(Enamel Plaque of Naaman washing in the River Jordan courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
2 Kings 5:1-19:
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. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. 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. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. 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, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. 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.” When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes 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.” 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.”
So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 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.” 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! Are not Abana 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. 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’?” 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.
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.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing!” He urged him to accept, but he refused. 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. 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.” He said to him, “Go in peace.” But when Naaman had gone from him a short distance,
Naaman has a hard time believing his cure for leprosy could be that easy. He almost blows it. Really, he comes pretty close to letting his temper get the best of him. "Whaaaa? I could go wash in any of the nice rivers in Syria all I want, and he wants me to go in the Jordan? That's crazy!"
I don't get a clear message from the commentaries whether the Jordan was physically dirtier or not. Some imply it is. It's physically possible that there's more clay in the Jordan than in the neighboring rivers. The Jordan ran through a more fertile area of the region than many other rivers, so there would be more soil. Also, there was more habitation along the Jordan, and to this day pollution remains a problem there. But I think we also have to consider there is a "local pride" aspect to Naaman's reticence. I think about if I were told to bathe in the Des Moines River as opposed, to, say, the Missouri River or the Chariton or the Little Fabius. "Whaaaa? I have to go bathe in some river in Iowa? Why can't I bathe in some nice river in Missouri as opposed to one where Iowegians live?" (We characters from the northern stretches of Missouri tell Iowa jokes all the time. Of course the people in southern Iowa tell Missouri jokes. In the southern reaches of the state, it's the Arkies and Okies they all make fun of.)
The medical detective in me also remembers that what we call "leprosy" in the Bible often refers to several skin diseases that, in those days, were grouped together by appearance, and all infectious. It was a larger-encompassing diagnosis but the practical solution was to separate the victim from the community, all the same. Clay treatments--particularly clay from regions with alkaline soil--such as places with salt flats--have been known since ancient times to relieve some of the symptoms of many itching, crusting, oozing skin lesions.
So when I read this story, I know there's probably one part ancient medicine and one part human nature in this story, and the focus is on the latter.
There are so many things in this world that we let "stupid pride" get in our way. Especially when it comes to shame and guilt.
How different is Naaman, really from many of us? How many of us hide behind our image as a "whatever?" I think about how sometimes, our woundedness drives us to being overachievers and hyper-perfectionists. We create an unreasonable image of ourselves to live up to impossible expectations.
I can just see Naaman hollering, "Does he not get who I am here? I'm an important person!" (It's been my experience that most times I am yelling, "Who do they think they are?" or "Who do they think I am?" I am thinking I'm not worth a hell of a lot at the moment.)
Even the backdrop to the story itself has a wonderful incongruity to it. Naaman is a great man--the commander of the king's army. I'm sure his walk, his tone of voice, his demeanor almost yells respect at anyone who gets a glance at him. But he has a shameful secret--a skin disease that, for most people, means being cut off from the community. His power gets him nowhere, there. Anyone taking a look at him discovers his flaw. So his secret really isn't that secret, and I'm sure little has been left unsaid in the commuity about it.
When are we Naaman? When are we too stubborn to do something that's incredibly easy, if we just get over ourselves and do it, will find healing? When do we walk with the swagger of the powerful, when, in fact, we are powerless? What changes in us when we finally break down and do that easy thing that's been placed before us? Good questions!