General Naaman’s Bath

Proper 9, Year C
(Also the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year B)
2 Kings 5:1-14
Psalm 30
Galatians 6:1-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

2 Kings 5:1-14

This story begins in Syria (don’t you dare think of the modern crushed state of Syria, it would bring you to
tears and has nothing to do with the Syria of three thousand years ago). It’s about a powerful (and ancient) leader of the Syrian Army. He evidently has had some acclaim for having led the country to many victories. For good or ill, some of those were probably against Israel. Note the fact that General Naaman owned a slave girl who he had captured in a battle with Israel. For that and other accomplishments, he is held in “high favor” by his King. 

All was right in his world, except for the fact that he had Leprosy. We can’t say for certain what that means for Naaman’s time. It could have been any number of skin diseases, and not just Hansen’s disease, as Leprosy is called today. But it was probably still pretty miserable. The word used here is meṣora, and Leviticus spends two chapters on it. The important thing for us in our interpreting and preaching on the passage today is that with the disease, he was considered unclean, he was unable to go to worship, he could occasionally be quarantined, and was therefore could be unable to do his job as a general. This was a serious issue with him, not just physically, but also vocationally, and socially.

We sense from the very beginning of the story that he is going to be healed, so be aware in advance that that’s not the point of the story. This is part of a series of stories that set Elisha up as a miraculous healer, in the same mold as his mentor Elisha, so it’s got to end with him healing someone. The actual point of the story, however, is who is healed, and how was he healed.

Before we get started, notice a small point: Naaman, himself, in a very manly way, is not recorded as having ever complained publicly about his leprosy. It turns out that it is the slave girl who talks about it with his wife, and who then brings it up with Naaman (the slave girl, by the way, is never named, though she is key to the whole adventure). It is the slave girl who feels sorry for him and comes up with a suggestion that there is a healer guy back in Israel who is very good with these kinds of things. Reminds me of when my father got the shingles. He never uttered A SINGLE WORD about it. In fact I never even knew that he had them for several months, and even then only because my mother (who is not a slave girl) told me she was badgering him about going to the doctor. What is it about us guys that we want to tough it out when we get sick?

It’s interesting that this guy had a lot of things against him to be the (probably) beaten Israel in a battle, he was ritually unclean, he worshiped a foreign God, and yet Elisha heals him. The scandal of this story is the reason why Jesus cites it centuries later in Luke 4.

Once he hears of the idea, he’s convinced and takes it up with his own king, who says go for it (after all, he wants his general to function well). The King in fact offers to write a letter of introduction to the King of “Israel” (actually Samaria, a southern portion of what would later be called Israel). It’s interesting to note that the King didn’t say go to the prophet who can heal you, he said go to the King.

The letter of introduction said, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy” (emphasis added). People always work through equals, kings through kings. That hasn’t changed much over the years. The king sends Naaman off with gifts usually reserved for a state visit between royalty, gold, silver, and…um, ten changes of clothes. That last item always puzzled me. Maybe he’d gotten word that the king of Samaria was a real crummy dresser and thought he’d do his part to spruce up the neighborhood. Who knows? I have so far found no commentary that made any comment on why it was that he brought so much clothes, or why the writer thought that that was important.

So, Naaman launches off on his journey, with horses, chariots, gold, silver and clothes? (Well, why not?) And he goes to the “King” of Samaria.

Just before he gets there, he sends his letter of introduction from his King off to the Samarian King. However, instead of reading the letter as a friendly request, the Samarian King screams and –wouldn’t you know it—he starts tearing away at his clothes! (That actually makes sense in terms of the culture of the time—it was a sign of mourning—but one must admit that it seems interesting in light of the upcoming gift.) He’s furious and scared because he thinks it’s a trick. He thinks the general has trumped up this impossible request as an excuse to go to war. So, he says, Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me” (2 Kings 5:7).

So, I imagine that they stand there for some time staring at one another, not knowing what to do or say. The Bible does not record whether they tried to talk it out, just that the King of Samaria was cowering, scared to death, inside his palace ripping up his clothes, while one of the most powerful (and finely dressed) generals in the ancient world was patiently camped out on his doorstep.

Somewhere along here the word got down to Elisha that the General had come actually looking for a prophet who could heal him of his skin disease. So, he sent word to the king saying, “What are you doing sitting in there tearing at your clothes?” (I didn’t make that up. that’s what he said.) “Send the guy out to me and I’ll teach him a thing or two about there still being prophets in Israel” (II kings 5:8).

So, Naaman bundles up his trunks of clothes and gold and goes on out to where Elisha is staying and sends a servant out to knock on the door. By the way, if Elisha lives out in the country, it would be one thing, but imagine if he lives right there in town and suddenly this general shows up with dozens of horses, and chariots, and servants, carrying these huge trunks of gold, silver, and tasteful ties and sport jackets, it would be quite sight.

Now, here it’s kind of interesting. Elisha is at home. But instead of coming out himself to greet the general, he sends out one of his messengers, with the message that he should go wash himself seven times in the river Jordan and then, well, that’s all. There’s nothing after the “then.” Just go wash up in that muddy river over there and, well, that’s it.

The general is furious. And why not? He came all this way, expecting it to be a state visit, with all of his entourage in back of him and these fabulously expensive gifts to pay off the healer, and all Elisha says is go take a bath. He says, “I thought that for me he would at least come out and say a few prayers and wave his hands over the wounds or something. I saw all those Oral Roberts shows when I was a kid. I know how a faith healer is supposed to work. This guy is a fraud.” And he walks off.

But then one of his aids stops him and says something very wise. He says, listen up, “if the prophet had given you a hard task you would have done it. Why not do it when it’s something easy.”

So he goes back to the Jordan and jumps in seven times and lo and behold, he is cured. The miracle happened.
So, he then goes back over to Elisha’s house and thanks him and offers to give him all of the royal Lord” is an Israelite God, and can only be worshiped on Israelite soil, so he wants to take some of it with him so he can keep up the worshiping practice when he gets home. And he claims that he will be so faithful that he will no longer offer any burnt offerings to any other god but “The Lord.” He does, however, ask for one exception. He says that when he goes home and he accompanies his own king to Temple of Rimmon, and they have to bow down, will Elisha allow him to do that, just one tiny indiscretion? Elisha says, sure. Go in peace.
goodies and the wardrobe, but Elisha refuses. He insists, but Elisha is adamant that he shouldn’t take any payment or suits and ties for his work. So the general gives in and asks, if he can’t pay anything would the prophet mind if he took a couple of “mule-loads of earth” back home with him, presumably because he is thinking of erecting a shrine over it to worship Israel’s God. His assumption is probably that “the

So, that’s the story. I hear two things going on here:
First (and this could actually be referred to earlier in the story to, to make it a reminder here), a lot of what he’s going through is as much psychological and spiritual as it is physical. It’s not the healing itself, it’s the who and how and where and why. Naaman’s life is on the edge. He can no longer be the rich and powerful and feared general if he can’t work and he can’t work if he has this disease. If it gets out, he may be quarantined. He may be banished from the kingdom. He’s a loyal and successful general, so that’s not likely, but it certainly would have a high impact on his ability to work with his troops.

And he also is full of pride. He is the great and powerful Naaman, conqueror of many, and leader of many. So the idea of getting well, even if necessary, by doing something as mundane as taking a bath was an insult. I remember a story I read when I was a kid (and that was a long time ago—I’m old), about a rich girl who at age 18 was to inherit her grandfather’s money, but at the reading of the will she found out that the only way she could get it was if she did fifteen summersaults in the middle of the street with her knickers showing and everybody in town watching. She at first refused because she had lived a higher-than-you life that excluded fun and embarrassment, and extolled the virtues of looking down on people. But when she finally did it (she had to, to get the money) she discovered that she loved it and she did it again and again reveling in the fun of it. Her grandfather intentionally put that in his will so as to humanize her. And it worked.  

I also remember the more recent story of Wilt Chamberlain, the great basketball player. According to the story, he was tremendous and formidable on the floor, but he was awful at the free throws. He could have added another dent to fifteen points to his game every time if he only could get better at that, but he just couldn’t. However, one time someone showed him that if he did it underhandedly, instead of overhandedly, he would have much more control over the ball and he would get it into the hoop nearly every time. And he did that for a couple of games and began to break record for points scored per game. But then people in the stands (and some of his team mates began laughing at the “Girly” way he got those free throw shots, and it embarrassed him, so he quit. He never again broke a record in scoring. He knew what it would take to move his scores up into the stratosphere, but he was too embarrassed to do it.

I think one of the most important messages in this story is that he had to humiliate himself before he could get healed. He had to be humanized before receiving the inheritance[2]

The second thing I see here is that sometimes the biggest change does not take place with the biggest miracle. He really wanted to be healed, and he thought that his disease was the most important disease going around, and he really thought that there ought to be something more to it than what he got assigned to do. He says, “I thought that for me that prophet guy would surely come out, and…wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy!” And of the mighty Jordan river, he says, “Are not Abanag and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” (2 Ki 5:11–12.) We’ve already got rivers, what’s this guy saying?

Sometimes it takes something simple to heal us, even though we don’t believe it. Last week we had the story of Elisha running for his life because Queen Jezebel had put a price on his head, and he waited in a cave for a word from God about what to do. In front of him came all sorts of huge and over powering things: earth quakes, storms, winds, etc., but God wasn’t in any of them. God’s voice finally came to him in the sound of sheer silence. Sometimes we over-watch for the special, life changing things. We over-expect, we over-anticipate what will make our lives better and stronger and happier.

I remember how my grandfather worked his entire life so that he could have a lot of money and influence, and in fact, he was pretty successful at that. He had a lot of people in a lot of companies working for him over the years and a lot of responsibilities and daily decisions to make. And he was gone all the time. My earliest recollections of him was of a man who never got home until about 9:00 every night and who was gone again at about seven the next morning. When I spent the night with them, he was usually gone before I would get up in the morning.

But after we’d all moved on, and I grew up, and I had a chance to get acquainted with him again, he was retired. And he lived out his last twenty to thirty years living with the wife he had not spent much time with when he was younger, and he learned how to cook and do carpentry, and entertain. And they had a wonderful life of welcoming guests and going out dancing on the weekends and inviting the Goldbergs over on Wednesdays to play bridge. They, by that time, lived in a great big four-bedroom Tudor-style home, and they lived in only three rooms. the bedroom, living room and kitchen. And he was the happiest he had ever been. Sometimes we over-expect what is supposed to come our way to make us happy and cure our leprosy.

[1] Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 2 Ki 5:5.
[2] Here is a good illustration of that stolen from my Canadian friend, Beth Johnston (suerrat88@EASTLINK.CA), who stole it from TV:
On Saturday, April 11 2009, Piers Morgan, host of Britain’s Got Talent,  expressed his joyful surprise to contestant Susan Boyle. Boyle was the very plain looking woman from Blackburn, West Lothian in Scotland who had just received a sustained standing ovation for her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” from the musical, Les Misérables. The sound and quality of her voice was anything but plain and almost instantly this 40 something, woman with a thick Scottish accent rocketed to fame and fortune and has probably achieved her stated desire to be as famous as Elaine Paige. After Boyle’s performance, judge, Amanda Holden, admitted that she felt the entire audience was cynical, and against her, expecting nothing, but she called the performance, “the biggest wake up call, ever.”
Before the performance members of the audience might have been wondering, “WHO is Elaine Paige”., or perhaps “Lady, if you have not had a singing career by your 40's, you’re not going to have one now.” They might well have thought, “She is so plain looking, just like my old gramma from the sticks, how can she be any good? Well, as you may know, that performance opened the right door and now after several CD releases and a number of live performances her net worth is now estimated to be over £22M. She has sung for the Queen at Jubilee celebrations at Buckingham Palace.
Sometimes people surprise us. Sometimes situations surprise us. For example, sometimes a doctor’s prescription of a “home remedy” surprises us: “how could THAT work?” “You went to medical school and all you can come up with is something my “gran” could have done.” And, when it does we are surprised, perhaps even overjoyed. There is a medical explanation of why it works but that is often lost in the surprise.


Text and Notes:

2 Kings 5:1-14

The Healing of Naaman
5 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram.[1] The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy.[2]  2 Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 4 So Naamanc went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. 5 And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”
He went, taking with him ten talents of silver,[3] six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.[4] 6 He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”  7 When the king of Israel[5] read the letter, he tore his clothes[6] and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?  Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”
8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”
9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house.
10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”
11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy![7]  12 Are not Abanag and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage.
13 But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”
14 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.
15 Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.” 16 But he said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” He urged him to accept, but he refused. 17 Then Naaman said, “If not, please let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord. 18 But may the Lord pardon your servant on one count: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant on this one count.” 19 He said to him, “Go in peace.”

[1] Some translations have, “victory to Syria.” Not clear, but could possibly mean victory over Israel. There had been numerous battles between the two countries (e.g., 1 Kings 15:16–20; 20:1–34; 22:1–36).
[2] Leprosy (meṣora˓). Usually translated as “leprosy” but encompassed any number of irritating skin diseases, and not just what is known today as “Hansens’s disease.” The key thing for the story is that he would have to be quarantined, and blocked from worship and work, which would do great damage to his being a general.
c nrsv note: Heb he
[3] “Ten talents of silver represent about 750 pounds (341 kg) of this metal, compared with 150 pounds (68 kg; six thousand shekels of gold), reflecting the much greater value of the gold (which here is equivalent to the combined annual wages of 600 common laborers).” Crossway Bibles, The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008), p. 653.
[4] “The gift accompanying Naaman is exorbitant—a king’s ransom. Ten talents equals thirty thousand shekels, about seven hundred fifty pounds of silver. The six thousand shekels of gold equals about one hundred fifty pounds (one gold shekel equaled fifteen silver shekels). Converted to today’s buying power, it would be in the vicinity of three-quarters of a billion dollars. One can get an idea of the proportions by understanding that a typical wage would have been ten silver shekels per year, and one gold shekel would purchase one ton of grain.” (Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000]).
[5] We are never told which king of Israel this is, though much of Elisha’s interaction is with Jehoram.
[6] “Tore his clothes” “The tearing of robes, especially royal robes, was a sign of mourning. This would have signaled a national crisis or tragedy. We are never told which king of Israel this is, though much of Elisha’s interaction is with Jehoram. tore robes. The tearing of robes, especially royal robes, was a sign of mourning. This would have signaled a national crisis or tragedy. We are never told which king of Israel this is, though much of Elisha’s interaction is with Jehoram.” (Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
[7] “Wave his hand.” “The elevation of the hand here (“elevation” preferred rather than “waving”) often accompanied invocations or incantations. Praying with raised hand is referred to in the Aramaic Zakkur inscription and is depicted in numerous reliefs (right hand, palm inward, elbow bent). There is a series of Akkadian incantations called shuilla (raising of the hand). The extant copies date to about this period. These compositions include invocation and praise of deity leading up to a prayer seeking appeasement, protection and the removal of evil. It would have been unusual in the ancient worldview for rituals to be performed without the presence of the specialist reciting incantations, accompanied by appropriate gestures, and orchestrating the procedures. The absence of the specialist leads Naaman to think that any body of water could serve the purpose of cleansing. He expected Elisha, the practitioner, to make the difference, while Elisha is careful to remove himself from such a role. (Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
g nrsv note: Another reading is Amana