Leviticus is oddly detailed when it comes to treating leprosy. ‘Leprosy’ in the Bible encompasses a range of contagious skin conditions. If one is to follow the Levitical laws, lepers are to tear their clothes, leave their hair dishevelled, and announce their corrupting presence by shouting ‘unclean, unclean!’ (Leviticus 13:45).
None of these features appears in Rembrandt van Rijn’s painting. His departure from the biblical conventions for identifying lepers suggests that something unusual is happening here. The image is a study in theodicy.
Rembrandt’s painting depicts a man identified only by his illness. The tightly knotted turban, the cloak draped over his shoulders joined at the chest by a golden and bejewelled fastening, and the sparsely adorned room behind him with a serpentine column, all fail to give much insight into his identity. The highlighted features of the man, his face, his hands, show the marks of his skin condition.
The ‘oriental’ style of the figure has led most scholars to attempt to place him within the world of Scripture. He has been identified as Moses, Aaron, Dan, Naaman, and most frequently in recent scholarship as King Uzziah (Boeckl 2011: 74).
Placed alongside 2 Kings 5, this painting becomes a commentary on affliction. The dark eyes set within the mottled face could be Naaman’s or Gehazi’s. The narrative of Naaman’s healing turns on the shock twist of Gehazi’s deception and punishment. His unrighteousness manifests as impurity. 2 Kings 5 reinforces the association of leprosy with sin.
Rembrandt shows that wealth cannot purify the heart. The pensive facial expression sets a limit on what can be seen, and provokes the viewer to imagine the unseen condition of the heart. We see a face marred not by skin disease, but regret. Whoever Rembrandt has depicted here is the kindred of Gehazi.
Boeckl, Christine M. 2011. Images of Leprosy: Disease, Religion and Politics in European Art (Kirksville: Truman State University Press)
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.