“There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
Much has been written, in the fields of anthropology, ethnography, ethics, and religious studies about gift-giving, sacrificing, and offering since the last century. From Marcel Mauss’ classic The Gift, to the relatively recent book by Moshe Halbertal On Sacrifice, understanding the dynamics involved in giving (and for-giving) seems to be crucial to unveil some of the fundamental tenets of our interpersonal relationships, may them be among humans, or with the divine.
For example, Halbertal’s book On Sacrifice presents us with the possibility of having one’s offering being rejected. In which circumstances are we allowed to reject a gift? Why would God have rejected Cain’s offering? What happens when someone rejects a sacrifice, a gift, an offering? Can we simply say “no, thanks, you keep it” to that uncle who has “sacrificed” some of his time and money to give us (again) a pack of three handkerchiefs for Christmas?
As Halbertal explains, “the goal of the sacrifice is to produce a gift cycle,”
“[but] the risk of rejection is inherent in the act of sacrifice. Why Cain’s offering was refused is a mystery, and the different explanations that have been proposed in the scholarly literature are inadequate. The text itself does not provide any substantive reason. This silence is significant; it is essential to this form of rejection that it remains inexplicable.”
Can we say the same thing about Elisha’s rejection of Naaman’s gift?
The biblical text (Cf. 2 Kgs 5:14-17) explains Naaman was a Syrian warlord, who suffered from a grave skin condition (most likely, leprosy). An Israelite maid he had captured advised him to go see the prophet Elisha. Naaman then traveled to Samaria to see Elisha, but the prophet never received him: he just sent a messenger to meet Naaman and his entourage by the door. It is Elisha’s messenger who tells Naaman to take seven dips in the river Jordan.
Now, Naaman is not an Israelite. He is unfamiliar with the Jewish tradition of the ritual bath (mikveh) as it appears in several sections of the book of Leviticus (for example, in Lev. 14:1-12, where God himself tells Moses the ritual for cleansing one with a skin disease). Most likely, Naaman would have expected Elisha would come out of his house to perform some ritual, or that he would have led him to some special “magic” place to heal him. Elisha, instead, just tells him what God had already told Moses. Nothing new under the sun there.
When Naaman hears what the servant tells him, he gets quite angry, and decides to go back home unhealed. But his slaves suggest to him that he really has nothing to lose by giving it a try: Elisha’s instructions are actually quite easy to follow. Naaman then takes his bath in the Jordan river (as a mikveh) and is healed. As he found himself cured, he praised Elisha’s god and wanted to thank the prophet by giving him presents.
But Elisha refused. Why?
This biblical passage is full of stark contrasts. The first one is that between the faith and humility of Naaman’s young servant (who barely knows of Elisha and still is willing to tell her master to go meet the prophet) and that of Naaman himself, who traveled all the way to Elisha’s house and was yet willing to leave uncured simply because the prophet did not receive him in person.
This is the second contrast we find in this story: that of the pomp of Naaman and Elisha’s humbleness. Naaman comes to Elisha, the text tells us, “taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing.” Elisha, instead, had barely an instruction to give, and one that was not even his own: the good old “go take a ritual bath in the Jordan.” Too proud to follow the prophet’s all-too-simple instruction, Naaman almost goes back home still a leper!
The third one is, then, that of the gifts: Naaman insists on giving Elisha some gift (the text doesn’t specify what, but one can assume that it might have to do with Naaman’s “six thousand shekels of gold”), but Elisha refuses him, saying “As surely as the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.”
This is where Halbertal’s remarks might come in handy: if a gift is supposed to start a “gift cycle,” why is Elisha not willing to partake in it?
First and foremost, Naaman’s healing is not Elisha’s gift: it is a gift freely bestowed by the grace of God, and Elisha is well aware of that. God is the one who gives, not Elisha. It would be simply wrong for Elisha to accept Naaman’s gift, given the fact the prophet has not performed the healing himself, but God. This seems to be, to a certain extent, self-evident.
But also, Elisha’s rejection seems to suggest God is more of a giver than of a taker, and his gifts do not aim to setting an “economical” cycle of gift-giving and exchange with anyone: he freely gives his Grace (in fact, this is what the word Grace strictly means: gratuity, something freely given beyond one’s obligation), which always exceeds measure or merit.
Christian theology has always depicted Naaman as the paradigmatic case of God’s will to save people we would normally considered as being unworthy of salvation: Naaman is not even an Israelite, and doesn’t share the prophet’s faith. How could he engage in traditional Israelite ritual? Interestingly, the Septuagint (the classic translation of the Old Testament into Greek) uses the word baptizein (to baptize) for Naaman’s immersions in the Jordan River. Because of this, Christian commentators have often interpreted the history of Naaman’s story as a typological prefiguration of the Christian church rite of baptism, in which God’s grace is freely given to a person who is not quite yet a Christian: in the end, it is a message of God’s grace going to meet the person where the person is, regardless of merit, unconditionally, asking nothing in return.