|Though our theologies seek to grasp at God and limit him, we know him only partly, for he remains mysterious, unpredictable, unknowable and “untame.”|
Reverend Michael King is pastor of the Germantown Mennonite Church and resides in Philadelphia. He is also a freelance writer who has published over twenty articles in a variety of religious magazines.
WE like a tame God, a God we can easily and comfortably believe in, worship and explain. We like a God we can hold warmly to our bosoms when we feel the need, a teddy bear of a God who can be cuddled when the night at bedtime seems too dark (and there are times, certainly, when God tenderly fills just that longing), but who can be, most of the rest of the time, properly ignored. We like a predictable God, a God who will act like we think he should act.
But is he like that, or is he a God who, just when we think we have squeezed him, like a genie, into a bottle from which he will emerge only upon our command, lets out a great roar and shatters the bottle into sharp shreds? That’s the question that twists in my mind as I encounter the strange and unsettling story of a mighty soldier called Naaman contained in II Kings 5:1-19.
Just as soon as the story begins, the strangeness begins. Naaman commands the army of the King of Aram (Aram being in that portion of territory north of Israel which today we call Syria), and he is considered a corking good general, a Patton-Eisenhower-McArthur of a general, because he has proved victorious in battle against, among others, the people of Israel. Why has he won? Because the Lord God of Israel, the God one would think should be siding with his poor and oppressed chosen people, that being the theological bottle he belongs in, has given him the victory. Ah, but maybe the bottle can be glued back together, we think, as the story moves on and mighty proud Naaman falls victim to dreaded leprosy. Thus are the mighty brought low! Naaman’s disease has not barred him from social interaction, which suggests he has a mild form of leprosy, but he is still doomed to a life of embarrassing and disfiguring affliction.
Yet the story now takes another odd twist. A young Israelite girl captured by Naaman’s army serves Naaman’s wife, and she bursts out to her mistress with tender concern for this man ultimately responsible for her captivity, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” Naaman and his wife have most likely just taken in a weekend of marriage enrichment, because his wife apparently communicates this word quite reliably and accurately to Naaman, and he then shares the information with his king.
The king needs his general, the capable commander of his battles with Israel; he’ll stand by his man. If healing is to be found in Israel, why then, he tells Naaman, “By all means, go.” Yes, go, go to the people you have conquered, and get them to help you. He sends with Naaman a letter requesting that the king of Israel cure Naaman’s leprosy, along with a great gift of silver and gold and rich clothing, not to mention a SONY VCR and a pile of movie cassettes. The king of Aram doesn’t really know what he’s doing; he knows nothing about the God of Israel and the means he may use to bring healing to Naaman. He simply assumes that in Israel, as in Aram, kings control the magical power needed to cure someone. So he does the right thing but for all the wrong reasons.
When the king of Israel receives the letter, he thoroughly misinterprets the whole affair and goes nuts. An enemy ruler requesting he cure the leprosy of an enemy soldier? A trick, a devious, dastardly trick it must be! He knows enough about God to know that merely being a king doesn’t give him control of divine power, but that, he assumes, is an irrelevant issue. Healing Naaman isn’t the point at all. What the king of Aram is really trying to do is to provoke a fight so he can justify some further aggression against Israel. Nevertheless, inept though he is, the king of Israel unwittingly furthers Naaman’s cause, as he moans and groans and tears his robes dramatically enough that the word at last gets out to Elisha, the man who holds the key to God’s intervention in Naaman’s life.
Elisha sends word to Naaman suggesting Naaman’s appearance at his house, and Naaman responds as any proper general would, showing up with horses and chariots and jeeps, and a few helicopters hovering overhead to ensure security. The prophet, surely, will drop whatever he is doing, probably checking out the most recent New York Times analysis of animosity between Aram and Israel, and respectfully rush out and heal him.
But no. Not at all. Elisha just stays in his easy chair and sends a messenger out to say, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” Naaman goes off in a huff, probably after motioning his helicopters to settle over Elisha’s house and roar in his ears for a while. In the first place, Naaman grumbles, one would have thought all that was needed for the healing was for Elisha to call on God and wave his hand like a wand over the leprosy. Even if one let him get away with ordering instead a seven-fold dip in a river, the least he could have done was to suggest it be carried out in one of the clear, clean, lovely rivers of Damascus, rather than the sluggish muddy waters of the Jordan!
GOD’S WAY OF HEALING
Naaman wants divine healing, but God and his prophet are proving too wild for him. All Naaman wants is a proper healing ceremony, one with a touch of grace and class as befits his stature, and all he is getting is a remarkably irritating and demeaning run around from a God who refuses to be tamed to his expectations. Then, once again from unexpected quarters, from Naaman’s lowly servants, comes the suggestion that he certainly would have tried some great and heroic healing process commanded by Elisha, so what harm could it do to simply get wet in a river, even if muddy? Why not try it, at least?
“So Naaman went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy,” says the text. God has been wild and unpredictable and elusive, but God has come through as Naaman has allowed the bottle of the preconceptions within which he has tried to tame the divine to be broken. A motley assortment of people have participated. Kings, slave girls, servants, and prophets, mostly in ignorance, making their own free and unpredictable moves each step of the way, have been woven by God into the web of events leading to Naaman’s healing. And Naaman, reluctantly, doubtfully, not understanding, has nevertheless obeyed the words of the Lord as spoken through his prophet.
Now Naaman, his flesh healed and his spirit chastened and mellowed, returns to Elisha to declare that he now knows the only God in all the world is Israel’s God. This is a powerful and striking affirmation of monotheism, coming as it does from a man whose beliefs have been shaped in a culture characterized by the worship of a variety of local gods.
One would at this point expect a stirring repudiation from the happy new convert of all his former pagan and idolatrous ways, particularly since this story is part of the book of Kings, which makes over and over again the point that the God of Israel is a jealous God who demands that Israel worship him with total purity and exorcise all traces of evil foreign influence. But Naaman doesn’t do that. Instead, he demonstrates his cultural conditioning, which predisposes him to see gods as tied to particular areas of land, so that even as he exalts the God of Israel as the God of all earth, he still wants to cart two tons of Israelite soil, to which he apparently thinks God is specially bound, back to Aram as an aid to his proper worship of God.
Not only does he want to muddy the purity of his new worship of God in this way, however. Even more strikingly, he asks Elisha:
May the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: when my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I bow there also-when I bow in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.
Naaman is asking that the prophet recognize the realities he will face back in Aram, where, as the highly regarded and trusted general of the king he will be expected to show respect while the king worships Rimmon, the storm god of Damascus and the equivalent of the Caananite god, Baal.
Surely Elisha will now curse and storm and call down thunder and lightning on Naaman’s wretched wishy-washy cowardly head! If Naaman’s not going to go all the way with God, he can forget the whole thing. The purity of Israelite worship must be maintained! In addition to calling down judgment on Naaman for these corrupt worship practices, surely Elisha will demand that Naaman end the powerful, violent military career from within which he has fought the battles against the Israel where he has found healing and God. Surely, surely, Elisha will now tie up these disturbing lose ends.
What does Elisha in fact do? He says to Naaman, “Go in peace.” “Go in peace,” says the prophet of the Lord to this man torn between the ideals of his new faith and the realities of his old life. Now just because “Go in peace” are the key words in this situation, we need not see them as blasting apart the Bible’s view of Israelites as God’s chosen people, its calls for undivided worship of the one true God, and its pleading for peace, for justice, for the undoing of the proud and mighty. But such unexpected words should threaten our efforts to make of such concerns idols through which we can claim to have captured God and truth. “Go in peace,” says the prophet to the people we so quickly judge and dismiss when we make idols of our limited understandings.
“Go in peace.” The words swirl in the air surrounding Naaman and surrounding us, telling us our God is not a tame God. We can grasp at him through our theologies of peace, hope, liberation, grace, or personal salvation through Christ. But always we know him only in part, always he rises fiercely and wildly above us just when we think we have pinned him down. He is not a butterfly to be chased and stuck to a board and admired. He is, finally, as we see in Jesus, a God of joy and love, but he is a God also whose ways remain partly mysterious and unknowable, and before whom we do well to bow with fear and trembling as he touches and moves our lives in ways our bottles of theology and doctrine are too small and fragile to contain.