The Syrian in Israel’s War Story (Naaman & The Gospel)
Co-authored with Lisa Loden.
The Story of Naaman is one of the most beloved and memorable stories in all of the Hebrew Bible. Believers easily identify with Naaman – commander of Syrian army who had a major problem in his life. He suffered from a terrible skin disease. The miracle of his healing after following the simple instructions of Elisha reminds New Testament believers of their new birth. After all, they have experienced it by simply trusting God and calling on Jesus for salvation. They are also able to identify with Naaman as a fellow sufferer. To be human is in some way to be a sufferer and no one is immune from problems, suffering and difficulties. Those who trust God and have known suffering and misery also know what it means for God to break through to their hearts and bless them with his covenantal blessing of healing that is always spiritual and sometimes physical. However, we would argue that such an interpretation of this chapter, while inspiring, completely misses its main point. What do we mean? Please, allow us to explain.
The biblical writers used many literary techniques. For the purposes of this chapter, we must briefly introduce the current term for the technique that was used by the biblical authors. That term is inclusio. The term is self explanatory. It has to with defining the borders of the text. For a text to be designated as inclusio it must begin and end with the same verse, be exact or at least contain the same idea. There are thousands of such examples in the Bible. One of the main reasons why inclusio was used by the original writers was so that the reader and hearer would know where the literary unit begins and ends. This helps readers and hearers not to take a story out of its context. But, what does all of this have to do with a proper reading of the story of Naaman’s healing?
The story of Naaman, from the standpoint of the original author, begins in 2 Kings 5:1-2 when a Syrian (Aramean) para-military group kidnaps a young Israeli woman on one of their incursions into the ancient Israelite territory. The young woman loses everything and becomes a slave who is owned by Naaman’s wife. The inclusio ends with the stunning statement, however, that the Syrian para-military groups will no longer make incursions into Israel (2 Kings 6:23). This means that the original author wanted us to see the whole story from the teenager’s kidnapping to the reconciliation of the hostile nations. It is one literary unit. The healing of Naaman is only the first part of the larger story.
This gives us a clue that Naaman is not the main hero of the story. Instead, it is the young Israelite woman whose forgiving action in the beginning of the story results in the avalanche of events leading to national reconciliation by the end of the story. While Naaman’s healing is an important part the whole story, it must be read with an eye for the bigger picture and as such, for the bigger theological and practical considerations that we as authors are dealing with in this book.
Without further introduction, let us start at the beginning and walk to the end of the story. We will see how this ancient story can speak to us today and influence our actions in our world as it speaks to us with prophetic power.
The first verse of the chapter alerts us to that fact that something very unusual will be told in what follows. We read:
“The king of Aram had great admiration for Naaman, the commander of his army, because through him the LORD had given Aram great victories. But though Naaman was a mighty warrior, he suffered from leprosy.”
Stop and read that verse again. Does everything make sense? You should notice if you read it carefully that there is something in the text that is meant to immediately alert you to something very important. We read, “The LORD (covenantal God of Israel) had given Aram (Israel’s national enemy) great victories” through Naaman. From the start, we are given a clear pointer to God’s total control and his wise administration of his world shown by the way God perfectly governs it. There are times, however, when His governance makes absolutely no sense to His most intelligent creation.
As Naaman, whose name in Hebrew means “pleasant”, is introduced in the text he is portrayed as a great and honourable man in his country. Yet Naaman suffered from a skin disease called leprosy. The next verse introduces the young Israelite woman who was kidnapped from her home in Israel and sold into slavery in Syria: “At this time Aramean raiders had invaded the land of Israel, and among their captives was a young girl who had been given to Naaman’s wife as a maid.” In the providence of the Most High God, she became ,a servant of Naaman’s wife and exercised true forgiveness towards the Aramean nation. She expressed that forgiveness by a heart-felt concern for the well-being of Naaman, the master of the home. There are interesting parallels here with the story of Joseph who was also sold into slavery and whose increasingly righteous life in Egypt led to salvation from starvation for his own father’s family.
What should be noted here is that the Bible often uses literary devices such as repetition for emphasis, or on the contrary chooses not to mention a person’s name to underscore the insignificance of that person. Yet it is this young helpless female slave in a country that was not her own that begins the story with a twist that later becomes a powerful avalanche with unstoppable power to make peace.
It all began like this: One day the girl said to her mistress, “I wish my master would go to see the prophet in Samaria. He would heal him of his leprosy.” Next, Naaman’s reaction underscores his level of suffering from leprosy: “So Naaman told the king what the young girl from Israel had said.” Just imagine the situation in which the second most powerful man in the country tells the King that a slave girl from Israel had given wise advice. The situation could have taken place only if Naaman was so hopelessly miserable from his skin disease that he could no longer tolerate the status quo. He was willing to go any length and try any alternative to be free of his affliction.
What we need to keep in mind is that at that time Israel was not a strong military power as it is today. Syria felt confident in her ability to defeat Israel in military conflict. So the King of Syria told Naaman: “Go and visit the prophet … I will send a letter of introduction for you to take to the King of Israel.” The letter simply read: “With this letter I present my servant Naaman. I want you to heal him of his leprosy.” The King of Israel understood the letter to mean that the Syrian King had decided to provoke another military conflict with Israel by using his commander’s request to go to Israel for medical treatment. Naturally, he reacted as soon as he read the letter: “This man sends me a leper to heal! Am I God, that I can give life and take it away? I can see that he’s just trying to pick a fight with me.” Now… it may seem that the King of Israel displayed doctrinal soundness. Perhaps today most believers in the world would have agreed with him. However, when Elisha the prophet heard about the letter, his reaction was different. He rightfully perceived lack of faith and vision on the part of Israel’s king. In the mind of Elisha, the King was missing a wonderful opportunity to preach the gospel to Syria. He sent a message to Israel’s King: “Why are you so upset? Send Naaman to me, and he will learn that there is a true prophet here in Israel.”
It is likely that some of you are thinking: Elisha lived before the incarnation of God’s Son, before the horrible events of the cross that resulted miraculously in the salvation of the world. What Gospel could Elisha possibly preach to Naaman? Don’t you have chronology of the biblical events confused? Not really, please, allow us to explain.
The Gospel (good news) is not just a New Testament term. This New Testament term can only be properly understood in the context of its previous uses, especially in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. For example, in Isaiah 40:8-10 we read:
“The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever.”O Zion, messenger of good news, shout from the mountaintops…Yes, the Sovereign Lord is coming in power. He will rule with a powerful arm. See, he brings his reward with him as he comes.”
The meaning of this term (Gospel/Good News) is rooted in the declaration of the presence, power and therefore the worldwide fame of Israel’s God. This is even clearer in Isaiah 52:7-9. There we read:
“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who brings good news, the good news of peace and salvation, the news that the God of Israel reigns! The watchmen shout and sing with joy, for before their very eyes they see the Lord returning to Jerusalem. Let the ruins of Jerusalem break into joyful song, for the Lord has comforted his people. He has redeemed Jerusalem. The Lord has demonstrated his holy power before the eyes of all the nations. All the ends of the earth will see the victory of our God.”
This means that when we understand the Gospel of Jesus we must understand it in the same context that the New Testament writers themselves would have understood it. We must always be careful not to import or read in our much later understanding into the much older texts. For New Testament authors, Jesus’ rising from the dead on the third day was nothing less than a declaration of the presence, power and fame of Israel’s God. Now this Good News was destined to be proclaimed not passively as before, but actively to the entire world! So in a very real sense the Gospel of the Lord Jesus is the Good News that Israel’s God is alive and well. He continues to reign over all the earth, not just the Land of Israel, from His Heavenly throne. In the end of all things, He will come to judge the living and the dead. This is precisely why Elisha said to Israel’s King who was not overcome with the vision of proclamation of the presence, power and fame of Israel’s God: “Send Naaman to me, and he will learn that there is a true prophet here in Israel.”
In the beginning of the story, Naaman is depicted as a powerful and proud man, but as the rest of the story unfolds, it traces God’s humbling of human pride and showing his own power instead. Here once again it is the nameless, the small, the insignificant people that are used by God, while those with power, money and authority are unable to live wisely. They don’t see the things that are obvious to the poor in spirit and flesh.
Here’s how Naaman prepared for the meeting with Elisha: “So Naaman started out, carrying as gifts 750 pounds of silver, 150 pounds of gold, and ten sets of clothing… Naaman went with his horses and chariots and waited at the door of Elisha’s house He came to do honest business with the God of Israel and he reasoned as worshiper of Syria’s god would: Generous gifts of the worshiper (Naaman) buy blessings of forgiveness, cleansing and prosperity, including physical healing. He took an amount of silver, gold and extremely expensive clothing that a priest of Israel’s God would find to be fair price or even a generous reward for services rendered. In this way Naaman approached the God of Israel as a moral man who, proud of his morality, approaches God today. He knows his need for God, but wants to save his pride once this need is met by divinity. He wants to pay the price or give a very generous gift. However, he is not looking to enter into a life-long relationship of dependency and servitude to that divinity whose temporary help he is now seeking.
In the Bible, horses and chariots are usually symbols of power and authority. This is how Naaman comes to Elisha – a posture that will sharply change to one of walking and a desire to humbly serve instead of flaunting his powerful position. When he comes to Elisha he cannot yet acknowledge with the psalmist that “Some nations boast of their chariots and horses, but we boast in the name of the Lord our God.” (Psalm 20:7)
Elisha no doubt heard the noise of chariots from afar. He would have had time to think how he would greet the distinguished guest. When Naaman arrived, Elisha “sent a messenger out to him with this message: ‘Go and wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored, and you will be healed of your leprosy.’” Naturally, this angered Naaman. You see, there were two major problems. One was the humiliation of the important Syrian General by an “Israeli shaman.” Naaman needed to swallow his pride and overlook the insult of not being personally greeted by Elisha. The major problem had to do with a change of worldview that needed to take place in Naaman’s thinking. That change was actually far more problematic than it seems to us today or than it seemed to the servants who accompanied Naaman on this trip to Samaria.
In ancient times, people believed that there were many gods in the world and some were more powerful than others. The belief that each country/state had at least one god of their own who was faithful to them as long as the people of the country did their part of the bargain in worshiping that particularly deity was almost universal. So, Israel had YHWH as their god, while Syria by all accounts worshiped another deity known in the Middle East as Rommon-Haddad.
People living in an agricultural society understood that the two most important things for the prosperity of their country were the quality of the ground and an amount of the water sufficient to ensure that the land actually produced abundant harvest. In the ancient mind, there was an unbreakable connection between the particular god, the particular land, and particular people. We will call this the “holy triangle.” People carried out service to the god of their land, and in return, he, sometimes she, blessed them through the most important channels of blessings he had – rivers. In this way, rivers were not simply ancient conduits through which water came to people, but indeed, in the mind of the ancients, they were nothing less than special channels of covenantal blessings from the particular god to the particular people to make the particular land given to this people prosper.
Have you ever wondered why throughout most of their history the Egyptians did not engage in colonization? The reason is that the Egyptians understood and believed in this holy triangle of God, People and Land. They believed that the Land of Egypt was the Holy Land and that Egyptian gods were blessing this wonderful land through the powerful channel of heavenly blessing called the Nile River. They believed strongly in eternal life, but they believed that that eternal life was intricately connected with the Land of Egypt. Egyptians did not colonize because they could not get Egyptian soldiers to be stationed outside of Egypt for any significant period. No Egyptian wanted to die outside of the Holy Land (Egypt) where he would be forever lost to the life of eternity and blessing. Can you imagine how ridiculous it must have seemed to the Pharaoh that the God of the slaves had called them leave Egypt and go to the Promised Land? Letting-my-people-go required a paradigm shift in the mind of the Egyptian leadership. The change was only achieved by the miracles of monumental proportions that we read in the Exodus story.
Our story, however, is about Naaman. Contrary to our normal understanding of Naaman’s reaction, he understood that he was being asked to do something enormously difficult. Indeed, he was asked to do nothing less than to betray the faith of his fathers. He was being asked to be willing to acknowledge that there was a possibility that Israel’s God could do something the Syrian god was unable to do. Just as Abraham was asked to kill his only son, through whom Abraham’s God promised make a great nation and bless all the nations of the world); Naaman was asked to do something senseless and to his patriotic mind amounted to national, and religious treason. Naaman’s rage now seems far more understandable:
“‘I thought he would certainly come out to meet me!’ he said. ‘I expected him to wave his hand over the leprosy and call on the name of the LORD his God and heal me! Aren’t the rivers of Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than any of the rivers of Israel? Why shouldn’t I wash in them and be healed?’ So Naaman turned and went away in a rage.”
He was willing to receive something from the magical power of Israel’s holy men, but at the same time he was totally unwilling to abandon his great faith in Rommon-Haddad. He no doubt thought that it was this deity who gave him victories and not the covenantal God of Israel. This is the reason he brought bribes. He wanted to enter into a temporary arrangement with the religion of Israel. He wanted to get the product, get the bill, pay it, and move on in life. The problem was that Israel’s God is not a pagan deity. Naaman was unprepared for this reality. Israel’s God does not cut deals and he does not play games, but He absolutely loves to show mercy to people regardless of their ethnic or even religious identity. Naaman learned this once he finally listened to the advice of the nameless, theologically unsophisticated slaves who came with him on this trip to Elisha.
“But his servants tried to reason with him and said, “Sir, if the prophet had told you to do something very difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? So you should certainly obey him when he says simply, ‘Go and wash and be cured!’” So Naaman went down to the Jordan River and dipped himself seven times, as the man of God had instructed him. And his skin became as healthy as the skin of a young child’s, and he was healed!”
Once Naaman experienced the overwhelming power, presence, and mercy of Israel’s God his whole attitude changed. The storyteller makes sure that we notice this. He purposely uses the kind of vocabulary that shows Naaman’s whole-hearted transformation:
“Then Naaman and his entire party went back to find the man of God. They stood before him, and Naaman said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. So please accept a gift from your servant.’”
Three things must be noted in this text. First, the posture of Naaman has changed dramatically. Naaman, instead of riding his chariot, walked and stood before the prophet Elisha. Second, Naaman has changed most important part of his worldview. He now acknowledged the true identity of the God who had been blessing him all his life and watching his back in battle. He now openly declared that the covenantal God of Israel is the only God there is in the entire world! This is a radical statement for a man of his time, living in a polytheistic society. Third, Naaman’s attitude of trading value for value became an attitude of radical service to the One whom he now understood to be his true benefactor. He humbly said to Elisha: “So please accept a gift from your servant.”
Elisha’s response testifies that the same God who inspired Paul and his writings regarding the undeserved nature of God’s ultimate blessings of salvation also inspired the author of the 2 Kings. Long before the times of the reformation, when many believers rediscovered the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone, Elisha tells Naaman that he will not accept his gifts. Even when Naaman urged him, Elisha did not do so. Why? Elisha was a true Israelite who saw every situation in life as an opportunity for spreading the fame of Israel’s God and the discipling of anyone who wanted to learn. He knew that nothing would cement Naaman’s new theological direction more than emphasizing that what he received from Israel’s God was indeed free of charge.
You may recall that in the parable of the Prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32),one of the two children demanded his inheritance long before the father’s passing. This son then leaves his home country and wastes his life and his inheritance while he is far away from his home. We have come to call this parable the parable of the prodigal son. In reality, this is a parable about two prodigal sons, not just one. One left the house, the other did not. In the end, perhaps, ironically, the son who wandered off showed that he knew his father better than the son who never physically left the house. It is the second son, who is the prodigal son par excellence. The first son did not know the father at all.
Later in the story, Elisha’s infamous servant Gehazi acted like the second prodigal son in the parable in Luke. He followed Naaman and lied to him saying that Elisha was now asking Naaman for money to provide hospitality to two prophets who have supposedly just come from the territory of another tribe:
“but my master has sent me to tell you that two young prophets from the hill country of Ephraim have just arrived. He would like 75 pounds of silver and two sets of clothing to give to them.” “By all means, take twice as much* silver,” Naaman insisted.”
The storyteller explains that Elisha took this so seriously that when Gehazi returned, he cursed him with the same curse that plagued Naaman. The curse was enlarged to include Gehazi’s decedents. This reflects an important biblical principle: the more knowledge you have, the more responsible you are:
“But Elisha asked him, ‘Don’t you realize that I was there in spirit when Naaman stepped down from his chariot to meet you? Is this the time to receive money and clothing, olive groves and vineyards, sheep and cattle, and male and female servants? Because you have done this, you and your descendants will suffer from Naaman’s leprosy forever.’ When Gehazi left the room, he was covered with leprosy; his skin was white as snow.”
Gehazi became leprous even though he was in close proximity to God and his word. His actions clearly proved that he really did not belong to the covenant-keeping part of Israel. Paul will much later explain to us that not all Israel is Israel (Rom.9:6). Gehazi certainly fit this category of people who endured the God of Israel’s curse by their actions that hinder the spread of YHWH’s fame among the nations. See the chapter on Covenants later in this book). It is important to see that Israel’s God was not only merciful but also just and that covenant responsibility is indeed something of a very real danger zone.
We now return to the story of Naaman. Once he was cleansed and after he declared his unwavering allegiance to Israel’s God as the only deity governing the entire known world. After Elisha refused to accept Naaman’s gifts, we read something that seems strange or at least seems to argue that Naaman had not been truly converted:
“Then Naaman said, ‘All right, but please allow me to load two of my mules with earth from this place, and I will take it back home with me. From now on I will never again offer burnt offerings or sacrifices to any other god except the LORD. However, may the LORD pardon me in this one thing: When my master the king goes into the temple of the god Rimmon to worship there and leans on my arm, may the LORD pardon me when I bow, too.’”Go in peace,’ Elisha said. So Naaman started home again.”
When compared with the conversion of Ruth, Naaman stands in stark contrast. In a very real way, he prefigures the New Covenant engrafting of the Gentiles into the Tree of Israel’s faith (Rom.11). Ruth’s conversion ends with the words “Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.” (Ruth 1:16) If we can borrow Ruth’s phraseology, it may be possible to summarize Naaman’s thinking as following: Your God will be my God, but my people (Syrians) will still be my people.
If you are primarily reading the New Testament collection, this story seems to fit right in, but for the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament this story is nothing less than revolutionary. Elisha announced that in response to Naaman’s plan to go back to his pagan people and remain in the same position in service to the King of Aram, the God of Israel would place upon this new convert the greatest blessing possible. When we see that Elisha blessed Naaman with the greatest blessing – Peace (Numbers 6:24-26), we are assured that Naaman was not doing something unfaithful here. Remember that Naaman’s name means faithful in Hebrew.
If you are puzzled, you are where you should be. The English version of the Bible does not call our attention to how Naaman changed the formal name of his Syrian god Rommon-Haddad to a Hebrew word that means Pomegranate (Rimmon). In other words, it is likely, that Naaman was not saying to Elisha: “Please, bless me while I compromise my new found faith and bow to my old pagan culture.” Instead, Naaman was saying something entirely different: “Please allow me to load two of my mules with earth from this place, and I will take it back home with me. From now on I will never again offer burnt offerings or sacrifices to any other god except the LORD.”
This recalls the discussion about the holy triangle of God, People and Land and how it functioned in the mind of the ancients. An additional lesson in Jewish history will help us to understand that story better. When in dispersion from their homeland, Jewish people were known not to engage in agricultural work. Jews would work in trade, education, medicine, but the overwhelming majority would not work in the fields or farms. Jackie Mason once said: “A Jew can buy a farm, sell a farm, but not work on the farm!” Throughout history, this fact was interpreted in a mostly anti-Semitic way: Jews don’t like to work hard, they make Gentiles do the hard work. However, if this is the case, why in the modern state of Israel are there so many Jewish farmers? Jews work the ground without any qualms. The issue is not about work, whether hard or easy.
The real answer has to do with whose land the Jews were allowed to work. Many Jewish sages operated from the same ancient worldview paradigm as Naaman’s, the Egyptians and all of the peoples of the Ancient Near East. The Jews were discouraged from working any ground except for the land that was given to them by their God. Working foreign land was spiritually “dangerous”, since the process would no doubt foster a metaphysical connection with a religious identity that was not their own. Now, after the significant influence of religious logic had passed, Jewish people, without knowing the original reasons, simply continued in the traditional ways of choosing professions that stayed away from agriculture. Obviously there were always exceptions to the rule and there is always a danger of a Jewish farmer reading this book somewhere on the planet Earth.
Since you may be wondering why Naaman would need the earth from Israel, then you are on the right track. The same holy triangle of the rabbis was also believed by Naaman. He believed that the God of Israel had given Israel a special land in which the People of Israel would be blessed upon the condition of covenant-keeping life. Therefore, what Naaman asked for was completely consistent with his worldview. He asked for as much dirt as his mules could carry. It’s likely that he regretted not bringing more mules instead of all the silver and gold. He now wished he could take more of Israel’s earth to Aram. Now he was committed to spread Yahweh’s fame and to establish the metaphysical connection between the God of Israel and his own beloved country.
In the New Covenant, Gentiles are not called to become cultural Jews, though some may choose to do so anyway. Gentiles are fully loved and treasured by Israel’s God. Paul writes that this mystery, in which Gentiles would be equal co-heirs without formal conversion to Judaism, was wholly unknown to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. He states:
“When I think of all this, I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus for the benefit of you Gentiles, assuming, by the way, that you know God gave me the special responsibility of extending his grace to you Gentiles.As I briefly wrote earlier, God himself revealed his mysterious plan to me. As you read what I have written, you will understand my insight into this plan regarding Christ. God did not reveal it to previous generations, but now by his Spirit he has revealed it to his holy apostles and prophets. And this is God’s plan: Both Gentiles and Jews who believe the Good News share equally in the riches inherited by God’s children. Both are part of the same body, and both enjoy the promise of blessings because they belong to Christ Jesus.”
The prophets anticipated Gentiles coming to the God of Israel and worshiping Him. However, their equal standing in the Kingdom of God was revealed only through Paul’s and other writings in the New Covenant collection. This upgraded and expanded relationship between the God of Israel and all the nations of the world was not at all clear from a reading of the Hebrew Bible. There was no problem in bringing Gentiles to faith in Israel’s Messiah within the context of the “traditional” Judaism of the times. The difficulty was that Paul did not believe that Gentiles needed to actually become Jews as would have been required by the former covenants. This message was the reason that Paul was persecuted. In Galatians 5:11 he stated the reason for his troubles:
“Dear brothers and sisters, if I were still preaching that you must be circumcised – as some say I do – why am I still being persecuted? If I were no longer preaching salvation through the cross of Christ, no one would be offended.”
But let us get back to Naaman’s story. Earlier, we stated that one of the literary techniques used by ancient authors used was the technique known as inclusio. This device helps us to know when the biblical story begins and ends. In the case of the story of Naaman, the story begins in 2 Kings 5:1-2 continues all through 2 Kings 6:23.
What we read later only confirms that the fears of Israel’s king regarding the intentions of the King of Aram were well founded. Remember the king’s reaction when he received a letter with the request for Naaman’s healing? We read that:
“When the king of Aram was at war with Israel, he would confer with his officers and say, ‘We will mobilize our forces at such and such a place.’ But immediately Elisha, the man of God, would warn the king of Israel, ‘Do not go near that place, for the Arameans are planning to mobilize their troops there.’ Therefore, the king of Israel would send word to the place indicated by the man of God. Time and again Elisha warned the king, so that he would be on the alert there.”
Someone was warning the king of Israel about every move of the king of Aram. Obviously, after a while, the king of Aram began suspecting someone on his senior military team was a spy and given Naaman’s sudden spiritual change after his trip to Israel, the possible candidate for that role was Naaman.
“The king of Aram became very upset over this. He called his officers together and demanded, ‘Which of you is the traitor? Who has been informing the King of Israel of my plans?’ ‘It’s not us, my lord the King,’ one of the officers replied. ‘Elisha, the prophet in Israel, tells the King of Israel even the words you speak in the privacy of your bedroom!’”
The king of Aram then gave orders to have Elisha killed. Once the report was given to the king of Aram that the prophet was in Dothan that was north of Samaria the king took no chance that his plans would be foiled. Instead of sending a few assassins, he sent what appeared to be the larger portion of his army. He realized that Israel had been victorious only because of Elisha’s ability to guide Israel’s military strategists in their evasive movements. We read, “One night the king of Aram sent a great army with many chariots and horses to surround the city.” When Elisha’s servant got up one morning (we don’t know if it was Gehazi or a differ man now at the service of Elisha) and stepped outside of the house he was dumfounded. There were troops, horses and chariots everywhere surrounding their town. When the servant called out to Elisha in fear, Elisha prayed to YHWH. His prayer was not for victory or for salvation. His prayer was for the servant to be able to see what his master saw. Heavenly troops were encamped in far greater number and strength all around the area of Dothan where the men were situated. What followed quickly accelerated the story’s development towards the end:
“As the Aramean army advanced toward him, Elisha prayed, ‘O Lord, please make them blind.’ So the Lord struck them with blindness as Elisha had asked. Then Elisha went out and told them, ‘You have come the wrong way! This isn’t the right city! Follow me, and I will take you to the man you are looking for.’ And he led them to the city of Samaria. As soon as they had entered Samaria, Elisha prayed, ‘O Lord, now open their eyes and let them see.’ So the Lord opened their eyes, and they discovered that they were in the middle of Samaria.”
The more important and less dramatic part of the story does deal with the mechanics of how exactly the Arameans were trapped and moved from Dothan to neighbouring Samaria. The king of Israel could not believe his sudden reversal of situation. He shouted to Elisha:
“‘My father, should I kill them? Should I kill them?’ ‘Of course not!’ Elisha replied. ‘Do we kill prisoners of war? Give them food and drink and send them home again to their master.’ So the king made a great feast for them and then sent them home to their master.”
If you think about this, it is a rather stunning military strategy: Honour the conquered enemies and send them home fed and refreshed without fearing that you will be perceived as weak, thus inviting future military confrontations. This kind of strategy is stunningly similar to what Jesus would say centuries later in the famous talk he gave when, like Moses, he climbed a mountain to say something really important in Mathew 5:3-7: “God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” Both Jesus and Hillel are reported to have said that we are to treat people as we ourselves wish to be treated.
In today’s Palestinian-Israeli conflict both sides of the argument say the same about their opponents: “The other side understands only the language of strength. Palestinians say that only when they engage in military pressure or terrorism do they get any results. The Israeli side generally argues the same way concerning military rule or occupation. In other words, we have a problem of logic here. If both sides are right, and the other side understands only the language of strength, then why does speaking the same language not make any difference?
We are not saying that this story alone if followed will resolve the current Middle Eastern crisis. Current authors are not that naive. However, ignoring its message all together is immoral. In the end, ignoring it will continue to produce same results of war, bloodshed, occupation, terrorism, starvation, fear, humiliation, and a peace-process that ends with the next armed conflict. The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament has much wisdom to offer Jews and Arabs on both sides of the conflict. Indeed, it would be both foolish and immoral to not draw on the rich resource of Biblical wisdom of peace making.
As the king of Israel followed the instructions of Elisha, God’s blessing of peace came to him and his people for many successive years. The prophet’s role was always to call Israel to covenant keeping. This meant that almost everything said by the prophet came from the Israelite Torah (Five Books of Moses). In other words, when Elisha asked the king a rhetorical question: “Do we kill the prisoners of war?” He was calling him to the just ideals of Israel’s Law. Elisha was saying that God of Israel already provided the standards of justice. They are all spelled out in the Torah. As a result, we see the story that began with the kidnapping of young Israeli woman by Syrian paramilitary groups, continued with her subsequent forgiveness of the offending party, and ends with a stunning statement: “After that, the Aramean raiders stayed away from the land of Israel.”
 The council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15 was made up of overwhelmingly if not exclusively Jewish followers in Jesus and dealt with a very important issue for that time. The issue was: What to do with the Gentiles? No one had expected such an enormous success of the Jewish Gospel among Gentiles. The questions were raised: Should we require Gentile Christians to observe kashrut as we do, circumcise male boys as we do, and keep other signs of Jewish identity as we do? After a long and spirited (these were Jewish people after all!) discussion the consensus finally emerged. Peter told them that he even saw Gentiles show signs (Acts 10) that they were indeed filled the same Spirit as the Jewish followers of Jesus were (Acts 2). The council’s decision was to write a pastoral letter that would express that, as in other branches of ancient Judaism, Gentiles who follow Jewish law were free from all the Israel land-related requirements of Torah, so were those Gentiles who follow the Jesus, the Jewish Messiah. What they were required to observe was obedience to the Ten Commandments and refraining from some eating meat not drained of its blood).
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© By Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Ph.D.
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