Monday, November 23, 2009

I Am Not Elijah, Part 6 (John 9:6-15, 2 Kings 5:10-15)

The following is part 6 of a paper I presented at the Evangelical Theological Society in Nov 2009. For all sections of the paper, see here.

6. “Go, Wash”
2 Kings 5:10, 14-15 (LXX) Elisha sent (ἀπέστειλεν) a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash (Πορευθεὶς λοῦσαι) seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” 14 Naaman went down and washed himself (ἐβαπτίσατο) in the Jordan seven times according to the word of Elisha, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a small child, and he was cleansed… [Naaman] said “Behold, surely I have known (ἔγνωκα) that there is no god in all the earth except in Israel.”
John 9:6-15
[Jesus] spat on the ground and made mud from the spittle and anointed the mud on his eyes said to him, “Go, wash (ὕπαγε νίψαι) in the pool of Siloam” (which is translated ‘Sent’ (ἀπεσταλμένος). Then he went away and washed himself (ἐνίψατο), and came back seeing… 12 “Jesus made mud and anointed my eyes and said to me, “Go to the pool of Siloam and wash;” so I went and washed and then I saw.” 15 “He put mud on my eyes and I washed and now I see.”

The healing of the blind man in John 9 is another of John’s signs that is designed to display the identity of Jesus. Jesus is displayed as the light of the world, not only in the opening dialogue (9:4-5), but throughout the blind man’s trial and defense of Jesus. The healing itself also recalls the water motif found throughout John. The pool of Siloam was the well-known source of water for the water ritual at the Feast of Tabernacles, a ritual which provided the setting for Jesus’ water proclamation (John 7:37-39). John recounts the healing three times, although some of the details (anointing with mud, Jesus’ instructions, going to Siloam, washing, and seeing) are recounted as few as twice or as many as five times. Clearly the washing is crucial to the story.
Jesus’ command is translated the same as Elisha’s command, but represent different words in Greek. However, the words used in John’s narrative are close enough semantically that an allusion is still possible. When John quotes or alludes to the OT, he sometimes updates the language of the LXX to more contemporary Greek, or at times he may be using his own translation of the Hebrew text. Elisha orders Naaman to go (Πορευθεὶς), while Jesus instructs the blind man to go (ὕπαγε). While πορεύομαι is used in a variety of ways in the NT, it is commonly used to describe travelling some distance, such as to another town (John 4:50, 7:35, 11:11). ὑπάγω focuses on the act of departing, and can be used for either short or long distances (John 4:16, 7:3). ὑπάγω was almost non-existent in septuagintal Greek, but relatively common in NT Greek; quite likely it sounded better in this context. John’s use of νίπτω instead of λούω for wash is also quite normal. Both the LXX and the NT use λούω or βαπτίζω for bathing the full body and νίπτω for washing part of the body, such as the hands, feet or head (see especially John 13:10). The LXX consistently translates רָחַץ with νίπτω or λούω depending on whether part of the body or the whole body is washed. So, although John replaced both words with synonyms, it is still quite possible that this is an intentional allusion.

John’s use of the phrase draws attention to other details that resonate between the two accounts. It is not entirely clear why John tells us that Siloam can be translated “sent;” some have suggested a connection to Jesus as the “sent one.” It is also possible that this detail allows John to make a further connection back to the story of Naaman, which prominently features the sending of messengers and scrolls. The account in 2 Kings includes seven occurrences of ἀποστέλλω /ἐξαποστέλλω, translating שָׁלַח.

Jesus, like Elijah and Elisha, was a man of God who sometimes used unusual methods in his miracles. The two passages also share a similar theology of healing. After Naaman is healed, he makes a confession of faith in the one God, using the perfect tense (ἔγνωκα) to solemnly affirm his knowledge of God. Likewise, the blind man affirms his belief that Jesus must be a prophet (9:17), an innocent man (9:25, 31), a man from God (9:33), and finally Son of Man and Lord (9:35-38). Elisha’s miracle is like Jesus’ sign: they are works of power that bring people to faith. In both stories, the signs result in glory to God and the prophet. Elisha summons Naaman so that he would “know that there is a prophet in Israel” (2 Kings 5:8). After the miracle, Naaman acknowledges Yahweh as God of the world, and even brings Israelite dirt back to Aram to build a shrine to Yahweh (2 Kings 5:17). Jesus reveals that the blind man is blind “so that the works of God might be revealed in him” (John 9:3), and the Pharisees ironically adjure the blind man to “give glory to God” (9:24), which is of course what the blind man is doing.

It is possible that this passage in 2 Kings is part of the multifaceted background to John the Baptist’s baptisms in the Jordan. The Synoptic Gospels normally portray JTB as a new Elijah, so it is possible that the ritual washings in the Jordan are intended to recall Elisha’s ritual washing of Naaman, the Gentile convert.

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