Once upon a time there was a very important Aramaen general named Naaman. He was highly favored by the king of the land and was in everyone’s eyes a great man, because YHWH had given him many victories in battle, even over the forces of Israel. Of course, for a general, battle victories are necessary if one is to be prized and honored. Naaman’s chest was covered by all manner of ribbons; he lived in a grand house, given to him by a grateful people; he and his wife belonged to all the right clubs; he spoke in front of sparkling audiences. Everyone knew Naaman, and everyone respected him.
But he did have a problem; he had leprosy. Well, it was not the sort of leprosy where your fingers and toes withered and rotted off, but it was bad enough. It was unsightly, this condition. Those who had not met him before could not stop looking at his pockmarked face, try though they might, and he was embarrassed and self-conscious. His big house, and fine military reputation, and fancy club memberships just did not compensate for his depressed and agonizing looks in his mirror each day. His wife loved him, and never mentioned his obvious affliction, but he knew, he simply knew, that even she cringed a little each time he approached her for a kiss or a hug.
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But he did have his battles; at least there in the heat of combat, none of his troops cared a whit about his pitted face. He was their general, and he led them to victory again and again. On one of these raids against the Israelites, a rather pathetic mountain people from the west, little known for military prowess in any case, Naaman had captured a tiny Israelite girl and had given her to his wife for a servant. And a very good and helpful servant she was, soon making herself indispensible and becoming quickly more like a friend to Ms. Naaman rather than a slave. The girl was quick and extremely observant; it took her no time at all to see that Naaman’s leprosy was a source of real contention in his public life that might soon spill over into his more intimate relationships, even with his loving wife.
So one day she approached her mistress and announced, “If only your husband were with the prophet who lives in Samaria (capital of the northern kingdom of Israel)! Why, it would take that man no time at all to rid my master of that nasty leprosy.” That very night, Naaman’s wife mentioned this conversation to her husband (after all, she would be very happy to clear up her beloved’s unsightly blemishes as much as he would). The next day, during the weekly meeting with the king, Naaman told his lord about the little girl’s boast about the Samaritan prophet. The king (he, too, would be glad not to look at his general’s face such as it was) immediately allowed Naaman to head to Samaria and to see if a cure could be made. Just to make the trip safer, and also to ease the fears of the Israelite king about a possible attack from the Arameans, the king said to his general, “I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”
And so Naaman headed west, but not before he had gathered an impressively vast retinue to accompany him: ten talents of silver (a huge sum!), six thousand shekels of gold (an enormous pile of gold!), and ten sets of rich and costly garments. No general should ever go anywhere without the physical announcement that he was no ordinary travelling citizen. No! This was general Naaman, the feared conqueror of huge swaths of the Middle East. Look upon me and tremble, shouted the silver and gold. He marched into Samaria and went straight to the palace of the king, handing the monarch, who was none too pleased to welcome the general back into his land so soon after he had raided the king’s territory one more time. The letter from the king of Aram said, “When you read this, know that I, the king, have sent my servant general to you that you may cure him of his leprosy.”
In horror, the Israelite king tore his royal robes in abject misery and the deepest mourning, wailing, “Am I god, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure someone of leprosy? Surely, this wily king is doing nothing else than finding a way to pick a fight. Once I fail to effect the cure, which I will certainly do, the Arameans will fall on me and my kingdom, claiming that I did not do what was asked of me. Surely they know I cannot cure anyone! What am I to do?” And Naaman stood quietly before this whining king, perhaps thinking, “Why in the world have I wasted my time by coming all this way to witness the ravings of a nincompoop?”
Meanwhile, at the house of the prophet Elisha, the prophet had heard of the king’s clothes-ripping episode; this king was forever tearing his clothes in the face of potential catastrophe, rather than using the brain that YHWH had given him. The prophet wrote a very calm note to his king. “Why tear your clothes, majesty? Send this leprous man to me so that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” So Naaman went to Elisha’s house along with his horses and chariots, not to mention the silver, gold, and fancy clothes. And the great general waited for the man of magic power to come out and cleanse him of his disease.
Instead out from the pathetic little house, not at all like the Aramean house of general Naaman, came not Elisha, the prophet, but a poorly dressed, ill-speaking servant, wiping his hands on a filthy dish towel. The tiny man looked up directly into the eyes of the general, seated on his finest horse, and muttered, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times; your flesh shall be restored and you will be clean.”
But Naaman became apoplectic! “Who does this pipsqueak think that he is? How dare he speak to me in such a way! I thought that for me, general Naaman—scourge of my enemies, first among my own people—that this so-called prophet would deign to come out of his hovel, stand in front of me, call upon the name of YHWH his God, would wave his hand over my scarred face, maybe utter a spell or two in an ancient tongue, and thereby cure my leprosy. But, no! I am commanded by a slave, no less, to dip my magnificent body into the muddy Jordan River, which is more creek than river in any case. Our great rivers of Aram are far superior to that bog. I could have just stayed home and dipped in Abana or Pharpar and been made clean!” And with that, the mighty Naaman turned his steed around and headed east toward home.
But his servants stopped him by saying, “Father (they clearly had a very intimate relationship with their general), if this prophet had asked you to do something hard in order to find a cure, would you not have done it; stand on one foot for a day or recite the sacred texts of Aram backward? It is only a quick wash in a small body of water; why not? What do you have to lose?” And so the mighty Naaman did just that. He dropped his great body into the Jordan seven times, just as Elisha’s servant had commanded, and his flesh was instantly restored like the flesh of a young child. In short, he was clean, his leprosy gone forever.
Is it not interesting that in this ancient tale, all the great men are fools, while the servants pipe the tune? Both kings misconstrue the simple problem of a man’s disease, the king of Aram demanding the cure be made by his royal Israelite counterpart, when the servant girl clearly stated that only the prophet could do such a thing. And the Israelite king, seemingly unaware of the great prophet in his own city, in response to the Aramean letter performs outlandish actions of the deepest mourning, convinced that the Arameans are using Naaman’s leprosy as a ruse to foment war. And Naaman himself, playing the part of the puffed-up great man, refuses to perform the tiniest request that could lead to his cleansing. Indeed, the servant girl starts the story, the servant of Elisha delivers the command, and the servants of Naaman save the day, urging their arrogant master to do what he must to find a cure. In this story, the cleansing actions of God are found in the unlikeliest of places.
Is it possible that even we tend to look for God in all the wrong places? After all, while Caesar Augustus, whose doings were always on page one, ruled the known world, while Quirinius, the Syrian governor whose doings were always to be discovered in the pages of the Metropolitan section, controlled the vast Roman east, a little pregnant, unmarried teenager was about to give birth to history’s most significant baby. Her action found no place in any paper of that day. Yet, two billion of the world’s people now revere this child as savior and Lord. In whom do we find God acting today? Are we looking for God in too many wrong places?