For his bounty, the foreign general takes two mule-loads of soil. He arrives in Israel loaded with the fineries of gold, silver, and garments, but after his healing he values the dirt of the land more highly than all of this. The story of Naaman is touched by numerous such little ironies.
We are introduced to Naaman as the instrument of the LORD. It is a shock to discover that he also has leprosy, which typically signifies sin. The great general’s actions are directed by servants, who rescue him from ruin twice. The King of Israel tears his clothes and cries out, which are the actions required of lepers in Leviticus 13:45.
The most surprising twist, however, appears in the deception of Gehazi. In Gehazi we can locate one of the central issues of the Naaman story: foreignness. The servants of the foreign general are righteous, but the servant of the prophet of the LORD falls. Naaman’s leprosy is healed, and now attaches itself to Gehazi and his descendants. John Bunyan treats Gehazi as a precursor to Judas, but perhaps we also see something of Cain in him: desire for what another has, deception, and generational disease.
Gehazi only rarely appears in artistic renditions of this story. There are two miracles in 2 Kings 5: the healing of Naaman, and the affliction of Gehazi (Nelson 1987: 176).
Rembrandt van Rijn’s image opens up space for us to consider the darker miracle. The relative anonymity of the figure renders the blotched and decrepit skin more concerning. Rembrandt’s stylized ‘oriental’ dress presents this man as a foreigner. The meaning of the painting is not readily disclosed to the viewer. His expression is closed, eyes glazed over by the sorrow of reflection. Uzziah and Gehazi both stand as figures who attempted to grasp what was not theirs to have. The pensive face, in this light, serves as a study in unintended consequences. For a people who associate wealth with happiness, the marriage of opulent dress with a grave and diseased face distresses our arrangement of the world.
Namaan’s story also turns on misdirected desire for foreign comforts. He considered himself to be deserving of special attention and treatment, due to his status. He came with gifts typical of a state visit, carrying a letter of introduction from his king to the king of Israel. His self-importance nearly undoes the entire enterprise. Francis Frith’s image of the Abana depicts a simple waterfall set in rugged surrounds. One might wonder what the fuss was all about. Far from home, the land and waters of Aram become to Naaman the locales of imagination. Many Victorians felt themselves to be intimately connected to the lands of Scripture, but they were largely unaware of the geographical features of this landscape (Van Haaften 1980: ix). Artists tended to depict the grand monuments, leaving the surrounding geography to the haze of imagination.
Victorians were overconfident in the evidentiary force of photography. Frith does not render the river itself, but frames a particular perspective, seemingly more invested in the photographic craft than the literal description of a landscape. What cannot be seen is Naaman’s impression of home. The appended text comments upon the image, but in a suggestive way. Even home becomes foreign when photographed. The water, blurred by time, is odd and unfamiliar. Naaman must choose the foreign. Elisha summons him to immerse himself in the chosen waters. To be healed he must do something new, and become something new: na’ar qaton, a little child.
The healing waters, the refreshed childlike skin of Naaman, all become suggestive of baptism for Christian readers. The Dutch tapestry depicts a very dour Naaman disrobed in the waters. His leprosy has already fled from his skin. He now belongs to this foreign land and its strange waters. Gehazi fails to see the change in Naaman. He says, ‘My master has let that Aramean Naaman off too lightly’ (2 Kings 5:20), insisting on treating Naaman as a stranger. The tapestry interprets baptism and Naaman’s healing in tandem. The sacrament incorporates the child into the Church, and the tapestry shows that the same has happened to Naaman. The child is baptized in the triune name; Naaman emerges from the waters uttering the name of God, saying that he will ‘no longer … sacrifice to any god except YHWH’ (2 Kings 5:17).
Boeckl, Christine M. 2011. Images of Leprosy: Disease, Religion and Politics in European Art (Kirksville: Truman State University Press)
Nelson, Richard. 1987. First and Second Kings (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), pp. 176–83
Van Haaften, Julia. 1980. Egypt and the Holy Land in Historic Photographs: 77 Views by Francis Frith (New York: Dover Publications)
5 Naʹaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the Lord had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper. 2Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little maid from the land of Israel, and she waited on Naʹaman’s wife. 3She said to her mistress, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samarʹia! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 4So Naʹaman went in and told his lord, “Thus and so spoke the maiden from the land of Israel.” 5And the king of Syria said, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.”
So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten festal garments. 6And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naʹaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” 7And when the king of Israel read the letter, he rent his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.”
8 But when Eliʹsha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had rent his clothes, he sent to the king, saying, “Why have you rent your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9So Naʹaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the door of Eliʹsha’s house. 10And Eliʹsha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.” 11But Naʹaman was angry, and went away, saying, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and cure the leper. 12Are not Abaʹna and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. 13But his servants came near and said to him, “My father, if the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much rather, then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
15 Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company, and he came and stood before him; and he said, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel; so accept now a present from your servant.” 16But he said, “As the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will receive none.” And he urged him to take it, but he refused. 17Then Naʹaman said, “If not, I pray you, let there be given to your servant two mules’ burden of earth; for henceforth your servant will not offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god but the Lord. 18In this matter may the Lord pardon your servant: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon your servant in this matter.” 19He said to him, “Go in peace.”
But when Naʹaman had gone from him a short distance, 20Gehaʹzi, the servant of Eliʹsha the man of God, said, “See, my master has spared this Naʹaman the Syrian, in not accepting from his hand what he brought. As the Lord lives, I will run after him, and get something from him.” 21So Gehaʹzi followed Naʹaman. And when Naʹaman saw some one running after him, he alighted from the chariot to meet him, and said, “Is all well?” 22And he said, “All is well. My master has sent me to say, ‘There have just now come to me from the hill country of Eʹphraim two young men of the sons of the prophets; pray, give them a talent of silver and two festal garments.’ ” 23And Naʹaman said, “Be pleased to accept two talents.” And he urged him, and tied up two talents of silver in two bags, with two festal garments, and laid them upon two of his servants; and they carried them before Gehaʹzi. 24And when he came to the hill, he took them from their hand, and put them in the house; and he sent the men away, and they departed. 25He went in, and stood before his master, and Eliʹsha said to him, “Where have you been, Gehaʹzi?” And he said, “Your servant went nowhere.” 26But he said to him, “Did I not go with you in spirit when the man turned from his chariot to meet you? Was it a time to accept money and garments, olive orchards and vineyards, sheep and oxen, menservants and maidservants? 27Therefore the leprosy of Naʹaman shall cleave to you, and to your descendants for ever.” So he went out from his presence a leper, as white as snow.