Parable of the Good Samaritan: Hades and Hospitality
The front and back of a denarius from the time of Augustus

Parable of the Good Samaritan: Hades and Hospitality

Last week we looked at the remaining five cities among the eight we discovered in Luke 10. This week we’ll take a look at most of the other significant terms (and one concept) we noticed through the chapter, beginning with the Greek word Hades.

What is in the World is Hades?

In Greek mythology, Hades was one of the three gods who divided up the earth. Zeus controlled the land, Poseidon controlled the seas, and Hades controlled the underworld. This realm of the dead also became known as Hades, which means invisible or unseen in ancient Greek.

That, of course, is not the meaning in the New Testament, in which the word appears just 10 times. Perhaps the passage that provides the best glimpse into the mindset of the early church is Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2. Quoting Psalm 16:10, he explains that David wrote of the resurrection of Christ: “Because thou wilt not leave my soul unto Hades, Neither wilt thou give thy Holy One to see corruption” (ASV).

Hades, in Acts 2, is the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew sheol, which most often refers to the grave. We see an example of this usage in Ecclesiastes 9:10, which tells us “there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in Sheol, whither thou goest” (ASV).

Hospitality in the Ancient Near East

At no time in the world of the Bible, whether during the days of the patriarchs, or during the Israelite monarchy, or even during the time of Christ, was travel easy. Granted, it was a bit easier during the time of Christ because of the combination of Roman military might and Roman engineering genius with their roads. However, it was still difficult and often dangerous.

Hospitality, which is a necessity among nomadic peoples, came to be regarded as both a duty and a virtue among the cultures that sprang up among descendents of the nomads of the patriarchal period. It is still viewed with the same regard in the Middle East today. And both Paul and Peter commanded Christians to be hospitable (Romans 12:13; 1 Peter 4:9).

How Much is That?

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Samaritan offers the innkeeper two denarii to take care of the injured man until he returns. The Roman denarius, which remained in use throughout the empire for more than four centuries, was introduced into circulation in about 211 B.C. when Rome overhauled its system of coinage. The coin contained approximately 4.5 grams of silver.

At the time of Christ, the Roman denarius was the equivalent of a day’s wage for a laborer. We see this valuation reflected in the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16).

Priests or Levite — What’s the Diff?

The bad guys of the Parable of the Good Samaritan are a priest and a Levite. Understanding who they were, and what their roles were, is therefore critical to understanding the parable.

The Levites were members of the tribe of Levi, one of the 12 tribes of Israel. This tribe stands out from the rest for a number of reasons. First, God selected this tribe to take the place of “all who open the womb” (Numbers 8:16), or all the firstborn, for holy service. Second, the Levites did not receive a tribal allotment of land, but received a portion of the tithes and offerings brought by the rest of the Israelites (Deuteronomy 18:1). And third, the Levites lived among the other tribes (Deuteronomy 18:6).

So how are the Levites different from the priests? The priests constituted only a small portion of the tribe of Levi. God specifically selected Aaron and his sons to serve in the role of priest (Exodus 28:1). Aaron, Moses, and Miriam were all part of the tribe of Levi (Exodus 2:1).

One of the best places to see the distinctions between priests and Levites is Numbers 3, which provides details about the specific assignments for each of the three main familial branches of the tribe of Levi: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. In contrast to the priests, who performed sacrificial duties, the Levites were charged with guarding the area around the sanctuary and with caring for and transporting the tabernacle and its furnishings.

In their respective roles in service to God, priests were expected to maintain ritual purity, and that meant avoiding dead bodies, even when in mourning. Exceptions were their closest family members – father, mother, son, daughter, brother, and virgin sister (Leviticus 21:1). Impurity through contact with a dead body could prevent any Israelite from participating in celebrations such as the Passover (Numbers 9:6).

In my next post, we’ll talk about who the Samaritans were, and why the Jews hated them so much. In the meantime, let me know some of your thoughts.

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