Monday, October 14, 2013

A few more things about yesterday's readings

A "Short Take" homily for the Year C Twenty-eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time readings:

We're lepers. Sin is our leprosy. Baptism is the river Jordan. Hence, it is in Jesus Himself that we are washed clean. Participating in the Eucharist, which means "thanksgiving," that is, going to Mass and worshiping the one God, living and true, out of our gratitude for what He has done for us, is how, like the Samaritan leper, we thank Jesus. Jesus does not give us two mules loaded with dirt. In communion He gives us Himself, thus continuing to heal us of our on-going affliction. St. Ignatius of Antioch referred to the Eucharist as "the medicine of immortality." This is unarguably the most powerful way that He remains faithful even when we are unfaithful.

When reading Scripture it is easy to engage in what has been characterized as the "hermeneutics of suspicion." Hence, when one reads commentaries on 2 Kings 5 and learns that perhaps, instead of "leprosy," Naaman may have been suffering from psorasis, or another type of chronic skin condition, it is easy to start down the path of thinking that the miracle stories recorded in Scripture are bunko. This is in keeping with our all-too-modern refusal to believe in miracles. So, let's examine the text more closely by means of a word study.

There is some textual warrant for biblical scholars to assert that Naaman suffered from psorasis, or other incurable, chronic skin condition. Apparently, the Hebrew word transliterated as qal refers specifically to a leper and the word pual refers specifically to leprosy. The Hebrew word used for the various forms of the word "leprosy" throughout 2 Kings 5 (i.e., "leper," "leprosy," and "leperous;" verses 1,3,6-7,11, 27) is transliterated as tsara`ath, which is a more general term for skin disease and can be used for leprosy. Further, I could not find one English translation that did not translate tsara`ath and its variants as a form of the word "leprosy." I looked at the New American Bible, both the revised edition and the older edition, the Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, the English Standard Version, the New International Version, the New American Standard Bible, the King James Version, and the New King James Version, as well as the Douay-Rheims. I even looked the chapter up in Young's Literal Translation, as well as in the Latin Vulgate, which both use variants of the word leprosy.

It is also important to cite something that appears in the footnote to 2 Kings 5:1 in the New American Bible: "the terms traditionally translated 'leper' and 'leprosy' covered a wide variety of skin disorders like psoriasis, eczema, and seborrhea, but probably not Hansen’s disease (modern 'leprosy'); there is no clear evidence of its existence in biblical times."

In interpreting this passage theologically for the purpose of what I will call, for lack of a better word, application, it is important to account for how this text has been received and interpreted by the Church, or, how it has been handed on. Although one could dig much deeper, you need not inquire any further than this passage about Naaman being paired with the Gospel passage from Luke 17 in the lectionary in order to get a solid idea of how this text has been received and passed down and, hence, how to interpret it.

One might ask, as I asked myself, "How does this differ from what you posted about 'epilepsy" the other day?"

I readily concede what is apparent from the use of the word "epileptic," employed in many English translations for the Greek word seleniazomai (the word used by the troubled father to describe his afflicted son in Matthew 17:15). Seleniazomai could reasonably be taken to refer to what we now know as epilepsy, which neurological condition was unknown to the ancients. As I asserted in my previous post, translating seleniazomai as "epileptic" is an anachronism, which makes using it an interpretation. The New American Bible avoids this by translating the Greek word more literally, as "lunatic." But, in terms of taking the inspiration of Scripture seriously, the inspired authors of all three synoptic Gospels record Jesus rebuking and casting out a demon/evil spirit from the afflicted boy.

In the case of Naaman, whether he was cured of "leprosy" as such, or from a chronic, debilitating autoimmune skin disorder, while it has some bearing on the story, certainly does not negate the main point, which is that he was miraculously cured by dipping himself seven times in the waters of the Jordan at the behest of Elisha and was grateful to God for curing him. On the other hand, to assert that Jesus likely did not cast an evil spirit from the afflicted boy stands in direct contradiction to the inspired texts.

Finally, a dear friend, referring to the two mule loads of dirt Naaman took with him back to Syria, asked, "What did Naaman do with the dirt?" Well, according to most commentators, the reason that Naaman took dirt from Israel back to Syria with him was likely related to his belief, common in the ancient Near East, that gods had territories. So, on Naaman's reasoning, the God of Israel resided in Israel. Hence, Naaman would likely have used the dirt to build a sanctuary, or shrine, a place where he could offer sacrifices to the God of Israel, the One who healed him and so the only One worthy of his gratitude.

Happy Columbus Day!

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