Ben-hadad, the dark-eyed King of Syria, could no longer leap into his chariot and drive his swift horses through the fields as he used to do. He could not draw the bow of steel or fling the heavy spear as far or as straight as the young men of his tribe, for he was getting old; and he had given up going with his warriors on their fighting across the Jordan, leaving it to his younger chieftains.
His home was in the beautiful town of Damascus, set in a land so rich and green with tapering trees, vineyards, and fields of grass, and watered with such delightful streams, that the Arabs, coming on their camels from the yellow sands of the hot desert, cried out, when they saw its white walls hung with green creepers, that it shone |like a handful of pearls in a green cup.|
He ruled the tribes of Syria from that walled city, and in the spring-time of the year his chiefs gathered the young warriors to make up their minds where they should go to fight and plunder. Among the chiefs was Naaman the Syrian, a young man who led them out to battle when the king could not go, and had several times beaten their foes. Sitting among his chiefs, with his royal spear in his hand, a band of gold round his brow, and rings of gold on his arms and legs, the old king talked with them about fighting the men of Israel, and gave them their orders; and best of all his warriors the king loved Naaman the Syrian.
Now when Naaman blew the king's horns and beat the king's drums up and down the country, calling the young men of the tribes for a raid across the Jordan, it was either to steal cattle and corn, or to capture slaves; and boys and girls were the slaves they liked best.
One day, when he returned from one of these slave-raids, Naaman brought back with him a little Jewish maid; and she looked so pretty with her dark eyes and ruddy cheeks that he gave her as a present to his Syrian wife, to wait upon her and run her messages. When her mistress washed her hands, the little maid held the basin on bended knee. When she dressed her dark hair, she held the comb and the oil, and the little pots of yellow dye for her nails and the black paint for her eyebrows. When she went out, this little maid went also, in a little dress of scarlet, with a white kerchief on her dark head.
She learnt to love her mistress very much; and was sorry for her master, for he was troubled with the terrible sickness of leprosy, and she often wished he could be made well. One day she sighed, and said to her mistress, --
|Oh, I would to God that my master were with our prophet in Samaria! then he would get better of his leprosy.|
She believed with all her heart that Elisha the prophet, like a clever doctor, could do something for him.
Now what she had said was told to Naaman, who told it to the king; and as they had both heard about Elisha, the wild prophet of Israel, the king told his favourite chief to go and see the wonderful man. And he also wrote a letter to Joram, the King of Israel, and gave it to Naaman to deliver; and this is what he wrote: --
|When this letter comes to thee, O King Joram, it is to tell thee that I have sent Naaman, my servant, for thee to heal him of his leprosy.|
Naaman folded the letter in his tunic, and filling a few small bags with silver and gold, and rolling up some bundles of new clothing, he put them into the wide saddle-bags of his camels as presents for the King of Israel. Then stepping into his chariot, he drove down the river valley, with his men clattering after him, and up the hills to Samaria on the watch-hill, where he delivered the letter.
[Illustration: Naaman at the house of Elisha.]
The King of Israel read it, and his chiefs saw that he was much troubled. Seizing his white tunic with both hands, he tore it from neck to hem -- a sign of great grief -- saying bitterly that he was not able to heal people of leprosy, and that the powerful King of Syria was only seeking another cause to quarrel with him. What kings say and what kings do many tongues tell, and Elisha the prophet, who had a house in white-walled Samaria, heard about the king's grief, and sent his servant Gehazi to give him a message, --
|Why do you rend your clothes? Send the man to me!|
The king was delighted, and soon Naaman's chariot and horses, his armed guards and his brown camels, were standing at the door of the prophet's house. But only Gehazi appeared in answer to the captain's call.
|Go,| he said to the proud Syrian chief -- |go and wash thyself seven times in the river Jordan, and thou shalt be healed, and be clean of thy leprosy.|
This was a message from his master Elisha, who was not coming out to see the great captain! The Syrian chief was filled with anger at the man who dared to send him away from the prophet's door as if he were a beggar, and he exclaimed, --
|I thought he would surely come out to see me, and stand and call on his God, and wave his hand over the place and heal me. Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? May I not wash in them and be clean?|
Springing into his chariot, he grasped the reins, and shook them as he brought his whip fiercely down on the horses' backs, causing them to leap forward from the door. The horses galloped swiftly through the narrow streets, and out by the gate in the city wall, and down the road to the plain, the guards and servants of the great captain following after him as quickly as they could. Naaman considered that he had been mocked by this foreign prophet, and was galloping back to Syria as quickly as he could.
But horses cannot gallop for ever, however angry their masters may be; and when at length they came to a walking pace, Naaman began to talk with his friends about the insult he had received from the rude old prophet. Why should he bathe in the Jordan River, where the water was clay-white and often muddy, when he had his own rivers of Abana the golden and Pharpar the sweet, brimming with the finest water in the world? His friends did not answer him in his wrath; but they soon reached the ford of crossing, and if he would not bathe in the Jordan, he would have to ride through it, for there was no bridge. Then one of his friends gave him this piece of very good advice.
|My father,| he said, |if the prophet had told thee to do some hard thing, thou wouldst have done it. How much more shouldst thou obey him when what he commands is such a little thing as this?|
Naaman's rage had passed off with the lashing of his horses and his furious driving, but his terrible leprosy remained. Was he going back to his master with the disease still upon him, to tell him that he had not done what the prophet had told him because it was too easy? There was the white river rushing past at his feet. To ride so far and then refuse to wash would seem very foolish; so he changed his mind, and stopping his chariot at the water's edge, went into the stream and bathed, and to his surprise and delight was at once healed of his leprosy, so that his skin became like that of a little child.
It was with a changed heart that he turned his horses' heads and drove slowly back out of the valley, and up the road to the hills down which he had just come clattering in his anger. When next he stood at the door of the prophet's little house all the pride was gone out of him.
|Now I know,| he said to the prophet, |that there is no God in all the world but in Israel. I pray thee to take a present from thy servant.|
Elisha stood before him in worn cloak and sandals, his head covered with a striped kerchief, his eyes bright and piercing. The camels were there, laden with presents in their saddle-bags.
|As God liveth, before whom I stand,| exclaimed the old man, |I will take nothing.|
Gold and silver, fine clothing, sweet spices, scented oils, had no real value for him. They were only a few of the many things he could quite well do without. This Syrian chief had obeyed what was really the command of the living God, and that was much more important. The Syrian pressed him to take something, but the poor prophet would have nothing. Naaman then asked leave to carry away two mule loads of earth from Samaria, saying that he would never again offer sacrifice to idols after the manner of his own people, but would sacrifice to God only.
Again Naaman shook the reins and cracked his whip as the horses sprang forward with the light chariot, the wooden wheels clattering on the stones. Outside the city walls his servants scraped the earth together until they had filled two mule-sacks, and then the small band of Syrians, shouldering their spears, set out on the homeward road.
Soon the eyes of the Syrian drivers saw the green palm-trees, the spires of glittering brass, and the white walls of Damascus. They were back again in their own country, bringing no camel-loads of plunder, no droves of stolen cattle, no chains of weeping slaves -- only two sacks of earth from Samaria, and a chief with a healthy body and a grateful heart. If his wife was glad to see him, so also was the little Jewish maid; and we need not doubt that she would not be much longer a slave, but free -- set free as a sign that Naaman the Syrian had a grateful heart for his little friend who had sent him to be healed by the prophet of Israel.