On Jewish-Samaritan Animosity

If you read through the gospels, on a few occasions you’ll come across references to a group of people called the Samaritans.

The fact that Jews and Samaritans didn’t like each other is a common enough fact for a lot of Christian but the reasons for that animosity and the depths to which their hate descends are often unclear.

But like in the rest of Scripture, context is important. During the time of Jesus, there was deep and long-standing hostility between these two groups of people. Understanding why will help bring to life passages like John 4 when Jesus talks to a Samaritan woman or Luke 10 when Jesus tells a parable about a good Samaritan.

About a thousand years before Jesus, all of Palestine—or Canaan as it was called then—was the unified kingdom of Israel. Initially, it was ruled by King David and, after David’s death, by his son Solomon. After Solomon’s death in 931 BC, his son Rehoboam took over. However, the people didn’t like Rehoboam and the ten northern tribes rebelled against the king and start their own kingdom, with the city of Samaria as its capital. The two southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin became known as the kingdom of Judah, while the ten northern tribes became known as the kingdom of Israel.

According to the records in 1-2 Kings, all the kings of Israel were evil and none of them attempted to follow God. Conversely, only some of the kings of Judah were evil. Some of the kings of Judah tried to worship and follow God.

Eventually, because of wicked and sinful actions, God allowed the northern Kingdom of Israel to be conquered by the Assyrian Empire. When the Assyrian Empire took over, they took most of the Israelites back to Assyria with them while allowing only a few Israelites to remain in Canaan.

At the same time, the Assyrians took other conquered people from Babylon, Kuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim, and moved them to the area around Samaria. These new people brought with them pagan gods and foreign beliefs. Eventually, the Israelites who remained in Samaria intermarried with these foreigners.

Intermarriage between an Israelite and a non-Israelite wasn’t okay back then. According to the Scriptures, Israel was to be God’s special possession, set apart from all the other nations. But the Israelites in Samaria married these new pagan people and their offspring became known as Samaritans; people who are half-Israelite and half-Gentile. This didn’t sit well with their fellow Israelites down in the Kingdom of Judah.

A couple hundred years after the Assyrians captured the northern kingdom of Israel the Babylonians captured the southern kingdom of Judah. Also because of sinfulness and wickedness.

And, just like the Assyrians, the Babylonians shipped most of the people of Judah to Babylon. However, unlike the northern kingdom of Israel, the tribe of Judah remained pure. They didn’t intermarry with the locals. Eventually, in about 520 BC, the tribe of Judah, or the Jews as they had begun to call themselves, were allowed to return home to Judah.

The first thing they did when they got home was to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. As they were rebuilding the temple, the Samaritans came down and offered to help. However, the Jews in Judah didn’t consider the Samaritans to be true, pure members of the tribe of Israel anymore since they had intermarried with pagans. Therefore, they rejected the Samaritan offer of help which, of course, angered the Samaritans.

So, at this point, the Jews don’t like Samaritans because they consider them a mixed race and the Samaritans don’t like the Jews because their offer of help was rejected, or more directly they as a people were rejected.

Then, to make matters worse, during this time a Jew named Manasseh married the daughter of a Samaritan named Sanballat. Manasseh then proceeded to build a rival temple on Mount Gerazim in Samaria.

So now the Jews are building their temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem and they claim that this is where Yahweh the One True God must be worshipped. And simultaneously, in Samaria on Mount Gerizim, the Samaritans have built their temple and they claim that, no, this is where Yahweh the One True God must be worshipped.

After these temples were constructed the Samaritans decide that large chunks of the Hebrew Bible, or what we would call the Old Testament, are too Judah-centric. The Hebrew Bible has three part, the Torah, otherwise known as the Five Books of Moses. Then there are the Prophets, which contains some of the history books like Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings and the later prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Finally, there are the Writings, which contains the wisdom literature like Proverbs, Job, and Song of Songs as well as the Psalms, Ruth, Daniel, and Esther.

But the Samaritans decided the Writings and the Prophets were written with too much of a bias towards Judah and they get rid of them. So now the Samaritans are left with basically the first five books: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Which you can imagine doesn’t sit well with the Jews. This just convinces them that Samaritans are godless heathens who don’t care about the holy scriptures.

Eventually, this hostility built and in 128 BC, during the Maccabean dynasty, John Hyrcanus lead a group of Jews up to Samaria to finally destroy the Samaritan temple. Then, about twenty years before Jesus started his public ministry, a group of Samaritans travelled to Jerusalem and defiled the Jewish temple by scattering human bones everywhere, effectively making the entire Temple unclean and ritually impure.

What we see in the history of the Jews and Samaritans is this constant back and forth. One group offends, then the offended group feels like they need to get even and intentionally offends the other side. One side attacks, the other side leads a counter-attack. Constant retaliation, retribution, and vengeance.

And of course, each group thinks they’re in the right. Both groups think they have been wronged and are simply trying to defend themselves or restore their honour. Both groups claim God is on their side, that they worship God on the one true mountain, the place where God wants to be worshipped.

And most of the people who would have heard Jesus speak initially would have been Jews; people on one side of the conflict convinced that those people are truly evil. So to hear Jesus tell a story about two good Jews (a priest and a temple worker at that) who ignored a man in need, only for that man to be rescued by a Samaritan, would be outrageous.

Or another time, Luke records a story where Jesus heals ten men and only one, a Samaritan, comes back to thank him while the other nine (who were Jews) never did. What does that say about who is good and who isn’t? Who’s right and who’s wrong?

The truth is, we don’t have to look far in our own world to find groups we demonize and make villains in our own mind. Maybe it’s liberals or conservatives, racial minorities or white people. Maybe it’s rich people for being greedy or poor people for being lazy. Maybe it’s members of the LGBTQ community or cisgendered people with privilege.

We all have groups of people we assume are the enemy; they’re the ones far from God with no real interest in following Jesus. But more often than not, those seem to be the groups Jesus wants to use to shatter our expectations.

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