Alphagramma
Alphagramma
 

The Prophet's Apprentice (Elisha Reimagined)

Written by Peter Robert Flounders
(During The First Decade And A Half Of The Twenty-First Century)

   

 

CHAPTER 5
(2 Kings 5: 1-27)

Grace and Judgment

Naaman, commander-in-chief of the army of the king of Aram, could afford to be gracious to both friend and foe. His parents had gifted him a name that could mean pleasantness, and in many ways, although a ferocious warrior on the battlefield, he lived up to that understanding. Because of his prowess in battle, he was held in the highest esteem by Ben-Hadad, the king; and as he had also been used by the LORD to deliver the Arameans from the combined armies of Judah and Israel at the battle of Ramoth Gilead, Naaman was a man to be both respected and feared. It was his arrow, guided by the LORD, that found the gap in Ahab's armour and killed the King of Israel.1 Since that day Naaman was great in the land of Aram, and highly regarded in the court of the king. Yet much more than just highly regarded by Ben-Hadad, worshipper and inherited son of Hadad, the sun-god, he was also responsible for the most sacred of royal trusts - it was Naaman alone who officiated, and supported the king when he went to Damascus to worship the sun-god from whom the king derived his name.

However, Nathan would have given all he possessed for the one thing usually taken for granted by the majority of people - simple good health. The Commander-in-Chief of a nation's armies, was a leper. Many temporary skin ailments were named leprosy, but usually they were of the type that, although irritating, merely made the sufferer unclean. He or she waited for a period until the rash or the skin discolouration was clear then went to the priest to be pronounced clean and able once more to enter the temple. But leprosy, the revolting disease that developed slowly and inexorably, eating at its victim's body and soul, was incurable. And this was the curse that doomed Naaman to a life of constant suffering and shame that could only end with his death. All his riches and power proved of no avail; nothing he owned could alleviate in the slightest way even the least of the symptoms of the dreadful disease. The only relief his elevated position brought him was temporary deliverance from what should have been immediate and absolute separation from the company of family and friends. Although as his condition worsened, when the white spots on his eyelids and palms spread to his scalp and bleached his hair to the colour of snow, when his skin began to crust with white scales causing terrible sores and swellings, he realised the time was quickly approaching when banishment or self-exile would come as surely as the night followed day, for no physicians, no priests of Hadad the sun-god, or Hadad-Rimmon, the thunderer or storm-god, could effect a cure.

However, Naaman's salvation, undreamt of by him, was close at hand and not through the machinations of false priests and prophets, not through any sacrifices to carved gods, large or small, and not through the exotic medicines, herb compounds or fantastic elixirs of the court physicians. No, as is so often the case with the LORD, his guide to health and salvation would come from the most unlikely source - a young, captive Israelite who was a female servant belonging to his wife.

The Arameans, as did the Moabites, Chaldeans, Edomites and many other states that bordered the divided kingdom, often made quick predatory raids into Israel taking cattle, grain and slaves. 2 His wife's handmaiden was one of these captives, captured when little more than a child and then meticulously and severely trained to serve her mistress. But she never deserted the faith of her people - and she never forgot me, the prophet in Samaria. She was envied among the other slaves who would possibly be worked without mercy until too old or too infirm then, if fortunate, allowed to die a natural if early death. However, her position would have been gained as a result of her religious upbringing, her sober, decorous behaviour earning respect and a place of trust in the household. Still, to suggest to her lady that the one God of the Israelites was larger and more powerful than all the gods of the Arameans, and furthermore would succeed where they had all failed, was a risk that took no small courage. But children believe at face value, implicitly and without question - they have to be taught to doubt, and learn to question - and so often dare what old men often fear.

She had that innate courage of the young; a courage bolstered and sustained by the faith of her heritage, and so she said to her mistress, 'If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.' No room allowed for the faintest of doubts, only a definite statement. For this slave girl, faith was the same as fact.

Naaman's wife, as desperate as her husband for his healing, had reached the stage where she cared nothing for the reputation or hierarchy of Aram's ineffective idols and could not wait to tell him him of the servant girl's claim. Naaman listened carefully and with no other hope before him, approached his master, King Ben-Hadad. When granted immediate access for royal counsel and for royal permission to take a trip to Samaria, as they now enjoyed an uneasy truce with Israel.

The king was as enthusiastic and in some ways nearly as desperate as Naaman himself. The commander of his armies was a valued warrior, friend and confidante, and anything that might help him must be attempted, however slim the chance and however doubtful the outcome. A further incentive for the king was involved the one God of the Israelites, a deity he had only heard about from Hebrew slaves and about whom he was interested to learn more. 'By all means, go,' he said. 'I will send a letter to the king of Israel.'

His assumption was that I, Elisha, would be no different to the heathen prophets of Rimmon, and therefore under the control of the local king; he would, of course, come to learn differently. (But if he had realised what his letter would do to Joram, the fear it would generate and the consternation it would innocently cause, he surely would have withheld it, particularly as in this case he was the supplicant, and the letter would do more harm than the good which he intended.)

Naaman left Aram to travel to Samaria, leading a train of animals carrying the immense wealth with which he hoped to purchase his healing: ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing, enough wealth to feed and clothe three generations of a family. How could he know that the LORD, the one God, owned the cattle on a thousand hills, that wealth in human terms was worth less than dust, and that the only riches worth knowing and having were those found in Him? And how could he possibly gain the knowledge that the LORD's healing was freely given and freely received - or not given at all?

Naaman carried with him the royal scroll which read, 'With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman that you may cure him of his leprosy.'

King Joram came close to losing his mind when after receiving Naaman and affording him the hospitality his position required, he read the letter. He fully believed, and assumed that king Aram was also aware, that only God Himself could cure leprosy as he, along with most of his countrymen, believed the disease to be an affliction directly from God; a dreadful judgment passed by the LORD Himself for some committed sin. Therefore, Ben-Hadad in asking Joram to do a work that he must know only God could do, seemed to be deliberately trying to break the existing treaty and renew the old hostilities. Joram tore his clothes and asked, 'Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!' His courtiers, with no answers for their king, kept out of his way.

When eventually I was told of these events, of the pervasive, general fear that was now rampant at the court (fear of a nervous, unpredictable king, exacerbated by the natural fear that the threat of war generated) and how the king had torn his clothes in desperation, I sent him a message. But when the messenger was on his way, I could not help but wonder on how many more occasions the Lord God would command me to help this king. Yet I was only there to do His will, I only existed to speak the words He gave me. Joram heard my message. 'Why have you torn your robes? Make this man come to me and he will know there is a Prophet in Israel.' Yes, King Joram, as you already know, and as you should have immediately informed Naaman, commander-in-chief of the king of Aram, Ben-Hadad, the sun worshipper - there is a prophet of the LORD in Israel, and Elisha is his name.

..........

Naaman arrived at my home with his horses, his chariots, his pack animals and waited at the door, confident in his expectation that I would soon attend him. He had dismounted as some small concession but his whole demeanour was one of pride - but pride that was yet marred. Marred by the fact that his face was covered, except for the shadowed eyes, like a woman's face behind her veil, hiding the facial ravages of his affliction. I stepped back from the window, it was not yet time for Naaman and I to see each other face to face. He was a powerful man who came directly from the courts of powerful kings and was therefore confident and expectant that I would come out, beg his favour and ask in what way I could be of service to him. His expectations, confidence and arrogance would quickly fade. His king might be powerful in Aram and own a reputation that terrified King Joram. And Naaman himself might be a powerful man in his court, but here in Samaria his king was less to me than Joram, and Naaman, unfortunately stricken as he was, was still just another leper seeking that special gift from God that was so rarely granted. (Later, Ben-Hadad and I would have dealings of life and death - his death, but at that time this was hidden from me.)

I sent Gehazi out to him with a simple message. 'Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.' A simple command easily delivered and easily obeyed - if pride could be overcome. Except that for commanders of royal armies, for the kings themselves and for the men they ruled, pride was the great leveller, the destroyer of the most marvellous achievements, the murderer of humility, and the downfall of the highest angel. For Naaman it was a combination of hierarchic pride, nationalistic pride - the Jordan, why the muddy waters of the Jordan? - and anticipations of high ceremony. Simple obedience breeds simple faith, and simple faith brings healing in its wake. Pride, damnable pride, the scourge of Israel since the captivity in Egypt, and the scourge of mankind since the fall, brings only pain and suffering.

Naaman was incensed at my treatment of him, but it was no more than I expected. The commander was learning a severe lesson, and he was destined to learn it well. 'I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than the waters of Israel? Could not I wash in them and be cleansed?' So he turned and went off in a rage.

I watched him leave, raging and full of injured pride - and entirely predictable. Once more he was saved by the humility and sincere love of his servants; the same people who expected nothing more from life than to follow orders, to be told what to do and when to do it, and to do it without a second thought or complaint. Naaman would soon be very grateful for the natural servility and faithfulness of his servants. It also said much for him that they cared enough to worry for him. A stern warrior and commander perhaps, but also a just master. I would grow to admire Naaman.

They approached him. 'My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, "Wash and be cleansed"?' The humbling of pride is a wonderful thing to behold if it brings growth in its wake. And Naaman would certainly grow. His changed behaviour told the entire story and his recognition of the truth: if ordered to conquer a city, fight another Goliath, anything that required courage and skill, he would have acquiesced gladly. It was only the pride of his sex and his position that prevented his obedience.

I would have liked to have accompanied him to the river and savoured again the unspeakable joy of watching the LORD heal. But - as in the case of the widow and her oil - this was something he must do without the physical presence of the prophet. And, although I would not be there, I knew exactly how it would be. Gehazi, as ordered, followed him as he went down to the river and watching him go - and against all prophetic knowledge - still I hoped that perhaps the avarice already building in my servant's heart might yet be avoided.

Naaman was used to obeying orders, it came naturally once he recognised the authority. Yet he remained reluctant as he stood on the banks of the muddy Jordan and looked into its slow-moving waters. His servants fidgeted and murmured, willing him to jump into the river. Eventually, reluctant, embarrassed and hesitant he stepped down the bank, impatiently shrugging off the willing hands that were reaching forward to assist him. He waded out until the water reached his waist and his robes floated around his body like a women's skirts. He tried to press them down but all dignity had long since escaped him. With one last backward glance at the faces crowding the shore, he lowered himself until the waters covered his head. He came up again with water streaming from his head and coverings. He wiped his eyes and nervously checked his hands. They remained white and scaled with not the slightest trace of improvement.

He dipped himself again, and again, five more times in all, and each time checked himself. And each successive time the personal examination became more detailed and frantic. Hands rubbed and twisted in an attempt to physically remove the scabs and accelerate the healing process. He lifted his robes to check his body in minute detail for the slightest sign of improvement - nothing. Naaman did not understand that, at least in his case, and in my experience, there was to be no gradual process of healing, no step by step stages of improvement as he counted the number of immersions, no increment of deliverence granted for each increment of obedience. All that was asked was full obedience without question and without constant checking, then would come full healing.

On the bank the murmurs of encouragement were drying up faster than the drops of water on the commander's brow. Only the servants that had initially persuaded him still showed optimism. 'Once more, Lord,' they cried. 'The prophet said seven times.' Naaman looked at them and muttered under his breath. Seven times or seventy, what did it matter, how could the dirty waters of this little river wash away the horror of his leprosy?

He glanced around as he suddenly realised the incongruity of his position. Crowding the banks of the Jordan were his body servants, cooks, animal handlers and soldiers. All dry and warm. And their master stood in the middle of a river like some demented fool, stripped of all trappings, dignity and pride. There was nothing left to lose - except, except what! Only the horror of his sickness. With a growing impatience he furiously stripped every last shred of clothing from his body until he stood there naked, the full shame of his disease exposed for all to see. Then with one last despairing shout he flung himself full length into middle of the river where the waters ran faster and deeper - and he rose clean and triumphant, the disease conquered.

The LORD restored his flesh and he became as clean as the skin of a healthy youth in his prime. Full and overflowing, the blessings of my God. Naaman was not just healed, he was given the firm, glowing flesh of a young boy, fitter and healthier than before the curse had alighted on him. He stood in the Jordan cleansed and whole and wondering, hardly able to dare to believe. The shouts of joy surrounding him went unheeded as he pinched and patted, stroked and felt every part of his clean, healthy body. It was some time before he allowed his servants to dry his skin and to hide it from his eyes with fresh clothing. Then he bade them make full speed back to me.

Before long he and his full retinue of attendants returned to my home. I went outside to greet him and stood before him. His men were still chattering as if they were wives on the roofs of their homes at the end of the day; full of the miracle they had witnessed, they repeated it to each other time and time again. It was a little while before the commander-in-chief of the Aramean armies could restore silence. Then he spoke to me as simply a man, and simply a supplicant. 'Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. Please accept now a gift from your servant.'

His attendants spread the riches before me in excited anticipation. Wealth that I had not often seen, yet it could not compare with the wealth I already owned. At that moment, however, this was all he thought he had to offer, although that would change in a short while. The servants watched me from under hooded eyes, waiting to see the astonishment and joy in my face that such wealth must generate. Not least in eagerness among them was my servant, Gehazi, who also studied my face, his mind wondering and calculating what share of the bounty would fall to him.

I answered softly, 'As surely as the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.' How could I accept payment for the LORD's work? I was, and still am, nothing except a messenger who speaks the words of my God.

Naaman was as astonished as the servants and as disappointed as Gehazi. He tried again and again to change my mind, encouraged volubly by his servants and tacitly by mine, desperate in his attempt to do something for the miracle of his healing; to somehow repay a debt that could not be repaid, at least in material things from a material world. I made no answer and at last he accepted my silence as my final word.

Then his next words proved my growing opinion of his worth, and gladdened my heart. 'If you will not,' he said, 'please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the LORD. But 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 down in the temple of Rimmon, may the LORD forgive your servant for this.'

What could I say to this man? Never had I seen greater faith. Naaman, irrespective of what befell him in the future, on the battlefields or in the courts of kings, he would not forget this day or the LORD to whom he owed so much. The earth was not mine to give, it belonged to the king, but now I spoke for him. It was the foolish request of a man newly born, of a man discovering God for the first time and wanting to do something, anything. So Naaman wanted to take the earth of Israel back with him so he might build an alter unto the LORD. He would learn soon enough that earth was only ever earth and possessed nothing in itself. But for now it was good that he thought this way. In a heathen land his witness would shine as brightly as a golden shield reflecting the burning rays of the noonday sun. 'Go in peace,' I said.

I watched as the commander and his retinue disappeared in the distance, my heart happy for the joy that filled the train. In contrast, my soul was heavy because of the greed that remained in my servant, Gehazi, and the hurt it would cause not only to the sinner, but also to many innocent victims.

Gehazi grew increasingly restless as he scurried about preparing a simple meal for me but unable to eat anything himself and unable to meet my eyes. His thoughts, his treacherous thoughts, were as clear to me as if he had spoken out loud in my presence. 'My master was too easy on Naaman, this Aramean, by not accepting from him what he brought. As surely as the LORD lives, I will run after him and get something from him.'

Yes, as surely as the LORD lives, Gehazi, you will run after the honourable Naaman, and as surely as the LORD lives, you will pay for the sin. Eventually I heard him leave the house. In my spirit I saw him leave, and in my spirit I went with him.

..........

Naaman saw my servant while he was still far away running after the Arameans as if his life depended on it. Better he turned and ran back, for on that his life would surely depend.

The commander, demonstrating the same care his soldiers would have certainly experienced on the field of battle, jumped down from his chariot and went to meet my poor, faithless servant. 'Is everything all right?' he asked.

Then the lies came pouring out. He must have woven and fabricated his story while still in my house and still in my presence. Had he learned nothing from my teaching and his own knowledge of the LORD? Had the sight of so much worldly wealth laid out before him on the ground, and apparently there for the taking, scorched his memory clean of God's faithfulness, and judgment? Was the spiritual wealth of our lives no longer compensation enough for the material wealth offered? Yet we had never been without; our needs and the needs of his family had always been met, if not in abundance, then always in sufficiency. Whatever the reasons for his decision, the outcome would be irrevocable. God's mercy is patient, but His judgment is quick and final. Gehazi involved me and other prophets in the fabric of his lie - he used God's prophets, the speakers of His words, to give foundation and credibility to the lie. There would be no escape from the righteous wrath of YAHWEH.

'Everything is all right,' Gehazi answered. 'My master sent me to say, "Two young men from the company of the prophets have just come to me from the hill country of Ephraim. Please give them a talent of silver and two sets of clothing.'"

The commander did not hesitate, everything he had brought he was willing to give. 'By all means, take two talents,' he said. He urged Gehazi to take them, and then personally tied up two talents of silver in two bags, with two sets of clothing. Naaman, so eager to please me and my God, as he thought, was a willing, if unknowing, partner in the downfall of Gehazi, the man of flawed vision. And because the weight of his plunder was so great, Gehazi was also given two servants by Naaman to carry the silver home. They went ahead of him.

Gehazi, my servant, loved by the LORD and loved by me. What possessed you, how did you allow the evil one to creep into your spirit and take such total control of your thoughts and actions? But the deed is done and if unrepented, then the justice of the LORD is irrevocable.

When they reached the hill which was in full view of my home, he sent them away and struggled home alone with his load, already his lies and actions breeding more deception, a never- ending spiral of sin that could lead down to Sheol. He hid the silver and the clothes in a secret place that he hoped I would not find, then came to me, still full of lies and evil. But perhaps now, even at this late stage, his conscience might heed the pricking of the LORD's spirit and have him turn to me in repentance and beg for forgiveness. Perhaps even now it was not to late, but the hope was forlorn and short-lived.

'Where have you been, Gehazi?" I asked.

The lie came too easily, there really was no hope left for him, he had sealed his own fate. 'Your servant did not go anywhere,' my servant, Gehazi, answered. The last words he would ever say to me.

He looked into my eyes as he spoke, and the knowledge of his crime and judgment finally reached his senses. The future that had seemed so deceptively bright to him just a short while before, now lay in ruins around his feet. The patience of his family, their faith in him as he served his time with me, the simplicity and lowliness of their lives, the day to day struggle while he learned, all for nothing. And, the most terrible consequence of all, they too, children and grandchildren and beyond would suffer the same judgment. The sins of this father must indeed be passed down from generation to generation.

I said to him, 'Was not my spirit with you when the man got down from his chariot to meet you? Is this the time to take money, or to accept clothes, olive groves, vineyards, flocks, herds, or manservants and maidservants? Naaman's leprosy will cling to you and to your descendants for ever.'

The judgment was terrible. Gehazi knew there was no reprieve for him or his descendants. Perhaps over the years that lay ahead of him, before the inevitable and terrible, slow death from leprosy, he might once again turn to the LORD and try to regain the pleasure of the His favour. Perhaps, but only if the bitterness of his self-inflicted misery did not build and prosper on affliction.

He went from my presence and he was leprous, as white as snow.

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