“Samaritan,” The Biblical N-Word
by Pastor George Van Alstine
When the Jewish leaders who were opposed to Jesus really wanted to insult him, they said, “You are a Samaritan!” (John 8:48) Even though the Samaritan community was right in the middle of Palestine, surrounded by Jewish towns and villages, the Gospel writer John stated pointedly, “The Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans” (John 4:9). Their major holy places of worship were different (the Temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem vs. a temple on Mt. Gerezim), and the Samaritans accepted only the first five books of the Jewish Bible, rejecting the rest. Intermarriage, of course, was taboo.
Since this is Black History Month in the Nation and at ABC, I got to thinking about the many examples throughout history of how minority groups have been segregated and prejudiced against by majority populations. The situation of African-Americans in the United States is in many ways the most dramatic, because it involves the struggle from slavery toward freedom and equality. However, reviewing the treatment of Samaritans in Jesus’ time helped me understand how the liberating gospel he proclaimed can be a positive force in the journey of every oppressed minority.
Who were these people, and where did they come from? The answer depends on who you ask. The Samaritan community that still exists in Israel today (about 745 strong) claim to be the only true Jews, descended from the tribes of Ephraim, Manasseh and Levi, and practicing the worship and teachings that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai in a pure form. But Jewish teachers tell a different story, which focuses on a time when an alien group from the east were transplanted into the center of Palestine, together with their pagan gods, where they intermarried with the Jewish inhabitants.
There actually is an historical event behind these varied explanations. In 721 BC a great Assyrian army destroyed Samaria, the capital city of Israel’s northern kingdom (2 Kings 17:5-6). The Assyrian Empire’s strategy for pacifying conquered peoples involved mass deportations. According to official records that have been uncovered, they moved 27,290 men (plus women and children) from the area around Samaria and relocated them to other conquered areas to the northeast (probably Iraq, Iran, Azerbaijan, etc.). Meanwhile, deportees from other conquered lands were moved into the region that had been vacated, where they intermarried to form the Samaritans of Jesus’ day. Recent DNA studies have verified that modern Samaritans indeed do carry the markers of the Jewish tribes that they claim as their heritage. But they also carry distinctive DNA markers of a particular population from northern Iraq. These two groups clearly intermarried to become the Samaritans.
Other historical events added to the bitterness between Jews and Samaritans. Almost 200 years later, in 539 BC, the southern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Babylonians, and again there was a mass deportation. Evidently, the Samaritans filled some of that vacuum by moving south to occupy areas around Jerusalem. When in 400 BC Ezra and Nehemiah led an expedition back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and the city walls, the local inhabitants harassed and obstructed them throughout the process. You can read about this in the early chapters of the Book of Nehemiah. These people were almost surely the Samaritans. Nehemiah’s last mention of them is in this prayer: “Remember them, O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood, the covenant of the priests and the Levites” (Nehemiah 13:29). No love lost there!
It is into this atmosphere of animosity that Jesus entered when he deliberately walked through Samaria and when he went out of his way to have encounters with individual Samaritan people. How would he act? What would he say? Can his gospel be a bridge between two groups so prejudiced against each other?
Tune in to next week’s edition of the Messenger for the exciting answers to these questions.