Lepers and Leaners


Well, it happened again.

This morning I was amazed at the subtlety and ingenuity of the Old Testament text as the Spirit uses the irony of two events to underscore the purpose of the Samuel-Kings narrative: to show Israel and Judah that they had failed JHWH and, based on His warnings in the later chapters of Deuteronomy,  deserved exactly what they got.

The two events are the healing of Naaman in 2 Kings 5 and the flight of the Syrian army from Samaria in 2 Kings 7. In the first case, Naaman is a pagan enemy general who, despite his impressive credentials, is a leper. God works in his heart to humble him and prompt him to obey His word, communicated through Elisha. He comes out of the murky Jordan river with skin “like the flesh of a little child” and immediately acknowledges that “there is no God in all the earth but in Israel.” This is exactly what God wants His own people to recognize, but they do not.

Foreseeing a clash of faith upon his return to Damascus, Naaman says to Elisha: “…when my master [the king of Syria] goes into the house of Rimmon [a Syrian god] to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the LORD pardon your servant in this matter.”  Naaman is concerned that when he goes home and does his work as the king’s bodyguard and escort, he will be misunderstood as having lapsed into idolatry.

Elisha refuses the lavish gift Naaman offers him, and Naaman departs, leprosy-free, for Syria. Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, is overcome with greed and pursues Naaman. Lying to him about a bogus need for resources, he relieves Naaman of some of his wealth, thinking to himself, “I will run after him and get something from him.” (2 Kings 5.20, ESV) And get something he does–Naaman’s leprosy! He and his progeny are cursed by God for his greed and deceit.

In 2 Kings 7, the scene shifts to the outskirts of Samaria, Israel’s capital, which has been besieged by a massive Syrian army. The siege is so severe that the Hebrews are buying donkey heads and dove’s dung for outrageous sums just to survive, and some are eating their own children. Through Elisha, God promises that within 24 hours, fine wheat flour and barley will be sold in Samaria at bargain prices. Here’s what verse 2 says: “Then the captain on whose hand the king leaned said to the man of God, ‘If the LORD should make windows in heaven, could this thing be?’ ” Elisha tells him he will see this prophecy fulfilled, but will not eat a bite of the food God will provide.

At twilight, four lepers–are you catching the irony here?–discover the Syrian army has fled because of God’s miraculous intervention. After gorging themselves on food left in the enemy tents and engaging in a little light-hearted looting, they are smitten by guilt and decide to tell the king and the people of Samaria that the Syrians were nowhere to be found. The king suspects a plot (as Israel’s king had done in the Naaman incident), but it is soon confirmed that the Syrians have fled, leaving a wide swath of abandoned garments and equipment in their wake. The people of Samaria are so frantic to get food they rush the city gate, and the captain on whose hand the king leaned, having been placed at the gate to control the crowd, is trampled to death!

Herein lies the irony: a pagan leper is healed because of his faith and becomes devoted to the God of Israel. His king leans on his arm for support, and Naaman asks to be excused when he does so in the temple of Syria’s false god. Gehazi, a servant of God’s prophet and one who should have known better, becomes a leper because of his greed. Then four lepers bring the good news of salvation to the people of Samaria and  Naaman’s Hebrew counterpart, on whose arm the king of Israel leaned, is struck down for his unbelief!

These accounts demonstrate, among other things, that Israel was not what God expected them to be.

The question I have to ask myself is, “Am I what He expects me to be?”

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2 thoughts on “Lepers and Leaners”

    1. Yes, and there’s so much of this that one misses if one isn’t reading carefully. I really enjoyed Robert Alter’s THE ART OF BIBLICAL NARRATIVE, as it helped me to be more vigilant even in the English text. It’s a pity so many people find the Old Testament dull–it’s anything but!

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