The Samaritans: A Despised People

By Stan Cox

While the Son of God walked on earth, he expressed his love for all men. Jesus even loved the “unlovable.” A wonderful example of this compassion is seen in John’s record of Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in John 4.  Despite a national disdain the Jew felt toward Samaritans, Jesus started a conversation with the woman by requesting of her a drink of water. The woman recognized the singular nature of this and said, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samaritan woman? For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (v. 9).  Jesus was the Christ, and his saving work went beyond national boundaries and prejudices to include all men. “The woman said to Him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When He comes, He will tell us all things.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am He’” (vv. 25-26). The grace of God was extended even to the despised Samaritans, indeed to all men (cf. Acts 11:18).

A Despised People

To understand the animosity that existed between the Jew and the Samaritan, it is necessary to go back in history to the days of Israel’s judgment at the hands of Assyria. The event is recorded in 2 Kings 17. Israel had grieved God repeatedly with her rebellion. So, using the Assyrians as his instrument of judgment, he dealt with her. “Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel, and removed them from His sight . . .” (v. 18). The king of Assyria took many of the Israelites into captivity, and settled the land with other peoples. “Then the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah (Samaritans are also known as Cuthaeans), Ava, Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel; and they took possession of Samaria and dwelt in its cities” (v. 24). The Jews who remained, already rebellious toward Jehovah, were further corrupted in their religion. It is generally accepted that intermarriage between the peoples took place.

The Samaritans’ religion was “syncretistic” (the combination of different forms of belief or practice, Websters). Shortly after inhabiting the land they began to suffer at God’s hand. 2 Kings 17:25 reveals “they did not fear the Lord; therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them.” Chastened by the Lord’s punishment, they determined to serve Jehovah, and brought back a priest who taught them how to fear the Lord. However, while they embraced worship of Jehovah, they retained an adoration of their own deities. “They feared the Lord, yet served their own God’s — according to the rituals of the nations from among whom they were carried away” (v. 33).

Conflicting Religions

When the remnant of Israel returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and temple, the Samaritans approached them with an interesting proposal. “Let us build with you, for we seek your God as you do; and we have sacrificed to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here” (Ezra 4:2). Whether this request was made in good faith or not is irrelevant, it was completely unacceptable to the Jews. The Samaritans had a completely different concept of worship to Jehovah, which could not be reconciled with the Jew’s desire to restore pure worship before him. 2 Kings 17:41, “So these nations feared the Lord, yet served their carved images; also their children and their children’s children have continued doing as their fathers did, even to this day.” In response, the Jews said, “You may do nothing with us to build a house for our God; but we alone will build to the Lord God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us” (Ezra 4:3). The Jew’s disdain of this mongrel people, coupled with their rejection of the proposal, served to entrench the animosity between them and the inhabitants of Samaria. From that point on, “. . . the people of the land tried to discourage the people of Judah. They troubled them in building” (Ezra 4:4).

Subsequent History

Understanding the history of the Samaritan people helps us both to recognize why the tension between Jew and Samaritan existed, and why Jesus responded to the woman at the well as he did. The Samaritans, having been rejected by the Jews, determined to worship Jehovah in their own way. A short quote from Unger’s Bible Dictionary serves to encapsulate the conflict between Jews and Samaritans. 

The relation between Jew and Samaritan was one of hostility. The expulsion of Manasseh by Nehemiah for an unlawful marriage, and his building of the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim by permission of Darius Nothus, took place about 409 BC. The inhospitality (Luke 9:52, 53) and hostility of the Samaritans induced many pilgrims from the north to Jerusalem to go on the east of the Jordan . . . The Jews repaid hate with hate. They cast suspicion on the Samaritan copy of the law, and disallowed the steadfast claim of the Samaritans to Jewish birth (John 4:12). Social and commercial relations, though they could not be broken off (4:8), were reduced to the lowest possible figure (959).

Our Lord’s Response to the Samaritans

“Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we know what we worship, for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:21-24). In one act of sacrifice, Jesus swept aside the animosity and division which had existed between the peoples for hundreds of years. “Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:14).

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Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 9 p20  May 4, 2000