God in the Details: Who Are the Samaritans? (Part I)
ssumptions can play a large role in forming opinions about others. The way in which other groups are taught about can shape our ideas of those whose stories we find in scripture. Depending on our religious (or non-religious) traditions, the only introduction that might be available is the gospels themselves. Sufficient as that may be, what isn’t touched upon are the there was a tension that existed between this group and the Jewish people of Jesus’ time. Unpacking the cultural, religious and social realities of what caused this tension will help bring into focus the scope of Jesus teachings and ministry as it related to his own vocation as Israel’s Messiah. The two most famous Samaritans in the gospels are the Good Samaritan, who is a fictional character found in one of Jesus’ most famous parables, and the woman at the well, whom Jesus encounters at Jacob’s well in John’s gospel. What does each instance reveal about ourselves, the way we view others, how God sees them and if it should have any bearing in our own communities today?
Most anyone who has received unsolicited help from a stranger during a crisis might use the word ‘Samaritan’ to describe the type of person who helped him or her. For most in the West, this word denotes a positive reaction. After all, we have hospitals that bear the name Samaritan, and there are Good Samaritan laws designed to protect people who willingly help others in the midst of crisis. One of the largest non-profit groups within the evangelical community bears the name Samaritan’s Purse. So whether or not anyone intentionally reflects on what it means to be a Good Samaritan is, the fact remains, within our culture, even if only on the periphery, the word Samaritan has an entirely positive connotation.
At one level, this is a powerful reminder of the lasting influence that Christianity has wherever it blossoms. However, as I’ve mentioned previously, our familiarity with the biblical narrative often creates an unintentional disconnect between the reader and the events they are reading about. It is entirely possible to be untouched by the scandal that would have been palpable to the audience experiencing these things in real time. The role that Samaritans have within the New Testament gospels is no different. What is the significance of Jesus’ Kingdom-inaugurating work that included parables and interactions with the people of Samaria? This short introduction will attempt to provide an abbreviated answer to this textured question.
At the heart of the tension between these two groups were competing narratives as it related to spiritual truths. Both the Jews and Samaritans observed the Torah. The Samaritans also revered the name of YAHWEH. They, like the people of Israel, had a history of worship, idolatry and repentance. The Samaritans held to a strict observance of the Sabbath and were put off by the many accommodations made by the Pharisees when it came to interpreting the command to keep the day holy. In addition, the Samaritans were even more rigid in their following of dietary laws and food restrictions.
Both had sacred mountains. For the Jews, it was Mount Zion, for the Samaritans, it was Mount Gerizim. In fact, for the Samaritans, Mount Gerizim, which is mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy, had a greater claim to veneration than Mount Zion. Jerusalem, for the Samaritans, was seen as having as having significance only relatively late, in conjunction with the time of David. This perspective will provide a bit of a clue as we go forward, because Jesus seems to affirm the place David and Jerusalem has in relationship to his own ministry. This will become more clear when we look at the conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well.
Both groups constructed temples for places of worship; both experienced the effects of migration, foreign occupation and had to deal with movement of the Babylonian Diaspora. The histories of the Jewish people and the Samaritans were not just similar to one another, they were shared, and at some level, their respective narratives played off of one another. The Samaritan temple was constructed on Mount Gerizim, near Shechem (the burial place of Joseph and his sons) to rival the temple in Jerusalem. The Hasmonean John Hyrcanus in 108 BCE destroyed their temple. The people in Samaria still continued to worship among its ruins.
Make no mistake; both people groups firmly believed that they possessed the fullness of truth in relationship to the worship of YAHWEH. In each of their respective religious expressions, they firmly believed that they were “right.” Both took pride in their landmarks to reinforce their right standing as it related to worship and there was no love lost between the two groups. Jesus comes along and radically undermines both Samaritan and Jewish expectations. In return however, he replaces it with something more vibrant, hopeful and honoring of those who will worship the Father in “Spirit and in truth.”
In understanding the complexities of these competing historical narratives, one can begin to uncover the full force of Jesus’ own public ministry as he, a Jewish man himself, engaged with the Samaritans. Again, to say this is scandalous only makes sense when we have an understanding of the histories between these two groups. What begins to surface is how Jesus took the cultural milieu of his day, exposed its bankruptcy while still affirming the spiritual hunger of the human heart and confronting us with the challenge of life’s most pressing questions.
Given this very brief introduction to the Samaritans, we can now turn our attention to biblical text itself, beginning with Luke’s gospel where Jesus gives this famous parable after being asked, “Who is my neighbor?” As we are encouraged to wrestle with the text in new ways, we begin to see the gospel story take place in its proper form. Complete with the themes of vocation, renewal, judgment, vindication and hope. The Christian should know that these stories are our stories and the more conversant we are with them, the better storytellers we will become.
As we take a look at the parable of the Good Samaritan and Jesus encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, it is my hope that we will find God in the details.
 Much of the background information for this piece was found in The Oxford Guide to the Bible. It is a worthwhile volume to help add many of the details that often go unnoticed by the modern reader.