The Samaritans

Published by DonDavidson on

Jesus’ story about the “good Samaritan,” in Luke 10:30-37, is so well known that the expression is part of our lexicon, referring to anyone who goes out of their way to do a good deed for someone—especially for a stranger. But I fear that much of the story’s impact has been lost because we have forgotten who the Samaritans were.

First, the New Testament makes clear that they were enemies of the Jews. Referring to a Jew as a “Samaritan” was an insult,[1] probably like calling a Christian an “atheist” today. When Jesus sent his disciples out to preach and heal, he instructed them, “Do not go on a road to Gentiles, and do not enter a city of Samaritans.”[2] When Jesus was in the Samaritan city of Sychar, he asked a Samaritan woman for a drink of water, and she replied, “How is it that You, though You are a Jew, are asking me for a drink, though I am a Samaritan woman?”[3] John adds parenthetically, “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.”[4]

The feeling was apparently mutual. When Jesus and his disciples entered a Samaritan city on their way to Jerusalem, Luke tells us that “they did not receive Him, because He was traveling toward Jerusalem.”[5]

Why this enmity between the Jews and the Samaritans? To understand this, we must go back at least as far as the eighth century B.C. It was then, in about 722 B.C., that the Assyrians invaded and conquered the northern kingdom of Israel.

The kingdom of Israel had existed for a little more than 200 years, since shortly after the death of King Solomon. Under the leadership of Jeroboam, ten of the twelve tribes[6] of Israelites had rebelled against Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, and separated themselves from the kingdom of Judah, which continued to be ruled by Rehoboam. This new kingdom of Israel went off the religious rails almost immediately, when Jeroboam convinced the people to worship idols in Dan and Bethel, rather than Jehovah in Jerusalem.[7] The kingdom quickly became known for its wickedness and idolatry, despite the efforts of several prophets to bring them back to the Lord.

So in about 722 B.C., the Lord allowed the Assyrians to conquer Israel (but not Judah). To prevent the locals from organizing a revolt, the Assyrians routinely deported most of a newly conquered land’s population and scattered them throughout the Assyrian empire. This is what happened to the Israelites.[8] They were replaced by people from other parts of the empire.[9] These new residents worshiped a variety of gods, only one of which was Jehovah.[10]

Thus, the residents of Samaria were not Jewish by either race or religion. They had nothing in common with the Jews, who regarded them with contempt. And as we have seen, the feeling was mutual.

So imagine the shock of the Jews when the hero of Jesus’ story was a Samaritan (and the villains were a Jewish priest and a Levite). It might be like an American preacher of today making the hero of his story a Muslim terrorist or a Russian war criminal. It was unthinkable. Yet in Jesus’ story the Samaritan was the one who helped the poor Jewish man who had been beaten, robbed, and left for dead.

The second greatest commandment is to love our “neighbor” as much as we love ourselves,[11] and the story of the good Samaritan teaches us that our “neighbor” is simply anyone who is need, whether or not we like them. Isn’t this just another way of saying that we should love our enemies, as Jesus commanded in Matthew 5:44?

[1]. See John 8:48.

[2]. Matthew 10:5

[3]. John 4:9

[4]. John 4:9

[5]. Luke 9:53

[6]. There were actually thirteen tribes. Although Jacob had only twelve sons, Joseph’s children, Ephraim and Manasseh, each became a separate tribe and received land in Canaan. However, the tribe of Levi did not receive any land, but settled in cities throughout Canaan, serving as priests and assistants for the Tabernacle, and later the Temple. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to the descendants of King David and King Solomon, and became the kingdom of Judah. The ten tribes which rebelled and became the kingdom of Israel were: Ephraim, Manasseh, Asher, Issachar, Dan, Naphtali, Zebulun, Reuben, Gad, and Simeon. These ten tribes became known as the “lost tribes” of Israel because, after being conquered and scattered by the Assyrians, they lost their identity as God’s people and also became lost to history.

[7]. See 1 Kings 12:25-33.

[8]. 2 Kings 17:6

[9]. 2 Kings 17:24

[10]. 2 Kings 17:25-34

[11]. Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31, Luke 10:27-28


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