The Old Testament Scriptures are soaked with the waters of baptism. From the Creation, to the Flood, to the rescue of baby Moses, to the Exodus of the Israelites, Scripture plunges us into the theme of baptism again and again.
Naaman the Syrian provides us with another example of baptism in the Old Testament. His story can be found in the fifth chapter of 4 Kingdoms (2 Kings). His Israelite servant girl says that her God can heal him from leprosy. In response, he goes on a long journey to Israel and meets God’s prophet, Elisha. Instead of asking Naaman to perform some great task, Elisha simply asks Naaman to immerse himself seven times in the waters of the Jordan river. Naaman complies, and is fully healed:
So Naaman went down and dipped seven times in the Jordan, according to Elisha’s instruction, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was cleansed. Then he, with all his aides, returned to Elisha and came and stood before him; and he said, “Indeed, now I have come to know that in all the earth there is no God except the God of Israel. . . .” (4 Kingdoms 5:14-15)
Of course, early Christians spoke Greek, not English. And according to the Greek Septuagint, Naaman was baptized. In the passage above, the English word “dipped” is translated from the Greek word “baptizo”, which is the same word used for “baptism” throughout Scripture. (Ever since the days of Jesus and the apostles, the Church has recognized the Greek Septuagint as being an authoritative copy of the Old Testament Scriptures.)
When early Christians saw the word “baptizo” in Scripture, they thought of “baptism”, and the book of 4 Kingdoms is no exception. Naaman went down and was baptized in the Jordan.
St. Irenaeus comments on the connection between Naaman’s baptism and Christian baptism:
It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [it served] as an indication to us. For as we are lepers in sin, we are made clean by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord.
~ Irenaeus of Lyons
Indeed, Naaman is not only cleansed physically, but also spiritually. When he goes into the water, he is a leper and an unbeliever. When he comes out of the water, his flesh is restored like the flesh of a little child (verse 14), and he professes faith in the God of Israel (verse 15). He is regenerated both in body and soul.
This baptism is also significant for Naaman’s descendants. Scripture suggests that Naaman’s leprosy was not merely an individual malady, but was a generational curse which would propagate leprosy to all of one’s children and grandchildren. Indeed, when Naaman’s leprosy is transferred to Elisha’s unrighteous servant, Gehazi, it is a leprosy which plagues future generations (verse 27). Thus, when Naaman is cleansed of his leprosy, it is not only a healing for him – it also brings healing to his descendants who will come after him. He no longer has any leprosy to pass on to his children.
It is fitting that this baptism takes place in the Jordan river – the same river where John the Baptist would eventually baptize repentant Jews, and would even baptize Jesus himself.
St. Gregory of Nyssa takes note of the Jordan waters used for this particular Old Testament baptism:
Yes, and yet again his disciple Elisha, when Naaman the Syrian, who was diseased with leprosy, had come to him as a suppliant, cleanses the sick man by washing him in the Jordan, clearly indicating what should come, both by the use of water generally, and by the dipping in the river in particular. For Jordan alone of rivers, receiving in itself the first-fruits of sanctification and benediction, conveyed in its channel to the whole world, as it were from some fount in the type afforded by itself, the grace of Baptism. These then are indications in deed and act of regeneration by Baptism.
~ Gregory of Nyssa
Significantly, Naaman is from Syria, not Israel. He is a Gentile, not a Jew. Thus his baptism is prophetic of the Christian era, when countless Gentiles would flood into the Church via baptism.
With Naaman’s story in mind, let us proceed to answer four questions:
- How do we know that this passage speaks of baptism?
- Who were the recipients of Naaman’s baptism?
- How were the recipients chosen?
- What was accomplished by Naaman’s baptism?
How do we know that this passage speaks of baptism?
In 4 Kingdoms 5:14, the Septuagint uses the word “baptizo”, which is the Greek word for baptism.
Who are the recipients of Naaman’s baptism?
Naaman is the recipient of this baptism. His future children are benefactors as well. Through this baptism, they are freed from inheriting a leprosy which otherwise would have infected them.
How are the recipients chosen?
Naaman is chosen because he seeks out God’s prophet and heeds his instructions. And because Naaman is cleansed, Naaman’s descendants are freed from a generational curse of leprosy.
A man walks with God. That man is baptized. As a result, all of his children receive blessings, and are in a sense born “clean”.
What is accomplished by Naaman’s baptism?
Without the waters of baptism, Naaman never would have been cleansed from his leprosy. Had he not been baptized and healed, he would not have come to faith in Israel’s God. His baptism divided his old life from his new life. His baptism did not merely represent rebirth into a life that was disease-free and idolatry-free. God used his baptism to actually bring it about. God used baptism to remake Naaman into a new creation.