A Brief Look at the Samaritans

Posted on April 16, 2018

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By David Ettinger

A Hated People
samariaThe Samaritans are mentioned 13 times in the four Gospels. Even if you knew nothing about the Bible and were reading the Gospels for the first time, you would have no difficulty surmising that the Samaritans were a hated people.

In fact, they were so hated that when the Jewish religious leadership wanted to express just how much they opposed Jesus, they referred to Him as a “Samaritan.” Their precise quote is: “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?” (John 8:48). That’s a double-barrel arsenal of hatred being fired the Messiah’s way, and as strongly as contempt could be expressed at that time.

So, who were the Samaritans and why were they so hated by the Jewish people of Jesus’ day?

Birth of the Samaritans
In 931 B.C., following the death of King Solomon, the united kingdom of Israel divided into two nations: the Southern Kingdom, with Jerusalem its capital; and the Northern Kingdom, with Samaria its capital. Though the Southern Kingdom had several good kings (morally speaking), the Northern Kingdom had none, its history pockmarked with idolatry, immorality, and degradation.

Finally after 200 years of Northern Kingdom apostasy, God had enough. He sent King Shalmaneser and his Assyrian army to the Northern Kingdom to wage war against it, defeat it, and send the majority of its people (minus the poorest of them) into exile. So the land would not decay, the king repopulated it with pagans from other lands, and those new inhabitants and their offspring married the existing Jews and their offspring, creating a “mixed” group of people which eventually took the name of the capital city of Samaria, hence the Samaritans (2 Kings 17:24-41).

2 kingsThe religious system of the Samaritans was a mishmash of the worship of Yahweh mixed with that of other pagan deities, making the Samaritans not only a “mixed” people regarding bloodline, but in worship practice. Because of this, “pure” Israelites came to regard them as a cursed, second-rate faction of society and looked upon them with disdain.

Growing Tensions
We next read about the Samaritans in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which chronicle the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and its city walls following the return from exile of the Southern Kingdom in 536 B.C. Samaritan opposition to these rebuilding projects occurred in 444 B.C.; it was fierce (Nehemiah Chapter 4) and elevated the animosity between the Jews and Samaritans.

In about 409 B.C., a man named Manasseh was expelled from Jerusalem because of an unlawful marriage, and relocated to Mount Gerizim in Samaria. There he received permission from Persian King Darius II Nothus (the Persian Empire controlled Israel at the time) to build a temple on Mount Gerizim in the city of Shechem, which became the Samaritans’ “holy city.” This temple was considered to be superior to its modest counterpart in Jerusalem, and the hatred between Jews and Samaritans intensified.

As part of their worship system, the Samaritans held only to the Pentateuch – the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – and rejected every other book of the Jewish canon.

In about 167 B.C., when the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Ephiphanes began persecuting the Jewish people, the Samaritans joined him. In retaliation, years later in about 120 B.C., John Hyrcanus – leader and high priest of the Jews in Jerusalem – commanded the Jewish army to destroy the temple on Mount Gerazim, and Jewish-Samaritan hatred escalated all the more.

Samaritans and the Gospel
cross bwBy the time of the Gospels, the Jewish people abhorred the Samaritans, and the Samaritans reciprocated. The Jews would not associate with Samaritans, and on trips north to Galilee, would bypass Samaria – the shortest route – altogether, for a much longer route which took them into the Gentile territories of Perea and the Decapolis.

However, Jesus sought to bring the message of salvation to the hated Samaritans and broke Jewish tradition by traveling directly into Samaria (John Chapter 4). There He met a Samaritan woman and shared the truth of His Messiahship with her. She, in turn, shared this “Good News” with her fellow Samaritans, and many of them came to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Lesson
The lesson to be learned from the Samaritans is that Jesus came into the world to lay down His life for ALL people in order to free us from our sins. Christians, therefore, are to share the Gospel with all people. We cannot let personal animosity keep us from doing so, but are called to preach Christ in love – even to the most unlovable of people.

May God help us to overcome the animosity we have toward the “Samaritans” in our lives and present to them a Jesus who loves them and seeks to bring them into His eternal Kingdom.

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