[From "Lamps and Paths," by courtesy of Houghton, Mifflin & Co.]
In old days we read of angels who came and took men by the hand, and led them away from the city of Destruction. We see no white-robed angels now; yet men are led away from threatening destruction: a hand is put into theirs, and they are gently guided toward a bright and calm land, so that they look no more backward; and the hand may be that of a little child. -- GEORGE ELIOT
As aromatic plants bestow
-- GOLDSMITH: The Captivity
"Now Naaman, captain of the host of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master, and honorable, because by him the Lord had given deliverance unto Syria: he was also a mighty man in valor, but he was a leper. And the Syrians had gone out by companies, and had brought away captive out of the land of Israel a little maid; and she waited on Naaman's wife. And she said unto her mistress. Would God my lord were with the prophet that is in Samaria! for he would recover him of his leprosy." -- 2 KINGS v.1-3
I think upon the whole that old stories are better than new ones; I mean, stories of old times. It is perhaps because only the very best are remembered while the poorer ones are forgotten, so that those which have come down to us through past ages are the choice ones selected from a great number that pleased people for a while, but not well nor long enough to get fixed in their minds.
Of all old stories, I hardly know a better one than this of Naaman and the little maid from Samaria. It is full of human nature; that is, it shows that people acted and felt three thousand years ago just as they do now: they were kind and sympathetic, and proud and grateful and covetous and deceitful, just as people are nowadays. And the story has a fine romantic setting; that is, its incidents take hold of our fancy and charm us; -- a little girl stolen in war and carried to a foreign country and put into the house of a great general, who falls very ill and is cured in a wonderful way, and so on. I think it will please us all to hear it over again.
Syria and Israel stood to each other very much like Germany and Switzerland. One was a great, rich country, with fine rivers like the Rhine and Danube, and a capital city so beautiful that it was called "the eye of the East"; while Israel was a small country, full of mountains, and with only one small river that ran nearly dry in summer. To tell the truth, Syria looked down on Israel, and -- what is worse -- often made war on it. In those days war was even more cruel and senseless than it is now; for it was not confined to the armies that fought and captured one another, but extended to women and children, who were often seized, carried away from their homes into the country of the enemy, and made slaves. It is bad and senseless enough for men to stand up and stab one another as they used to in old times, or shoot one another as they do now; but to carry a mother away from her children, or take a little girl away from her home and playmates and make a slave of her, is something worse. But it was often done in those ancient days, as you will learn when you read history, and the story of the siege of Troy, which sprang out of stealing a beautiful woman.
There were frequent wars between Syria and Israel. Israel had once conquered Syria, and Syria had broken away, and so it went on back and forth, year after year. When our story begins, Naaman, a great general, had delivered his country from Israel, and brought home with him a little Hebrew girl, who was so beautiful and sweet in her ways that he gave her to his wife on his return from the war. A strange present, you say, but it proved a very valuable one. It seems to us very cruel. One would think that if Naaman and his wife loved this little girl -- and I am sure they did -- they would have sent her back to her home, for she must have had a heartbreaking time of it at first; but people were not kind in that way in those days. Yes, I am sure they loved her and were kind to her, for the simple reason that she evidently loved them; and I am also sure that the reason they loved her was that they could not help it, as we shall see further on.
Not long after the war, Naaman was attacked with a disease so dreadful and repulsive that I cannot describe it to you. Let us be thankful that leprosy is unknown here. It is not only incurable, but as it goes on it becomes so terrible that one cannot stay at home with his family, but must go out and live alone, or with other lepers, and wait for death, which often does not happen for years. It was a sad time for the great Naaman when he discovered that it had seized him. He felt well and strong, but the fearful signs made it sure. It was a sadder time when he told his wife; for both knew that the day would soon come when they could no longer stay together at home, and that he must leave beautiful Damascus, and give up his place in the army, and go off into the mountains and live alone, or with others like himself. The saddest feature of all was that there was no hope: all this was sure to take place. If you have ever been in a house where some one is very ill and likely to die, or some terrible accident has occurred, you have felt what a gloom overhangs it, and have been glad to escape from it and get out under the open sky. But our little Hebrew girl could not escape. She must stay through it all, and wait on Naaman's wife, and see her weep and Naaman's strong face grow sadder every day. Now I think we shall begin to see what a rare, noble, sweet child this was that we are talking about. What a pity that we do not know her name -- for she is a nameless child! I would like to call her Anna if I had any right to leave off the H that the Hebrews put before and after this beautiful name. And I should not change it by turning the a at the close into ie, as so many young people -- and older ones, too, who ought to know better -- are in the habit of doing; for I never could understand why girls with so noble names as Anna and Mary and Helen and Margaret and Caroline should change them into the weak and silly forms that we hear every day. This change, which usually shortens the name and ends it with an ie, is called a diminutive, which, according to Worcester, means "a thing little of its kind," and so may well enough be used in the nursery; but that grown women should use it seems to me foolish and even ignoble, and I often fear it may indicate a lack of fine sentiment. We do not know the name of our little maiden, but we can safely imagine her appearance for two reasons: we know her circumstances and her character. Is it not quite sure that when Naaman selected from his captives a little girl to wait on his wife, he would take the most beautiful one? When we make presents to those we love, we always get the best we can. Now we can go a step further, and ask what made her beautiful in such a way that Naaman thought she would please his wife. It must have been her sweet and amiable expression; and that came from her character, for nothing else can make beauty of this sort. And so we picture her with black, wavy hair and soft, dark eyes, with red cheeks glowing through an olive-colored skin, lips like a pomegranate, a sweet, patient, loving expression, and a voice "gentle and low" and full of sympathy and readiness. I am very sure about her voice and expression, because I know her character. I never have seen any one with a loving and helpful spirit who had not a gentle voice and a sweet expression. I think she must have been about twelve years old; for if she had been younger she would not have known all about Elisha, and if older she would not have been called "a little maid."
When the trouble came upon Naaman's family, she felt it grievously, and was more attentive and gentle in her services than ever. Just here she showed the beauty of her character. She had been cruelly wronged -- stolen away from her country and home, and made a slave without hope of ever seeing them again -- and so might naturally feel revengeful, and say that Naaman's leprosy was a punishment for the wrong he had done her. But instead she pitied him, and in her sympathy with his sufferings forgot her own. So, as she brooded on the trouble, she happened to remember one day that Elisha had cured people who were very ill, and done many wonderful things, and she said to her mistress, "Would God my lord were with the prophet that is in Samaria! for he would recover him of his leprosy." Probably Naaman's wife questioned her closely about Elisha, and got at all she knew about him, and so heard about the child that fell sick among the reapers, and the poor widow whose two sons were to be sold as slaves, and the mantle of Elijah, that Elisha had caught upon the banks of the Jordan, with which he smote the waters. At any rate, she heard enough to awaken some hope, and so told her husband what our little maid had said. When people are hopelessly ill, they are willing to try anything; a drowning man will catch at a straw, and Naaman caught at this little straw of hope that the wind of war had blown across his path. He thought it over and said to himself, "It is my only chance; no one here can do anything for me. I will go down to Samaria and find Elisha. I have often heard that the prophets there did wonderful things; if what the little maid says of the boy among the reapers is true, perhaps Elisha can cure me." And so he went; but it was very humiliating. He thought of Israel and the little city of Samaria and the Jordan in a scornful way, comparing them with his splendid Damascus, and its green, beautiful plain, thirty miles wide, and the great river Abana, that gushed from the side of the mountain, and flowed through and all about the city, making the whole country one vast garden. He despised, too, the people of Israel. They were rude and poor and ignorant, while his own people were rich and cultivated. Perhaps he had borne himself proudly when he was at war there; and now to go back and ask favors -- to ask for himself what he could not get at home -- was humiliating indeed. But he made the best of it; and to cover his pride and make it seem as though he were not asking favors, he took with him an immense amount of silver and gold, and ten suits of raiment -- perhaps of linen damask, that was first made in Damascus.
I shall not follow the story further, except to say that because Naaman went in such a proud spirit, Elisha used every means to make him humble. He seemed to be anxious to send Naaman home, not only a well, but a better man, and to teach him that there were other things to be thought of than great rivers, and fine cities, and temples of Rimmon. Especially he wanted to teach him that the one, true God could make a small, rough nation greater and stronger than one that worshipped idols. Naaman went home cured of his leprosy, with some earth to make an altar of, and all his gold and silver and fine garments, except what the foolish Gehazi got from him by lying. How Naaman proposed to act when he should get home and be forced to go with the king into the temple of Rimmon, you will find discussed in the second chapter of the second part of "School Days at Rugby." My opinion is that Elisha told him he must settle that matter with his own conscience; but I can imagine that when he had worshipped God before the altar built of the earth brought from the Jordan, and then went into the temple of Rimmon and did what the king did, his conscience must have troubled him.
But I care a great deal more for our little maid than for Naaman. I wonder what became of her. If Naaman did what he ought, he sent her back to her home, and gave her all the gold and silver he had offered to Elisha. I am quite inclined to believe this for several reasons. Naaman was a reasonable man. When he was told to "go and wash himself seven times in Jordan," he was surprised and angry, because it was so different from what he had expected, and because he thought it was an insult to his own great rivers. But when his servants reminded him that it was just as easy to do a little thing as a great thing, he saw the wisdom of it, and let good sense triumph over pride. He was also a generous man, as the gifts he offered to Elisha show. And he was conscientious, or he would not have asked Elisha about bowing down in the temple of Rimmon as a part of his duty to the king. All through he showed himself grateful. Yes; I think he went back to Syria not only with "the flesh of a little child," but with a child's heart. And because he was reasonable and generous and conscientious and grateful, he did not forget the little maid who was at the bottom of the whole affair. He owed quite as much to her as to Elisha; for people who start good enterprises deserve more praise and reward than those who carry them out. So, when he reached home and met his wife and children -- why, it was almost like coming back from the dead! -- his first thought must have been of the little maid. We can imagine the great Naaman taking her in his arms with tears, and saying, "What can I do for you, my little maid? Tell me what you most want, and I will give it to you, even if it is the half of my possessions." We know that Eastern princes often said such things when their fancy or their gratitude was deeply stirred; they gave full course to all their feelings, good and bad. Perhaps she had become fond of Naaman's wife, and would like to stay with her. Perhaps they told her they would adopt her, and clothe her with rich damask and jewels of gold and silver. But I doubt if she was a child who cared more for such things than for her parents and her home. And as she heard the story of Naaman's cure, and of Elisha and the Jordan, her mind went back to her native land and to her home, and a great longing filled her heart to see it again, and to live the old life with her parents and brothers and sisters. The Jews do not easily forget their country nor their families; and this little maid was a true Jewess. It might be a fine thing to live in a palace and wear jewels, but she would rather go home, and tend the sheep and goats, and pick the grapes, and go to the fountain for water. Perhaps she had lived on the slope of Hermon, where the dew fell heavily every night, and the brooks ran full all summer; for Naaman's march home led near it.
We found her in Damascus a slave; but we will leave her at home among the vines and flowers and kids, with father and mother and mates, for sh'e was a child who lived in her affections rather than in her ambitions.
The chief thing she teaches us is the beauty and blessedness of returning good for evil. Long before Christ's day she was Christ's own child; for she loved her enemies, and prayed for those who had persecuted her.