Ockham’s Razor and the Bible

Photo Credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/tjc/413204218/">Timothy J</a>

2 Kings 5:1-14

 General commander of the Aramean army, Naaman, was the king’s favorite, because God had won the war for Aram. But, even though he was a great soldier, he was a leper.

As it happened on one of their raids against Israel, the Arameans had captured a girl who had become Naaman’s wife’s slave girl. She said to her mistress, “If my master went to the truth-teller in Samaria, he would cure his leprosy.”

So Naaman went to the king and told him what the girl had said. The king said, “Go, and I’ll send this letter with you for the king of Israel.” So Naaman went, with the letter to Israel’s king and besides that took ten bars of gold, six thousand gold doubloons, and ten changes of clothes. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, who read:

This letter is my order that you must cure my general, Naaman, of his leprosy.

When Israel’s king heard this, he tore his clothes, saying, “He’s trying to start a war with me. How am I supposed to cure this man of leprosy? Who does he think I am? God?”

When news of the king’s exasperation reached Elisha (God’s man), he sent a message to the king, saying, “Why are you so upset? Send him to me. He’ll soon know the truth about Israel.”

So Naaman rode up to Elisha’s house with his motorcade and tanks. Elisha sent a messenger out to tell him, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times and you’ll be fine.”

Enraged, Naaman went away saying, “I was expecting him to come out and save his hand over the spot and say some magic words about God. That would have cured me. I’ve got better rivers back home in Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, just to name two. I could have washed in those and been better off than going to that muddy trickle of the Jordan.”

But his advisers said, “Sir, if the truth-teller had asked you to do something difficult, you’d have done it. Why not give washing in the Jordan a try, since it’s so easy.” So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan River seven times, and sure enough, his skin was as smooth as a baby’s bottom.

Ockham’s razor is the principle that, all other things being equal, simpler explanations are generally better than more complex ones. In other words, if you have a spot, wash it a few times and it will probably come off. More often than not, the simplest way forward is the best. It doesn’t matter how highfalutin you are. Simple wins every time.

That’s a lesson enough in itself.

The point of this story, though, isn’t about simplicity. It’s about humility. In the opening line, Naaman is introduced as being highfalutin and successful, not because he’s so great, but because God had handed him his successes. Elisha’s message to the king was, send him to me and I’ll take him down a peg. Sending a messenger out was about humiliation, and Naaman understood the “I’m not at all impressed with your importance” message clearly.

The time we spend worrying about our reputations is wasted time. Our accomplishments are often not nearly as much ours as we give ourselves credit for. Even the best of us stand on the shoulders of the greats who came before. And just because you worked hard doesn’t mean you deserve your wealth and fame any more than the next person. If it did, there would be no such thing as the working poor.

Not many of us are as rich or famous as Naaman, but we can still remember that what we have and are able to accomplish is owing to something greater than ourselves. Call it Elisha’s razor.