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Politics of Scripture

Resource-Less or Resourceful—2 Kings 5:1-14

In the midst of a complicated and troubled world it may seem impossible to make a difference, and yet, the wish of a little Israelite girl says otherwise. The spirit of the young Israelite girl and her larger cadre of enslave servants to Naaman live on today in the resourceful actions and tireless work of so many influential youth in our world, those whose passion and will for change persist.

Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. 2Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 4So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. 5And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. 6He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” 7When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”8But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.”
9So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 10Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” 11But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! 12Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. 13But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?” 14So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.

For the past several years, Time magazine, known for their annual list of the “100 most influential people” has published a supplementary list of the world’s most influential teens. Although the number of people featured in this latter list varies from year-to-year, the criteria have remained the same, considering “accolades across numerous fields, global impact through social media and overall ability to drive news.”[1] From actors to activists, Time’s list reflects young people the world is talking about, but more significant than that they are known is the diversity of reasons why these young people are being talked about.

In one way or another, each person listed in Time’s most influential list (both versions: top 100 and teen), by employing a combination of their resources and their resourcefulness in light of their life circumstances, has gained attention on the world stage. From the mostly white upper middle class victims of a school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida turned political activists; to Indonesian sisters Melati and Isabel Wijsen who orchestrated a recent beach clean-up in Bali, collecting 65 tons of waste; to Thandiwe Abdullah, 15 year old co-founder of the Black Lives Matter LA Youth Vanguard; to musical and acting savants, the youth on Time’s list boast different levels and types of resources. And yet, each member of this diverse group has demonstrated a resourcefulness capable of capturing the attention of millions.

The enslaved Israelite girl in today’s reading demonstrates a similar resourcefulness. The biblical text does not tell us what kind of resources this Israelite girl had access to before she was taken into captivity. Her family may have been among Israel’s elite or they may have numbered among the predominant subsistence class, just struggling to survive. Nor does the text tell us what kind of material resources the Israelite girl had access to in Naaman’s service. She could have been a chamber maid living amidst her master’s excess or a kitchen girl far removed from any benefit of her master’s wealth. We know only two things: she is a young (Hebrew: “small”) girl and she is enslaved. As a slave, even such basic resources as the girl’s own time and body were not fully her own.

Within the text, however, the young Israelite girl seems unfazed by the limitations of her context. Instead of lamenting her own circumstances, her lack of resources, or her inability to effect change, this small girl marshals the resources that are available to her to imagine a better future: “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy” (2 Kgs 5:4).[2] Deprived of most, if not all, material treasures, the little girl’s speech simultaneously conveys and shares the trove of intangible resources she maintains: compassion (even for the person who enslaved her); cultural memory (of the prophet in Samaria); religious trust (in the prophet’s healing powers); and hope for a better world.

Too often, the dominant narrative in society seeks to marginalize those who lack an abundance of material possessions or social/political status. Many (though not all) of the teenagers named to Time’s most influential list support this trend, having reached their level of public influence at least in part due to the aid of a relatively privileged starting point. In the wake of the national attention garnered for gun control initiatives by the Parkland students, social commentators and political activists have questioned the disparity. The Chicago Tribune quotes Charlene Carruthers, national director of Black Youth Project 100, a protest movement born in the aftermath of the Ferguson shooting of teenage Michael Brown, who tweeted her mixed emotions:

I promise y’all. I’m happy for these young people. I just know how so many young people have put their lives on the line over the past five years. We’re rarely compared to Freedom Riders and recipients of such public support. I shouldn’t be bothered, but I am.[3]

In the biblical text, the dominant power brokers attempt to wrest control from the little Israelite girl. Overpowering her unimposing speech in the previous verse, the king of Aram responds to Naaman’s accounting of the girl’s wish not with a similar wish or desire for Naaman’s health, but with an imposing display of power, money, and force. “Go then,” the King commands, but he sends Naaman not to the prophet at the behest of a small girl’s good will, but to the King of Israel, at the behest of a threatening foreign state. With such a demand, it is no wonder that the king of Israel tears his clothes in lament (2 Kgs 5:6).

It is at this point, however, that the narrative once again demonstrates the richness of Israel’s resources when one looks beyond what the eye can see or a treasury can measure. The prophet Elisha sends for Naaman and offers a cure, but noticeably never speaks directly to the commander. Instead, it is the slaves of Naaman himself whose speech elicits action (2 Kgs 5:13).

Like the Israelite girl, the slaves accompanying Naaman appear in the narrative only when they are needed to move the action along and disappear without further note immediately thereafter. Nevertheless, their role is significant. Those enslaved after a battle were effectively deemed by Naaman and his king, and so the larger society, to have been insignificant so much so that their freedom and autonomy are taken from them for the sake of political expedience and gain. Nevertheless, it is these same enslaved persons (the little Israelite girl included) who make possible the healing that Naaman seeks.

In a break from expectations, Naaman and his king respond first to the wish of a small enslaved girl. Then, in a further break, Naaman washes in the river the prophet commanded at the encouragement of another group of his enslaved servants (some of whom, just like the Israelite girl, may yet have been youth themselves). The group of enslaved servants, for their part, put to use their own resourcefulness, using logic, appealing to their master’s pride, and demonstrating a trust in the Israelite prophet. As with the Israelite girl, Naaman responds to their speech. Yet, when Naaman is healed, these influential young people fade back into their status as nameless enslaved bodies and Naaman heaps praises and credit upon the prophet Elisha and upon God.

While it is, of course, significant to note the power of the God of Israel in this text, the political undertones make clear not only the ways in which God works, but the people through whom God works. God’s wishes for God’s people are fulfilled most often not through the dominant brokers of power and privilege, but through the simple wishes of those who such systems marginalize whether on account of their age, ethnicity, color of their skin, or place of their birth.

In the midst of a complicated and troubled world it may seem impossible to make a difference, and yet, the wish of a little Israelite girl says otherwise. The spirit of the young Israelite girl and her larger cadre of enslave servants to Naaman live on today in the resourceful actions and tireless work of so many influential youth in our world, those recognized by Time magazine and the so many more whose social profiles go unnoticed in the mainstream media and yet whose passion and will for change persist.

[1] Time Staff, “Time’s 25 Most Influential Teens of 2018,” Time Magazine (7 December 2018) https://time.com/5463721/most-influential-teens-2018/ accessed 21 June 2019.

[2] On the power of the Israelite girl’s wish see Esther Menn, “A Little Child Shall Lead Them: The Role of the Little Israelite Servant Girl (2 Kings 5:1-19),” in Currents in Theology and Mission 35:5 (October 2008) 342-343.

[3] Cited in Dahleen Glanton, “As country listens to Florida teens, Black Lives Matter youths feel ignored,” Chicago Tribune (2 Feb 2018) https://www.chicagotribune.com/columns/dahleen-glanton/ct-met-florida-teens-black-lives-matter-dahleen-glanton-20180223-story.html accessed 21 June 2019.

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