I want to start with a moment of recognition for the people in today’s scripture who are not given the dignity of a name. Thank you, Holy One, for the young Israeli girl, for the wife of Naaman, for the messenger who relayed Elisha’s instructions, and for those servants who encouraged Naaman to wash in the River Jordan despite his vehement protests.
There are, of course, named characters in this story, also: Naaman, commander of the Aramean army; the King of Aram; the King of Israel; and Elisha, the man of God, the prophet, the protégé of Elijah. All four are powerful men.
I want to examine this story closely, both in what it says with the words of the text AND in what teaches us by what it fails to name explicitly.
By way of context, Aramea and Israel had a long history of land disputes. At the time of our story, there wasn’t an official war between the two lands, but there were many border skirmishes happening, and this is when we meet the young Israeli girl who had been taken captive during a raid by the Aramean army. She was then expected to serve Naaman’s wife, and in her proximity, she learned that Naaman was suffering from leprosy. Her response upon this recognition was to tell Naaman’s wife that she knew someone who could heal him. Specifically, she says, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
I don’t know what to make of this girl, or of this line. She is a child who has been kidnapped as a prop of war. She has been pressed into servitude by her captors. She notices Naaman’s leprosy, and our text suggests – replete with an exclamation mark – that she wishes to help him gain access to healing. What are we to make of this? Is this an admirable example of selflessness? Is it a strategic move on the part of the young girl, a ploy to get herself back to her home country? Or could these be the words of an unreliable narrator who seeks to diminish the violence of the situation by painting the young girl as a willing supplicant?
Regardless of her motivations, regardless of if someone falsely imprinted loyalty where it did not reside, this young girl is the keeper of important information. She knows that Elisha can heal Naaman, she tells Naaman’s wife, Naaman tells the King, and the King sends him to Israel in pursuit of a cure. Naaman balks at what Elisha’s messenger instructs him to do, but – with the cajoling of other unnamed servants – he does, eventually, wash in the River Jordan seven times, and he does, indeed, come up healed of his leprosy.
The young girl is cited as the person who first knew that Elisha could heal Naaman, but she is never named, only identified in relation to those who have power over her. She is portrayed as having concern for the well-being of the one who oppresses her. And when Naaman is healed, there is no mention of gratitude for, nor even plain acknowledgment of, her role in facilitating this miracle. The text uses just about every tool at its disposal to obscure her relevance to the miracle of his healing.
I think that’s really important. I think it’s a key feature of oppressive power structures to simultaneously depend upon and disregard the labor of others. There are myriad ways to disregard labor while also depending upon it:
Call the labor “unskilled” in the same breath that you deem it “essential.” These laborers are the ones with hustle, the ones who have multiple jobs, each demanding them for nearly, but never more than, 32 hours per week.
Refer to the labor as a gift, a talent, or a passion. Think of whoever it is in your family that likes to cook, loves kids, is good with computers, has such fun tinkering with cars.
Identify an entire demographic as uniquely suited for a particular kind of work. Ascribe it to their nature. Think women and emotional labor.
Emphasize the physical nature of the labor at the exclusion of recognizing any sophisticated knowledge to inform or facilitate the work. Did you know that rice is grown in the United States? Michael W. Twitty, an African-American Jewish writer, culinary historian, and educator, writes: “The journey of rice to the US is the journey of the people whose labour and knowledge led to its successful cultivation. Between 1750 and 1775, the bulk of more than 50,000 enslaved Africans were kidnapped from the aptly named Rice Coast, the traditional rice-growing region between Guinea and Guinea-Bissau and the western Ivory Coast […]. Because rice was not indigenous to the Americas and plantation owners had no knowledge of how to grow it, enslaved Africans were brought to fuel its husbandry […]. , In the antebellum South, if cotton was the king of commodities, then rice was the queen. And the queen brought incomparable economic power, transforming Charleston, and later Savannah, into thriving cosmopolitan ports. The women who brought this know-how were precious cargo. In their heads rested more than four millennia of experience, from the days of rice being gathered wild to its domestication around 3,000 years ago.”
The cultivation of rice in the antebellum South would have been impossible if not for complex systems of dykes and dams, and deep horticultural knowledge – if not for the knowledge, technology, and labor of enslaved Africans.
I move beyond our scripture reading and into environmental history because I am a little bit haunted by the young girl who purportedly wants nothing more than her captor to be free of his skin conditions. I move beyond our scripture reading and into the history of enslavement, and capitalism, and agriculture because it is important for us to recognize how violence is obscured with the omission of a name, how violence is obscured when we make someone else’s knowledge a quick aside.
This text isn’t about leprosy. It’s about how stories get told and what gets obscured when certain people tell them, what gets diminished, what gets set aside as irrelevant.
This text isn’t about leprosy. It’s about the nature of change.
Naaman has leprosy. Biblically, “leprosy” refers not to Hansen’s disease, but, rather, it’s a catch-all term for any number of skin conditions of varying severity. Biblical society feared lepers, yes, for reasons of physical contagion, but also because of a cultural value on purity and a perceived connection between spiritual and bodily cleanliness. Lepers were understood to be impure and unclean. It was widely perceived that lepers were the living dead, and that healing leprosy was a task equivalent to raising someone from the grave. Those who had leprosy were excluded from the community and made to warn others of their presence. Leprosy was a big deal.
Through the grapevine of his household, Naaman understands that there is a prophet in Samaria, in Israel, who can heal him of his socially debilitating condition. The King of Aram supports Naaman’s quest and sends him with a letter to the King of Israel. The letter reads, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of leprosy.”
Sometimes in the Bible, we suspend logic and make room for loaves and fishes and arks and archangels. This is not one of those moments. This is an outrageous letter. At the time of our story, Aramea and Israel are not in an active conflict, but they have a long history of one, and smaller, unofficial fights along the border continue to happen. It is within this context of a tentative truce that the King of Aram sends a letter to the King of Israel and asks him to cure Naaman, that is, the head of the opposing army, of leprosy, that is, a disease feared so extensively that the mandate of lepers was to stay away from other people. But instead, one opposing king presented another opposing king with a leper and a mandate to heal him, a task on par with raising someone from the dead.
It’s no wonder that the King of Israel tore his clothes! He was certain that he was being provoked into another conflict by being given an absurd command at which he was bound to fail. Interestingly, Naaman did not follow the instructions of the young Israeli girl. He did not seek out the prophet of Samaria. Instead, he went to the King of Israel, who had no idea what he was talking about but felt deeply threatened by his presence.
This is when we meet Elisha, the prophet that the young Israeli girl referred to. Elisha tells the King of Israel to send Naaman to him, and the King does, and Naaman packs up his “horses and chariots,” and then something funny happens. Elisha doesn’t receive him. The young girl has said that Elisha can heal Naaman. Elisha has told the King of Israel that he can cure Naaman. And then Naaman shows up at Elisha’s gate with his ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, ten sets of garments, his horses, his chariots, and…Elisha sends a messenger to relay his instructions. The unnamed messenger tells Naaman, “Go wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh will be restored and you shall be clean.”
Let’s rewind; why has Naaman rolled up with hoards of gold and silver and clothing and horses? Is it meant as a gift of gratitude for the healing which he anticipates? I would suggest that it is nothing of the sort. I would suggest that the piles of riches are a way of maintaining control, laying the foundation to take credit for the healing that he hopes to receive.
Earlier we reviewed various ways to disregard labor while also depending upon it. I humbly submit that Naaman is introducing us to one more: Make it a transaction, and the labor becomes an expectation, rendering gratitude gratuitous. You owe them no recognition for their labor because compensation neutralizes the whole interaction.
Naaman didn’t write up a contract with Elisha, but he came prepared to maintain authority in the situation by bringing with him an enormous amount of wealth to be shared upon his healing. We are vulnerable when we need help. Naaman is trying to diminish his vulnerability by making a huge display of power and status. If he can “pay his debts,” or far surpass the market price of being raised from the dead, then he can move the balance of power back into his court. It’s less of a miracle and more of something that he made possible.
Elisha sees right through it, and he’s not having any of it. This healing, in the words of Elisha, is to happen so that Naaman “may learn that there is a prophet in Israel” – it must be clear that the healing is God’s doing, not Naaman’s. As such Elisha sends a messenger out to relay simple instructions: wash in the Jordan seven times, and you will know healing. But that’s not what Naaman does. Upon hearing these directions Naaman “turned and went away in a rage.”
Naaman doesn’t even try the simple cure. He is living with a condition that makes him an outcast. He has received special dispensation from the King to approach what is often enemy territory to seek healing. He is given straightforward instructions, and he refuses to consider them. “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of 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?’” I find his response quite telling. Naaman is being offered a miracle, and he refuses it for want of a showy miracle. It is not return to society that he seeks. It is a return to social standing at the top of the pile that he desires.
Seeing that he was ready to leave, Naaman’s servants approached him saying, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to have done something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more when all he said was, ‘Wash, and be clean?’” Naaman chooses to listen to them, in the way that people with power sometimes choose to follow a whim. He “immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God,” and “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.”
Some problems are overbearingly complex. But I wonder how often we discount the cumulative impact of small offerings because it seems impossible that one small [fill in the blank] could possibly matter. And we’re right. One cloth bag doesn’t solve the climate crisis. One ballot doesn’t repair the mess that is our country. One day off doesn’t revive a deeply weary soul. But Naaman didn’t dip into the River Jordan one time. Naaman washed seven times, and in the Bible, seven carries significance of eternity, of completeness, of fullness. I wonder if social movements are slow-motion miracles. I wonder if big change happens because of choices that we make, and make again, and make again.
I do not mean to be unduly simplistic. But washing in the River Jordan cured a man of his leprosy.
The young Israeli girl instructed that Naaman could find healing with Elisha. Instead, Naaman went to the King.
Elisha told a messenger to tell Naaman to wash in the Jordan seven times. Instead, Naaman shouted and began to turn his mobile display of wealth toward home, toward that which was familiar to him, toward that where he could maintain his supremacy and control.
The unnamed servants pointed out that if he was willing to do something onerous or dangerous or expensive, Naaman might as well not discount the possibility of something small and simple and easy.
This text isn’t about leprosy. This text is about privileging the knowledge of people whose names we do not know and whose instructions we do not want.
In this story Naaman finds healing because of the insight and the persistence of those whom our narrator deems so trivial that he doesn’t even give them names. I wonder where in our lives – personally, professionally, collectively – we are ignoring the simple requests and instructions of people who have been denied full access to power. I wonder what public safety would feel like if we listened to the voices of Black communities. I wonder what reproductive care and abortion access would be like if we listened to the voices of women, and non-binary people, and trans-folks who have uteruses. I wonder how our workload would shift if we believed support staff when they told us that they were at capacity and couldn’t do anymore. I wonder how our curriculums could respond if we listened to neurodivergent students when they told us what it was like inside their minds. I wonder what it would be like to navigate landscapes if we listened to the concerns of disabled people, chronically fatigued people, old people, caregivers ambling through the world with children.
I wonder what might be possible if we listened, if we tried, if we washed – again, and again, and again – not in the Abana and Pharpar, but, for reasons beyond our understanding – in the River Jordan. Amen.