19 September 2011

"So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean."


In the troubled centuries following the glory years of kings David and Solomon the old kingdom split into two and was constantly under threat from its neighbours, who saw the strategic importance of the little kingdoms of Israel (in the north) and Judah (in the south). The time of the prophet Elisha, heir to the mantle of the great Elijah, was no exception. In the 9th century BC Israel's northern neighbour, Aram (part of modern Syria) was casting its shadow, with frequent cross-border raids and the possibility of invasion. Naaman, head of the Aramean army, was therefore a man to be feared. So when the king of Aram sent Naaman to the king of Israel with the 'request' that he heal him of his incurable skin disease it sounded like a challenge which, if not answered to the king of Aram's satisfaction, could lead to a war which Israel would almost certainly lose. Enter Elisha, the prophet of whom a captured Israeli slave girl had spoken to Naaman's wife.

Naaman, with his vast military entourage, went to find Elisha who, pointedly, did not grant him an audience but simply told him to go and wash in the Jordan (a rather insignificant stream near its northern source). Naaman, at first insulted (he expected at least a bit of spectacular prophetic frenzy and mysterious arm waving), went away in disgust but was persuaded by his servants to give it a go, as he had nothing to lose but his dignity! And, of course, it worked. Naaman, deeply impressed, wanted to reward Elisha - and earn further favour from his powerful god, in whom he now believed. Elisha would accept nothing, so Naaman asks instead for some Israelite soil to take home, so he could establish a shrine to Israel's god (gods in those days were very territorial). Of course, as head of Aram's army he would still have to be seen to be worshipping Aram's god (Rimmon) and Elisha, pragmatically, agreed to that.

Happy ending.

To Ponder

This story is one of a number in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) which make the point that God's loving generosity is not restricted to Israel, or to those who obey Israel's law, but rather that it crosses sacred boundaries. Jesus referred to it in Luke 4:27, and greatly offended his pious Jewish audience. Why do you think this story might still be offensive to religious people - including Christians?

Christian tradition has sometimes read this story as anticipating the much later practice of Baptism (in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible the word for 'baptize' is used here). Do you think it is wise to read the Bible in that way? Why?

If Naaman came to a church today, what kind of advice do you think he would be given? To what extent would his 'multicultural' approach be encouraged?

Bible notes author: The Revd David Rhymer

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