The problem with Samaria

People often ask why the Jews in Jesus’ time hated the Samarians so much. Jews avoided Samarians, even to walking miles out of their way around the Samarian territory rather than set foot on the enemy land.  Why did the Jews, citizens of Israel have and even nurture their heartless hatred toward their territorial neighbor?

It starts with King Solomon, who created the wealthiest and most powerful central government the Hebrews would ever see, but it was at an impossibly high cost. 

Land was given away to pay for his extravagances and people were sent into forced labor in Tyre in the north. When Solomon died, between 926 and 922 BCE, the ten tribes refused to submit to Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, and they revolted.

From this historical point on, there were two kingdoms of Hebrews: Israel (Samaria) in the north bounded by Galilee, and Judah in the south.  The Israelites formed their capital in the northern city of Samaria, and the Judaeans kept their capital in Jerusalem.  These kingdoms remained separate for more than two hundred years.

The history of both Israel and Judah is a catalog of ineffective, disobedient, and corrupt kings. When the Hebrews first asked for a king in the book of Judges, they were told that only God was their king.  When they approached Samuel the Prophet, he told them the desire for a king was an act of disobedience and that they would pay dearly if they established a monarchy.  That history, told in the book of Kings, bears out the result of the warning.

The Hebrew empire collapsed within a century of Solomon’s death, and they were never called Hebrews again. They were Israelites (Samarians) and Jews in their separate kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Each were left with tiny area states – about the size of the state of Connecticut.

Tiny states never survived long in those days, especially those with immense commercial and military importance, located on the Mediterranean Sea, directly between the warring powers of the Mesopotamian kingdoms in the northeast and powerful Egypt in the southwest.  

The Conquest of Israel

In 720 BC, the Assyrians conquered the tiny states of Israel. The Assyrians were aggressive and effective. To ensure that conquered territories would remain tame, the Assyrians forced many of the upper class and more powerful native inhabitants to relocate to other parts of their empire, then sent Assyrians to replace them in the conquered territory (2 Kings 17:5-24).

When the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, they forced the ten tribes to scatter throughout the Assyrian empire and permanently disappear from history, earning them the name  “the ten lost tribes of Israel.”

The Assyrian method of relocation was to scatter the Israelite tribes in small populations all over the Middle East.  Without separate communities where they could hold their identities, the deported Israelites soon dropped their Hebrew names and identities as worshipers of their God Yahweh.

When the Babylonians later conquered the southern kingdom of Judah, they also relocated a massive portion of the population.  But they moved that population to a single location so that the Jews could set up a separate community and still retain their identity and religion.

The Samaritans

With the Israelites relocated, Assyrians from five different races immigrated and intermarried with the conquered people. They settled throughout Israel, bringing their Assyrian gods and cultic practices with them.

The people of the Middle East were highly superstitious. Just in case, they did not deny the existence or power of other peoples’ gods. The conquering peoples feared that local gods might inflict vengeance on them for their invasion, so they adopted the local gods into their religious practices.

Within a short time, the Assyrians in Samaria were worshiping Yahweh as well as their own gods (2 Kings 17:25-41) and within a couple of centuries, they were worshiping Yahweh exclusively and becoming known only as Samarians.. 

That created a deep racial bias between the arrogant Jews in the south, who considered themselves “pure bloods,” and the Samaritans in the north who were considered to be only “half Jews,” and therefore not “real Jews” at all.

It is satiric that the worship of Yahweh stayed in Canaan, even though the new worshipers were not native Israelites.  And the deported Israelites in their new land eventually forgot their Yahweh worship.

And so, the Yahweh breach between Jews and Samaritans  was formed and deepened: the non-Hebrew Assyrian Samaritans adopted almost all of the Hebrew Torah and cultic practices. Unlike the Jews, Samaritans believed that they could sacrifice to God away from the Temple in Jerusalem. 

This belief angered the arrogant Jews even more who already denied that the non-Hebrew Samaritans had any right to be included among God’s chosen people. 

This Jew-Samaritan gulf played a major role in the discourse of Jesus of Nazareth.   The Jews refused to have any interaction with Samaritans, and would walk long extra miles rather than set foot inside the Samaritan territory. 

Samaritans did not refuse to deal with the Jews. The Jews looked down on the Samaritans, and considered themselves “holier” than the “heathens” or “half-bloods.”  They had a perpetual hatred for them because they considered their religion man-made, and outside of the Word of God. These “heathen Samaritans,” were more righteous than the Jews.  The text does not say that the Samaritans refused to deal with the Jews, but instead says, “the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.”     

In this situation, we see the heartless hatred Israel had toward its neighbor.  Jesus tried to teach the Jews to love their neighbor, but they had such a hard-hearted, bitter hatred toward the Samaritans, that they would not hear him.  Jews refused to understand the law of love or what it meant to love their neighbor.

John 4:9 illustrates the wonder of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, inside Samaritan land who asked Jesus, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” She well knew the arrogant Jews never shared things with Samaritans and would certainly not drink from a common cup.

Further along in John 4:27, this prejudice is also revealed by Jesus’ own disciples. “Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But not one asked him, “What are you doing?” or “Why are you talking with her?”

They simply stood in awe to see him talk to a woman from Samaria!  After all, Jesus was a pure-blooded Jew, and he was talking to a heathen.  His disciples could barely understand that Jesus met and ate with publicans and sinners, but they at least were Jews. This crossed the line.

The Conquest of Judah

The kingdom of Judah, in the south, soon fell victim to the power struggles between Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians.  Judah became a tribute state, first of Egypt, then of the Babylonians after they defeated the Egyptians in 605 BC. 

Less than a decade later, Nebuchadnezzar deported around 10,000 Jews to his capital in Babylon.  All the deportees were drawn from professionals, the wealthy, and craftsmen. Ordinary people were allowed to stay in Judah.  This deportation was the beginning of the Jewish Exile (597 BC).

A decade later, the Jews tried to resist the rule of the Babylonian king but were unsuccessful. Nebuchadnezzar again deported more prominent citizens, but the number was far smaller this time; somewhere between 832 and 1577 people (586 BC).

The Hebrew kingdom, started with such promise and glory by David, was now at an end.  It would never appear again. It seemed as if the special bond that Yahweh had promised to the Hebrews, the covenant that the Hebrews would serve a special place in history, had been broken and forgotten by God.  This period of community homelessness in Babylon makes up the Exile, one of the most significant historical periods in Jewish history.

However, in the fifth century BC, the Jews were allowed to return to their homeland from exile. They tried to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem, but the Samaritans, who were now the intermarried racial mixture of Jews and five other races, gave them a hard time, driving the wedge between them even deeper. 

The divide was so bad that in the second century BC, at the time of the Maccabean revolt, when the Jews rose up against the tyranny of Syria, the Samaritans of the northern province sided with Syria.  In retaliation for the Samaritan treachery, the Jews later destroyed the capital of Samaria, as well as their temple on Mt. Gerizim which had been built to rival the Temple at Jerusalem. 

After that, there was so much bad blood between them that Jews would have nothing to do with Samaritans, not even to pass through Samaritan country.  They would go miles out of their way rather than be caught dead in Samaria.  No self-respecting Jew would even talk to a Samaritan.  Samaritans would forever be held responsible for what their ancestors did, just as if they did it themselves. 

This was the world into which Jesus was born, to preach his lessons of love to a people who had forgotten how to listen.