To a modern reader, the Bible seems obsessed with names:
- The genealogies of Genesis and the Gospels
- The book-length census in Numbers – which is then repeated Deuteronomy
- Lists of David’s soldiers
- Paul’s greetings to Christians in other cities in his letters
This concern with names goes to the very beginning of the Bible: one of the first jobs that God gives Adam is to name all the animals.
Considering this emphasis on names, it’s surprising when the Bible features a person without telling us their name. When we’re told the names of everyone and his brother, the anonymous person jumps out as surprising and notable.
The Girl from Israel
Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.
Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” (2 Kings 5:1–3)
If you can, imagine yourself in the place of this young girl. Captured by Syrian raiders, now a slave in the house of one of the Syria’s top military leaders, there’s not a single reason why she should be concerned from Naaman’s health. For that matter, no one is asking for her thoughts about Naaman’s leprosy. It’s none of her business.
Further, she’s taking an enormous risk. Naaman is a powerful man. Should the cure not work, or if Naaman takes offense at her presumption, her life would be forfeit. Naaman, however, makes her idea an issue of international diplomacy.
Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said. “By all means, go,” the king of Aram replied. “I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing. The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.” (2 Kings 5:4–6)
How does the king of Israel respond?
As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!” (2 Kings 5:7)
He is terrified of this request. The humble servant girl’s suggestion has brought her king to the edge of panic.
There is so much we don’t know about this story, including why Naaman decided to listen to this unnamed servant girl. In part, it reveals the character of Naaman and his wife that they are willing to listen to ideas no matter the source. This is pure conjecture, but I think it also reveals a great deal about the servant girl herself. If she were, say, unreliable, vindictive, or irresponsible, no one would have given her suggestion a second thought. That her powerful master and mistress did listen to her suggests that she had demonstrated her trustworthiness, integrity, and compassion.
The result of her courageous generosity? Naaman finds the prophet Elisha, who tells him to bathe in the Jordan River. Naaman complies (after a bit of hesitation), is cured, and makes an even more radical change. After his cure, he loads up as much dirt from Israel that two mules can carry, and he declares to Elisha,
your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the LORD. (2 Kings 5:17)
The leading general of Syria becomes a worshipper of the God of Israel! All because of an anonymous girl from Israel.
Other Anonymous Notables
The young girl of Israel is not the only unnamed person in the Bible who played an important role. Two examples from the New Testament come to mind.
On the night of the Last Supper, Jesus and his disciples meet together in a “large upper room” (Luke 22:12) prepared for them by a mysterious unnamed man carrying a jar of water, who answers to a specific passphrase. While this could be understood as an understated miracle, a more likely explanation is that this man is a follower of Jesus, or at least someone sympathetic to his cause, who has arranged with Jesus to prepare a private meeting place. Considering that the authorities are seeking to seize Jesus, this man is risking arrest, maybe even his life, to carry out this simple job. Yet without his anonymous service, the Last Supper might never have happened.
Then there’s the author of the book of Hebrews. All other letters in the New Testamant open with the names of their authors – Paul, Peter, James, John – which happen to be some of the most famous names in history. Not so the letter to the Hebrews:
> Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all thing, through whom also he created the world. (Hebrews 1:1)
Ancient letters always began with the name of their authors. The writer of Hebrews intentionally deviated from that standard to remain anonymous. The author of the letter may have chosen to be humble himself (or herself), but the language and theology are some of the most elevated in the entire Bible. There’s a good chance that Hebrews only made it into the New Testament because early Christians mistakenly assumed that Paul wrote it. Their error (if that’s what it was) has been our gain.
We have no idea who wrote Hebrews, even though many individuals have been suggested. One of my favorite theories is that the author was a woman, most likely Priscilla. In the male-dominated ancient world, only anonymity would have allowed Priscilla’s voice to be heard. However, as the theologian Origen wrote, “Men of old have handed it down as Paul’s, but who wrote the Epistle God only knows.”
Our Own Anonymous Contributions
It’s natural and understandable for us to want credit for our work. In some cases, receiving proper credit might mean the difference between providing for our family and unemployment. We ought also to be concerned with recognizing others’ contributions whenever we can.
And yet the examples above suggest that there are more important things than receiving our due. In all three cases, the unnamed person’s chief concern was serving others – Naaman, Jesus, early Christians. Drawing attention to themselves might have actually gotten in the way of that priority.
These examples can also provide some solace when our work is unjustly overlooked or miscredited. Despite their anonymity, their impact has lasted thousands of years. Most of the celebrities and “great men” of their eras have long been forgotten, but here we are, still reading about their humble service – in the case of the author of Hebrews, still sitting under his or her teaching.
As for their names, only God knows. But one day, I believe we’ll all know their names.
- Literally, YHWH, the God of Israel. ↩