Elisha, Naaman and Leprosy
Nnaaman The Syrian Bathes In The Waters Of The Jordan River At The Advice Of The Prophet Elisha And Rids Himself Of His Leprosy (2 Kings 5) Woodcut From The Cologne Bible 1478-80
by Trent Dee Stephens, PhD, for the Come Follow Me lesson July 4-10; 2 Kings 2-7
We read in 2 Kings 5:1, 9-14, “Now Naaman, captain of the host of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master, and honourable, because by him the Lord had given deliverance unto Syria: he was also a mighty man in valour, but he was a leper…So Naaman came with his horses and with his chariot, and stood at the door of the house of Elisha. And Elisha sent a messenger unto him, saying, Go and wash in Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again to thee, and thou shalt be clean. But Naaman was wroth, and went away, and said, Behold, I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and strike his hand over the place, and recover the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? may I not wash in them, and be clean? So he turned and went away in a rage. And his servants came near, and spake unto him, and said, My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean? Then went he down, and dipped himself seven times in Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God: and his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention1, “Hansen’s disease (also known as leprosy) is an infection caused by slow-growing bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae. It can affect the nerves, skin, eyes, and lining of the nose (nasal mucosa). With early diagnosis and treatment, the disease can be cured. People with Hansen’s disease can continue to work and lead an active life during and after treatment.”
“Leprosy was once feared as a highly contagious and devastating disease, but now we know it doesn’t spread easily and treatment is very effective. However, if left untreated, the nerve damage can result in crippling of hands and feet, paralysis, and blindness.”2
Naaman’s leprosy does not seem to have been widespread, for he said that he expected Elisha to, “strike his hand over the place” (italics added). Furthermore, the Hebrew word צָרַע (tsara or tsaraath) and the Greek word λεπρός (lepros), describe a broader range of skin disorders than the more narrow use of the term leprosy related to Hansen’s Disease.3 The Hebrew leprosy law covered “…all manner of plague of leprosy, and scall, And for the leprosy of a garment, and of a house, And for a rising, and for a scab, and for a bright spot...”4 “It is also common that leprosy will spontaneously remit in the absence of active treatment.”5
So Naaman’s leprosy could have been any number of skin disorders and it may have spontaneously remitted, but it apparently didn’t. It was of sufficient concern to him that he sought a cure even from a foreign “prophet that is in Samaria.”6 “Then went he down, and dipped himself seven times in Jordan…and his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”7
A number of questions may be asked here: Did the water of the River Jordan have some medicinal qualities? Did Naaman happen to experience spontaneous remission after bathing in the river? Was Naaman healed by his faith? None of these questions appear to answer the question of Naaman’s cleansing. If the water itself was a cure for leprosy, surely that information would have been well known and wide-spread. There is no evidence that such was the case. A spontaneous remission just at the time of Naaman’s washing in the river seems to be too great of a coincidence to be taken seriously. And Naaman certainly did not have much faith, if any, in the treatment prescribed by Elisha.
Yet, in my opinion, God does not violate natural laws in producing miracles, he works via natural laws that we as yet have not discovered. Today, the miracle for treating leprosy is called multidrug therapy (MDT), which consists of a combination of three medicines: dapsone, rifampicin and clofazimine. Over a six to twelve month treatment, MDT kills the pathogen and cures the patient. Today, many countries that used to have leprosy cases now report having none.
In the early years of the 20th century, German chemists, such as Paul Ehrlich, discovered that certain dyes can kill microbes, and thus the pharmaceutical industry rose from the dye industries. In fact, by the middle of the century, a huge chemical/pharmacology conglomerate, called IG Farben arose in Germany, which means, in German, “IG Dyestuffs,” or Interessengemeinschaft Farbenindustrie AG (“Dye industry syndicate stock corporation”). Following dissolution of the company after World War II and several rearrangements, the main companies today coming from IG Farben are Agfa, BASF, Bayer and Sanofi.
Like all synthesized chemicals, the synthesis of dapsone, rifampicin and clofazimine all begin with natural materials: dapsone is ultimately derived from tree bark, the stuff from which rifampicin is produced comes from a particular bacterium, and clofazimine comes from a dye derived from coal tar. Maybe God caused a certain combination of chemical reactions at the specific time of Naaman’s immersion in the Jordan, so that a bacterial bloom corresponded to a time when natural oil was leaking into the river from a coal deposit, and a specific tree had fallen into the river upstream. However, that combination of chemicals in the water still would have taken six to twelve months to work on the leprosy. We are told that when Naaman “…dipped himself seven times in Jordan…his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”8That sounds like he was clean from the time he emerged from the river the seventh time. Was the healing immediate, or did it actually occur over a period of time and was only reported as appearing immediately. What would we have seen had we been there on the banks of the Jordan?
Even though we know how to cure leprosy today, the process of manufacturing the drugs is long and complicated, and the treatment must continue over several months. And although we can begin to have a glimpse of maybe how God performed the miracle of curing Naaman’s leprosy, we are a long way from understanding how. Although I believe that all miracles ultimately have a natural explanation, we are still a long way from having those explanations at present.
Trent Dee Stephens, PhD
1. CDC; cdc.gov
3. Grzybowski, Andrzej; Nita, Małgorzata, Leprosy in the Bible, Clinics in Dermatology, 34: 3–7, 2016
4. Leviticus 14:54–56
5. Makhakhe, Lehlohokolo, Leprosy Review, So. Afr. Fam. Pract, 63:5311-5316, 2004
6. 2 Kings 5:3
7. 2 Kings 5:14