But may the LORD forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the LORD forgive your servant for this. 2 Kings 5:18.
This is an interesting passage, because the rest of the Bible is sharply opposed to any acts of worship towards other gods, especially the second commandment (Exod 20:4-5). Daniel's three friends, for example, are honored because they risk their lives by refusing to bow down to the king's idol (Dan 3). A good look at the whole story of Naaman will help us understand, but there will still be some unresolved tensions.
This section of 2 Kings contains a series of miracle stories about Elisha. Each story shows Elisha as an enforcer and executor of God's covenant with Israel. Most prophets call God's people back to the terms of the covenant (the Torah), and warn them about the consequences of continued disobedience. Elijah and Elisha are different from most other prophets in that they themselves carry out the blessings and curses of the covenant. In this story, Elisha brings a blessing of the covenant to a Gentile convert - and not just any Gentile, but an army captain from Aram, Israel's enemy. (Aram is also called Syria, which is not the same as Assyria.)
Naaman decides to trust Yahweh, the God of Israel, by going to Yahweh's prophet for healing. Elisha heals Naaman through a ritual cleansing in the Jordan (an image that may influence John the Baptist's later baptisms in the Jordan). After the healing, Naaman does three things that illustrate his new devotion to Yahweh.
- He asks for two mule-loads of dirt from Israel. Naaman will probably use this to make an altar to Yahweh in his own country.
- He promises to make no sacrifices to any other god. Monotheism was unique to Israelites, so Naaman has a genuine conversion. He will not just add Yahweh to his list of gods.
- He asks for forgiveness: his official duties require him to lend an arm when his elderly master bows down in the temple of Rimmon, so Naaman will naturally kneel down with him.
Elisha gives his blessing (v. 19) to all three. We can understand that Elisha welcomes the first two, but why permit the third? The key prohibition in the OT is against sacrifices to other gods (Exod 22:20). Sacrifice was the most important act of worship in the ancient world. Naaman has shown his loyalty to Yahweh by vowing not to sacrifice to other gods - a vow that will get him in trouble back in Aram, since sacrifice to national deities was often a mark of national loyalty. Naaman may physically kneel as he supports his master, but he will not worship. The story reveals the principle that God cares about the heart more than the actions.
This story also reveals God's grace to Naaman. (btw, "Grace to Naaman" would be a good name for a band, or maybe "Naaman's Grace.") God brings healing to this Gentile outsider, he welcomes him as a convert, and he even allows Naaman freedom to do something that an Israelite would not be allowed. Naaman recognizes Yahweh's grace: he begins and ends his request with "May the LORD forgive your servant."
Most importantly, Naaman will point Arameans to the glory of Yahweh. An army captain who refuses to sacrifice to Rimmon, but is nonetheless healed of an incurable disease - such a thing would be a shock to Aramean society, and would cause them to ask about Israel's God. They might not even notice Naaman's hesitant kneeling in the courts of Rimmon.
Paul does something similar. He allows believers to eat meat sacrificed to idols, claiming that is not inherently an act of worship (1 Cor 8, 10:23-11:1). But he forbids participation in meals devoted to idols, since it is inherently an act of worship (1 Cor 10:14-22).
Christians today facing similar issues have to make the same decision: is the act in question inherently an act of worship? or is it a morally neutral act, not necessarily worship? Christmas trees originated as part of pagan practices, but using one today is not inherently an act of pagan worship. Christians attending Shinto/Buddhist funerals today face a difficult decision: are particular rituals merely part of honoring the family, or are they inherently acts of Shinto worship?
The picture: Triptych of the Cleansing of Naaman, by Cornelius Engebrech, 1520.