Who do we think we are? History helps[i]
Naaman was a general in the Syrian army. His story[ii] takes us back to the 9th century before Christ was born. It seems like a very different world. But some things do not change. Syria still has an embattled king. The Syrian king (Ben Hadad II) referred to in this story organised a broad coalition, including the kingdom of Israel, to stand up to the growing Assyrian empire. This explains how a Syrian general could end up in Israel when a decade earlier Israel and Syria had been at war. The coalition fought the Assyrians in a series of battles over 20 years before Assyrians came out on top. The Assyrian capital was Nineveh (in the outskirts of modern day Mosul). Aleppo was the capital of one of the kingdoms allied with Ben Hadad II. Although places change a lot over the years, they leave marks which affect who people think they are and who they belong to.
Ruins of Nineveh Ruins of Mosul
Who do we think we are? Status and letting it go
Another thing which seems not to change is the way that status in society seems to have a big effect on who people think they are and how they behave. The bible story depicts Naaman arriving like the 3 star general that he was. He tells us later that the king himself would lean on him for support. The image he projected may have been rather like the photo on the left below.
This is very different from the images we have today of people who have left Syria to find an answer to their problems in another land. Refugees are too easily defined by their current material position rather than through their characters or achievements. What did Naaman look like when Syria was defeated? Did he survive? Where did he go?
Who do we think we are? Change is very hard
Naaman came to the Israeli prophet Elisha hoping to be cured from leprosy. The prophet told him to go and immerse himself seven times in the unimpressive waters of the local river. He responded like a 3 star general to Elisha’s instruction. This behaviour was very much as we might expect. But then he did just as Elisha told him. What made him change his mind? This is the kind of moment that Jesus might have had in mind when he said ‘If you give up your life for my sake, you will save it’ (Matthew 16 v 25). The story paints him as someone rather different and more attractive after he has swallowed his pride and perhaps a little of the waters of Jordan.
Connections with the other readings
The other readings are suggested as counterpoints to the story of Naaman: in some ways reinforcing, in other ways suggesting a quite different track. If Naaman couldn’t change his spots why did he go through with immersing himself in the river and why is he portrayed differently afterwards? Naaman’s story prefigures John baptising people in the Jordan – an image referred to in Colossians by ‘being raised to new life’. But finding a way in life is a struggle. Paul talks about his life as a struggle in the verses from Romans. Naaman foresees the tensions he will face in reconciling this powerful experience with the circumstances of his life as a general in the Syrian army. The story implies he felt something new in his life. But that didn’t change him from being a Syrian to an Israelite. It didn’t change him from being a general to being a refugee. He was more than one thing and that would present a constant challenge in how he would be and what he would do.
As a postscript, one of the ways we show who we are is how we respond to strangers – not least from Syria who turn up at our door.
On Syrian refugees
[i] As frequently shown by the programme ‘Who do you think you are?’ The programme featuring Clare Balding Series 14:3 is one that got particularly good reviews. To watch you need to be registered on BBC iplayer.