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Samaritans in Bible Times

Samaritans today insist that they are the direct descendants of the Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, who survived the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians in 721 BC. The independent records of Sargon 2nd king of Assyria record that he deported 27,290 people following the fall of the northern kingdom. There is only one reference to the Samaritans in the Old Testament Scriptures. This refers to the religion of the people who the king of Assyria transported to the northern kingdom of Israel to replace the exiled native population. We read in the second book of Kings: "However every nation continued to make gods of its own, and put them in the houses of the high places which the Samaritans had made"

  • 2 Kings 17:29

There are a number of references to Samaritans in the New Testament as a distinct group in northern Israel at the time of Christ, but these may have no connection to those referred to as Samaritans in the Old Testament

Samaritan Identification

In November 2007, there were 712 Samaritans in Israel, divided into 4 families, Cohen, Tsedekah, Danfi and Marhib. They live mostly in Kiryat Luza on Mount Gerizim near the city of Nablus (Shechem) in the Palestinian area known today as the West Bank, and in the city of Holon, just outside Tel Aviv. Ethnically they are descended from a group of Israelite inhabitants that have connections with ancient Samaria from the beginning of the Babylonian exile (586 BC) up to the Christian era. The Samaritans however derive their name, not from this geographical designation, but rather from the term "Shamerim" which means keepers or observers of the law.

Samaritans on Mount Gerizim

Religiously, they are the adherents to Samaritanism, a religion based on the Law of Moses (the Torah) claiming that their worship, as opposed to mainstream Judaism, is the true religion of the ancient Israelites, pre-dating the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. There is a strong feeling that the New Testament Samaritans are a totally different group, with no evidence that they inhabited Samaria alone. Rather the references in the Books of the Maccabees and by the historian Josephus indicate a different group sometimes called Shechemites. The New Testament record would also suggest no direct connection with Assyria alone. The Samaritans never deny that the Assyrians assimilated with them, but they claim that other nations have assimilated into Judaism as well. The Assyrian exile was a long process and took many years with relatively few coming to the region and integrating with the local people. So to the Samaritans there is a clear distinction between their own ancestors and the inhabitants of Samaria. Another compelling argument is that there is no suggestion of pagan religious practice attaching to the New Testament Samaritans, who were quite the opposite and therefore do not fit the description indicated by the record in the Second Book of Kings. The Samaritans only regard the first five books of the Old Testament known as the Pentateuch as Scripture. They believe that God is a unity and regard Moses as a prophet, making the Law given by God through him very important. They also have some historical books of their own, recognising that there will be a day of judgement and that Mount Gerizim should in their opinion be the appointed place by God for sacrifice. Additionally they believe that Moses as "Taheb" the restorer or "returning one", will come again. We can see from their religious beliefs that there were strong connections with the Jewish faith. The New Testament references to these people are always favourable but we notice that they were despised by the native Jews. Scholars tell us that we should not be looking for the origins of the New Testament Samaritans as a distinctive group until the end of the 4th century BC, when Shechem was rebuilt after a long period of desolation. The enemies of the Jewish community in the earlier Persian period of influence mentioned by Ezra and Nehemiah would then be some of the inhabitants of Northern Israel whose opposition to the rebuilding of Jerusalem was mainly stirred by political motives. (see for example Ezra 4:1-10 and Nehemiah 4:1-8) Clearly these people grouped as Samaritans were mixed race newcomers, who had been assimilated into the nation due to location and marriage. One suggestion is that they were originally a group of religious purists, who after the conquests of Alexander the Great decided to make a fresh start where they could practice their religion, and a temple was built on Mount Gerizim.

Jesus Meets a Samaritan Woman

There is an interesting insight into the Samaritans in the Gospel of John. Jesus travelled from Judea in the south of Israel to Galilee in the north and needed to pass through the region of Samaria. Being tired and thirsty he asked a woman for a drink of water from Jacob's well. The Jews thought that all Samaritans were unclean and therefore would have nothing to do with them, which left the Samaritan woman rather puzzled. She said: "How is it that you, being a Jew, ask a drink of me, a Samaritan woman"

  • John 4:9
Jesus talks to a Samaritan Woman

In the ensuing conversation, Jesus reminded her that she had had five husbands and was living with a man who she was not married to, she realised he was a special person and said to him: "Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet"

  • John 4:19

The woman recognised that a Messiah was to come and Jesus confirmed that he was the one in John 4:25-26. It is also interesting to note that the Samaritans identify Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem, as the place chosen by God to establish His name based on the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 11:29. You can imagine the surprise of Jesus' disciples when they returned to see him talking to her. Her immediate response was to tell people in the town all about Jesus and they came out to see for themselves. Not only did they come to see for themselves but having heard what Jesus had to say, we read that they believed that the promised Messiah was in fact Jesus the Son of God, who was speaking to them in John 4:39-41. This is an interesting account of non-Jews being convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, when the religious leaders of the Jews and many of the people refused to believe this even after they had seen miracles performed.

The Good Samaritan Parable

The Gospel of Luke records an interesting parable in which Jesus demonstrated the meaning of neighbourliness. Jesus focused the lesson of the parable on the person who was to help the traveller – the one who had been attacked and robbed on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. A Priest and a Levite passed by on the other side to avoid the issue rather than help the injured man. The point was made very powerfully, showing the Samaritan as the good neighbour, when they were despised even by the religious leaders of the day in Luke 10:30-37. Jesus told this parable in answer to a question by an expert in the teaching of The Law of Moses. This man asked Jesus "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" The answer of Jesus confirmed the teaching of the Law of Moses but more importantly it teaches us a very important lesson about our priorities in life – God first, our neighbour second and self last: "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself"

  • Luke 10:25-27

In John chapter 8 we find Jesus in conflict with the religious leaders. His condemnation of them resulted in a harsh response to Jesus. This was an attempt to insult him by suggesting that he was a Samaritan and was demon-possessed in John 8.48. They knew this was untrue but it was a cheap jibe to throw at him, in order to suggest that he was a false teacher. It was probably an indication of their frustration or desperation in falling back on such tactics. It also highlights the lack of social standing the Samaritans had in the eyes of many Jews.

The Good Samaritan Parable

The Gospel for Everyone

Jesus instructed his disciples not to preach to the Gentiles or Samaritans in Matthew 10:5. This is perhaps strange at first sight because that was the opposite to what Jesus did at Jacob's well when he met the Samaritan woman. Jesus then gave the instruction to preach the gospel first to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel"

  • Matthew 10:6

After the resurrection a great change took place with the Gentiles and Samaritans being very much included in the preaching of the apostles. The last recorded words of Jesus to the apostles, instructed them to be witnesses of Jesus "in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth"

  • Acts 1:8

Later we find that Philip, Peter and John specifically went to Samaria to preach to the Samaritans about Christ in Acts 8:4-25. It was not always the case that the Samaritans were ready to accept the Gospel message, but in fact were sometimes hostile towards Jews particularly if they were heading for Jerusalem to worship, because the Samaritans were despised by the Jews for worshipping on Mount Gerizim rather than in Jerusalem. Jews on their way to Jerusalem often skirted around Samaria when travelling from the north to the south, even crossing the River Jordan to go down on the east side of the river. The Gospel message is extended to anyone who wishes to listen in any nation of the world as Paul and Barnabas told the Jews in Antioch: "It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles"

  • Acts 13:46

The Apostle Peter reminds us that "The Lord is not slack concerning his promise…but is long-suffering towards us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance"

  • 2 Peter 3:9

The Samaritian Leper

There is good and bad in every nation as demonstrated in the account of the healing of ten lepers recorded in the Gospel of Luke. They were cured of this wasting disease so no doubt they were all very thankful that Jesus had responded to their pleas to be made whole. However, only one of them came back to show his appreciation. We read that he "fell down on his face at his (Jesus) feet, giving him thanks. And he was a Samaritan"

  • Luke 17:16

Lessons for Us

So what can we learn from these references to the Samaritans? Firstly, they were a mixed race people accepting and fearing God in their own way based on the teaching of the first five books of the Bible, and expecting a "Messiah" or "Restorer" to return to the earth, who they thought would be Moses. Secondly, they were marked out and despised by the Jews because of their mixed race origins – a mixture of Assyrians, Greeks and others who settled in the land of Israel and mingled with the Jewish population.

Although they were despised by the majority of Jews, they too could benefit from the sacrifice of Jesus as indicated in the parable of the good Samaritan and the cure of the Samaritan leper's condition. Leprosy was symbolic of sin and it's consequences and maybe he understood the significance of his cleansing and was truly thankful for the healing power of Jesus. The Samaritan woman who Jesus talked to and her friends from town were blessed to receive the Gospel and respond to it. The Samaritans who heard and responded to the message of the Gospel, recognised that salvation is of the Jews, as Jesus told the Samaritan woman by the well: "You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews"

  • John 4:22

Through the work of Jesus, Gentiles (that is non-Jews) including Samaritans can become associated with God's promises to his chosen people and obtain salvation. In Paul's letter to the Romans chapter 11 he goes to great lengths to explain how non-Jews can benefit from the Jewish hope along with them and it is well worth reading this chapter particularly from verse 11 through to the end of the chapter. For believers it doesn't matter of what ethnic origin you are, or what position you have in life, for total equality is achieved by becoming related to the promises of God through baptism into Christ. Paul expressed it so clearly in his letter to the Galatians: "For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise"

  • Galatians 3:27-29

Will you be among those who inherit the promise?

Author John Carpenter
Country Kent, UK
Source Light on a New World reprint from Volume 21.5

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