Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Smoke, Lights, and Simple Misunderstandings

2 Kings 5: 1-14

I've chosen the Hebrew Bible reading this week because it deals with some things we all struggle with from time to time, things that may be of particular importance to our congregations during our current societal struggles.

In this story, Na'aman, a military commander of the Aramean army, has had great success; success which is credited to the God of Israel interestingly enough. But Na'aman also develops a skin disease which bothers him terribly. He has at his disposal an Israelite slave girl who seeks the best of her master and her master's husband. The slave girl hints that the prophet in Samaria could heal him.

Na'aman seeks out this prophet. Thinking that he's a royal court prophet, Na'aman sends lavish gifts (which we find are later rejected). And he sends a letter to the (here) unnamed king of Israel. The king misunderstands the letter as provocation for war, and so the prophet Elisha has to step in and clear up the matter.

Na'aman goes to Elisha, who tells him simply to wash seven times in the Jordan river. Na'aman is insulted by such a simplistic prescription. (He also doesn't understand that Elisha's direction comes from Yahweh, not from himself.) And so he storms away. But his servants wisely calm him down, get him to follow Elisha's instructions, and he is healed.

Now there are a few different possible hermeneutical possibilities with this text. Let's explore two of them here:

The Power of the Word of Yahweh vs. The Established Human Power
It's important to note that the king of Israel is unnamed. (See note below) Further, he lacks wisdom and insight into critical problem-solving. When Elisha goes and presents a solution, it's almost done in an in-your-face way to the king..."Let him...learn that there is a prophet..." The writer of Kings is setting up a conflict between the Word of Yahweh and the established, but inneffective king. In preaching, this could be explored under our current national/global context. Many people are now looking to their government(s) for help and rescue. But just like the unnamed king, our government(s) are often inneffective and unhelpful. The direction and provision of Yahweh is what should be trusted.
Note: It is likely the king of Israel is either Jehoram or Jehosephat...or possibly even both as they reigned together as father and son for five years before Jehoram completely took the reigns. But it is certainly intentional that he is here only referred to as "the king of Israel."

The Human Desire For Dramatic Actions
Na'aman was desperate for healing. And his actions speak of his desperation. Although his military victories are attributed to Yahweh, he doesn't really know Yahweh's character or expectations. When he goes to Elisha he's expecting some kind of big, showy, dramatic miracle. He's expecting pyrotechnics and chants and all sorts of business. But Elisha's prescription is simple and uncomplicated. We often look to God for great miracles. Whether we've lost our job, broken up our marriage, or like Na'aman acquired a disease or illness, we often expect a big showy miracle, an all-at-once solution, fire and smoke and lights. But often our healing, our restoration, our transformation, our solution, comes in following God's word faithfully, even in the things that seem simple, ordinary, and uncomplicated.

Dan Mayes

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