Parable of the Good Samaritan: the Samaritans
Samaritan high priest with a copy of the Samaritan Pentateuch

Parable of the Good Samaritan: the Samaritans

This week we’ll wrap up the observation stage of our study of the Parable of the Good Samaritan by taking a closer look at what is probably the single most important note we made as we read through Luke 10 – who were the Samaritans?

This task is not as easy as it may seem for a couple of reasons. First, the Samaritans left little written material giving us their perspective, and much of what has been written has been lost. Second, non-Samaritan sources contradict one another. Even so, there is enough available information for us to gain some insight into the intent of Jesus in making the parable’s hero a Samaritan.

The Name Itself

The Samaritan people derived their name from the region of Samaria, which lies between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south. The heart of the region is the city of Samaria, built approximately 50 to 60 years after Israel broke away from Judah. Omri, a king of Israel, purchased a hill from Shemer, the namesake of the new city, to build his new capital (1 Kings 16:24). This location is about 40 miles north of Jerusalem.

Although the Old Testament mentions the city more than 100 times, the Samaritan people are mentioned only once, in 2 Kings 17. Significantly, that chapter describes the Assyrian conquest of Israel and the subsequent exile of the people for walking in the sins of Jeroboam (verses 22-23), Israel’s first king.

Following a well-established policy of repopulating conquered territory with other subjugated peoples, the king of Assyria “brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim” (verse 24, ESV) to replace the Israelite population. The Assyrian king did allow a priest of the northern kingdom to return (verses 27-28) in order to teach the newly settled immigrants the religion of Israel.

It is the very next verse that mentions Samaritans as the people who had built the high places where the immigrants began placing their own gods. This sole Old Testament reference to Samaritans identifies them as the pre-exile Israelite population in contrast to the newly arrived foreigners. This has resulted in disagreement among scholars as to whether the Samaritans of Christ’s day were: 1) ethnically pure descendants of Israelites remaining in the land; or 2) the product of intermarriage among those Israelites and the recent immigrants. With the information now available, we cannot know for certain.

Loyal Remnant and Adversaries

What we do know, however, is that during the reign of Josiah in Judah (beginning in about 640 B.C.), which was more than eight decades after the northern kingdom of Israel had gone into captivity, “some men of Asher, of Manasseh, and of Zebulun humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 30:11, ESV) to celebrate the Passover. Because the city of Samaria was in the traditional territory of the tribe of Manasseh, it is reasonable to think of these northern pilgrims as Samaritans.

Moving forward another century, we see the return of the first Jewish exiles to Jerusalem and the first attempt to rebuild the temple under Zerubbabel. The “adversaries of Judah and Benjamin” asked Zerubbabel to participate in the rebuilding, but the Jewish governor flatly denied their request (Ezra 4:1-3, ESV). Were these “adversaries,” who claimed to worship the God of Israel, Samaritans?

A few verses later we read how they described themselves to Artaxerxes, the Persian king. After identifying the leaders of their group, they mention “Persians, the men of Erech, the Babylonians, the men of Susa, that is, the Elamites, and the rest of the nations whom the great and noble Osnapper deported and settled in the cities of Samaria” (verses 9-10, ESV). There is no clear indication that they intermarried, or that they called themselves Samaritans.

Another Mountain, Another Pentateuch

So what did the Jews have against the Samaritans? There were two major sticking points between the two groups, both of whom claimed to worship Yahweh, the God of Israel. First and foremost was the issue of where to worship God. Mount Zion in Jerusalem had been the home of the temple Solomon built, and it was also the location of the temple rebuilt by the returning exiles.

The Samaritans, however, worshipped God on Mount Gerizim. This mountain, across from Mount Ebal, played an important role in Old Testament history. It was the mountain that symbolized the blessings for obedience, whereas Mount Ebal symbolized the curses for disobedience (Deuteronomy 11:29). Sometime between the time of Nehemiah (Fifth Century B.C.) and the time of Alexander the Great (Fourth Century B.C.) the Samaritans built their own temple on Mount Gerizim. John Hyrcanus, the leader of the independent Jewish nation during the Second Century B.C. destroyed the Samaritan temple in 128 B.C.

To support their choice of Mount Gerazim as the proper location for worshipping God, the Samaritans rejected all Scripture except the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. Even in this, however, the Samaritan Pentateuch differs from the Pentateuch accepted by Jews and Christians in details that challenge their claim that Mount Gerizim is the proper location for a temple. In fact, the Samaritan Pentateuch includes a command to build an altar on Mount Gerizim and to perform sacrifices there. This command follows the 10 Commandments.

New Testament Rivals

By the time of Christ, the rivalry between Jew and Samaritan had become entrenched in their respective cultures. This rivalry, as well as other points already addressed in this blog post, are reflected in John’s gospel account of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman (John 4).

In this encounter, Jesus and His disciples stop in a Samaritan town during their journey from Jerusalem to Galilee. That town, Sychar, is described as being close to Jacob’s Well, which places it in the valley between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. Because of this close proximity to the holy mountain of the Samaritans, it is not surprising that the Samaritan woman asked Jesus which mountain He believed was the right place to worship God (verses 19-20).

What is most important about this chapter, for our purposes, is that in spite of the prejudices of both Christ’s disciples and the Samaritans, Jesus remained in that town two days. As a result of that stay, many of the Samaritans “believed because of his word” (verses 40-41, ESV).

One final thought we need to consider before wrapping up this look at the Samaritans is their place in God’s plan. The very last words of Jesus before He ascended to heaven demonstrate His view of the Samaritans as a people distinct from Gentiles: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8, ESV, emphasis mine).

This concludes our observation stage of the inductive method, as applied to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In the next post, we’ll begin the interpretation stage. Your assignment is to consider the structure of Luke 10, then outline it. Feel free to consult a reference, such as the Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, to get started.

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