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“Go in peace” or “Go to Hell”? Elisha, Naaman and the Meaning of Monotheism in 2 Kings 5

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In 2 Kgs 5 Naaman's skin disease is healed after he follows Elisha's advice and washes himself in the Jordan. Naaman immediately declares that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel. Shortly thereafter, he asks Elisha for Yahweh's pardon when he bows down in the temple of Rimmon with his lord, the Aramean king. Elisha's only reply is [image omitted] (“Go in/to peace”). Does this mean that the prophet has granted Naaman permission to claim exclusive devotion to Yahweh and nevertheless bow down to another god? Most modern commentators believe that it does. Among the remainder, most conclude that Elisha's reply is too laconic to justify such a conclusion. However, a few believe that Elisha's words are an ironic way of refusing Naaman's plea. In the blunt assessment of Dov Qimhi, Elisha's “'Go in peace!' is a kind of 'Go to hell!'” Which interpretation should we prefer? Much seems to be at stake, considering how often this story has been used to justify—or condemn—the practice of “bowing down in the house of Rimmon.” One crucial question is this: to what extent are readers' understandings of Elisha's reply influenced by their own assumptions about what constitutes appropriate behavior on the part of those who profess belief in the biblical God? After addressing this issue I will examine Elisha's attitude toward worship of other gods throughout 1 Kgs 19-2 Kgs 13, and the ways in which the term salom is used in these stories. Does Elisha really have any interest in stamping out worship of foreign gods in Israel, as do the zealous Elijah and Jehu? Similarly, is Naaman really espousing an “absolute” monotheistic faith, as some scholars contend? I will then examine the narrator's attitude toward syncretistic religious practices in other biblical texts and decide whether it is more likely that Elisha's words are meant as a heartfelt “go in peace,” as an expression of indifference, or as a harshly dismissive “go to hell!”

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Wichita State University, Wichita, KS, USA

Publication date: May 1, 2011

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