Naaman’s permission to worship idols 2 Kings 5:18

The case of Naaman the Syrian in 2 Kings 5:18 is a challenging verse because it challenges our theological assumptions. Either no attempt was made to save Naaman or God allows massive doctrinal flexibility.

Having been miraculously cured of his leprosy, Naaman the Syrian declared his allegiance solely to the God of Israel in 2 Kings 5:17.  However he asks for forbearance on an exception to this loyalty.  Once he returned home, Naaman will have to accompany his king to the temple of Rimmon and worship there.  The NRSV (along with many other translations like the KJV, NASB, ESV and NIV) reflect the duplication in the words of Naaman in his request:

when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow down in the house of Rimmon, when I do bow down in the house of Rimmon, may the Lord pardon your servant on this one count

2 Kings 5:18 (NRSV)

Rimmon was an Aramean god, the name means thunderer, or thunder-god and is presumed to be a title of Hadad (their chief god)[1].  Worship of Rimmon was part of the political scene.  Ben-Hadad was the name of Naaman’s king (2 Kings 6:24) and other Syrian kings are named after Rimmon (1 Kings 15:18).  Naaman was a key advisor to the king – if not the chief advisor.  The expression that the king “leaned on his arm” tells us this plainly.  This expression occurs in 2 Kings 7:2,17 as a position or title of the official who advised the king of Israel.  Naaman would therefore be in a dilemma – attendance on the king meant attending the temple, and more.  It required personal worship of Rimmon.

Twice Naaman refers to bowing down himself.  The duplication appears original.  Montgomery notes the duplication likely led to some alteration in some (but not all) Greek versions to remove the duplication – probably to smooth the difficulty of Naaman continuing to worship a foreign god[2].  The stumbling, repetitious sentence more likely reflects Naaman’s uncertainty as he negotiates the boundaries of his new commitment[3].  It certainly narrows down the interpretive options, as the NIV Application Commentary suggests there is a chiasm which emphasises the personal involvement of Naaman in the worship:

For this thing

may the Lord pardon your servant

when my lord comes to the house of Rimmon to worship there

and he leans on my hand

and I worship in the house of Rimmon (when I worship in the house of Rimmon)

may the Lord pardon your servant

for this thing.[4]

The Hebrew verb here ( hishtachavāh):

appears 170 times in the OT with the following meanings: “bow (politely or respectfully),” “prostrate oneself,” “make obeisance” (proskyneín), “bend low (in worship or as a mark of respect).”[5]

Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament

The same form appears several times in Samuel/Kings of worshipping God or bowing to a superior (1 Sam1:3, 1 Sam 2:36, 2 Sam 15:5).  The Babylonian Talmud (compiled by 5th century AD) quotes from 2 Kings 5:18 while making comment on other matters, clearly understands Naaman is saying he will:

prostrate myself also in the house of Rimmon[6].

Elisha surely should have said no

The correct answer to Naaman’s request is easy.  Naaman shouldn’t be going into the temple of Rimmon and certainly shouldn’t be worshipping there!  The start of the ten commandments instructs:

You shall not bow down to them [idols/other gods] or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God

Exod 20:5 NET

We might also think about God’s description of the faithful as those who hadn’t bowed to Baal in 1 Kings 19:18 or the three young princes in Daniel 3 who refused to bow down to Babylonian king’s idol despite the prospect of certain death.  The consistent message of the Old Testament writers was a hard no to worshipping other gods or idols.  The New Testament takes a similar line (“guard yourselves from idols” 1 John 5:21.  While Paul theoretically calls idols nothing 1 Cor 8:4 he imperative to avoid idols (even though they were nothing) continued into the New Testament counsels fleeing from them 1 Cor 10:14 saying eating and drinking at pagan temples was an impossible dualism 1 Cor 10:21.  Rev2:20 is also clearly quite anti participation in pagan food.  Should Naaman (or say you or I) be given special permission to worship an idol?  Or should he have abstained from every appearance of evil (1 Thes 5:22)?  The weight of Scripture is very clearly saying no.

Yet Elisha the prophet gives permission for this activity to occur.  As Brueggemann notes:

The prophet understands and takes no umbrage at the political realism[7]

Walter Brueggemann

But the theological implications!  The exception to the clear teaching of Old and New Testaments sits uneasily with many who want a consistent strict compliance to (their) orthodoxy.  So we see questions posed like:

Is this a terrible compromise?  Is Naaman failing in this circumstance to manifest the courage of his convictions?[8]

The Lampstand Magazine

Many ‘answers’ place theological presuppositions above the actual text

Some solutions to the apparent theological difficult don’t treat the text very well.  The text is squeezed into pre-existing theological frameworks rather than being allowed to speak for itself.  For example Jamieson records the suggest that:

The Hebrew should be amended to an expression of regret for past worship and says nothing about the future[9]

However there appears to be no support for this alteration of the Hebrew.

Jamieson also records the suggests that because Naaman wasn’t a willing participant his worship of the idol didn’t count[10].  This excuses the behaviour based on a presumption that Naaman was unable to consent to the worship.  The presumption is reasonable.  Monarchs in the ANE were absolute rulers and to upset them could result in rapid execution.  On rare exceptions some did accommodate religious exceptions among their favourites (eg Daniel later in his life).  If, as was likely though, Naaman was unable to gain an exemption should he bear no responsibility to resist?  The young Jewish princes who resisted Nebuchadnezzar’s command to worship an idol didn’t see the compulsion as a reason to suspend principle.  Such a solution paints all martyrs as misguided fools.  Should we never resist the tyrant?  Both Hebrews 12:4 and the example of the apostles in the early chapters of Acts demonstrate a faithful willingness to resist, contrary to the exemption granted Naaman. 

Another suggestion is to deny Naaman was personally worshipping in the house of Rimmon.  Because the king was leaning on Naaman’s right hand and the king was bowing some claim this would cause Naaman to physically lower himself[11].  So he wasn’t actually worshipping, just being pushed down. 

This solution fails on three grounds.  Firstly it misunderstands the idiom of leaning on the right hand to be literal rather than an expression of a political position.  Secondly it also ignores the repetitive emphasis in 2 Kings 5:18 where Naaman repeats his personal involvement in the worship.  Finally, somewhat like the second ‘solution’ it tries to argue that because Naaman didn’t mean it the apparent action didn’t count.  Paul, in the context of meat offered to idols, says our actions should be constrained by the perspective of unbelievers and by the care of the believers (1 Cor 10:27-32).  Naaman’s declaration of loyalty solely to YHWH would ring hollow to his fellow Assyrians if he appeared for all intents and purposes to be worshipping Rimmon – even if he had some fingers crossed behind his back.  And such a “but not really” approach might impact the faithful servant girl who recommended Elisha to Naaman in the first place. 

A third path is suggested by Constable:

Naaman had a lower responsibility to orthodoxy as he wasn’t fully educated like an Israelite so the exception was ok[12]

Charles Simeon’s classic commentary makes a similar argument that like a new convert not everything was necessary all at once[13].  The lower responsibility argument has in its favour the principle of relative responsibility expressed by Jesus in Luke 12:48:

From everyone who has been given much, much will be required, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, even more will be asked (NET)

On the other hand it allows that seemingly foundational rules, like the 10 commandments, to be adjusted for relative knowledge.  Assuming Naaman was saved (insert your definition here) it seems like a very flexible approach given the clear teaching on idolatry and Naaman’s own profession of exclusive worship.  Should missionaries immediately be rejected as Terry Pratchett recommended to avoid knowledge and therefore responsibility[14]?  Jesus commissioned his disciples to spread knowledge – teaching and learning is considered a good thing throughout the Bible. Much to the New Testament is occupied with correcting doctrinal misunderstandings and the importance of getting at least fundamentals right is spelt out strongly (eg Gal 1:6-9).

Of the above solutions this seems to have the most going for it though – despite some significant reservations.  It doesn’t alter the sense of the text and tries to provide a principled framework for understanding it.  If the suggestion is correct (a big if), it demonstrates seemingly fundamental principles are up for negotiation based on circumstances. While mercy might rejoice against judgement, this seems to be a massive concession by God. That’s either super hearting or incorrect.

However it there is perhaps another way.

A suggestion

Many of the suggested solutions to the passage include an undisclosed assumption – Naaman was “saved” (whatever your personal theological understanding of the word is).  The miracle of his healing and contact with Elisha saw a change in the man’s salvation status as amazing as the change in his skin.  Post leprosy cure Naaman is assumed to be a faithful servant of God and right with God.  But is this assumption valid?

Naaman’s healing saw him vow singular cultic loyalty to YHWH with a specific significant exception.  The text never suggests Naaman was “saved” in a New Testament or modern Christian sense.  There is no suggestion that he became circumcised – a critical element of being right with God in the Old Testament (for Jew and Gentile).  Jesus mentions Naaman’s healing in Luke 4:27 but doesn’t comment on Naaman’s faith or ‘salvation status’.

Part of the problem is we can read too much into Naaman’s vow of loyalty. To the western Christian it is a big deal to acknowledge a deity exists (like another one). To a polytheist it would be unusual, if not rude, to deny the existence of a local deity. You might consider them inferior but they were real deities (eg the Assyrian’s propaganda in Isa 36:18-20). Was Naaman declaring a fervent desire to align himself with YHWH and His people? Or just showing appropriate respect to the local god which surprisingly had done a better job than his personal gods? Naaman was open to the idea of a quest to achieve healing (2 Kings 5:13) and giving payment for the work (2 Kings 5:15-16), ie he is bringing his cultural expectations about how gods work to the situation. His declaration of loyalty can be seen in this context as a continuation of his worldview rather than a conversion.

Against this stands the counter that Naaman declares there is one God in 2 Kings 5:15. However his declaration about YHWH being God alone can either mean he rejects all other deities as fake OR that YHWH is a deity without peer. The second sense of declaring something to be the singular entity is found in examples like Isa 47:8-10, Zeph 2:15 and 1 Kings 18:6. Rather than a declaration of YHWH being the only deity and everything else being vanity, Naaman is following convention. This god saved me so this god gets my loyalty. His politically required worship of Rimmon fits neatly into this framework. His new god will understand the reality of required worship in a polytheistic world.

Naaman is a bit character in the greater story of Kings.  God’s people neglect him and suffer the consequences.  This episode demonstrates God’s power can work even with Gentiles who show more humility eventually than the Israelite king.  Naaman is not the hero of the record or even the focus.  The author is not trying to answer our questions which are formed on a wider perspective.

Perhaps Elisha’s response is more opaque than we imagine when he says ‘go in peace’.  Is this an endorsement of Naaman’s request or a laconic lack of comment as some suggest?[15] 

The theological challenge with this suggestion is it leaves God working a major miracle on Naaman without salvation – which leads to the question why bother? Personally I think God would bother for the sake of the faithful courageous Israelite girl who made the suggestion in the first place. However the lack of a conversion narrative for Naaman seems contrary the “God so loved the world” ethos we love.

Conclusion

I think we are left with two viable answers to Naaman’s position. Both of them have residual challenges which stretch our thinking. Either:

  • God made an enormous allowance for Naaman. This suggests tremendous doctrinal flexibility: OR
  • God (and his agent Elisha) didn’t save Naaman despite the miracle. Naaman wasn’t converted and didn’t change his polytheistic worldview.

Which way does it go? I’m not sure.

by Daniel Edgecombe


[1] P. K. McCarter Jr., “Rimmon,” ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1979–1988), 195–196.

[2] James Alan Montgomery, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Kings., International Critical Commentary (New York: Scribner, 1951), 379.

[3] Mordechai Cogan and Hayim Tadmor, II Kings: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 11, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 65.

[4] August H. Konkel, 1 & 2 Kings, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), 430.

[5] H. D. Preuss, “חוה,” ed. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren, trans. David E. Green, Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1980), 249.

[6] Michael L. Rodkinson, trans., The Babylonian Talmud: Original Text, Edited, Corrected, Formulated, and Translated into English, vol. 15 (Boston, MA: The Talmud Society, 1918), 221.

[7] Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, ed. Samuel E. Balentine, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Incorporated, 2000), 336.

[8] Parry, Carl (editor).   Thiele, Robert (2022 The Lampstand Magazine, Volume 28 No. 2 March April 2022 page 92

[9] Robert Jamieson, A Commentary, Critical, Experimental, and Practical, on the Old and New Testaments: Joshua–Esther, vol. II (London; Glasgow: William Collins, Sons, & Company, Limited, n.d.), 383–384.

[10] Robert Jamieson, A Commentary, Critical, Experimental, and Practical, on the Old and New Testaments: Joshua–Esther, vol. II (London; Glasgow: William Collins, Sons, & Company, Limited, n.d.), 383–384.

[11] Parry, Carl (editor).   Thiele, Robert (2022 The Lampstand Magazine, Volume 28 No. 2 March April 2022 page 93-94

[12] Thomas L. Constable, “2 Kings,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 1 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 548.

[13] Charles Simeon, Horae Homileticae: Judges to 2 Kings, vol. 3 (London: Samuel Holdsworth, 1836), 498.

[14] Terry Pratchett’s 1990 book – Eric – contains the lines “people only go to hell if that’s where they believe, in their deepest heart, that they deserve to go. Which they won’t do if they don’t know about it. This explains why it is important to shoot missionaries on sight.”  Humorous in its context but not great advice, Naaman’s example aside

[15] Mordechai Cogan and Hayim Tadmor, II Kings: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 11, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 65.

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