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The Rift between Jews and Samaritans

I have been perplexed by the rift between the Samaritans and the Jews and their hatred mentioned in the New Testament. One incident is at Jacob’s well. Yet in one of the parables it is a Samaritan who takes care of the victim who was beaten. Is there anywhere in the Old Testament that records the breaking down of Abraham’s and/or Jacob’s progeny?

Imagine the hatred between Serbs and Muslims in modern Bosnia, the enmity between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland or the feuding between street gangs in Los Angeles or New York, and you have some idea of the feeling and its causes between Jews and Samaritans in the time of Jesus. Both politics and religion were involved.

According to the Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible by Louis F. Hartman, C.SS.R., feelings of ill will probably went back before the separation of the northern and southern Jewish kingdoms. Even then there was a lack of unity between the tribes of Jacob.

After the separation of Judah and Israel in the ninth century, King Omri of the Northern Kingdom bought the hill of Samaria from Shemer (1 Kings 16:24). He built there the city of Samaria which became his capital.

It was strong defensively and controlled the valley through which the main road ran between Jerusalem and Galilee. In 722 B.C. the city fell to the Assyrians and became the headquarters of the Assyrian province of Samarina. While many of the inhabitants of the city and the surrounding area of Samaria were led off into captivity, some farmers and others were left behind. They intermarried with new settlers from Mesopotamia and Syria.

Though the Samaritans were condemned by the Jews, Hartman says they probably had as much pure Jewish blood as the Jews who later returned from the Babylonian exile.

The story of both Israel’s and Samaria’s failures in keeping to the way of Yahweh is partly told in Chapter 17 of the Second Book of Kings. There, too, the sacred author tells how the king of As-syria sent a priest from among the exiles to teach the Samaritans how to worship God after an attack by lions was attributed to their failure to worship the God of the land. Second Kings recounts how worship of Yahweh was mixed with the worship of strange gods.

When Cyrus permitted the Jews to return from the Babylonian exile, the Samaritans were ready to welcome them back. The exiles, however, despised the Samaritans as renegades. When the Samaritans wanted to join in rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, their assistance was rejected. You will find this in the Book of Ezra, Chapter Four.

With the rejection came political hostility and opposition. The Samaritans tried to undermine the Jews with their Persian rulers and slowed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple. Nehemiah tells us (Nehemiah 13:28-29) that a grandson of the high priest, Eliashib, had married a daughter of Sanballat, the governor of the province of Samaria.

For defiling the priesthood by marrying a non-Jewish woman, Nehemiah drove Eliashib from Jerusalem–though Sanballat was a worshiper of Yahweh. According to the historian Josephus, Sanballat then had a temple built on Mount Gerizim in which his son-in-law Eliashib could function. Apparently this is when the full break between Jews and Samaritans took place.

According to John McKenzie in his Dictionary of the Bible, the Samaritans later allied themselves with the Seleucids in the Maccabean wars and in 108 B.C. the Jews destroyed the Samaritan temple and ravaged the territory. Around the time of Jesus’ birth, a band of Samaritans profaned the Temple in Jerusalem by scattering the bones of dead people in the sanctuary. In our own era which has witnessed the vandalism of synagogues and the burning of black churches, we should be able to understand the anger and hate such acts would incite.

The fact that there was such dislike and hostility between Jews and Samaritans is what gives the use of the Samaritan in the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37) such force! The Samaritan is the one who is able to rise above the bigotry and prejudices of centuries and show mercy and compassion for the injured Jew after the Jew’s own countrymen pass him by!

It is with those centuries of opposition and incidents behind their peoples that we can understand the surprise of the Samaritan woman (John 4:9) when Jesus rises above the social and religious restrictions not just of a man talking to a woman, but also of a Jew talking to a Samaritan.

You can find more about the story of the rift between Jews and Samaritans in the various biblical dictionaries and commentaries, and scattered through the historical and prophetical books of the Old Testament.


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6 thoughts on “The Rift between Jews and Samaritans”

  1. I have questions about your comments as quoted below:

    “When Cyrus permitted the Jews to return from the Babylonian exile, the Samaritans were ready to welcome them back. The exiles, however, despised the Samaritans as renegades. When the Samaritans wanted to join in rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem, their assistance was rejected. You will find this in the Book of Ezra, Chapter Four.”

    In particular, my first question pivots around your assertion that, “When Cyrus permitted the Jews to return from the Babylonian exile, the Samaritans were ready to welcome them back.” Ezra 4:1 states specifically, “Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the children of the captivity builded the temple unto the LORD God of Israel”. I can only conclude that you are including the Samaritans among this lot of “adversaries of Judah and Benjamin”, since you confirm that this group’s assistance was roundly rejected by the returning Jews; and subsequently, you indicate that as a consequence, this rejection forms the basis of “political hostility and opposition.” (your quote)

    So, my first question is, “HOW do you reconcile the contradiction of your assertion (that, “the Samaritans were ready to welcome them back.”) with God’s Word as found in Ezra 4:1-2, “v.1 Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the children of the captivity builded the temple unto the LORD God of Israel. v. 2 Then they came to Zerubbabel, and to the chief of the fathers, and said unto them, Let us build with you: for we seek your God, as ye do; and we do sacrifice unto him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assur, which brought us up hither”? Lastly, my understanding of Ezra 4:1-2 leads me to firmly question the sincerity (and motivations) of anyone described as “adversaries”. So, I suppose this, too, would be another question for you: WHY would you suppose such individuals to be otherwise?

  2. I might ask if they are any writings of that period that actually substantiate the claims being asserted

  3. My questions and comments originated in the asserted interpretations of biblical references used by the author of this article. The author references the Book of Ezra. Personally, I have no issue as a matter of faith in accepting the Book of Ezra as divinely inspired and therefore, authoritative and credible on its own merit. However, if one desires “supplementary”, historical material concerning events chronicled in the Book of Ezra, perhaps one may find the several writings of Josephus to be helpful. However, again and personally, however, I would never rely on Josephus to “vet” what I read in the Bible. At best, Josephus provides an historical backdrop that may or may not be reliable due to whether or not he approached whatever subject evenly, objectively, accurately, and factually. All of that prefaced, the following writings of Josephus attempt to delineate the nature of the rift between the Jews and Samaritans:

    Josephus, Antiquities 11.75-108: Samaritans and the Restoration of the Temple

    The Antiquities of the Jews, 20.118–20.136

  4. I cannot locate an “Edit” function on this webpage, and I wish to correct a typo in my previously submitted reply. The following best represents what I intended to post originally.

    “My questions and comments originated in the asserted interpretations of biblical references used by the author of this article. The author references the Book of Ezra. Personally, I have no issue as a matter of faith in accepting the Book of Ezra as divinely inspired and therefore, authoritative and credible on its own merit. However, if one desires “supplementary”, historical material concerning events chronicled in the Book of Ezra, perhaps one may find the several writings of Josephus to be helpful. However, personally again, I would never rely on Josephus to “vet” what I read in the Bible. At best, Josephus provides an historical backdrop that may or may not be reliable due to whether or not he approached whatever subject evenly, objectively, accurately, and factually. All of that prefaced, the following writings of Josephus attempt to delineate the nature of the rift between the Jews and Samaritans:

    Josephus, Antiquities 11.75-108: Samaritans and the Restoration of the Temple

    The Antiquities of the Jews, 20.118–20.136”

  5. Pat,
    Thank you for your explanation of some of the reasons and some of the historical data known about the rift between the Jews and the Samaritans who were both believers in God and members of the original twelve Tribes. If find it amusing that this same kind of petty bickering shows up in the few comments. Humans never change in character when they have a desired to insert themselves into the fight or discussion.

    Jesus said to love your neighbor and he did not add little reasons and ideas how to do this depending on our own perception of love. But he did add, “as yourself” so depending on how much and how you love yourself as a person always add to the mix of responses of love to others.

    I am only a seeker of knowledge and wisdom so I will not pick apart your article and continue to seek Him and His truth in all of my own ways. I am sorry that others feel the need to do that. It makes me sad but also even moreso explains the rift between the Jews and the Samaritans who were all the people of the Hebrew God I AM.

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