Monday of Week 3 of Lent – First Reading

Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-15

The central character in today’s First Reading is Naaman, an army commander from Syria under the king of Aram, probably Ben-Hadad II. He was held in high esteem by his king because of military victories, which the Bible attributes to the power of Yahweh. In the writer’s view, victory is to be attributed to the God of Israel, who is seen as the ruler and controller of the fate of all nations, and not just that of Israel.

Now, Naaman was a ‘leper’. The New Jerusalem Bible calls his condition a “virulent skin disease” because, whatever it was, it did not seem to exclude Naaman from coming in close contact with people. In ancient times, real leprosy was, tragically for the victim, often confused with other chronic skin diseases.

Although Israel had concluded a peace treaty with the Aramaeans during the reign of King Ahab, there were still minor skirmishes on the borders between the two states for control of a place called Ramoth Gilead. These followed a battle in which King Ahab had been killed. It was as a result of one of these skirmishes that a young Israelite girl was taken captive. She would prove the link in bringing healing to Naaman. We could well stop to reflect for a few moments on this young girl. While a simple slave, she played a crucial role in the healing and, together with the austere prophet Elisha, offered a startling contrast to the ostentatious wealth of Naaman – wealth which had no role to play in his being restored to health.

She knew about the prophet Elisha, who was living in Samaria and suggested that her master should go to him for healing. The king, Ben-Hadad, gave his full approval for Naaman to go to Samaria and see Elisha and promised to write a letter of introduction to King Joram of Israel. The Syrian king obviously believed that Elisha was subject to Joram and that the prophet’s services could only be bought with a generous gift. Hence the 10 talents of silver (a huge amount of money), 6,000 shekels of gold and the 10 festal robes which Naaman brought with him. He thought that God’s gift of healing could only be bought with money.

On the other hand, King Joram is horrified by this and rends his clothes in despair. His own faith in God’s healing power was so weak that he thought that Ben-Hadad was simply looking for a pretext for war by asking the obviously impossible – the cure of a leper. But when Elisha hears of it, he scolds the king for his failure to consult his prophet.

Naaman now arrives in all the glory of someone in his exalted position with horses and chariots. He will overawe the prophet by his presence, power and show of wealth. He must then have been somewhat surprised to be told by the prophet what he must do. And what he had to do was to bathe seven times in the River Jordan. Elisha clearly indicates that the healing power comes from the power of the God of Israel, but only if the general does what he is told by the prophet.

The prophet himself was not strictly speaking a healer. Ritual washings were practiced among the Eastern religions as a purification rite, and the number seven was generally known as a symbol of completeness. Naaman was to wash in the muddy waters of the Jordan River, showing that there was no natural connection between the washing and the desired healing. Perhaps it was also being suggested that one needed to pass through the Jordan, as Israel had done (Jos 3-4), in order to obtain healing from the God of Israel. Much later, Jesus would also pass through the same waters of the Jordan and be filled with the Spirit of his Father.

Naaman finds this an affront to his dignity. He expected the prophet to come out to him, wave his hand magically over the afflicted spots and effect an immediate cure. Instead, he has to do what he is told by someone he regards as a foreign underling. And what is worse, he is asked to bathe in the Jordan. What was wrong with the rivers that flowed through Damascus – the Abana and Pharpar? The Abana was called the ‘Golden River’ by the Greeks and is usually identified with the Barada River today, which rises in the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and flows through the city of Damascus. The Pharpar River flows eastwards from Mount Hermon, just to the south of Damascus. In fact, the waters of these rivers were hygienically far superior to the muddy waters of the Jordan. But that was precisely the point – it was not the water which brought the healing.

Deeply insulted, Naaman turns round to go home. But his servants plead with him. After all, if Naaman had been asked to do something difficult, he would have done so. Why not obey the prophet when he asks something so easy? Naaman put his pride behind him, goes to the river seven times and emerges with his skin like that of a new-born child. He is both physically and spiritually reborn.

However, we need to be aware that there is a deeper meaning to the story. Naaman, the Gentile submitting to the command of Yahweh through his prophet, is put forward as a contrast to a disobedient Israel, which still wavered in its divided allegiance to Yahweh and to Baal. God’s blessings are only to be found in total submission to his will and his commands. In today’s Gospel, Jesus will bring up this point himself, much to the anger of the Jews to whom he was speaking.

The clear lesson of the story is given in the last sentence when, after being cured, Naaman goes back in gratitude to Elisha and says:

Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel…

A minor lesson for all of us arises from Naaman’s indignation at being told to bathe seven times in the river Jordan. Wisdom comes from the slaves in his household who said to their master:

…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’?

How often do we not see God coming into our lives because of our prejudices and blind spots?

It must be understood from this passage that the true healer is not Elisha, nor the muddy waters of the Jordan river, but God himself. And the healing is the result, not of the washing in the river, but in Naaman’s eventual submission and obedience to God’s spokesman.

It was exactly the lack of this attitude on the part of the people of Nazareth (spoken of in today’s Gospel) that prevented Jesus from healing the people of his own town.

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