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Groups in the Gospels (8): National Groups

H Barnes, Westhoughton


The city of Samaria was built by Omri, king of Israel, to be the capital of his ten-tribe northern kingdom (1 Kings 16.23-24), and it was extended by later kings of Israel. It eventually became the rival to Jerusalem, the capital city of Judah, the southern kingdom. Eventually the name Samaria was used for the whole country, so for instance we find the expression "cities of Samaria" five times in the Old Testament. However, the city was captured by the Assyrians (c.720 BC) and most of the people of country were later carried into captivity in Assyria (2 Kings 18.9–12). Sometime later the depopulated country of Samaria was partly re-populated by non-Jewish colonists imported by the Assyrian king Esarhaddon from eastern parts of the Assyrian Empire (2 Kings 17.24). The last remnants of the original Israelites who were still living in Samaria - from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh - eventually intermingled with the foreign immigrants.

The immigrants from the east brought their own religions with them: "they feared not the Lord". This brought divine judgment in the shape of man-eating lions, whose numbers would easily have multiplied during the days of depopulation (2 Kings 17.25; cp. Lev 26.22). The people appealed to the king of Assyria for help, and he arranged for an Israelite priest whom they had carried away from Samaria and who "came and dwelt in Bethel, and taught them how they should fear the Lord" (v.28). However, they merely introduced Jehovah, the God of Israel, as just another god among the many they already acknowledged and worshipped (v.29). This situation was not too different from the state of affairs that existed before the exile, and would have been recognised as such by the Israelite priest who had returned!

The result was that "they feared the Lord, and made unto themselves of the lowest of them priests of the high places, which sacrificed for them in the houses of the high places. They feared the Lord, and served their own gods, after the manner of the nations whom they carried away from thence" (vv.32-33). This continued to be the case thereafter: "So these nations feared the Lord, and served their graven images, both their children, and their children's children: as did their fathers" (v.41).

About a century after the northern kingdom went into exile, the same fate befell the southern kingdom and they were taken to Babylon. When, seventy years later, a number of these Jews returned from exile to Jerusalem and district (see the books of Ezra and Nehemiah), some Samaritans requested that they should be allowed to help rebuild the destroyed temple at Jerusalem along with the Jews and then be involved with the sacrifices. Ezra refused and this aroused considerable hatred and hostility on the part of the Samaritans (Ezra 4.1–4).

Later, Nehemiah had continuing problems with Sanballat the provincial governor of Samaria, and one of the descendants of the Jewish priests who was Sanballat's son-in-law. Nehemiah rejected him as a priest saying, "therefore I chased him from me" (Neh 13.28). Sanballat then built the Samaritans their own temple at Gerizim and this further increased the hatred between Jews and Samaritans. This temple was later destroyed but the animosity of the Jews towards the Samaritans continued.

In New Testament days the city of Samaria was rebuilt by Herod the Great, as capital city of the province of Samaria. This province, together with those of Judæa and Idumea (OT, Edom), later became incorporated by the Romans into the new province of Judæa in AD 6, over which Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor from AD 26-37.

The position of the Samaritans in the period covered by the Gospels was just the same as at the end of the Old Testament, with the Jews having no dealings with them (Jn 4.9), but the Samaritans were still claiming to worship God. They were not strictly classified with the Gentiles (Mt 10.5), but occupied an unusual position – not proper Jews and not Gentiles, worse! For a Jew to be called a Samaritan was a term of abuse (Jn 8.48).

However, in spite of the bitterness of the Jews towards Samaritans, the Lord Jesus had dealings with them. First He "must needs go through Samaria" to meet some (Jn 4.4). There He encountered a notorious woman from the city of Sychar at the well outside the city. She summed up the antagonism between the Jews and Samaritans very well when she asked the Lord Jesus, "How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans" (v.9). Amazingly, He told her – of all people – that He was the Messiah, and also taught her about the true nature of worship: the hour had arrived when they that worship God must worship Him "in spirit and in truth". He then preached to the people of the city, staying two days at their request, and "many of the Samaritans of that city believed on him" (v.39), saying that "this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world" (v.42). Later, the Lord Jesus was prepared to preach again in Samaria, but "they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem" (Lk 9.53): they were offended by the fact that Jerusalem was uppermost in His thoughts.

Then a lawyer asked the Lord Jesus, "Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" (Lk 10.25), trying to catch the Lord Jesus out in His response. He was answered in such a way that he felt embarrassed, and, wanting to justify himself, asked, "And who is my neighbour?" (v.29). The Lord Jesus gave His answer by telling the so-called story of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10.30–36). This forced the lawyer to admit that even if it was a Samaritan who showed mercy, he had shown himself as a true neighbour!

When the Lord Jesus healed the ten lepers, it was unexpectedly a Samaritan alone of the ten who returned to give thanks (Lk 17.16). Last of all, it is important to notice that the resurrected Lord Jesus made special mention of Samaria, as the first place after Judæa where the gospel should be preached (Acts 1.8, cp. Acts 8.5–14).



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