2 Kings 5 begins with an assertion that YHWH has been granting victory to one of Israel’s enemies, and that should grab any reader’s attention immediately. Aram, one of the ancestral lands of Abraham (he resided there for a while after leaving Ur, and often the sons of Abram return there to find wives), has become, by the time of King Jehoram, one of Israel’s constant threats, always threatening to absorb its fragmented neighbors. In a theological move related to that of the prophet Isaiah, the narrator of 2 Kings attributes the particular success of this threat to God rather than buying into the prevalent ideology of the day, a picture of the world in which victorious nations had victorious gods and weaker nations were witnessing the demise of their own deities.
But the narrator of 2 Kings is seldom interested in making things simple, and despite his military victories, Namaan, not the king of Syria but one of the great city’s generals, has leprosy. Scholars dispute whether the ancient Hebrew word involved here named only the narrow range of diseases that its Greek analogue names or whether Namaan could have had some other skin disease, but either way, his success is sullied by a disorder that makes him unclean according to the Torah, the word of the same God who has granted him victory.
The grace on exhibit in this story begins with the fact that Namaan first hears about a chance for salvation from the disease because he has been attacking God’s people. Had Namaan not enslaved the Israelite girl that tells his wife of the prophet in Samaria, the text at least implies, he would have lived with the leprosy for the length of his life. So by acting as Israel’s enemy, Namaan receives an offer of friendship from God. (For those who would write off the Old Testament as relentlessly and thus simple-mindedly ethnocentric, stories like this one should at least temper the stereotype.) So ultimately the king (I take this to be Jehoram, but if anyone knows better, let me know in the comments) rightly suspects that Naaman is trying to rationalize an invasion when he sends word demanding healing. This is a general who has attacked Israel before, now demanding in writing what on its face seems impossible. Without a doubt 2 Kings means to paint him as a simpering coward, but at the very least there’s reason to believe that he is afraid of something rather than nothing.
When Elisha shows up the real story begins. (Such is often the case in the books of Kings–the kings themselves are often side-shows to the prophets, who are the real stars.) Making his own bold offer to the king, he draws the focus of the story away from the palace in Samaria and to Elisha’s own house. In a strange breach of the expectation that travelers receive hospitality, Elisha does not greet Naaman at the door. He does not come into the presence of the great Syrian to heal him. Instead, he sends him to the Jordan, insisting that he wash there, a command that certainly resonates with us Christians (that’s where Jesus was baptized, after all) but also would have held a particular place in the imagination of Israel (that’s where Joshua led the people into Canaan, after all).
Namaan’s reaction to that command and the subsequent response of his servants really brings the story to a compelling high point. If the Jordan river is good for healing, he says, then any of the good Syrian rivers should be just as good. No self-respecting Aramean should be forced to honor Israelite history to receive gifts from the gods! Left unchecked, the general might have left without receiving anything from the strange God of the strange prophet. But his servants impress upon him an a fortiori logic that sways his strong will: if you would have done something grand and difficult to achieve this healing, shouldn’t you be all the more willing to do something as simple as washing in a river? That argument is enough, and Namaan receives the healing that his captive Israelite girl first set him in motion to find.
Like many stories of the prophets, this one sets on their heads some of the core expectations of how gods behave in the ancient world. Gods are supposed to look out for their chosen tribe, yet Naaman, the great threat to Samaria’s very existence, here receives the love of God. (Jesus, when he points this out in a synagogue in Luke 4, very nearly gets killed by an angry mob.) And although Elisha is involved, it’s not an oracle from the prophet but some down-to-earth reasoning from some unnamed servants that persuade Naaman to receive that gift. As with many of the Old Testament’s great narratives, this story of the Aramean commander ends abruptly, without much along the lines of commentary, inviting readers to say how it might fit in with the grand story of God’s salvation. On this side of Christ, it’s not hard to read this as a foretaste of the gospel that goes forth to the nations, that journey outwards that Acts presents. In its own day this story, like Ruth’s or Jonah’s, must have been one more reminder of the unconfined freedom of YHWH, that God who reveals God’s self “beyond the wilderness” (Exodus 3).
May our devotion to the one true God always respect the wildness and the grandeur of the name we must not take in vain.