THE MIRACLES OF ELIJAH AND ELISHA
VII. The Healing Motif (2 Kings 5)
We have seen already in passing several occasions where the prophet healed someone. But the best known example of this motif is the story of Naaman the leper (2 Kings 5). What is lost to most readers is the fact that this man was the captain of the army of Syria. He had been about the business of fighting Israel, and winning. It was another time when God used other nations to discipline Israel, for God is not a national God, Israelís God, but the God of all. So Naaman was the enemy to Israel. He was a Syrian. And the god of Syria was Hadad (seen in so many of the kings names, e.g., Ben-Hadad); and Baal was known as "the son of Hadad," which in terms of the pantheon meant that he was equal to Hadad, the western Semitic storm god. So all the themes and beliefs of these western Semitic peoples were of no help for a man who was a leper.
Now we do not know exactly what disease he had. What is meant by leprosy today, Hansonís Disease, was probably not that common in Old Testament times in these areas. The Hebrew word translated "leprosy" (as well as the Greek word lepros) refer to any number of scaly, painful, and often contagious skin diseases. In Leviticus 13 and 14, the term has this wider use because it applied to diseases that would clear up with quarantine and time--not always true of real leprosy. And Naaman would not likely have lived in his house, and continued to lead the armies, if he had full leprosy, unless it was in the early stages and he was able to stay aloof. This may have been the case, because at the end of the story when Gehazi receives this leprosy he becomes white as snow--the advanced stage of the disease.
If it was some other disease that would not minimize the effects of the disease; some skin diseases like psoriasis can require hospitalization today, and of course cancers are deadly. Whatever Naaman had was a serious problem--but the Canaanite gods could do nothing.
As the text of chapter 5 begins, we are introduced to Naaman the leper. But we are also introduced to a young girl who is left nameless. She was captured in the wars with Israel and taken to be a servant for Naamanís wife. It was she who told her mistress that there was a prophet in Samaria who could cure him of his disease. Naaman then received permission from the King of Damascus to go to Samaria to find the cure. This moment was her divine appointment, the reason she was captured in the war; it is how God turns things that are great evils into opportunities for service.
Naaman took with him a great amount of silver, gold and clothing--and a letter from the king. But he went to the palace, to the king of Israel, as protocol would dictate. And his response was what one would expect. The Israelite leader took it to be a trick, that the king of Damascus was trying to pick a fight with him. He tore his robes in anxiety and frustration, saying, "Am I in the place of God? Can I kill and bring back to life . . . ?" They all expected God, or the gods, to be able to do this, but not humans.
Elisha heard that the king tore his robes, and send word rebuking him. The king should have known that God could do this thing, and so should not have acted in fear and distrust. The king was to send him to Elisha. And so this grand company with all its wealth came to the house of Elisha--who did not even come out to see him. He only sent word out to him to go and wash in the Jordan seven times.
Naaman was at first angered. He had expected him to come out and greet him, pray to God, wave his hand over the spot, and heal him. He was not used to the indignities he was receiving. And the rivers in Damascus were much greater than this little Jordan. It was again his servants (like the servant girl who told him of Elisha) who calmed him down so that he went and washed in the Jordan--and was made whole. He then went back to Elisha and proclaimed, significantly, "Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel." He tried to give the prophet a gift, but the prophet refused, with an oath.
The commander then took dirt from Israel back to Damascus so that he could offer his worship sacrifices to Yahweh alone. He also asked for forgiveness for the state functions he was obliged to follow, including going into the temple of the god Rimmon and bowing down there. Rimmon is actually the word for a pomegranate, a sign of fruitfulness in the land. Rimmon was just another name for Hadad or Baal, the lord of the earth, according to them. The king of Damascus, in fact several kings after, was called Ben Hadad, but his father was called Tabrimmon, a contemporary of Asa (see 1 Kings 15:18). Naaman would have to go through state religious ceremonies--but in his house was Israelite soil where he could worship the only true and living God, Yahweh. How it must have joyed the servant girl to be able to worship Yahweh even in a strange land.
The story ends on a sad note. Gehazi, the servant of Elisha, decided there was reward enough there for him, and so he pursued after the commander and asked for some of the money, saying Elisha had sent him and the money was for two prophets who just came in from the hills. Naaman was happy to comply; Elisha was furious, knowing what he had done. As a result, the leprosy of Naaman came upon Gehazi.
The Healing Motif
All ancient peoples believed that the gods inflicted diseases on people and that they had the power to remove them (see the Word from God in Exod. 15:22-27). This is natural, considering that diseases has plagued the human race from the Fall. In the Bible several kings were struck with serious illness, Uzziah with leprosy, Asa with some unspecified disease, and Hezekiah with an ailment that would result in a premature death. Epidemics were also understood as a punishment from God, who alone could end them (see 2 Sam. 24:1ff.). So disease is closely tied to the matter of sin in the world, and the sovereignty of God who can heal--and forgive. Jesus, of course, demonstrated this again and again (Matt. 9 for example), even in Canaanite country with the Syro-Phoenician woman.
In ancient Ugarit the texts also indicate that the Canaanites thought disease was the result of the wrath of a god, or lack of virtue. Keret fell ill because he had angered the goddess Asherah. She had granted him success, but he failed to please her. So she vowed to avenge herself--and he became ill.
But in the story of Keret the high God El cured him of his ailment. "Who among the gods can drive out malady, remove sickness?" The question was asked seven times. No gods could do it, so El said, "It is I that will make magic . . . It will drive out sickness expelling the illness." El decided to make something like a craftsman to cure the disease. He created a feminine being called shĎtqt, who entered King Keretís house and proceeded to cure him. She struck the king on his head and washed him. He was cured by magic.
In the stories of Elijah and Elisha we have seen how the prophets could heal and even make alive. The Bible also tells how the king of Damascus, Ben Hadad, sent to Elisha to see if he would live. The prophet did not cure him, only told him he would die (2 Kings 8).
But in our story, Naaman the commander of the armies of Syria came to Elisha, expecting some incantation and magic manipulation, but instead was told to wash in the Jordan--seven times. The God of Israel alone controlled life and death--even over the leaders of Syria who worshiped other gods, gods that claimed to heal. It is significant that Naam declared this, announcing there was only one God, and he was in Israel. The word for God is the same in Syria for the name of the high god of the pantheon, El, or in the plural of majesty, Elohim--"God." It was not El of Canaan, but Yahweh God in Israel.
The presentation of this material has made all the connections and conclusions that need to be made about the specific motifs and the biblical polemics. The point was being made again and again that Yahweh God was different than any other alleged deity--He is holy. He does not live like humans, eat and drink and make love like the gods of Canaan. And the texts that describe his power were not merely abstract religious texts, myths and magical formulations. They were true descriptions of the nature of God. That is the reason for the stories of Elijah and Elishah--they demonstrated by their various deeds that God indeed was alive and active in a powerful way. But everything they did struck at the heart of Canaanite beliefs. They did not have to look far for these beliefs--they are common to mankind: food, rain, health, life and death. The Semitic gods El, Baal, Hadad, Rimmon, and a host of others were said to have authority over the cycles of life and death, rain and harvest, heaven and earth. But when it came right down to it, they were lifeless and impotent. The Old Testament, especially the stories of Elijah and Elisha, is a cemetery for dead gods and lifeless myths. And even the way of life of ancient Canaan was set to rest by the prophets who spoke for God. The story of Nabothís vineyard is a sample of how the Canaanite view of kingship, so vividly described in Samuelís warning, was not to be tolerated in Israel. All these events were designed to diminish the appeal of Canaanite religion and life on the people of Israel. Psalm 104, especially verses 24-35, read through this lense not only affirms the truth, but lays to rest the false claims of the pagans.