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Gehazi: What Might Have Been

Both his pedigree and his curriculum vitae are extremely impressive. At first glance, one would expect him to be among the foremost of America’s founding fathers. He was the grandson of the famous theologian Jonathan Edwards and the son of the president of Princeton College (later Princeton University). He served as a soldier in the Revolutionary War and spent some time as an officer on the staff of George Washington. Later he was chosen as a United States senator from the state of New York, and his political star was on the rise. He did well as a national candidate in the election of 1800, coming within one electoral vote of being elected President in this hotly disputed contest, before finally settling for the vice-presidency under Thomas Jefferson.

Had his public life ended before 1804, the name of Aaron Burr would have been spoken with respect and honor instead of disdain and contempt. But after mortally wounding Alexander Hamilton in their celebrated pistol duel and then conspiring with the British to set up an independent government west of the Mississippi River, he came to be considered in the same vein as the likes of Benedict Arnold. Words like “scoundrel,” “traitor,”, and worse were applied to him. Not even an acquittal at his trial for treason could clear his tarnished reputation. Instead of being remembered fondly as an honored leader of the infant United States, he was remembered for his acts of villainy.

The mournful words of John Greenleaf Whittier seem applicable to the despised Burr:

Of all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these:

“It might have been.”

(“Maude Miller,” Stanza 53)

This poignant saying is also relevant to the life of Gehazi, the subject of this essay. He could have been remembered for his loyal service to the prophet Elisha. He might have distinguished himself by his dedication and diligence in assisting one of the greatest prophets. As will be noted below, a significant future assignment possibly awaited him had he been faithful in his role as the prophet’s servant. The list of Old Testament prophets might well have included the name of Gehazi along with Elijah and Elisha. Instead, the lingering image of Gehazi is of a man afflicted with a dreaded disease, his skin permanently stained by leprosy, and he is known for his greed and his grasping instead of his godliness.

But it didn’t start out that way. Gehazi makes his first appearance in Scripture in 2 Kings 4, in the narrative describing Elisha’s interactions with the Shunammite woman. He is identified simply as Elisha’s “servant” (v. 12). While this may sound to modern ears like a rather humble, perhaps even demeaning, role, we should keep in mind that to be the personal attendant or chief servant of a prophet would have been an honored position with possible future implications. After Elisha was tapped to be Elijah’s successor, his first task was simply assisting or serving his predecessor (1 Kings 19:21). In fact, he would later be described as the one “who poured water on the hands of Elijah” (2 Kings 3:11). If truth be told, helping someone else wash their hands sounds like a rather menial and unglamorous task. But in the case of Elisha, this period of service to Elijah was his time of training, his apprenticeship for the prophetic office.

This may well have been the plan for Gehazi also. It is probable that he was slated to be the next prophet, the successor of Elisha, which, if true, would make his ultimate fate all the more tragic. Favoring this possibility is the respect that Elisha accorded Gehazi, asking him for counsel on a tangible way to express gratitude to the Shunammite woman for the guest room she and her husband had constructed for the prophet, and then his choice to act on Gehazi’s astute observation that the woman was childless (2 Kings 4:14).

Further support for the idea that Gehazi was a prophet-in-training is provided by the ensuing narrative which details how Elisha, responding to the desperation and distress of the Shunammite woman, sent Gehazi as his advance agent to her young son, who had tragically died. Elisha even gave him his staff (2 Kings 4:29), an object that for an earlier prophet had been the instrument through which God worked his mighty deeds (Exod. 7:19; 14:16). Whether Gehazi was intended to perform the miracle prior to the prophet’s coming or simply to prepare for Elisha’s arrival is unclear. In any case, Gehazi had firsthand exposure to a marvelous miracle, both witnessing the reality of the child’s death (2 Kings 4:31) and then the exuberance of the mother upon seeing her boy alive (2 Kings 4:36-37).

So far, so good. Until we get to 2 Kings 5, Gehazi has appeared in a reasonably positive light. Yes, there may have been hints of his coming downfall. For example, he seemed rather callous and insensitive when he attempted to push the desperate Shunammite woman away from Elisha (2 Kings 4:27), and, if he is the unnamed servant of 2 Kings 4:43, he doubted Elisha’s ability to feed a hungry crowd of men, even as Jesus’ disciples would later doubt whether He could provide food for the multitude. But no fatal flaw has been apparent in Gehazi prior to the well-known story of Namaan’s healing.

The story is a rich one in many ways. About ten characters or groups are on display in the narrative, and their actions and interactions make for a very interesting and compelling plot. There is Namaan, the mighty commander of the army of the Syrian army, victorious in battle—except for his battle with leprosy. There is his wife’s Israelite slave, a young maiden who bore faithful witness to her God, though He had not prevented her from being snatched from her homeland. Foreshadowing Daniel and Nehemiah, she worked for the betterment of her conquerors. There is the unnamed Israelite king, the nation’s titular leader but a man who was clueless, hapless, and helpless when Namaan arrived looking for healing (2 Kings 5:6-7). Of course, there is Elisha, called simply “the man of God” (2 Kings 5:8), who took charge of Namaan’s situation to demonstrate “that there is a prophet in Israel,” which is basically equivalent to saying that “there is a God in Israel” (2 Kings 5:8). And the story becomes, like the accounts of Rahab, Ruth, and the Ninevites, one of the great Old Testament stories of Gentile conversion and serves as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Genesis 12:2-3, that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s descendants.

But, somewhat surprisingly, the account of Namaan’s healing and conversion reaches its conclusion by describing the tragic downfall of Gehazi. Exactly what prompted him to do what he did, we do not know. Perhaps the adage “No man is a hero to his valet” had become true for Gehazi, and he had ceased to look upon Elisha with respect and honor. Maybe familiarity had bred contempt for his master. Or possibly he knew that he was intended for the prophetic office but had become tired of waiting—of waiting, that is, without receiving the tangible benefits he may have felt were deserved by a servant of God.

In any case, after Elisha refused to accept the rich reward offered by Namaan (a much larger amount than purchased the location upon which Samaria was built: cf. 1 Kings 16:24 and 2 Kings 5:5), Gehazi sprang into action. Notwithstanding the risk of ruining a beautiful spiritual lesson that Elisha wanted to teach Namaan, he hastened after Namaan, made up a story about guests coming to Elisha’s home, and went home with the silver and garments that Namaan was happy to bestow upon him. Evidently, though, he had not reckoned with the prophetic insight of Elisha. The same prophet who had raised the dead and multiplied food for the masses now gave evidence of his prophetic gift by passing judgment on Gehazi for his deception and greed. Namaan had exchanged his faith in his nation’s gods for faith in the true God (2 Kings 5:15). Now Gehazi would trade his clean, healthy skin for Namaan’s leprosy (2 Kings 5:27).

In a number of respects, Gehazi bears a striking resemblance to Judas. Both Gehazi and Judas saw their master raise the dead, multiply loaves of bread, and cleanse the leper; yet both had a grasping “What’s in it for me?” response, instead of an attitude of gratitude for the privilege of witnessing the work of God. Both responded with covetousness instead of surrendering their desires to the will of God. Both responded with greed instead of heartfelt worship. Both seemed to have been out to advance their own interests instead of the glory of God. Both had the great privilege of working with a special man of God, yet both share a sad fate. It can truly be said of Judas, like Gehazi, “It might have been . . . .”

However, what is most distressing about Gehazi is not his resemblance to Judas but his resemblance to me. His story challenges me as a minister and theology professor with the questions: Do I serve God in order to advance my own interests or to further the cause of the Kingdom? Does my exposure to sacred events and holy things lead me to surrender and worship or to desire self-advancement, worldly recognition, and wealth?

Interestingly, Gehazi’s name, though of uncertain derivation, has been variously said to mean “man of vision” or “greedy,” meanings that are poles apart. But perhaps these two starkly contrasting meanings are appropriate, because they are a reminder that each one of us has the potential to either live out God’s vision for our lives or to succumb to the base desires of greed, covetousness, jealousy, anger, etc. As is so often the case with the biblical narratives, we look in the mirror of the story and see ourselves. The lingering question is not “What about Gehazi?” but “What about me?”

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