Historical-Geographical Background Study
Jesus' encounter with the woman of Samaria is a familiar event. The lessons of that meeting are numerous, and the background is rich. This paper will lay out some of the historical-geographical material which forms the setting for this Johannine pericope. These data serve to inform and highlight this scene at Jacob's well.
The beginnings of the Samaritans are usually linked with the city that bears that name. Samaria was founded about 875 B.C. by the Israelite King Omri. The land which was located on a hilltop was purchased from and named after one Shemer (IKi.16:24). Following the Assyrian conquest (722/721 B.C.) many committed Israelites were banished from the land and later replaced by Gentile foreigners. Some of the Jews who remained eventually compromised their unique religious heritage. Thus a syncretistic religious system developed, one which incorporated Jewish beliefs with those of paganism.
In distinction from the traditional view, some scholars propose a non-Samaria origin of the Samaritans. Early references may point instead to Shechem and to a religious community which was rather conservative and not prone, as commonly believed, to syncretistic tendencies. "They preferred to refer to themselves as samerim, `keepers' (of Torah), and to distinguish themselves from someronim, `inhabitants of Samaria.' There seems to be no Old Testament text unambiguously referring to them."
Whatever the actual case may be, Jews clearly distanced themselves from Samaritans. This is captured by John who states matter-of-factly that "Jews have no dealings with Samaritans" (Jn.4:9). To this subject we will now turn.
Even a cursory reading of the NT Gospels reveals the tension between these two groups. "[F]rom the beginning of the first century AD they were regarded as being on a level with the Gentiles in all things ritual and cultic." After the Exile, Jews returning to their homeland viewed Samaritans with great contempt. They would have been viewed as compromisers, Jewish half-breeds, if they did (as commonly held) merge Judaism with paganism. But either way, we have evidence to support a legitimate stance of separation by Jews from Samaritans. This is evident in Jn. 4, and it is due (primarily) to Jewish recognition of Samaritan errors concerning religious tenants and customs.
Gerizim or Jerusalem?
Samaritan religious views were partially Judaistic--they sometimes agreed yet often conflicted with conservative Judaism. The Pentateuch was received as canonical, but the remainder of the OT was rejected. Samaritans also set up their own priesthood, while rejecting the Jerusalem counterpart. Furthermore, they apparently anticipated the coming of a "prophet like Moses" (Dt.18:18-22) —the so-called ta`eb ("the one who restores" or "the one who returns"). But perhaps the clearest difference between Samaritans and Jews concerned the location of worship. The Samaritans erected a temple about 400 BC on Mt. Gerizim and although it was later destroyed by the Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus (second century BC) it remained the focal point of Samaritan religion. Thus a rivalry of sorts existed between Gerizim on the one hand and Jerusalem on the other. The Samaritans following the traditions of their fathers looked to Mt. Gerizim, while the Jews looked to the holy city Jerusalem. This foundational rift led to great antagonism between Samaritans and Jews and lies behind the woman's statement in John 4:20, "Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship." Of course, Jesus settles the issue, once-and-for-all, in stating that the Samaritans (however genuine their religious convictions) are basically ignorant, while "salvation is from the Jews" (v.22).
Mission to Samaria
In order to temporarily avoid friction with the Pharisees, Jesus left Judea and began His journey to Galilee. At this point John informs us (v.4) that "[Jesus] had to pass through Samaria." This has often puzzled commentators because of the ambiguity of the statement. What does John intend by the phrase "had to?" Geographically speaking it is quite obvious that Samaria is sandwiched between Judea and Galilee. Some contend that Jewish hatred for Samaritans ran so deep that they would have purposely gone out of their way to avoid Samaria when travelling north or south. Josephus contradicts this idea, however, in stating that Jews, despite their animosity, would take the more direct route. Thus it very well might be that the reference here is merely geographical. Jesus had to travel north and Samaria happened to lie in the way. Others, though, read more theology into the verse. That is, Jesus "had to" pass through Samaria because He had a divinely established meeting with the Samaritan woman. This fits well with John's emphasis on Jesus' self-consciousness of carrying out the divine plan (cf. 2:4; 7:30; 13:1; 14:31). It could be a Johannine example of Jesus willingness "to do the will of (God) who sent him" (4:34). While it is difficult to be dogmatic, it is quite probable that John in making a geographical reference also alludes to the divine appointment that Jesus had to keep.
The mission of Jesus is both far-reaching and surprising. His saving task encompassed Jews and Gentiles (cf. 3:16; 10:16) and His kind embrace often reached those who seemed unlikely candidates of His grace (cf. 5:1-9; 9:13-41). It is ironic that those whom many considered to be the dregs of society (cf.8:15) would become recipients of God's favor. Such is the case here. This woman came to draw water, but ended up with supernatural refreshment (vv.7, 10). She began in relative ignorance, but ended up a true worshipper of God (vv.20, 24). Her encounter with Jesus exposed her sin (vv.17-18), but eventually it brought her living water and eternal life (vv.10, 14)!
1. Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990), p.423. See also H. G. M. Williamson, "Samaritans" in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Joel B. Green & Scot McKnight, eds., (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1992), pp. 724-728.
2. Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), p.356.
3. Without question, however, political factors and natural human prejudices would also have played a significant role in these tensions.
4. Antiquities XX, vi, 1.
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