* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

2 Kings 5-7: Leprosy, Cannibalism, and Faith

More stories about Elisha fill the next few chapters of 2 Kings. The book of Chronicles does not duplicate these legends, since Elisha was apparently running around Israel and her neighboring countries, Aram and Ammon, and the Chronicler(s) were primarily concerned with goings on in Judah. There is no telling when these stories actually originated, but if they are to be placed in a historical context, they must coincide with the reigns of Ben-Hadad I and Ben-Hadad II, kings of Aram Damascus between 885 and 842 BCE. If these stories are intended to occur historically after the death of Ahab, then they must be placed after 853 BCE, since in that year a coalition of eleven armies (including Ahab’s), fought against the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III in the battle of Qarqar under the leadership of Ben-Hadad II. Being legendary in nature, the stories may have originated in later Judaic culture. The stories in these chapters include the tale of Naaman being cured of leprosy, a short legend about a floating axe head, a story about Elisha befuddling an army, and the tale of an Aramean siege that caused a famine so serious that Israelites turned to cannibalism.

Making an axe head float on the water is a charming little story, obviously meant to demonstrate that certain special people, through the power given to them by Yahweh, could create supernatural effects. The story of Elisha blinding, misleading, and restoring sight to the Aramean army is along a similar vein, although the merciful act of throwing a feast for them before sending them scampering home is a nice touch. Along with the other stories in this collection, it conveys the message that violent retaliation is not the only way to deal with those who mean harm. Of course, the value of this perspective becomes questionable when the Arameans later lay siege to Samaria and women are so desperate that they start cooking their own children to survive. Still, by the end of the story, the most unexpected people—namely, four lepers—bring news of salvation to the city, and the guard who doubted Elisha’s prophetic word was killed in the stampede of people rushing to claim whatever provisions the Arameans left behind in their camp.

Of all of these stories, the legend of Naaman’s healing is probably the one most often heard in Christian churches; it just preaches a bit more easily than the whole cannibalism thing. There are many lessons one can glean from this tale. Regarding the nature of Yahweh, this story suggests that he cares about more than just the Israelites, and that he is more concerned with the condition of one’s heart than with elaborate ceremonies. Regarding the nature of people, we might relate to Naaman in our unwillingness to create the lives and world we most want because it seems too simple. We might relate to the Israelite king who interpreted a sincere request for healing as a potential trap or an excuse to incite violence. We might relate to Gehazi, Elisha’s greedy sidekick, in realizing that we are sometimes anxious about what we will get from our dealings with other people that we lose sight of a bigger picture. Gehazi gets punished either for his greediness or for lying to Elisha, but despite the curse that his leprosy would cling to Gehazi and his descendants forever, the king of Israel is chatting with him by 2 Kings 8:1–6, so it must not have been too severe.

One valuable aspect of folklore is that it explains something, perhaps why a certain lineage has lighter skin than other folks or perhaps how political allegiances or animosities developed. Understanding what explanation was initially intended by a story is not always easy, and we more often than not interpret our own messages and lessons without having any real certainty that we have tapped into the original intent of the story. Thus, it serves our understanding to identify the characters with which we most associate ourselves, and we also benefit from challenging ourselves to identify with the other characters as well. When we judge the king of Israel in the story of Naaman for being faithless, suspicious, callous, or whatever else we think of his response to the letter from Aram, we forget that we are sometimes prone to reactivity. From time to time, we hear or read a piece of news and become immediately stricken with anxiety. The story of Naaman teaches us that we don’t have to solve every problem all by ourselves, and that we fail to consider our options creatively when we give ourselves over to anxiety. When we judge the cannibal woman who has eaten her own son, we forget that we are sometimes persuaded by others to do things we would not normally consider doing, that our own desperation and fear can cause us to compromise on values that we believe in deeply, or that our desire for fairness sometimes blinds us to the dissonances between our own actions and beliefs. While most of us have not ever cooked and eaten our own children, we have probably overlooked our own anxiety-driven behavior in order to demand that someone else sacrifice what we have sacrificed, even though our own sacrifice was unnecessary and perhaps even unhealthy.

Still, these are folktales, and the characters in these stories are not real people. We can extrapolate lessons to whatever extent we like, but there is nothing about these folktales that makes them more credible vessels for truth than any other legends. If we are careless readers, we could interpret some strange lessons from the stories of ancient people, as we have seen with other Old Testament tales. While we might see a new perspective in a folktale if we are open to it, the truth of how we can best represent our most noble selves in the world is already at work within us. We experience anxiety and fear and hatred and desperation when we act in a way that is incongruent with what we already know about the kind of people we most want to be. Stories serve as reminders for things we already know, but sometimes forget when we become wrapped up in irrational fear. We don’t want to get so desperate that we consume our own children. We don’t want to be so rigid in our thinking that we resist our own healing. We don’t want to be so caught up in greed that we cause suffering for ourselves and the people around us. When we see these lessons reinforced in stories, it resonates with something we already believe about ourselves and helps us stay oriented in a meaningful direction.

Here’s something to consider, though: We haven’t stopped telling stories. I’m not just thinking of television and film or the anxiety-driven inventions of political activists keeping their respective teams riled up. We tell stories about people on the roads with us, people shopping in stores with us, people working with us. Our minds create a story about everyone we see. More often than not, those stories are ways for us to compare ourselves with other people, and we wind up either judging ourselves as worthy or worthless based on how we measure up to the stories we tell about other people. Just as we subconsciously select which characters to identify with in folktales, we selectively compare ourselves to what we believe about other people in real life, too. And just as we learn something by empathizing with a broader range of characters in a folktale, we learn something by empathizing with the real people rather than using what we invent about them as measuring sticks for ourselves. We are all of equal value, after all.

Although it’s easy to use comparison as a basis to see how we measure up, our value is not based on comparison with anyone else. In fact, our value is not even based on how well we are living by our own standards. Human beings have value, and that value cannot be increased or decreased by anything we do. We can, however live in alignment with our deepest beliefs—our deepest creativity and nobility. This is, in essence, what is meant by "living a life of faith". When we become aggressive or desperate or anxious or overwhelmed, we have replaced faith with fear. Our deepest truths become neglected in favor of lies about ourselves, other people, or life in general.

In folktales of the ancient Israelites, faith was directed outward toward an entity that they believed controlled all of reality, as we’ve discussed along the way. Many people today still express faith in these ancient terms, looking toward something outside of themselves as a source of hope, truth, or justice. Faith does not have to be oriented outward, however. The assertion that human beings have innate value is a statement of faith. Assuming an inner reserve of creativity and nobility is a position of faith. Whatever our statements of faith may be, we will find ways to support our beliefs in life; we will see evidence of what we want to believe. When our actions line up with our deep statements of faith, we gain a sense of being grounded, at peace, in alignment. When our actions are dissonant to what we claim to believe, we experience anxiety, frustration, and desperation. The challenge is to distinguish between those beliefs that are statements of deep faith and those which are based on irrational fears.

Since our beliefs directly inform our actions, we can examine our actions and see our beliefs. If our actions reflect anxiety and fear, if our actions demonstrate a sense of desperation or aggression, then the beliefs that inform those actions are most likely irrational lies that work against a deep sense of faith. If our actions reflect things like acceptance of ourselves and others, calm integrity, or joyfulness, then the beliefs that inform those actions are perhaps closer to our underlying statements of faith. When we nurture beliefs based in lies, we get lives that are anxious, fearful, and desperate. When we nurture beliefs based in truth, we get lives that are connected, deeply satisfying, and inspiring. We nurture beliefs, in part, by committing ourselves intentionally to actions that reflect the beliefs we want to nurture. The more we act in accord with our deepest statements of faith, the more we will immunize ourselves against the irrational fear and anxiety that occasionally threatens that faith.

Stories like those in 2 Kings are intended in part to reinforce a cultural sense of faith. Our own culture is different from ancient Israelite culture. In a sense we define ourselves by many different subcultures, but in another sense those subcultures are becoming more and more global. Our beliefs and actions affect more than just our own lives—none of us lives in total isolation. Thus, whether we act on irrational fears or deep faith makes a difference. It matters how we decide to see ourselves, other people, and the world we all share. So, what do your actions reflect? Are your guiding beliefs leading you toward anxiety and fear? Or is your deepest, most noble self being drawn forward consistently in acts of faith?

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