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“If only”, a creative reflection

“If only”, a creative reflection


Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favour with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’ So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, ‘Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.’

2 Kings 5.1-5a
(NRSV; Hebrew interlinear)


Creative reflection

A historical sweep

It is the middle of the ninth century BC, about 80 years after Israel split into the northern and southern kingdoms. In the south is Judah and the old capital Jerusalem. In the north is Israel, also known as Samaria after its capital. Sometimes the kingdoms are at odds with each other, sometimes they co-operate. Always there is strife with other peoples, and with the kingdoms and empires rising and falling beyond their borders.

In the north, Israel has quickly fallen into religious syncretism, worshipping one god while not ruling out the possible existence of others. Jeroboam its first king severed connections with the Temple in Jerusalem and set up golden calves to worship in Bethel and Dan.

At the time of our story, Jehoram, also known as Joram, is the king of Israel in Samaria. The practice of worshipping idols continues, but Joram has at least ceased the worship of Baal set up by his father and mother Ahab and Jezebel (2 Kings 3.1-3).

Meanwhile, God raised up a number of prophets against the worship of idols, culminating in Elijah in the reign of Ahab. Shortly after Ahab’s death, Elijah handed his mantle on to Elisha his follower, and was taken up into heaven. Now in the time of Joram, Elisha is the chief prophet: man of God, miracle-worker, intervener in state matters, and harsh critic of the king (see 2 Kings 3.10-14).

Politically, Joram has just collaborated with the kings of Judah and Edom and Elisha, reluctantly, to crush Moab (2 Kings 3.4-27). The state of Aram-Damascus to the north-east is Joram’s main problem. His father Ahab was killed in a futile battle with the Arameans (1 Kings 22.1-38), and they are continuing to raid in Israel (2 Kings 5.2) despite having their own problems with the Neo-Assyrian Empire on their northern borders.

It is in Aram-Damascus where our story starts. The Arameans have retained much of the power structure and religion of their origins in Mesopotamia, so Aram is an absolute monarchy, characterised by religious pluralism, multiculturalism and patriarchy. It engages in military action to defend and extend its territory, as well as to maintain control of trade routes and supply slaves and goods for trade. The king of Aram-Damascus is currently Hadadezer, named for Hadad,1 one of the many Mesopotamian gods and possibly the Baal of Ahab and Jezebel.

Whose story?

But although Joram the king of Israel and Hadadezer the king of Aram appear in this story, neither are named. Star billing goes to Naaman, “commander of the army of the king of Aram”. Naaman is “a great man and in high favour”. Even the Lord had favoured him, and “by him… had given victory to Aram” (5.1). He is the highest ranking person that is named in the story, and his name appears at the very top.

Yet for all Naaman’s secular greatness, and for all that it appears that God was already working in him, he is not the initiator of the story. In the economy of God, everything is started by a simple “if only” by a young girl. Because Naaman, though a “mighty warrior”, has leprosy and is utterly powerless in the face of his disease. This is a story about a different sort of greatness.

The young girl is not named. This is not her story. But she does still get a back story – everyone has a story – and hers is a difficult one. She was taken captive in one of the Arameans’ raids into Israel and now serves Naaman’s wife.

What might her situation be? Is Naaman’s wife kind? Are any of her fellow servants also from her homeland? There may be sufficient intermingling between Aram and Israel that there is some language and culture in common. There was religious pluralism – later in verse 18 we see that Naaman is more worried about the repercussions from the God of Israel for worshipping Rimmon than from the Arameans for worshipping the God of Israel – so her religion is probably tolerated. But still she might not have the opportunity to practise it. She is at the bottom of the pile with few prospects: a captive, a foreigner, a child, female, at best a servant, and more likely a slave. It’s not looking good.

Hidden sources of true power

Yet even in her dire situation, she has power. I count at least twelve sources:

  1. Compassion for her enemies – She wishes healing for her captor and owner, the enemy of her people, the one responsible for separating her from her family and friends and possibly also for their deaths.
  2. Imagination – With her “If only” she conjures up an alternative reality.
  3. Attentiveness – She is alert to opportunity and has a listening ear to pick up…
  4. Knowledge – She knows of the prophet, roughly where he lives, and what he can do. She is still young, so can’t have been in Aram very long, and her knowledge is fairly recent. She is confident that he is still alive and active. But she does not know Elisha’s name and refers to him as “the prophet who is in Samaria.”
  5. Access, opportunity, and a voice – She has a means to effect change: Naaman’s wife is a channel of communication, albeit indirect.
  6. Inner freedom – She is able to use and express her imagination and voice. She is free to imagine aloud, and free from thinking through all the “What ifs” that so often stifle risk-taking: “What if Elisha refuses to see Naaman or can’t heal him? What revenge would Naaman take on Elisha, my people, or me?”
  7. Faith – She has faith that Elisha has power from God, that through God he can cure Naaman, that he will be willing to cure Naaman.
  8. Understanding – She instinctively understands that human participation is needed in healing, involving some action and effort. She assumes that Naaman would need to make the journey to be “with the prophet”.
  9. Courage – She herself makes a small effort and takes a small action. If she has accepted her position at the bottom of the pile and seeming powerlessness, she will know that she has little to lose, but speaking up to her mistress still means risking that little. She could have just gossiped with her fellow slaves.
  10. Diplomacy – Even if she has not accepted her position and her subjugation to “my lord”, using the proper address smooths the way for what she says.
  11. Equal regard – On the other hand, she is no respecter of persons. She does not just muse aloud, but directs her speech to her mistress and expects to be heard. Her words “with the prophet” also imply that Naaman will be on the same level as Elisha when they meet. He will not be summoning Elisha imperiously to Aram, nor crawling on his hands and knees in supplication.
  12. Childlike innocence – This is the superpower that underpins many of her other powers. Her heavenly Lord (Yah·weh in the Hebrew) is still with her in her situation with her earthly lord and his lord (’ă·ḏō·nî).

It turns out that Naaman’s wife, Naaman, and even the king of Aram also have a superpower: they listen.

Listening and action

There is a gap in the story between verses 3 and 4. Naaman’s wife is given neither name nor agency. We are not told that she listens to her young foreign slave and trusts her enough that she relays her words to Naaman. Nor are we told that Naaman listens to his wife and trusts both her and her slave girl enough to inform the king. We have to assume all this. But we are told that Naaman tells his lord the king “just what the girl from the land of Israel had said”, and the king listens to Naaman and trusts the message enough to send his valued general into the hands of a foreign power and risk a diplomatic incident.

Perhaps Naaman is desperate after many years of trying to find a cure. Perhaps having a skin disease compromises his ability to lead his troops, so the king is about to strip him of his command despite his previous success. Perhaps Naaman also has nothing to lose from this attempt.

Nevertheless, both Naaman and the king need sufficient humility to commit a substantial amount of effort, finance and manpower to this unlikely solution based on the word of a foreign slave girl.

False power

At this point, however, bad communication, false assumptions and misunderstandings nearly cause everything to break down.

Remember that the girl does not give Elisha’s name. She does call him the prophet (the prefix han in han·nā·ḇî), but no-one seems to ask her or themselves what that means. Besides, when she says the prophet is in Samaria, she could mean the country or its capital.

Hadadezer the king of Aram simply assumes that any prophet would be in the capital in the service of Joram the king of Israel, and writes to the king: “I have sent to you my servant Naaman“ (5.6). It is not necessarily a bad assumption. The kings of Israel and Judah usually had an entourage of prophets. Joram’s parents Ahab and Jezebel had many devoted to Baal. But Joram himself seems to have none (see 3.11-13). At this time, we know only of a company of prophets gathered around Elisha (4.1,38).

Nevertheless, it is clear that Hadadezer and Naaman are still thinking in terms of worldly and royal power. Naaman takes with him a king’s ransom of treasure as an offering (verse 5b). Hadadezer writes in his letter to Joram: “I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him” (verse 6; my emphasis). He either sees the power to heal residing in his fellow king or (which amounts to the same thing) he sees the prophet as a creature of the king instead of an independent agent or a man of God.

Joram responds in terms of worldly and royal power, too, accepting the premise of Hadadezer’s assumption: “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?” and assumes that it is a ruse to start a quarrel (verse 7).

Thank goodness for servants! Because somehow Elisha finds out about Hadadezer’s request and Joram’s response. During the campaign against Moab, it was one of Joram’s servants who knew of Elisha and his whereabouts (2 Kings 3.11), so I too will make an assumption: that it is again one of Joram’s servants who gets word to Elisha. Elisha responds by telling Joram to let Naaman come to him (verse 8).

True power – reprise

Here we find out where true power lies: not in the worldly king, but in God’s and God’s prophet Elisha. Naaman may have listened well enough to the girl’s information about the prophet in Samaria. Now Elisha wants him to learn what it means that there is a prophet in Israel.

So when Naaman goes in state “with his horses and chariots” to Elisha, Elisha does not follow the elaborate ritual laid down in the book of Leviticus for the cleansing of a person with leprosy. He does not even receive Naaman. He simply sends a messenger with instructions to go and wash in the Jordan. Elisha is somewhat less worried about diplomatic incidents than his king! Naaman’s display of worldly power means nothing to him.

Unsurprisingly, at this stage Naaman hasn’t yet learned the meaning of true power. He still expects respect (“I thought that for me he would…”) and an elaborate public miracle (verse 11), and so he has a tantrum and storms off (verse 12).

It is up to servants to save the day again, coupled with Naaman’s true power that hasn’t quite deserted him. When his servants dare to approach and challenge him, he listens to them.

Instead of an elaborate public ceremony, then, Naaman gets a simple private miracle. It works of course, and he is healed in his flesh. But more than that. As his flesh is restored like that of a young boy na·‘ar qā·ṭōn (verse 14), so also Naaman’s attitude becomes like that of the young girl na·‘ă·rāh qə·ṭan·nāh. He is now clean inside as well as out. He repents, and he returns to the man of God.

Restored, returned…

It’s the same word in the Hebrew. His flesh is restored (way·yā·šāḇ) and so he returns (way·yā·šāḇ). His servants and chariots accompany him back to Elisha. They have been with him on his whole journey from Aram to Samaria to Elisha to the Jordan. They were witnesses of his earlier treatment by Elisha and of his tantrum, grudging immersion in the Jordan and healing. Now they are witnesses of his inner transformation also.

This time Elisha meets with him. Naaman stands before the prophet, confesses that the God of Israel is the only God, and humbly acknowledges himself as Elisha’s servant (verse 15). In his very human mix of great man, full of pride and quick to sometimes childish anger, and willingness to listen to his underlings, it is the power of humility and childlikeness that wins out.

…but not the finished article

There is still work to be done. Naaman still sees the miracle he received as a transaction, requiring a gift to be made in exchange. But Elisha will have none of his worldly treasure, calling on the living God as a witness. So Naaman pivots, and asks for the wherewithal to make offerings instead to God: “let two mule-loads of earth be given to your servant; for your servant will no longer offer burnt-offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord.” (verse 17).

Naaman already understands that images and idols are forbidden to worshippers of the God of Israel (Exodus 20.2-5a). But he is used to bowing down to images representing the gods of Aram, and needs a physical symbol in his worship. The two loads of earth will enable him to stand on the land of Israel as he worships the God of Israel and ground himself in his new faith.

By taking this earth back home, this ’ă·ḏā·māh that is the stuff out of which God formed Adam and Eve (Genesis 2.7), Naaman is also furnishing himself with a tangible reminder of God’s creative and healing power and affirming his new physical and spiritual beginning, as a new Adam.

But Naaman is also very aware that he may have to compromise on the physical expression of his new faith. He will continue to have duties and obligations that may require him to bow down in the house of Rimmon to the gods of his king. So he asks a dispensation from Elisha for this exception to his acknowledgement of the God of Israel.

Elisha simply replies “Go in peace” (verse 19). Be at ease. God recognises the desires of your heart, grants your request, and you will remain in covenant relationship with God and with me. Let wholeness and blessing accompany you. Be a man of peace. Refrain from anger, seek peace, and pursue it in your dealings with all whom you meet.

Imagining the return home

At this point, the paths of Naaman and 2 Kings 5 diverge.

The Old Testament is after all the story of God’s relationship with the people of Israel, collected and edited by the people of Israel, and the frame of reference for the story is Elisha’s homeland. We only hear of Naaman at all because he interacted with Elisha, and we only know of the beginning of the story in Aram because it arrived in Israel with Naaman. Perhaps it was Naaman’s servants who told their hosts about the maidservant from Israel, and the storyteller decided to honour her part in the story.

As scripture remain with Elisha, we now have the story of his servant Gehazi, which goes to show that servants are imperfect too and get it wrong with consequences! But unfortunately there is no way of keeping in touch with the doings of Naaman and his household. Instead here are the bare bones of the end of the story in Aram as sourced from my imagination.

I imagine that Naaman does not bother to make another detour via Samaria and the king of Israel, but sends a messenger instead. He also sends messengers ahead of him, bringing the news of his imminent arrival and his healing to his wife and the king in Damascus. As he drives through its streets to the palace, the people watch him wide-eyed and gossip amongst themselves. There is general bemusement at the two mule-loads of dirt that follow his chariot. Naaman is duty-bound to report first to the king, and then returns to his wife. His household is abuzz upstairs and downstairs with the gossip. He has to provide an explanation for the loads of dirt, and set out the consequences for his household of his conversion to the God of Israel.

What of the servant girl? First she hears the news of Naaman’s healing brought by his messenger, but only at third-hand, so she hardly dares hope it was true. Then she experiences the commotion of Naaman’s return echoing through the house. Does she see Naaman and the evidence of his healing with her own eyes? Does he thank her in person and give her her freedom? Or does she remain hidden in his wife’s quarters, and again can only glean the details by word of mouth?

Somehow she learns of Naaman’s conversion to the God of her kith and kin. This is a stunning turn of events; her ‘If only’ has come to pass and her God is now the God of the head of the household! How much does she understand the implications, and how is she affected by the change? Has Naaman granted her access to the earth from her homeland, the land that her God had covenanted to give to her people? Is she now free to worship the God of her ancestors openly once more?

Over-turnings and up-endings

The story of Naaman is replete with these over-turnings characteristic of the wisdom literature in the Old Testament, and that also appear in the Magnificat.

The exploits of the great are triggered by the small. The mighty are humbled and the lowly are lifted up. The great general has leprosy, but the king of Israel is the one to tear his clothes as prescribed for lepers in Leviticus. The great general’s actions are governed by his servants, and the servants of the foreigner are much more honourable than the servant of Elisha. Two loads of earth from Israel have a higher value than the treasures of Aram. The young girl taken to a foreign land may never return to her homeland, but instead some of that land has come to her.

God “has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call [her] blessed.” (Luke 1.48).

Ever-expanding ripples

By her simple words, uttered with courage, the girl from the land of Israel effects huge changes for herself and her relationships within the place where she now lives, and her God has received glory and worship.

As for her nation and its relationship with its near neighbour, perhaps this gift from Israel to Aram stops the raids into Israel for a time, so that her people can live in less fear. Perhaps it prolongs for a while the temporary relative peace between Aram and Israel following the defeat and death of Ahab (1 Kings 22.1-38). Albeit only a short while. Great men can be forgetful. It is only in the next chapter that we read “Once when the king of Aram was at war with Israel” and “Some time later King Ben-hadad of Aram mustered his entire army” (2 Kings 6.8,24). What now of Naaman the new man of peace? He does not appear again, at least by name. Will he have followed orders and gone up against Elisha, or will he have retired?

Because the story of Naaman is preserved in the tales of Elisha, it is well-known at the time of Jesus. The girl is the means of a unique event, and Jesus cites it early in his ministry: “There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4.27).

This small ‘If only’ from a girl from Israel, captive and a servant in a strange land, has echoed through the ages, and come down to us almost 3,000 years later. Her words of faith, courage and compassion for her enemy turned out to be full of great power that have up-ended the order of master and servant, brought healing and peace to those with ears to hear, and turned many hearts to God, the ground and source of all being.


O God, the God of our home land and of the far-off land, even when we are in a hard place and captive to circumstances, you are always there with us speaking your still small voice in our hearts. May our imaginations always be open to the ‘if only’ in every situation, our minds wary of the ‘what ifs’, and give us the courage to release your word into the world. Amen.