Sunday, July 07, 2013

Naaman's Dipping and Requests

The familiar story of Naaman dipping in the Jordan is a story with more than a few twists. Let's review the story first. Naaman we are told had been used by YHWH to punish Israel and our story describes him as a man of valor in high regard by his boss, the King of Syria the current thorn in the side of Israel. It turns out though that Naaman suffers from some sort of leprosy. 

On one of Syria's raids into Israel, the Syrians captured an Jewish girl who had found her way into Naaman's household as a servant for his wife. Knowing of Naaman's illness, she suggests to her matron that there is a prophet in Israel who could help him. This message gets transmitted to Naaman who takes it to his boss. The boss - the king of Syria, tells Naaman to travel to Israel and gives him a letter to Israel's king directing that Naaman be healed.

Upon Naaman's arrival in Israel he gives the letter to Israel's king who reacts in a panic. He does not even consider finding the prophet - or any prophet to help Naaman. Instead, he takes the letter as some sort of ploy by the Syrian king to find fault and justify an additional attack or further subjection upon Israel and her king.

The good news is that Elisha hears about this transaction and sends a message to the Jewish king to send Naaman to see him, so that Naaman would know there is a prophet in Israel. Naaman arrives expecting some great show to be made about his healing but he doesn't even get an audience with Elisha. Elisha simply sends out a servant to tell Naaman to dip seven times in the Jordan. Naaman is outraged. Not only does this prophet not come out to see him, but his prescription is submerge himself in the dirty Jordan. 

Well eventually Naaman agrees and is healed. He wants to give Elisha a handsome payment for his healing but Elisha rejects the offer. Naaman then makes two requests which are odd to our ears. The first request is that he be allowed to take back two donkeys' burdens of earth from Israel. This is likely a cultural artifact in that gods were often considered to be geographically tied. In this thinking, YHWH was god in Israel so if Naaman takes some dirt back from Israel, perhaps this god would also accompany him.

Naaman's next request is even more odd. He is convinced that The God lives in Israel and he is a believer now in this god. But Naaman has a problem. When he returns home he knows he's going to have to accompany his boss to worship in the local Pagan temple. He will not just be accompanying his boss, but his boss will lean upon Naaman during the worship periods and Naaman will be expected to bow and pray to this Pagan god; and he knows that YHWH likely will not approve of this behavior. So Naaman asks a peculiar indulgence - that when Naaman goes to the Pagan temple with his boss and bows his head, YHWH won't take offense at his behavior.

This is indeed a bold request and upon our first reading we think the answer must be something like, "You've got to be kidding!" But that's not the response Elisha give Naaman. His answer is a simple, "Go in peace."

What?! Go in peace? Really? What is going on here? The early church struggled with what to do with Christians who under threat of death failed to maintain their confession of YHWH as God, and so this request and the response are intriguing. 

What do we make of this story? Well, let's ask a question....who is the hero in this story? I submit that it is the servant girl. Having been taken in to forced labor, she has enough wits about her to recognize an opportunity to introduce YHWH to Naaman's household and to bless him through her God. Everyone else seems to be supporting roles. This servant girl starts the chain of events that leads to YHWH being worshiped by the household of a powerful Pagan general.

We are reminded too that God uses non-believers to rattle our cages when we get too settled in thinking we are His people and THEY aren't. God used Naaman to punish Israel and then was introduced directly to Him through the efforts of a Jewish girl.

Finally, we get a glimpse of the grace of God for people who find themselves in tight spots and seems to be more gracious than we often extend to each other. Assuming that Elisha's response is a positive response to Naaman's request for grace, it seems that YHWH was willing to overlook Naaman's future behavior in a Pagan temple because Naaman wouldn't have a choice in fulfilling his responsibilities to the king of Syria.

We often hold each other to higher standards of behavior, suggesting that folks change jobs to free up Sundays, or to leave employment as slot machine makers or yes, even attending some other church due to familial expectations.

What do you think? What do you get out of this story?

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