There’s a fascinating but overlooked scene at the end of Namaan’s story in 2 Kings. Namaan was the military genius who architected Syria’s rise to power. Syria would eventually invade the Northern Kingdom and leave it a wasteland. However, we meet Namaan when Syria was still a rising star. As such, tension between Syria and its neighbor Israel were high.
General Namaan was afflicted with leprosy. Finding no cure in his own country, the king of Assyria addressed a letter to the king of Israel and asked him to use his connections to persuade Israel’s God to heal his general. Israel’s king panicked; this medical referral was a ploy. Namaan would return to home unhealed, giving Syria a pretext to invade Israel. The threat of war was averted when a true prophet healed Namaan.
The last scene in the story gives us insight to the prevalent theology. Namaan leaves Israel with all the soil that two mules can carry. Namaan believed each nation had a divine sponsor responsible for the general welfare. A nation’s borders delineated the influence of king and the jurisdiction of their god. After being healed, Namaan wanted to worship Israel’s God. He believed that he needed Israel’s soil to make long distanced worship possible. Namaan wasn’t collecting souvenirs but a necessary tool to connect with his new god.
We see this same entanglement of nationalism and worship in the Book of Jonah. Syria has continued to increase, while a divided Israel is slowly withering. God commissions Jonah with the task of travelling to the capital of Assyria and warning them to repent. Jonah balks. What if Syria repents and God’s judgment is averted. Jonah sees the impending doom of Nineveh as an opportunity for Israel’s strategic defense.
So Jonah did what any patriot would have done, he self-imposes an exile and attempts to escape past the edge of God’s influence. Jonah understands that God’s might extends past Israel and into Syria, so he attempts a different strategy. Perhaps God’s power doesn’t extend to the open sea. Jonah booked a fast ship to the far off city of Tarsus where he intended to lay low until he heard visiting merchants gossip about Nineveh’s destruction.
God responded by proving the sea was on his beat was well. God whipped up a storm to batter Jonah’s ship and gave Jonah a three day “time out” in the belly of a giant fish. Jonah is persuaded to return to Nineveh, where he petulantly delivers God’s grace to his enemies.
The accounts of our general and prophet combine to remind us that the true God will not be mistaken for a dirt-god, a minor league deity staked to a plot of land. Namaan learned that even though his national strength was superior to that of Israel that the true God had entered into a covenant with a weaker nation. Being a powerful and wealthy nation was not the same thing as being blessed by God. Jonah, meanwhile, viewed God as Israel’s exclusive national treasure, a commodity to be withheld from their enemies.
And God ignored these boundaries. He offered physical healing to an enemy general and forgave the considerable sins of his nation. God refused to be reduced to a god of dirt. He asserted his role as the creator and lover of all.
Namaan and Jonah’s religion seems downright primitive to modern eyes. That is, until we hear the radio preacher talk about America’s unique relationship with God; until we listen to our own apathy of the suffering of people who live on the wrong side of our borders, in impossible places like Haiti and Darfur.
God insists on loving, leading, correcting, healing, and redeeming all people, in spite of the arbitrary lines we’ve drawn on our maps. And like he did with Jonah, he invites us to put away our dirt-gods and join him in this work.