The Value of Dirt

Dr. Ron J. Bigalke

Elisha healed Naaman of leprosy, and thus he offered a gift to the prophet as appreciation for the healing. Elisha refused any payment. Prior to departing for his homeland, Naaman made what appears to be a peculiar request: he wanted to “be given two mules’ load of earth” (2 Kgs 5:17a).

Leprosy was an incurable disease, and many believed it was a divine curse inflicted upon a person for sins they committed. Those who contracted leprosy were despised and loathed, in addition to being shunned from any community with their own people (cf. Numb 5:2). The fear and stigma aroused by leprosy is comparable to AIDS in modern times. Among the many defilements specified in the Mosaic Law, only a dead body was considered more serious than leprosy. Naaman’s desire to thank Elisha for healing him is readily understandable, yet the significance of his request for dirt is not. The truth is that Naaman’s appeal was entirely reasonable, and this article will explain why.

The Desperate Situation
Second Kings 5 changes the scene from Israel to Syria, and from emphasis upon the Israelites to attention upon a Syrian general. Naaman, whose Aramaic name means “gracious” (or “pleasantness”), was an exceptional person. He was “captain of the army of the king of Aram” (under Ben-Hadad II; cf. 1 Kgs 15:18, 20), meaning he had vast responsibilities. His reputation was above reproach: Naaman “was a great man with his master, and highly respected”; he “was also a valiant warrior.” Although he was not a believer in Yahweh, the Lord God granted victory to Aram through Naaman; and, although the specific victory is not revealed, it is evident that God is Lord of the nations, not just Israel (2 Kgs 5:1). Despite all his commendable qualities, “he was a leper” (v. 1); yet even then he still was able to accomplish his responsibilities. Leprosy was progressive (cf. Lev 13—14), and it is evident that Naaman was in the early stages of the disease.

Serving in the home of Naaman was “a little girl from the land of Israel,” who was “taken captive” by the Arameans (2 Kgs 5:2). The faith of the slave girl is remarkable, for she believed that if the prophet Elisha were in Samaria, he could heal Naaman of his leprosy (v. 3). Luke 4:27 reveals the impact of her faith: “‘And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.’” With general unbelief prevalent among Israelites at the time, the faith of the captive servant was quite the contrast. Moreover, such deference from Naaman toward his Jewish servant is certainly an indication that God was effecting a change within him.

When a person is desperately ill, they are generally willing to pursue desperate measures. Naaman approached the king on the basis of his servant’s wish (v. 4). Certainly, the king must have known of Naaman’s leprosy, yet his reputation preceded him and Ben-Hadad approved and authorized Naaman’s expedition to Israel; even sending an exorbitant gift and a personal letter to King Jehoram of Israel (vv. 5-6). The gift was likely the attempt to purchase from Yahweh what the king and his general desired. The letter reflected Naaman’s power and prestige, and in addition to Ben-Hadad’s gift was essentially a command, which Jehoram regarded as provoking a quarrel against him (v. 7; cf. 1 Kgs 20:1-3). Jehoram was oblivious to God’s action, yet Elisha knew the Lord and His activities: “It happened when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes . . . he sent word to the king, saying, ‘Why have you torn your clothes? Now let him come to me, and he shall know that there is a prophet in Israel’” (2 Kgs 5:8).

“So Naaman came with his horses and his chariots and stood at the doorway of the house of Elisha” (v. 9). Naaman was socially superior to Elisha, and wholly expected the prophet’s deference and respect. Unanticipated by Naaman, “Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh will be restored to you and you will be clean’” (v. 10). Naaman thought Elisha would come to him, and “was furious” when the prophet did not (v. 11). His outrage was threefold: (1) Elisha did not gratify the general’s stature (v. 11a); (2) he expected the healing would be based upon some exclusive technique on the part of the prophet (v. 11b); and, (3) Naaman regarded the muddy Jordan River as inferior to “the rivers of Damascus” (v. 12).

Naaman knew what he wanted; his error, however, was that he regarded the healing as a business arrangement or a procedural matter to be satisfied with the wave of a hand. He never imagined the healing would occur through humble submission to God, according to the Lord’s stipulations. Naaman was prepared to return home, until his servants challenged him otherwise (v. 13). “So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child and he was clean” (v. 14). Heeding the word of God’s prophet resulted in the healing that he desired. Through a simple action, the instantaneous effects so remarkably manifested God’s power that Naaman did not return home immediately.

The Dramatic Results
He “returned to the man of God with all his company” to declare his newly founded devotion to God. He confessed, “‘Behold now, I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel” (v. 15). Elisha was not present for the healing, yet it led to the general having faith in the prophet’s God. Not only did Naaman have a new relationship with God, but also his association with Elisha changed. Incredibly thankful for being cured, Naaman pleaded with Elisha to “please take a present from your servant now.” Previously, he was furious that Elisha did not defer to his stature; yet subsequent to the healing, Naaman’s arrogance had dissolved enough for him to regard himself as the prophet’s servant. Elisha knew the miracle concerned God and His glory; thus, he said, “‘As the LORD lives, before whom I stand, I will take nothing.’” Naaman again insisted, but Elisha refused (v. 16).

Naaman earlier dismissed the muddy waters of the Jordan River; but after his conversion, he valued what he formerly detested. The most valuable thing to Naaman was now to “be given two mules’ load of earth” (v. 17). The request certainly appears to be peculiar, yet it was entirely reasonable. Some believe that when Naaman returned to his homeland, his intent was to erect an altar on soil from God’s land. Thus, he was relegating the Lord to the physical land of Israel. While that is possible, there is a better explanation from Naaman himself: “for your servant will no longer offer burnt offering nor will he sacrifice to other gods, but to the LORD” (v. 17b). The request for dirt is not understandable without relating it to Naaman’s conversion to the God of Israel. As “captain of the army of the king of Aram,” Naaman had responsibilities that could not be abandoned; thus, it was not possible for him to relocate to Israel, which is why he wanted to be given “two mules’ load of earth.”

Naaman’s peculiar request was based upon the notion of “holy ground,” which was an important component of Hebrew theology. When the angel of the Lord appeared to Moses “in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush” (Exod 3:2), God called to Moses from the midst of the bush and said, “‘Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground’” (v. 5). Stephen referred to this event in Acts 7:33, and reinforced the truth that Moses was standing on holy ground. Similarly, “the captain of the LORD’s host” appeared before Joshua and said, “‘Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy’” (Josh 5:15).

The concept of “holy ground” is derived from Deuteronomy 32:8, where it states that God “gave the nations their inheritance, when He separated the sons of man, [and] He set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel.” Subsequent to the Lord’s judgment at Babel, “the Lord scattered them [the people] abroad over the face of the whole earth” (Gen 11:9). God effectually disinherited the surrounding nations, and claimed Israel as His “portion . . . the allotment of His inheritance” (Deut 32:9). The effect of the surrounding nations’ disinheritance was the equivalent of Romans 1:18-32, where it is revealed that “God gave them [humanity] over” to their relentless ungodliness and unrighteousness.

God determined to begin anew by calling Abram into a covenant relationship with Himself, resulting in the creation of the nation of Israel. As the sovereign Lord of the nations, God providentially allocated their spheres of dominion and occupation. Israel, “as God’s portion,” was to shun the idolatrous beliefs and practices of the surrounding nations. Israel was, therefore, holy land; the territory of the other nations was not. Nevertheless, the Lord God called Abram for the purpose of His chosen nation being a light to the Gentiles, whereby He would reclaim for Himself every nation of the world.

Naaman reflected the belief that God divided all the land upon the earth, with the territory of surrounding nations being given by divine decree; thus, his conversion is what prompted him to request dirt. His newly founded devotion to the God of Israel was related to the dirt that the Lord administered. Naaman would be returning to the house of Rimmon, an idol worshipped by the Syrians of Damascus, and was prepared to engage in a cosmic geographical war. He believed “there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel” (2 Kgs 5:15), and was determined to return home with holy ground. Although he would have to assist his master to go “into the house of Rimmon to worship there” and bow himself (v. 18), Naaman wanted “holy ground” as indication that he worshipped the one true God. Naaman might bow alongside Ben-Hadad, yet his heart would be given entirely to God. He would be loyal to his master, but not to his king’s god.

Midnight Call - 07/2019

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