Bible Studies

Two Mules’ Load of Earth


God’s Grace to Naaman

How does a Christian respond to bowing before idols and superstitious attachment to material objects? I’m thinking specifically about the mules, dirt and external idolatry in Naaman’s request recorded in 2 Kings 5:17. The commander of the army of the king of Aram wants enough Israelitic dirt to set up an embassy to Yahweh within the borders of the false god, Rimmon. The request is found in the wonderful story of grace abounding to the chief of sinners, when our Lord God healed Naaman, the leper.

Like all Bible stories, it is a story rooted in sovereign, electing grace: “And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:27.)

And like all stories of God’s unmerited love and grace in Jesus Christ, it continues to anger those who think that they can win God’s favor by their own deeds: “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff.” (Luke 4:28, 29.)

Who is this Naaman? He is the chief terrorist henchman of Syria. He is valiant for Israel’s great enemy and has shed much Israelite blood. Yet this great and powerful man now must mask the fearful marks of opprobrium in the ancient Near East—leprosy.

In God’s extreme mercy, he finds complete and instant healing the moment that he dips himself seven times in the Jordan. But this effusion of proto-baptismal grace does more than cleanse his flesh: his heart is changed. Like others born into the nations of Israel’s enemies, such as Rahab and Ruth, Naaman becomes a follower of the one, true God. He confesses his faith and seeks to show his gratitude by bringing an offering: ‘Returning to Elisha with his whole escort, he went in and, presenting himself, said, “Now I know that there is no God anywhere on earth except in Israel. Now, please, accept a present from your servant.”’ (2 Kings 5:15, Jerusalem Bible.)

But the man of God will do nothing to undermine the grace of God—God’s mercy cannot be bought or obtained by human wealth or merit, and so ‘Elisha replied, “As Yahweh lives, whom I serve, I will accept nothing.” (2 Kings 5:16.) Even after ‘Naaman pressed him to accept,’ again ‘he refused.’ (2 Kings 5:16.)

The gods of the pagans exact a terrible sacrifice; their priests are fat from the misery of others. It must not be so with those who follow the nail-pierced footsteps of the one who confessed, “the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” On the contrary, “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” (Luke 9:58; Matthew 10:8.)

But Naaman must worship the God who has saved him; he is compelled to serve and adore this God, Yahweh, alone, to the end of his life, even though duty calls him from afar: ‘Then Naaman said, “Since your answer is ‘No,’ allow your servant to be given as much earth as two mules may carry, since your servant will no longer make burnt offerings or sacrifice to any god except Yahweh.”’ (2 Kings 5:17.) “I am carrying soil from elsewhere into Syria in order to bear concrete witness to the presence of the one true God who cannot be loved and served on this soil, the soil of Baal, Rimmon, and Ishtar.” (Jacques Ellul, “Naaman,” The Politics of God and the Politics of Man, p. 36)

What an incredible request Naaman now makes. His theology is completely wrong. In spite of his confession “that there is no God anywhere on earth except in Israel,” he is not far removed from the Syrian notion that Yahweh is a mountain God. ‘The officials of the king of Aram advised him, “Their gods are gods of the hills. That is why they were too strong for us. But if we fight them on the plains, surely we will be stronger than they.”’ (1 Kings 20:23.)

In his newly found grace, he concocts a “wonderful” plan. He will take two mules and load them up with as much dirt from Israel as they can carry, and he will set up a shrine to Yahweh right in his own back yard, a kind of foreign embassy to a foreign God. But this God is now his God, and he will serve him to length of days.

Yet this complex and simple man is aware of other demands: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” He is in the world and must do the world’s work the world’s way: “Only—and may Yahweh forgive your servant for this—when my master goes to the temple of Rimmon to worship there, he leans on my arm, and I bow down in the temple of Rimmon when he does; may Yahweh forgive your servant for doing this!” (2 Kings 5:18.)

What an outrage! How wonderfully served would Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego have been had they thought of it. (Daniel 3.) ‘Inwardly, I will serve only Yahweh, but sometimes I’ve got to act like I’m serving the demonic. I live in the “real” world, and I’ve got to get my hands dirty.’

I am reminded of a story that my favorite undergraduate professor told me. He had served as a chaplain in the United States Army during the Korean Conflict. One day a soldier came to him after observing a particularly brutal day as American artillery pounded a distant village. “Thank God, I’m a cook, Chaplain. I couldn’t live with all that blood on my conscience.”

My friend replied, “Those soldiers couldn’t fire that artillery if you weren’t their cook.” This pastor would offer the troubled soldier no cheap grace or conscience salve; he would leave the soldier in the same tension that he himself experienced as a chaplain, a tension that never allows us to stray too far from the foot of the Cross.

Elisha doesn’t offer cheap grace either. He puts no imprimatur on Naaman’s rationalizations; he offers him no Talmudic list to be followed in exact detail. But neither will he crush the budding repentance of this Syrian neophyte or snuff out the embers of infant faith. Following in the footsteps of Jesus, “A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory. And in his name shall the Gentiles trust.” (Matthew 12:20, 21; Isaiah 42:3.)

‘”Go in peace,” Elisha replied.’ (2 Kings 5:19.)

Go in peace? Go with Yahweh’s benediction, given through the true prophet of God? How can this be? How can such works justify such a faith? How can Naaman go as a true worshipper of the true God, in defiance of all the strictures of divine revelation? How indeed?

Naaman’s obedience, like that of Rahab, is an obedience that is morally bankrupt without Christ. A lying harlot acts within her own cultural and ethical milieu, lying through her teeth as an act of faith in the God of Israel: “From now on, this God will be my God and the God of my family. I will leave my life of sin and cleave to him and his people.” Yet even in her act of leaving—her most righteous act, an act that justifies her faith as true faith—she is not without sin—she lies—it is the way of life of the harlot. That’s why her wonderfully righteous act, borne of faith, can never justify her without union with Christ. But now she lies in the simplicity of her newly found faith: by SIN, she turns from her sin. And by faith, she is united to Christ and right with God. All her sins are pardoned; all her imperfect obedience viewed as perfect.

It is the same with each of us. Our Lord Jesus Christ died for our sins, but he died for our good works, too. Without the perfect work of Christ, we can have no act of obedience because in the sight of God “all our righteous acts are like a garment stained with the blood of menses” . . . odious, repulsive and unclean. (Isaiah 64:6.) But “in Christ” our sin-tainted obedience is reckoned as true obedience, fully righteous through our Lord Jesus Christ. And being justified through faith alone, we add works to our faith, and those profoundly imperfect works are profoundly acceptable to God through the perfect obedience and bloody death of the Son of God.

Naaman’s foolish obedience is accepted as true obedience, the obedience of one who is right with God by means of faith alone. Naaman’s faith is justified as right faith by means of his works. His works are accepted as good works, even though they are defiled with sin and foolishness, and he receives the gospel benediction: “Go in peace.”

Bob Vincent