Discomfited Theology

And Naaman said, “If not, yet, I pray thee, let there be given to thy servant two mules’ burden of earth; for thy servant will henceforth offer neither burnt-offering nor sacrifice unto other gods, but unto YHWH. In this thing YHWH pardon thy servant: when my master goeth into the house of Rimmon to worship there, and he leaneth on my hand, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, YHWH pardon thy servant in this thing.”
And he said unto him, “Go in peace.”
So he departed from him a little way (2 Kings 5:17-19).

Biblical narratives discomfit easy, comfortable theology.

2 Kings 5:1-19 relates the story of the cleansing of Naaman the Aramean. The Arameans are “frenemies” of the northern Kingdom of Israel, often forming an alliance when threatened by Assyria to the north or if they want to take advantage of Judah to the south (cf. Isaiah 7:1-7), but more often an enemy, more likely to overcome the Israelites than to be defeated by them (e.g. 2 Kings 8:11-15, 10:32-33). Naaman was a distinguished and honorable captain of the Aramean army; YHWH had given him victory, perhaps even over Israel; yet he was a leper (2 Kings 5:1). A captured Israelite servant girl informed Naaman’s wife about the prophet in Samaria who could heal Naaman’s leprosy (2 Kings 5:2-4); Naaman was dispatched to Israel, eventually was sent to Elisha the man of God, and Naaman was healed of his leprosy by dipping seven times in the Jordan River (2 Kings 5:5-14). Naaman recognized that there was no god but the God of Israel; he wished to receive Israelite earth which he could ostensibly take back to his residence, and build upon it an altar so as to offer sacrifice to YHWH (2 Kings 5:15-17). Naaman then asked Elisha for pardon in one matter: when he goes into the house of Rimmon, the idol god of Aram, with his master the king of Aram, and prostrates himself there, he wished to be pardoned for doing so (2 Kings 5:18). Elisha told him to “go in peace”; he departed with the earth he requested (2 Kings 5:19).

Yet wait a moment! Did not YHWH tell Israel to put no other gods before Him, to prostrate before them and to serve them (Exodus 20:3-5)? Should Naaman not bring his sacrifices and offerings down to Jerusalem to the place where YHWH made His name to dwell (Deuteronomy 12:11)? If Naaman is so aware that there is no God but the God of Israel, should he not take that stand in Aram?

God’s working tends to be more complicated than we would like to admit. Yes, YHWH commanded Israel not to put other gods before Him; Israel and Judah would be cast into exile for not abiding by this commandment (2 Kings 17:7-23, 2 Chronicles 36:15-16). Yes, YHWH commanded that Israelites should bring their sacrifices to Jerusalem. But Naaman is not an Israelite; even while leprous and thus unclean, YHWH gave him victory, according to the author of 2 Kings. YHWH may well have given Naaman victory over Israel itself! If nothing else, YHWH allowed Naaman to advance in the Aramean army; it may be well be that YHWH elevated Naaman to his position because of his character, to provide him the opportunity not only for cleansing, but more importantly, to come to an understanding of His unique power in the universe.

In a similar way we can understand Naaman’s request for pardon. He is an Aramean, not an Israelite; in his station he is expected to show at least the pretense of honoring the god of Aram. We do well to note just how extraordinary this situation proves to be: while Israelites are falling over themselves to serve the Baals, this Aramean comes to the understanding that Israel should have maintained for 600 years! He may prostrate before and serve Rimmon in pretense, but Israel may be serving him substantively!

Naaman, a Gentile, wished to serve YHWH, God of Israel, as the only God; he wanted earth and to offer sacrifice to YHWH; he had to put on a pretense of serving Rimmon to satisfy his master. Whatever we may wish to think about these matters, Elisha, the prophet, the man of God, told him to “go in peace.” If Elisha, a mighty prophet of God, commends and pardons Naaman in this way, who are we to disagree? When Jesus, our Lord and Savior, commends Naaman (Luke 4:27), who are we to condemn?

What are we to make of Naaman’s faith and pardon? Some, wishing to defend their construct of theology at all costs, wish to cast aspersions on the narrative and any consequences that may be drawn from it. Others, looking to overthrow constructs at all costs, make much of such narratives and draw many consequences from it. Neither is a wise way forward. Naaman is extraordinary in every sense of the term; what God may allow for him in his situation is not what is expected out of the people of God who received Torah and will be held liable to it. Nevertheless, God is extraordinary, and does extraordinary things, and it is not for us His creation to force Him into tight theological boxes of our convenience. Any god that fits into a box is not the Creator God; what we know of Him is thanks to His revelation to us regarding Himself (Hebrews 1:1-3). We can be sure that there is far more that is true about Him than He has or could reveal to us (Isaiah 55:8-9). What seems contradictory to us in our perspective may not be at all from a higher perspective. God understands what He is doing; we are invited to get a glimpse into some of His work, but must never pretend that what He has revealed provides a fully comprehensible and accurate view of things.

Our basic impulse, as humans, is to know; once we know, then we can trust. With God we must trust in order to know; He has proven faithful, and we are to put our trust in Him so that we can have true wisdom and insight (Job 28:28, Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 9:10, 15:33). Every so often we will get a glimpse of something that does not seem right or that fits existing categories. In those moments, will we despair in our discomfited theology, or will we be spurred on to greater trust in our great and magnificent God who is above all else?

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Immanuel Sign

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, when he knoweth to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land whose two kings thou abhorrest shall be forsaken” (Isaiah 7:14-16).

The Kingdom of Judah seemed to be in deep trouble.

Around 735 BCE, faced with the ascendant power of Assyria to the north, Rezin king of Aram and Pekah king of Israel solidified their alliance and not so subtly suggested to Ahaz king of Judah that he should join their league. Ahaz resisted, and Rezin and Pekah retaliated by invading Judah and fighting against Jerusalem, intending to depose Ahaz and install a more compliant pretender on the throne (ca. 735-732 BCE, sometimes called the “Syro-Ephraimitic War”; Isaiah 7:1-6). Just before the invasion, when Judah was told of the confederation, they were terrified: Israel was likely stronger than Judah, let alone a Syro-Ephramitic alliance against Judah. How could Judah stand (cf. Isaiah 7:2)?

In the midst of this trial YHWH God of Israel sends a message to Ahaz through His prophet Isaiah. YHWH knew the plans of Aram and Israel and wanted to assure Ahaz that nothing would come of it (Isaiah 7:7). Within 65 years YHWH would see to it that there would be nothing left of Ephraim in Israel (Isaiah 7:8). All Ahaz needed to do was to do nothing, put his confidence in YHWH, and all would be well (Isaiah 7:9).

Yet Ahaz is famous (or infamous?) in Scripture for not putting his trust in YHWH but instead into the gods of other nations and what seemed like intelligent foreign policy (cf. 2 Kings 16:1-20). Now, it seemed, he was facing an existential threat to not only his own life but to the throne of David and Jerusalem itself. To do nothing while his adversaries encircled him and destroyed him? It seemed preposterous!

YHWH wishes to give a sign to Ahaz so that he can have confidence in the word He delivered through Isaiah (Isaiah 7:10-11); Ahaz, attempting to appear humble and pious, demurred (Isaiah 7:12). In so doing he wearies YHWH (Isaiah 7:13), yet the Lord will give a sign regardless: a woman will conceive a child, bear a son, called Immanuel (“God with us”; Isaiah 7:14). Before he knows how to choose good and refuse evil, likely within eight to fifteen years of his birth, he will eat butter and honey, signs of prosperity, for the land of Aram and Israel will be forsaken by that time (Isaiah 7:15-16). The danger will pass away if only Ahaz would just sit tight and trust in YHWH for deliverance.

Ahaz does not put his trust in YHWH. Rezin and Pekah invade Judah and besiege Jerusalem yet prove unable to overcome it (2 Kings 16:5-6). In distress Ahaz ends up beseeching the agent YHWH intended to use to judge Aram and Israel, Assyria, but does so at a high cost: he collected the gold and silver in the Temple and his own palace to give to Tiglath-pileser III king of Assyria and became a vassal of Assyria (2 Kings 16:7-8). Yet Tiglath-pileser III king of Assyria did not really need inducement to attack Aram and Israel; he would have likely done so without Ahaz’s appeal. In 732 BCE, Tiglath-pileser invaded Aram and Israel, exiled the inhabitants of Damascus and killed Rezin, then invaded Israel and made all of the land save for Ephraim part of his own empire (cf. 2 Kings 15:29, 16:9). About ten years later, in 722/721 BCE, Sennacherib king of Assyria finished the task by overcoming the defenses of Samaria and fully conquering the northern Kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 17:1-6). A child conceived in 735 BCE and born in 734 BCE would have been about 12 or 13 in 722/721 BCE, at the age of knowing to choose the good and refuse evil. YHWH made sure that the Immanuel sign was accomplished in its own time, but Ahaz’s foolish action cost Judah dearly. Had Ahaz listened to YHWH and done nothing, his foes would be gone and his (relative) independence would be maintained. Yet he voluntarily submitted to Assyria as a vassal; when his son Hezekiah rebelled against Sennacherib king of Assyria and stopped paying tribute, the full force of Assyria was unleashed against Judah, leading to the destruction of the walled cities of Judah save for Jerusalem (ca. 701 BCE; 2 Kings 18:7, 13-19:37). Ahaz sought a worldly way to maintain his throne and his head; it nearly cost his son both. They only obtained deliverance because God was with them.

Over the next seven hundred years there were many times when the Jews could have easily doubted the idea that God was with them: Babylon accomplished what Assyria sought to do, the people were exiled, returned to the land, remained under foreign domination, and experienced intense persecution at the hands of pagan oppressors for maintaining their confidence in YHWH their God. Yet through all of this the people hoped for the ultimate fulfillment of the Immanuel sign: the Child born of a virgin who would truly represent Immanuel, God with us, and He was born in a most humble way to a Galilean peasant girl in Bethlehem (Matthew 1:21-25, Luke 2:4-20). Yet again the people of Israel were beset with foes that seemed to threaten their very existence, but the time for their concerns had passed. The sign was no longer that the child would see prosperity and the destruction of the national foes of Judah by the age of 15; the Child Himself is the sign, for He is Jesus, the Immanuel, God in the flesh (John 1:1, 14). He came in the flesh to overcome the enemy of all mankind, to deliver them from sin and death, if they would only put their trust in Him to that end and stand firm (Acts 2:14-38, Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-10). By persevering to the end, Jesus obtains the Kingdom promised to the descendants of David, an everlasting Kingdom, and He serves as its Lord (Daniel 2:44, Colossians 1:13).

God was with Judah: He provided the sign of the child who would be able to enjoy peace and security at 15, and it came to pass. YHWH was able to defend and protect Judah without Ahaz needing to go compromise himself through the pursuit of what passed for human wisdom and sensible foreign policy. The cost of Ahaz’s foolishness was high, but God remained faithful to Hezekiah and preserved a remnant of Judah. Yet YHWH’s presence among His people was only ultimately demonstrated through the embodiment of the Word in Jesus of Nazareth, and it is through Him that God provides the ultimate deliverance for all mankind. We can only obtain that deliverance by trusting in Him and doing what He says; attempting to establish the fulfillment of the promise through what passes for worldly wisdom is foolhardy and can only postpone the ultimate end and danger we all face. Let us be thankful for the Immanuel sign, and unlike Ahaz, let us put our full confidence in God and seek to serve Him and glorify His name through His Son Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Naaman and Obedient Faith

But Naaman was wroth, and went away, and said, “Behold, I thought, He will 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 recover the leper. Are not Abanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? May I not wash in them, and be clean?”
So he turned and went away in a rage (2 Kings 5:11-12).

Naaman is a man’s man with a problem. He is an extremely respected soldier– a “mighty man of valor” (2 Kings 5:1). Through him the LORD gave Aram victory. Yet he suffered from leprosy, a condition that would mean social exclusion for a lesser man.

That he would love to be cured of his leprosy is without a doubt. When he learns from an Israelite captive that the “prophet in Samaria,” Elisha, could heal him, his excitement is evident: he goes with a significant quantity of money and clothes, and eventually comes to Elisha (2 Kings 5:5-9).

Yet Elisha’s message is certainly not what was expected.

“Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again to thee, and thou shalt be clean” (2 Kings 5:10).

How simple! How…non-spiritual! Nothing fancy, no great declaration, just a few dips in a river. Furthermore, of all the rivers– the Jordan? Naaman is probably not wrong to declare the Abanah and Pharpar as superior to the Jordan in terms of cleanliness. How could his cleansing possibly be accomplished by such simple, non-spiritual means in such a comparatively dirty river?

Naaman’s anger is based upon his own unmet expectations, and its conclusion could have been quite tragic. Imagine if Naaman just went back to Aram and died eventually as a leper, all because Elisha did not act as he expected, and did not do what he thought Elisha should do. To think that Naaman might have never been cleansed because of his mental hangup with dipping in a river a few times!

But that is not the case. His servants spoke sensibly to him, helping him to see that what Elisha asks is not that difficult (2 Kings 5:13). He goes and does it and receives his cleansing (2 Kings 5:14)…even though it was simple, seemed rather “un-spiritual,” and was in the Jordan of all places!

Why did it work? It was not because of the Jordan River. It was not because Naaman dipped seven times. It was because God specified through His prophet Elisha that if Naaman obeyed and dipped seven times in the Jordan River, God would accomplish the healing. Could God have healed Naaman without dipping? Sure. Could He have acted exactly as Naaman originally expected? Absolutely. But God did not– God had a different plan for Naaman, and the choice was Naaman’s as to whether he would obey and receive the blessings or disobey and remain unclean.

Naaman’s example is quite instructive for us. How many times have we neglected God’s commands because we felt that it was too simple, too “un-spiritual,” or perhaps simply was not what we were expecting?

The most evident parallel is cleansing from sin. Just as Naaman was to dip seven times in the Jordan River to be cleansed of leprosy, so God calls upon those who believe in Him to be immersed in water for the remission of their sins (Acts 2:38, Romans 6:3-7, 1 Peter 3:21). As with Naaman, so with us: it is not because of the water nor because we are immersed in it. It is because God specifies through Jesus and the Apostles that if one believes in Jesus, confesses His name before men, repents of his sin, and submits himself to immersion in water in the name of the Lord for the remission of past sin, God will accomplish the cleansing of that person and will re-establish association with him. Could God forgive us our sins without being baptized? Sure. Could He act according to our expectations, or in one of the various ways that people say that salvation can be obtained? Absolutely. But God has established His plan for us, and the choice is ours as to whether we will obey it and receive the blessings or disobey and remain unclean.

Naaman almost fell guilty of holding God hostage to his own expectations and his think-so, and we would recognize his great and tragic folly if he proved disobedient despite receiving such a simple command. Yet will we prove to continue in similar folly, in regards to baptism perhaps, or some other matter of some simplicity, by holding God hostage to our expectations or “think-so” or “surely God…” mentalities?

Naaman was cleansed by his willingness to humble his pride, get in the Jordan River, and obey God’s command. As such, he stands as an example of great faith in God (cf. Luke 4:27). Will we have a similar faith– faith in humility, being willing to cast aside our own expectations and suppositions in order to obey the Risen Lord? Let us seek the same commendation of Naaman and obey Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry