The Ministry of Elisha
2 Kings 5:1-27
Up to this point in 2 Kings, Elisha's ministry has reached the school of the prophets, the people of Israel, and the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. With this episode Elisha's ministry goes international. This episode highlights 2 recurring features of the Jewish people in the OT. First, it demonstrates once again that when God chose Israel to be His people, He chose them so that He might work through them to bring the other nations to Him. When God called Abraham, He did not say that he was to be the exclusive recipient of God's blessings; rather He said that He would bless all the nations through Abraham. Too often whereas we might claim that God wants to save others through us, our refusal to reach out to others demonstrates that when it is all said and done, it is all about us, a complete contradiction of the reason God saved us in the first place. This attitude finds expression in the reaction of Elisha's servant in this episode; it is an attitude though which God condemns in this passage.
The second element highlighted in this episode is the theme that whereas the Jewish people rejected the Lord, Gentiles accepted Him. (Jesus makes this exact point during His own ministry: Luke 4:27.) It is ironic that the very people who reject the Lord are the same people God had targeted for the past 600+ years. He had given them Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, the prophets, David, etc. How had they repaid Him? By giving their allegiance to Baal. On the other hand, whenever Naaman has one encounter with the Lord, he becomes a committed follower to the Lord. Whereas we can make excuses for those Christians whom God has given so much attention to--"Well, after a while, it does get stale", the Bible does not give a pass to these people. Of those to whom much has been given, much is expected.
NAAMAN IS CURED OF LEPROSY (5:1-19)
The key figure in this story is Naaman, the right-hand man to the king of Syria. The author of 2 Kings speaks of Naaman in glowing terms. Not only is Naaman the king's right-hand man, the Lord has given him victory in all his military conquests. It is interesting that the author of 2 Kings attributes all Naaman's victories to the Lord, especially since Naaman is a foreign idolater. One of the main teachings of 2 Kings is that since the Lord created all nations, He is the God of all the nations. Whether a king or general realizes the source of his victories, that source is none other than the Lord.
Despite all his accomplishments, Naaman has one serious drawback--he is a leper. His leprosy reveals one of 2 things: either his leprosy was not so serious that he had to be quarantined as lepers were quarantined in Israel or else the Syrians were more lax in their attitude towards leprosy than the Jewish Scriptures were. In either case Naaman has contracted leprosy, and it is definitely a drawback for him.
Living in Naaman's household is a young Israelite maid who serves Naaman's wife. This maid informs Naaman's wife about the existence of Elisha who could heal Naaman from his disease. The fact that this maid told her mistress about Elisha is remarkable because of her circumstances. This maid was not a voluntary servant in Naaman's household; rather she had been abducted from her family during one of the Syrian raids into Israel. Not only was she abducted, she was abducted while old enough to know what was happening. She had to have been old enough to know what was going on because she knew about Elisha's ministry, something she probably would not have learned about while living in Syria.
Why would this Israelite maid give this vital information to her mistress? Her mistress was not offering her freedom if she gave her useful information. There is no hint that she was released after giving this information and returned to her home. Instead what we see here is an example of selfless love. It is love that focuses on another person without any gain for oneself, even when the person we are showing love to has wronged us terribly and when there's no hint of restitution. (In fact at the end of the story when Naaman is healed, we do not hear of her being restored to her family.) Her action will contrast sharply with that of Elisha's servant at the end of the episode.
When Naaman approaches his master, the Syrian king, the king does the kingly thing. He arranges for Naaman to approach Jehoram the king of Israel with numerous gifts and an official letter asking for Jehoram to heal Naaman. Communication broke down somewhere along the way because by the time Jehoram receives the communiqué, he believes that the Syrian king, Ben-Hadad, is demanding that he heal Naaman. He knows that Ben-Hadad knows that he can't heal Naaman; therefore, he assumes that these gifts and this request are simply a pretext for war. He believes that once Hadad is rebuffed, he will launch a war upon Israel. Jehoram is distressed. Word though reaches Elisha who sends the message to the king that Naaman indeed will be healed.
Elisha's reason for healing Naaman is central to the story: "so that they will know that there is a prophet in Israel." Elisha's reason has 2 parts to it. The fact that there is a legitimate prophet means that there is a God. There is no way a person can heal or predict the future unless there is a God. The second element in this reason is that this prophet/God has a unique relationship with Israel and that if a person wished to get right with God, that person must do it through the way God has revealed it to Israel. Although Israel is not to be the exclusive recipients of God's blessings, people must come through Israel to get to God. We today affirm just this same principle whenever we affirm the validity of the OT, God's revelation to the Jews, as being part of God's revelation to mankind. Elisha sends his servant (Gehazi?) to instruct Naaman to go down to the Jordan River and dip himself 7x in the river. After he has complied, Naaman will be healed.
When Naaman arrives at Elisha's place of dwelling, he is miffed at the treatment Elisha metes out to him. Elisha's response was not exactly what Naaman was expecting. Didn't Elisha realize that Naaman was the Syrian king's right-hand man? Not only did Elisha embarrass him by sending out his servant to him instead of coming out himself, he did nothing spectacular to effect Naaman's cure. Elisha didn't wave his hands all in the air in some grandiose fashion; rather he simply instructed Naaman to dip himself 7x in the Jordan River. Where was the glory in this? In Naaman's opinion Elisha should have been honored that Naaman would have graced him with the request to heal him. Moreover, just how glorious was the Jordan River? Weren't the 2 rivers running through or circling Damascus far better and far cleaner rivers than the Jordan? Naaman will have none of this. He would rather return home a leper rather than submit to such ignominious treatment.
Once more one of Naaman's servants comes to his rescue. The servant reasons with Naaman that if he was willing to go perform some great feat in order to be healed, shouldn't he be willing simply to go down to the Jordan River and dip himself 7x times? According to the servant Naaman's reaction did not make sense. Naaman accepts his servant's rebuke and complies with Elisha's instructions. After "going down" to the Jordan and "dipping" himself seven times in the Jordan River, he comes up out of the water totally healed. In fact his flesh is like that of a child, flesh very similar to that of the servant girl who had first told him about Elisha.
Gleanings from the Miracle
Several elements in the story demand our attention. First the word "dip" is not used in the Hebrew OT to refer to bathing or to washing. It is used in a religious sense to dip in water the temple vessels and other items designated for religious use. It is used to refer to religious purification. In other words, Naaman is not simply bathing; he is undergoing religious purification. Not only will his flesh be "cleansed"; his soul also will experience cleansing. He will become a new man.
Next notice the element of humility in this story. Elisha does not stroke Naaman's ego in this miracle. He does not perform the miracle in a way appropriate to the king's right-hand man. Elisha does not even directly address Naaman; instead he communicates to him through his servant. This miracle not only is to show Naaman that there is a God and that He is the God of Israel; it is also to show Naaman and us the only appropriate way to approach this God. If we don't come to Him in humility, He is not going to receive us. God has miracles for your life and for mine; however, we are not going to experience these miracles until we walk humbly before God.
This story is not the only biblical episode to emphasize the need for humility. Peter and James claim that God is opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble (1 Pet. 5:5; James 4:6). Jesus likewise said that unless we humbled ourselves as little children, we would never, no never enter into the kingdom of God. When Jesus approaches the Father, He does not strut into God's presence but rather comes as a humble Son, crying out: "Abba, Father!" It was God the Son who humbled Himself even to the point of dying the ignoble death on the cross. We either come to God humbly or we can expect for Him to reject us when we approach Him.
Naaman has been positively affected by this miracle. Not only has his body been cleansed, his soul has been cleansed also. He demonstrates this first by trying to offer Elisha payment for services rendered. He tries to lavish Elisha with all kinds of gifts. How does this demonstrate a changed heart? The one who has truly experienced God's grace will in turn be gracious. The one who has been lavished by God with great gifts in turn will lavish gifts upon others. Jesus affirms this when He condemns the Pharisees for their stingy attitude but commends the adulterous woman who "pours" her tears upon Jesus' feet and head.
Naaman demonstrates a changed heart second by taking back some dirt from Israel with which he will build an altar in his own homeland to the God of Israel. Scholars posit 2 different reasons for this action. Some think that Naaman holds to the belief that each locale had its own god--the Canaanites had their Baal; the Greeks, their Zeus; the Romans, their Jupiter; and the Israelites, their Yahweh. By taking the dirt with him, Naaman is making sure that he takes the God of Israel with him. That might be true; however, a second reason appears more plausible--he took the dirt from Israel to remind him of the God of Israel and of what He had done for him.
So often throughout the OT God's people are told "to remember." They were to erect monuments at certain places where God had performed a miracle on Israel's behalf. These stones would remind them of God and of what He had done for them. Why? These events were defining moments in Israel's history. They defined for her who she was, who her God was, and how she was to respond to this God. I understand this because I have certain stones or markers in my life. Each year during family vacation in Austin, I like to go back to some of the places where God touched my life. It brings me back to the primary focus of my life. It keeps me grounded in the promise God made to me when I was 20 years old at UT. When we don't remember, we become like feathers being blown about by every gust of wind. As good a man as Naaman had become, without this reminder he might have forgotten what God had done for him and what kind of response God was wanting from him.
The third way Naaman demonstrates he has changed is by asking the Lord to forgive him whenever he has to accompany the Syrian king into the temple of the god Rimmon and to "worship" this god. (Rimmon was the Syrian equivalent to the Canaanite god Baal, to the Greek god Zeus, and to the Roman god Jupiter.) Elisha responds with the one word "shalom," that is, "peace." In other words, the Lord is not going to hold this action against him.
It seems strange to us that Naaman would be let off the hook for this action, especially since Revelation makes such a big deal out of this very issue. Remember though first a lot happens between the time of Naaman and the writing of the book of Revelation. Our knowledge of God and His demands upon us have increased exponentially since the time of Naaman. Second, we need to note that God has already accomplished a lot in the life of Naaman. Too often we want perfection in the people God has touched, whereas God wants development. It is not as important where you are on the line that leads to perfection as to which direction you're facing while on that line. C.S. Lewis once stated that two men were at the same spot on the road to perfection, one though was facing away from perfection while the other was facing towards it. He stated that these 2 men could not have been farther apart. It's not where you are but where you are headed that is important.
Elisha's Response to Naaman
Elisha's response to Naaman is remarkable. Because Naaman had truly been changed by this miracle, he wanted to lavish all sorts of gifts upon Elisha whom God had used to change Naaman. It was a legitimate sentiment and one which Elisha might have accepted on another occasion (for example he did accept the room the Shunemite woman had built for him). Yet something more important was operating at this time. The whole purpose of this miracle was to demonstrate that there was a prophet in Israel, that there is a God and that He has a unique relationship with Israel. If Elisha had accepted these gifts, then the focus would have gone from this great teaching to the acceptance of gifts. If Elisha had accepted these gifts, Naaman might have concentrated more on what he had done for Elisha and not for what God had done for him. Naaman did not need to be distracted from what God had shown him in Israel. He needed to bear in mind that there was a prophet in Israel. Elisha's attitude is similar to that of the servant girl in Naaman's household--life was not all about her, it was about God.
GEHAZI'S DECEIT (5:20-27)
Unfortunately there is one character in the story who has not learned the lesson that life is about God, not about him. When Naaman starts back for Syria, Gehazi, Elisha's servant, realizes that a golden opportunity has been missed. To be sure neither he nor his master are paupers; however, they probably do have meager accommodations, and they probably are spartan in their diets. Pita bread and mutton are good staples of any diet; however, pita bread and mutton can get pretty tiring when they are eaten day after day after day. So Gehazi decides to take a major risk. He knows that he is about to do something that Elisha would not approve of; however, he feels like the potential gain was worth the risk. Besides it was unlikely that Elisha would discover what had happened if Gehazi was discreet about it. Elisha had not seen the death of the Shunemite's son; just maybe he won't be able to see Gehazi's deceit.
Gehazi tracks down Naaman and informs him that Elisha has changed his mind. Gehazi then tailors his message to make it sound like it came from Elisha. Elisha was the titular head of the school of the prophets and naturally would have been concerned about the welfare of any prophet in that school. According to Gehazi there were 2 members of the school of the prophets who were in need of some money and clothing. He asks Naaman to give him 2 silver coins and 2 changes of clothing so that he can pass them on to these 2 prophets. Naaman unsuspecting gladly gives Gehazi more than he asked for. He doubles the amount so that each prophet receives 2 silver coins and 2 change of clothes. Gehazi accepts them in Elisha's name, returns home, and stashes them in his own home away from the prying eyes of Elisha. When Elisha confronts Gehazi, he transfers Naaman's leprosy to Gehazi. How ironic that the man who started out the story with no faith was cleansed from leprosy, while the man who at the beginning of the story had faith walked away from the story afflicted with leprosy.
Too many of us are like Gehazi in that we are taking too many risks. When was the last time we lied in order to get something for our children? Few of us would have the mother of a potential rival cheerleader killed; however, some will spread nasty rumors about other mothers or their children in order to promote their own children or to satisfy their own children's wishes. Few of us would rob the church by walking off with computer equipment, etc.; however, God says that we will rob Him by refusing to give Him the money He tells us to give to Him. Some of us will risk our marriages by getting a little too "familiar" with somebody of the opposite sex. The list goes on and on. We need to remember what happened to Gehazi so that we will stop messing around with fire.