The Trouble with Samaritans (Part 1)

In my last post, I dealt with the conflicting claims around Samaritan origins and that, initially, the relationship between the southern Kingdom of Judah and their northern neighbors was pretty good. Yet, somewhere along the line, something went really wrong. The result was hundreds of years of bad blood between these groups.

Some of you might be thinking: So What? Why does any of this matter? Well, as I plan to show in these posts, it has A LOT to do with how we read the New Testament—and especially Jesus’ encounters with Samaritans. So, for now, trust me. It’s important.

So, when did all these troubles begin?

Trouble in the South

In my last post, I discussed the Assyrian invasion of the northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE. The southern Kingdom was not captured, but they did become a vassal state paying tribute to the Assyrians. But, in 705 BCE, Sargon II was killed in battle. Judah’s King Hezekiah decided it was time to rebel. He stopped paying taxes and organized a group of other local kings to prepare for war—largely incited by Egypt.

Hezekiah’s Tunnel

Hezekiah knew that Assyria would respond. He also knew that he didn’t have much time to prepare for what was to come. He didn’t waste the opportunity. He fortified cities and organized the distribution of food stores around the country. He took special care to fortify Jerusalem, including re-routing the city’s main water supply to better serve the population during a siege. Today, it’s known as Hezekiah’s tunnel. How they accomplished this feat—digging from both ends and meeting in the middle—is an engineering wonder and a matter of great scholarly debate.

4 Years later, Sargon’s son, Sennacherib was firmly on the Assyrian throne. One of his first tasks was to tamp down the rebellions that had sprung up since his father’s death. He and his army headed south to the kingdom of Judah. By his own account, he took 46 cities—including Lachish, the breadbasket of Judah. Yet, he could not take Jerusalem. 2 Kings 19 gives the account of how Jerusalem was spared. It says the angel of the LORD struck down the army of the Assyrians and that they “woke up dead.” Herodotus records an infestation of field mice ate their leather straps and bowstrings forcing a retreat. Sennacherib’s account was that Hezekiah was “made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage.” Interesting spin on what happened and creative use of the facts.

The end result was that Judah was still a vassal state of Assyria, but the city of Jerusalem and the temple were spared destruction. This was how things remained until the Babylonians defeated the Assyrians and took over their empire.

To make a very long story shorter, in 589 BC, the southern kingdom of Judah rebelled against their new Babylonians overlords. Not taking this lightly, the Babylonians came knocking on the door of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. Nebuchadnezzar conquered the city and destroyed the temple. Like the Assyrians, the Babylonians removed the nobles and upper classes from the land. Unlike the Assyrians, they settled them as a group in specific towns. They were able to keep their culture, their identity, and their religion. Nevertheless, the Jews in exile began to assimilate and adopt various aspects of Babylonian culture, including personal names, language (Aramaic), alphabet and calendar.

Rose Bible Charts, Maps & Timelines

Meanwhile, in Samaria

What about those Israelites living in the northern part of the country, the former Kingdom of Israel (aka Samaria)? By all accounts, they did not rebel against the Babylonians, so they were left in peace. However, we know that they too mourned the loss of the temple. Jeremiah 41 recounts how a group of men (in a state of mourning) from Samaria came to Jerusalem with grain offerings and incense, possibly with the intent to cleanse the temple area for continued use. The Samaritans were devastated by the loss of the temple as well.

We’re Baaack!

In 539 BCE, the Persians succeeded the Babylonians. Seeking to gain favor with the people of the empire, Cyrus the Great issued edicts that allowed cultic artifacts to be returned to their home temples. As such, the Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem along with the temple vessels in order to rebuild the temple. Interestingly, a majority of the Jews in Babylon decided to stay put. Only a minority elected to return to Judah.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of the people that did not go into exile—either under the Assyrian or Babylonian conquest. You and your ancestors have been living in the land for 50-100 years in peace. You have been living under the rule of the appointed governors and you have been worshiping God (without the temple) as best you could. You’ve survived. Life is not too bad.

All of a sudden, this group of the “best and brightest” that were carried off into exile is coming back. Not only are they coming back but they plan to take charge of things—like they had never left in the first place. How do you suppose you would feel? In one sense, you are probably happy to see them return. On the other hand, you might think, they’ve been gone 50+ years. We’ve moved on!

I would probably be in the second group. I would be ticked. Who do these people think they are coming back here like they own the place? We’ve managed to get along just fine without them, thank you, very much! Cyrus wants the temple rebuilt? No problem! We can do that. Why do we need them?

The book(s) of Ezra-Nehemiah tells the story of the exiles’ return and their efforts to rebuild the temple and city of Jerusalem. Ezra provides some insight into how the exiles added fuel to the fire that was probably already smoldering:

When the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the LORD, the God of Israel, they approached Zerubbabel and the heads of families and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of King Esar-haddon of Assyria who brought us here.” But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of families in Israel said to them, “You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the LORD, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus of Persia has commanded us.”

Ezra 4:1-3, NRSV

Why the rejection? You would think that the exiles would want all the help they could get. It is possible that the people from Samaria were worshipping other gods too. That is what the book of 2 Kings states. However, that rings a bit hollow with me as the sole reason for the rejection. After all, neither Israel nor Judah were “clean” when it came to only worshipping the LORD. Both had a penchant for worshipping other gods along with the LORD.

Personally, I think there were a few factors at play here. It seems that the Judeans had some time in Babylon to reflect on what led to their circumstances and what they might do differently if they ever had a do-over. As such, I do think that the returning exiles had a new sense of religious devotion to not make the mistakes of their forefathers. The Samaritans could have been seen as a risk to that ideal. On the other hand, I think there was also a sense of we were the ones that suffered in captivity and we have earned the right to be in charge here like we were before. To put it another way, this was a power struggle for control of the city and the temple.

Again, put yourself in the shoes of the Samaritans that offered to help. You were told that you were not welcome here. You had no role in the building of a place of worship to God. On top of that, the implication of Ezra was that this was not YOUR God, it was OUR God. In effect, you are cut off. How would you respond? Do you fight back? Do you take your toys and go home? I, for one, would be pretty ticked about it.

The Biblical account it pretty clear. The Samaritans and other local groups made trouble for the returning exiles. They bribed officials to obstruct progress. They wrote letters to the King of Persia. They sought to block their progress at every turn.

For the returning Judean exiles, the reconstructed temple became a mark of identity. Who was a true worshipper of God? Only a true worshipper of God was to have access to the temple. As such, it seems that Samaritans were excluded from the temple. They weren’t real Jews.

We’ll Show You!

So, what did the Samaritans do? Well, they built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim so that they could worship God. Why Mt. Gerizim? Because that is where God renewed the covenant with Israel shortly after they entered the Promised Land. It was the mount of blessing mentioned in Deut. 11:29 and Josh. 8. From their perspective, if they could not worship God in Jerusalem, then they would do it from another site that clearly had significance in Israel’s history.

Over time, they adjusted their version of the Torah to give authority to their temple on Mt. Gerizim. They re-wrote a number of Biblical stories to make Mt. Gerizim the true place of acceptable worship to God.

Who’s at Fault?

Where would you lay the blame for the situation? As with most things in the land of Israel, it’s complicated. Neither side is completely clean in their actions. Just like with the issue of Samaritan identity, the claims of both sides are based on a subset of the facts that fit the reality in which they live.

It seems that this status quo—a Jewish temple in Jerusalem and a Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim—was maintained for a couple hundred years. That is until Antiochus IV Epiphanes decided to Hellenize the Seleucid empire, which included Samaria and Judea. That’s when the REAL trouble started.

More on that in the next post.

3 thoughts

  1. Pingback: Did the Samaritans Get a Bum Rap? | Stepping into the Jordan

  2. Pingback: The Trouble with Samaritans (Part 2) | Stepping into the Jordan

  3. Pingback: Risky Business | Stepping into the Jordan

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