrel with him. It shows how distant Joram was from God and His prophets: a servant girl knew more than he did about Elisha.
In fact, Joram never did acknowledge Elisha. It was Elisha who heard of the visitor and invited him to come see him, so that "he will know that there is a prophet in Israel" (2 Kings 5:8). Naaman came to Elisha's house in all his finery, making an impressive display of horses, chariots, attendants. This is when God started to work on Naaman -- Elisha contradicted his prior welcome message. He did not receive the important man into his home, he didn't come out to meet him, he didn't speak directly to him. He intentionally insulted his pride and reputation by sending only a messenger (his servant Gehazi) to tell him to wash 7 times in the Jordan River. The point is clear: "You are known as a great man, who can command thousands, and all but the king himself will bow before you. But in God's eyes you are no more than any other man or woman, and God's representative is not at your beck and call."
This is a replay of the incident when the king of Israel (Ahaziah) tried to compel Elijah to stand before him (2 Kings 1). That cost him two companies of soldiers. Political and military leaders apparently need basic lessons in the chain of command, the point being that they are not the top after all.
And indeed, Naaman was upset at this cursory treatment. "What? He can't be bothered to receive me? He treats me like a pauper with a toothache. If this man was such a great prophet, he should have put on a proper show." Naaman would have appreciated the antics of the Baal prophets on Mt Carmel -- weeping, wailing, dancing, gashing themselves. That would be a proper healing prayer! And he had come prepared to pay handsomely for that kind of performance. But to be dismissed in a paltry manner was intolerable.
Naaman was ready to "burn rubber" leaving Israel. He probably would have laid waste to a few villages on his way north. But his servants calmed him down and reasoned with him. What could it hurt to wash in the Jordan? They had come so far, they might as well finish the course. If the prophet had asked a hard thing, their master would have done it, so surely he would not begrudge a small requirement.
One can imagine, as they talked with him, his temper gradually calming down, but he probably remained petulant. He thought it was dumb, but he might as well take a bath in the river for five minutes before heading home. There is no hint in the Bible that Naaman was moved by great faith as he went down into the water. No, it was not his mental or spiritual state that was the key to his healing, but the simple bodily actions that constituted obedience. By submitting to the prophet's direction, he was putting himself under the authority of the prophet's God, he was in a sense bowing his pride before the Lord. And this put him in the position of receiving the Lord's blessing -- instantaneously. He and the servants were able to tell at once that his skin had been cleansed. In his case, faith followed obedience.
He returned to Elisha a changed man -- in spirit and body. And this time the prophet met him face to face. The important point was made, God had gotten through to this man:
"Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel" (2 Kings 5:15).
This is a startling confession from a man who 10 minutes before had been an utter unbeliever and enemy. The miracle was not a surface healing, it went to the heart of Naaman. Probably all his life he had observed the religious practices of his homeland, and seen absolutely nothing happen. And now, in a most unexpected way, God had met him at the point of his heart's cry. It broke him. It made him. Naaman became a worshipper.
He then tried to give concrete expression to his devotion by giving Elisha a gift. This was right of him to do, but Elisha refused the gift. There was a real danger that Naaman might carry over his pagan habits into his new faith: e.g., trying to buy divine favors by bribing the priests. God did not work that way, His blessings came through grace by faith. There was also the danger to Elisha, that he would become a "prophet for hire" if he accepted money for healings. So Naaman requested that he might take back to Aram two mule-loads of Israel's dirt! In a culture that believed deities were tied to localities, he wanted a tangible point of contact with the God of Israel. This small patch of earth would be his "tent of meeting," it would be a few square feet of Israel in the midst of Aram, a place holy to the God of Israel, at least in Naaman's eyes. In doing this, Naaman is declaring allegiance to the God of Israel as openly as Ruth did when she left her own country to join Israel.
This yearning for the tangible presence of God is a basic desire of the human heart. In its common expression, it leads to idolatry, to representing the deity in wood or stone or human figures. Man is not satisfied with abstract perfection, he desires (even unconsciously) to return to the time when Adam and God walked together in the garden. Naaman would have been in real trouble if he had asked Elisha for a figurine, a talisman, to take back with him. But what did he ask for instead? -- a miniature Garden of Eden, just the barest plot where he and God could have fellowship together.