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Naaman, Dirt, and Territorial Gods
The Canonical Function of 2 Kings 5:17-19

Dennis Bratcher

Some exegetes have raised questions about the "orthodoxy" of Elisha's actions in response to Naaman the Syrian's professed conversion to the worship of Israel's God. For some, there seems to be a polytheistic dimension to the Naaman story when he requests permission to take home to Syria two donkey-loads of dirt from Israel in order to worship the God who had healed him (2 Kings 5:1-19). Some historians and scholars who trace the development of biblical traditions (tradition critics) have suggested that this detail reflects an older pagan idea of territorial deities, that the gods only governed certain geographical regions. Thus Chemosh, the god of the Moabites was only god in Moab, and Yahweh, the God of the Israelites was only God in Israel. Naaman's request seems to make a remarkable concession to this notion of territorial deities. Some have noted that Elisha's blessing of Naaman ("Go in peace") even seems to give approval to the idea.

This view would understand that Naaman considered Yahweh, the God of the Israelites, to be the god of that specific land. He could not worship Yahweh in his land of Aram unless he had a piece of Yahweh 's land on which to worship. Whether he stood on it or fashioned it into an altar, the dirt had to come from Yahweh 's land to make his worship acceptable. Biblical traditions indeed show that the Israelites struggled with this very problem during the exile. They had difficulty accepting the idea that they could worship Yahweh anywhere, even in an "unclean" land. The passage in Deuteronomy 32:8-9 (as one among many) lends support to the acceptance of the territorial aspect of Yahweh and the gods of the nations.

In spite of the stretch of logic and perversion of theology required, other moderns have even picked up this idea as evidence for the idea of "territorial spirits," demons that control or influence human beings in certain geographical locations. This has even been extended to using this passage to argue that certain locations are so under the control of these territorial demons that they are "cursed" and unsafe for Christians.

The Historical  Background

First, there does seem to be little question that Israel along with other ancient Near Eastern peoples began with the idea of localized deities, or with the idea that certain gods inhabited certain places or things (a form of animism). At the very least, the texts seem to imply that Israel greatly valued certain physical places that they considered holy. This seems evident in many details of various texts, for example, Moses and the "holy ground" of Horeb. The idea of building altars "in every place where I cause my name to be remembered," interestingly enough in the context of building an altar of dirt (Ex 20:24), might well be an earlier concession to the idea of localized deities even though this was later forbidden in the post-exilic Deuteronomic community (Deut 12).

The very fact of the existence of early tribal shrines at Bethel, Shiloh, Gilgal, and Shechem that were most likely earlier Ba’al shrines seems to reflect this as well. There are references to various sacred trees (Gen 12:6) or rocks (Gen 28:18). Giving these sacred spots a Yahwistic etiology, as in the case of Jacob’s vision at Bethel or the revelation to Abraham at the Oak of Moreh, seems an attempt to "sanctify" what were originally pagan sites, perhaps even predating Ba’al worship. That observation is not a condemnation of the Israelites for doing so, only to point out that the idea of holy places carried into Israelite thinking even as it was adapted to Yahwism.

The practice of marking the sites of significant events with rocks or altars may also carry vestiges of the idea of localized deities who were in control of specific areas, although these are always converted in the Deuteronomic History to Yahweh events with the didactic purpose of remembering. And of course, there are even more significant examples that drift into the political arena, as in the case of Ahaz building the altar to Asshur in Jerusalem as a sign of allegiance to Assyria, a symbol of Asshur taking control of Yahweh’s domain. This connection between territorial control and deity made Hezekiah’s religious reforms an act of political rebellion.

Israel did struggle during the exile to come to terms with the idea that Yahweh could be worshipped outside his land. Ezekiel even turns this into a lovely priestly metaphor in describing the departure of the "glory" of Yahweh from the land because it had been so polluted by sin as to become unclean and uninhabitable for Yahweh.

There is even some sophisticated theological reflection in Deuteronomy 32 that seems to refer to national or ethnic deities. However, I am not so sure this is actually a vestige of the idea of localized deities remaining in the text as much as it is a deliberately archaizing metaphorical construction using the imagery of Yahweh as the high God presiding over a heavenly council of the gods (thus the use of "Elyon" for Yahweh). I think the significance in that text is not just that Israel thought each nation had its own gods, but that nascent Judaism was trying to come to terms with how they should live in a diverse world as God’s people.

This picks up much the same theme as Amos 9 and Jonah 3 in portraying God as the God of all peoples. The "sons of God" (LXX, Q), the deities of the other nations, are all part of God’s reign as King over all the earth. This is not an admission of polytheism; in fact, it is precisely the opposite. It is an affirmation that there is only God, no matter who the other nations claim to worship. Again, this is not universalism, because in Deuteronomy as well as much of the post-exilic literature the emphasis falls not only on Israel’s faithfulness to Yahweh, but also on her witness to the world (as in Isaiah 58) of the "name" of Yahweh.

Contextual Perspectives

While the taking of two loads of dirt in order to worship God in Syria may sound like nearly a magical notion, in spite of what the tradition historians say I am not at all convinced that this passage in 2 Kings 5 reflects vestiges of territorial deities as it stands in the text. If we allow the priority of pre-literary stages of the text as identified by those who trace the history of the development of biblical traditions to dominate how we read the text, then we have to deal with the text as possibly reflecting vestiges of localized gods. That is certainly a form of polytheism. In this case, Naaman would have simply been adding the worship of Yahweh, the territorial deity of Israel, to the worship of the gods who lived back home in Syria. However, if we do not place such a priority on the pre-canonical form of the tradition and read it in its immediate context, as well as the context of the larger structure of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic History, this detail does not seem at all to point in this direction.

We know from other places that altars could be constructed from either unhewn stone or from earth, so there would be nothing especially unusual about using the dirt itself. And there is no hint within the present story of any magical inference associated with the dirt, a fact that I think a canonical reading of the text must take seriously. In the context of the present story, this is simply presented as an act of authentic piety by a Syrian (!) toward Israel’s God whom he has just encountered in a significant way. Naaman is not condemned for his action, which would seem important for the Deuteronomist to do if this were an element in the story that posed any threat to Israel’s understanding of Yahweh. Rather, in the immediate context of the wars with Aram, this becomes an extraordinary commentary on the graciousness of Yahweh toward other people beyond the borders of Israel. In fact, the following chapter portrays Elisha dealing kindly with Arameans, which led to a period of relative peace between Aram and Israel.

There are other intersecting themes in this story that serve to present rather sophisticated theological reflection in the form of carefully crafted narrative. For example, there is the simple comment in 5:1 that through Naaman God had given victory to the Arameans, which is contrasted with the later blinding and defeat of the Aramean army when it confronts Israel. And there is the contrast of Gehazi, the greedy and deceitful servant of Elisha, with the pious and sincere foreigner Naaman. And, as Luke notes so well in Jesus’ response to the misguided expectations of the homefolk crowd at Nazareth, the traditions give prominent place to Elisha and God at work among people outside Israel. These are markers that point to the heart of the narrative that also subsume some of the (pre-literary and historical) details within the larger theological purpose.

The main point here is that we allow Scripture to speak (or, depending on how postmodern one wants to be, that we listen to the text) as it stands, and not become overly preoccupied with pre-literary historical background that is not a significant feature of the text within a larger context. There are certainly places where historical and cultural background are crucial to hearing the text, as in Genesis 1-2. However, there it is not so much the use of pre-literary historical aspects of the text as it is acknowledging features of the text that compel us to read it against that historical and cultural background (the symbolism of water, the ruach from God, etc.). There are no such compelling features in this particular text, and the immediate context of the narrative, as well as the larger context of the Deuteronomic History, leads us in a different direction.

So, while some pre-literary stage of the text, or the historical background of Israel, may admit localized deities, the way this particular text about Naaman functions in the Deuteronomic History does not really address any of that. In context, it is simply an outworking of the theme in the Elisha narratives framed by the Deuteronomic History of Yahweh as the God of all people, exemplified by the pious yet culturally conditioned response of Naaman the Aramean to Yahweh’s gracious act through Elisha. I think to introduce the idea of localized deities in Namaan’s actions, while an interesting historical tidbit, does not contribute to hearing the story, and in fact may obscure seeing how the story functions within the larger narrative.

Some have observed that the Deuteronomic History may have preserved older materials without entirely reworking them into a specific theological agenda, as has been suggested by many redaction critics. They suggest this as the reason we get "loose ends" when we try to interpret texts from only one historical perspective, especially from the perspective of the exilic or post-exilic era. For example, one of the "loose ends" of this story is the detail that Gehazi and his family is cursed with leprosy (5:27), yet he is later in conversation with the king (8:4), something that seems impossible in view of the strict priestly law codes that quarantined people with leprosy.

The existence of such "loose ends" is one reason I would prefer to speak of a Deuteronomic framework for older traditions rather than a thorough Deuteronomic redaction of the material to make it totally fit a post-exilic agenda. I don’t think it is so much that the Deuteronomist strove for consistency in rewriting the material, as it is that the earlier traditions were placed into a theologically interpretative framework that gave them a certain shaping. That allows very old details of Israel’s struggle to come to a more "pure" form of monotheism to stand side by side with the Deuteronomist’s own post-exilic perspective. The exilic shaping of the earlier traditions was not so much in the content of the traditions themselves as in how they were arranged and connected by key theological speeches, summaries, or comments that served as interpretative commentary for the traditions (for example, in the dedication prayer of Solomon, or the summary of the cycles of oppressions and deliverance at the beginning of Judges).

This is why I see significance in a larger macrostructure for the D-History that allows it to be read in conjunction with, or even as commentary upon, the Pentateuch (or Hexateuch, or even Tetrateuch, depending on how one divides the sources and redaction; for a summary of some of these issues, see History and Theology in Joshua and Judges). It also suggests that, in a way similar to Jesus’ parables, some of the narratives must be read with discernment and a sensitivity to what they would say to people who were willing to hear the story from a point later in history (for example, the Gideon story), rather than simply trying to reconstruct the earlier pre-literary history.

Yet, in the context of the narrative, it does not appear that Naaman’s actions in serving his king are presented as idolatry or polytheism at all. This detail of the story acknowledges that while this may not be the ideal way to worship, it may be the only way in which Naaman can be a Yahweh-worshipper. In fact, this may actually be the significance of including the detail of the dirt, to acknowledge the sincerity of Naaman’s commitment.

Intertextual Dynamics: Balancing Voices

As far as Elisha approving a pagan practice by his blessing, I think we need a different perspective on the story than just reading it through later more developed ideas of monotheism. Perhaps we are too accustomed to reading Jewish monotheism through the very narrow lens of post-exilic priestly concerns, for example, as reflected in Ezra and Nehemiah (especially Neh. 13). That the post-exilic community was concerned, almost preoccupied, with "getting it right" this time around is clear from those passages and others.

Yet, while the prophetic tradition was somewhat eclipsed during this era by the priests, the Deuteronomic tradition was very active in the same period in its attempts to mediate between the cultic and in some cases legalistic aspects of the priestly views, and the pessimism of the prophetic corpus to that time. What emerged was a Deuteronomic redaction, or at least shaping, of the prophetic traditions like Jeremiah and the earlier Twelve (Amos, Hosea) that allowed a strong call to monotheism without the heavy emphasis on cultic concerns that emerged in the priestly tradition (e.g., in Ezekiel or Haggai).

The Deuteronomic traditions, which include post-exilic redactions of the Former Prophets (Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings) as well as some of the Prophetic books (Jeremiah), linked the call to monotheism with the nature of the gracious God who had revealed himself in Israel’s history (e.g., Deut 7:7-26). By so doing, they anchored faithfulness to God, not in the specific performance of external acts of piety, but in faithful response to that grace in all aspects of life. That came close to grounding faithfulness to God in the intentions of the heart, while at the same time allowed God to work in ways that could not be totally defined within the framework of cultic practice.

So, for example, in Amos there is the acknowledgement that God was somehow involved in a Philistine and Syrian exodus (Am 9:7-8), in Jonah that God is concerned with Ninevites, and in Samuel that God desires obedience more than he desires sacrifice. There is even the anti-cultic stance of some of the prophets, like Jeremiah’s statement that God had never commanded the Israelites to offer sacrifices in the wilderness (Jer 7:22-23), or Isaiah’s well-known polemic against insincere worship (Isa. 1:10-20).

The effect of this perspective in the context of the Deuteronomic traditions is to define relationship with God as response to grace rather than as obedience to law (see Torah as Holiness). The warnings against idolatry remain strong in the Deuteronomic traditions. Yet, with its emphasis on grace and the nature of a God who chooses to be gracious, there is absent the negative emphasis on judgment that dominates the prophets (there are still the "curses" on unfaithfulness in Deuteronomy, but they are specifically historicized in terms of loss of the land). Also absent is the preoccupation with purity and less worry about contamination from any trace of Ba’al worship than occurs in late post-exilic priestly collections (Leviticus, Ezra-Nehemiah).

All this suggests that in spite of the dominant priestly tradition in the post-exilic era, there still remained a counter voice in the community warning of excessive emphasis on proper cultic performance and the preoccupation with religious purity (Job is another and different counter voice to religious orthodoxy in this era). That larger setting for the Naaman story within the Deuteronomic history allows the emphasis in that story to fall on the fact that God has accepted a Syrian who will worship God outside Israel rather than on the dangers associated with the fact that he must do so in a pagan environment.

In the larger structure of the Deuteronomic History, this story may well be an apology for Jews in the Diaspora who must remain faithful to God in just such environments (the book of Daniel deals with this same issue from a different direction). In this sense, there is not really an accommodation to pagan worship, only the acknowledgement that God is God of all people, everywhere, an emerging theme of post-exilic theology (e.g., Jonah). And yet, there is, indeed, the "practical" dimension of how that will work out in a real world. The fact that Naaman must ask forgiveness for participating in some way in pagan worship (1 Kings 5:18) is a clear indication that this is not the "best" way; that would be, for the Deuteronomist, to worship at the temple in Jerusalem. But since that is impossible for Naaman, or for many Jews who would remain in the Diaspora, the emphasis falls on the fact that they are faithful to God even in less than ideal circumstances.

If we want to make this theological here, I think the blessing that the prophet pronounces is on Namaan’s declared intention of worshipping Yahweh alone, even though the "real-life" practice of that may not be done under ideal conditions. I recall reading about Jews’ decision to observe Passover with water and leavened bread in Auschwitz, even when they were not sure what day it was! The point was not whether it was sacrilegious to do so, but that they were doing it at all given the circumstances (I have celebrated Eucharist with warm orange soda and tortillas).

So, I think this is a Deuteronomic way of working out the implications of being the people of God in a real world, maintaining the strong monotheism that the exile had produced while acknowledging that God and relationship with him is "bigger" than what could be confined within cultic practice or even within correct religious orthodoxy as defined by the priests.

It is perhaps the same "spirit" of the torah that allows Jesus to remain silent on certain matters, like slavery, or that even allows Paul to return an escaped slave to his owner. That can be no justification for slavery, no more than Elisha’s concession to Naaman was an approval of polytheism. Rather, it has much more to do with what is possible within certain constraints of history. It is an affirmation that there may be more important issues at stake than those defined by the need to protect the community from contamination, as important as the priestly tradition understood that to be. That may well have relevance in addressing issues within modern culture. It may also be an admission that the tension between those who would preserve and protect and those who would advocate a liberating God of grace is not a new one, and is not likely to be solved by either side capitulating to the other.

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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