The Samaritans: Hope from the History of a Hated People
Someone who helps others is often referred to as a “good Samaritan.” But what is a Samaritan?
The Samaritans were a people group in the Bible that lived in the area of Israel following the Assyrian conquest. They survived through the time of Jesus, and even, in limited numbers, to the present day.
The Bible mentions plenty of stories about Samaritans, and the hatred between Jews and Samaritans features prominently in the Gospels. So, what did it mean to be a Samaritan?
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Who Were the Samaritan People?
To explain the origins of the Samaritans, we must go back to the days of the kings. After King Solomon ruled over the Israelites – God’s people – the unwise actions of his son Rehoboam in the tenth century BC led to a schism in which the kingdom was split into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, each with its own king.
Both kingdoms devolved into corruption and sin, despite repeated warnings from prophets sent by God. Thus, God warned, they would be overtaken by conquerors. The northern kingdom fared worse than the southern kingdom, with a long line of wicked rulers. It didn’t help that the temple, where God’s people were to worship, was located in the southern kingdom.
In 721 B.C., the northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians. Many of the people of Israel were led off to Assyria as captives, but some remained in the land and intermarried with foreigners planted there by the Assyrians. These half-Jewish, half-Gentile people became known as the Samaritans.
In 586 B.C., the southern kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonian Empire once and for all, as the walls of Jerusalem were breached, the temple was destroyed, and the city walls torn down.
Samaritans are first mentioned in the Bible in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah in the 5th century B.C. At this point, Babylon had given way to the Persian Empire. Nehemiah, a Jew, curried favor with the king and was able to return to Jerusalem to rebuild. However, the Samaritans remaining in the land opposed the rebuilding efforts and caused problems for Nehemiah and his fellow workers (Nehemiah 6:1-14). This was the beginning of a long-lasting hatred between Jews and Samaritans.
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Where is Samaria Today?
Samaria as a city was the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. After Israel’s fall, Samaria as a region was in the central area of what used to be the northern kingdom. During the time of Jesus, Samaria was located between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south.
Why Were the Samaritans Disliked So Much in Jesus' Time?
The Samaritans, being a mix of already spiritually corrupt Israelites and pagan foreigners, created a religion for themselves that the Jews considered heresy.
They established as their center of worship a temple on Mount Gerizim, claiming it was where Moses had originally intended for the Israelites to worship. They had their own unique version of the five books written by Moses, the Pentateuch, but rejected the writings of the prophets and Jewish traditions. The Samaritans saw themselves as the true descendants of Israel and preservers of the true religion, while considering the Jerusalem temple and Levitical priesthood illegitimate.
When Jews returned to rebuild Jerusalem, they were opposed by Samaritans. This led to further ill-will as the two sects were established in the land in opposition to one another.
To the Jews, a Samaritan was more revolting than a Gentile (pagan); Samaritans were half-breeds who defiled the true religion.
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Who Was the Good Samaritan?
Jesus often taught spiritual lessons through parables or stories. One of his most famous parables is that of the good Samaritan.
This parable is found in Luke 10:25-37. An expert in the law stood up to test Jesus and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life. When Jesus turned the question back to him, he had to say that the law stated that a person was to love God and love his neighbor as himself. However, the flustered expert wanted to justify himself, so he asked, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29).
To this, Jesus responded with a parable.
“In reply Jesus said: ‘A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have’” (Luke 10:30-35).
The Good Samaritan, then, was not a real person. He was a symbol. A religious man wanted to limit who a neighbor was, and thus justify himself. Instead, Jesus flipped the question. He used the backdrop of the Jews’ hatred for Samaritans to show that everyone was his neighbor, even those considered an enemy.
“[Jesus asked,] ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’
The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.’
Jesus told him, ‘Go and do likewise’ (Luke 10:36-37).
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Who Was the Samaritan Woman at the Well?
On one occasion, Jesus was passing through Samaria on his way from Judea to Galilee. Tired, He sat down at a well.
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus asked her for a drink. The woman was shocked. “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (John 4:9).
In response, Jesus said that if she asked Him, He could give her living water. She asked for the water, and He responded that she should get her husband and come back. When she replied that she had no husband, He said, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband” (John 4:17-18).
At this point, the woman realized He must be some kind of prophet. She thus asked Him about the true worship, whether it was of the Jews or the Samaritans.
He gave an unexpected response:
“’Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.’
The woman said, ‘I know that Messiah’ (called Christ) ‘is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.’
Then Jesus declared, ‘I, the one speaking to you — I am he’ (John 4:23-26).
Jesus was coming to establish something new. The Jerusalem/Gerizim debate would soon be obsolete; He was ushering in a new era.
The woman went to tell everyone, and as a result, many Samaritans listened to Jesus and believed.
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Why Did Jesus Interact with Samaritans So Much?
Everywhere He went, Jesus interacted with the poor and outcast. Whether He was healing lepers, eating with tax collectors, or speaking to Samaritans, Jesus constantly demonstrated care for those the world had rejected and showed that He didn’t care what the “religious” people thought of Him.
Jesus showed that the Gospel is for everyone. He said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
Hope for Samaria
From the fall of the rebellious northern kingdom of Israel, to a mixed idolatrous religion, to a people group hated by the Jews, the Samaritans had a rocky history.
“Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So, there was great joy in that city” (Acts 8:4-8).
The history of Samaria reminds us that no matter who you are or where you come from, there is Good News through Jesus Christ.
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Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. She is the co-author of Dear Hero and has 200+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.