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The prophet Elisha.

In the midst of a sweltering summer heat wave, it fell to me one Sunday to read the lesson appointed from 2 Kings, chapter 5. There is told the story of Namaan, "a great man highly esteemed by his master", Commander-in-chief of the army of Aram, but a leper. Aram is what is now southern Syria, and Arameans were among Israel's enemies. Yet the language of Aram, Aramaic, would eventually become the language of the common people of Israel. Jesus spoke Aramaic.

On one of his military expeditions, Namaan had snatched a young Israeli girl to be a servant for his wife. One day the girl told Namaan's wife that if only Namaan would see the holy man of Israel, he could be cured. Namaan related this conversation to King Aram; such was the King's concern for Namaan's welfare that he dispatched him, laden down with gifts, to the King of Israel. King Aram also sent a covering letter, telling the King of Israel to please heal Namaan of his leprosy.

Like Queen Victoria, the King of Israel was not amused. "Am I God, to kill and make alive, that this fellow sends to me to cure a man of his disease?" (v. 7). Atsuch mockery, the King of Israel rent his clothes.

Somehow Elisha heard of this and told the King to send Namaan to him "so that he may know there is a prophet in Israel". But when Namaan came, Elisha would not deign even to go out to see him; only a demeaning message came back: "Go and wash seven times in the Jordan ... and you will be clean". Namaan stormed off "in a rage". But his servants calmed him down, and reasoned with him thus: "If the prophet had bidden you do something difficult, you would do it. How much more if he tells you to wash and be clean?" (v. 13). Namaan then dipped himself seven times in the Jordan and was healed.

This is an Old Testament story of a dip in the river, appropriate perhaps on a hot July day. But it is now November, and we are thinking of winter and snow and Christmas. But if you think about it, Namaan's story is also the Christmas story. Of a man diseased and a King concerned. Of precious gifts brought before a King, albeit this King but a babe lying in a manger. Of the powerlessness of the great to relieve what truly oppresses us. Of the waters of the river Jordan cleansing Namaan, and later baptizing Jesus, and down the succeeding centuries, by the grace of God, cleansing us.

Jesus knew the story of Namaan. He related it, in Aramaic, on one of the most important days of His life. Luke chapter 4 relates how Jesus entered the synagogue at Nazareth, picked up the scroll, and read out: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me; he has sent me to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind; to let the broken victims go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."

The audience loved hearing these familiar words of Isaiah, until Jesus added this startling announcement: "This day is this prophesy fulfilled in your hearing". When Jesus added that there were many lepers in Israel during Elisha's time, yet only Namaan (the Syrian) was cured, His listeners could bear His presumption no longer; they rose up, drove Him from the synagogue, and tried to kill Him.

From Elisha to Namaan, from the stable at Bethlehem to the synagogue at Nazareth, from the wilderness to the river Jordan, from Jesus to every modern hearer of the word, comes the same message of healing: "Wash and be made clean". That message first took flesh in a Bethlehem stable in the reign of King Herod.

Ian Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law, University of Western Ontario. He is a regular contributor to Catholic Insight and the National Post. He can be reached by e-mail at
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Author:Hunter, Ian
Publication:Catholic Insight
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Nov 1, 2000
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