The Underappreciated Story of the Samaritan Woman

There are precious few stories in the gospels in which Jesus converses with women. Even fewer are those that grant the woman conversant a voice. Among the latter examples are the conversations between Jesus and the sisters Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42; John 11:21-27, 32). The conversation we are interested in today is the one between Jesus and a woman of Samaria, a story only recorded in the Gospel of John (4:4-29).

Curiously, only the Gospels of Luke and John feature Samaritans. This gives historians a clue as to the composition of the audience that these gospels were initially written for. Some significant portion of these Christ-believers were probably Samaritans. But who were the Samaritans?

Most scholars trace the origin of the Samaritans to the 8th c. BCE. By that time the twelve tribes of Israel had separated into two distinct kingdoms. Following the death of Solomon (c. 931 BCE) and his construction of the first temple in Jerusalem, the ten northern tribes formed their own kingdom called Israel. The two remaining tribes, Benjamin and Judah, formed the kingdom of Judah ruled by descendants of King David. The northern kingdom did not recognize Jerusalem as the (only) sacred place in which to worship God. They established holy sites at Bethel and Dan. When these were later destroyed, a temple was constructed on Mount Gerizim where Moses commanded the wandering Hebrews from Egypt to “pronounce the blessing” (Deut 11:29) when they entered the land of Canaan. This 4th– or 5th-c. BCE temple was later destroyed by Judeans from the south. But before we pursue that story, we need to understand what happened to the people of the northern kingdom.

In 722 BCE, the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. Their practice when doing so was to expatriate some of the natives and relocate non-indigenous people to the newly-conquered territory. Israelites were removed from Israel while Gentiles from lands conquered by Assyria were moved in lessening the chances for rebellion. What happened next is contested by scholars and modern Samaritans themselves. The Israelites may have remained pure to their heritage and avoided mixing with the pagan population. Or, they intermarried with the new immigrants, some remaining faithful to the Yahweh cult, and some adopting pagan ways. Perhaps these options are not mutually exclusive. In any event, this is when the Samaritans (hassomeronim = people of Samaria” or samerim = keepers of the law”) originated. Samaritans continue to refer to themselves as Israelites.

In the 6th c. BCE the southern kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians who expatriated a number of the most prominent Judahite citizens. Less than a century later they were freed by the Persians and allowed to return home. Once there, the Solomonic temple destroyed by the Babylonians was rebuilt inaugurating what is known as the Second Temple period. The Judahites, now called Jews, sought help from the northern Israelites to rebuild the Jerusalem temple but hard feelings resulted. The Israelites did not want to be forced to worship Yahweh in Judea. By the 5th c. BCE, as we said, the Samaritans built a new temple for themselves on Mount Gerizim.

In the 2nd c. BCE, the Jews of Judea won their freedom from the succeeding Greek conquerors resulting in a period of self-rule lasting nearly a century. It was the only time, from the 6th century BCE until 1948, that Jews were independently self-governed. But this revolt, led by a family called Hashmonah, popularly referred to as the Maccabees (“the hammerers”), could be just as brutal as anyone else conquering others in the ancient world. They destroyed the temple on Mount Gerizim and forced all non-circumcised male inhabitants in the north to circumcise (they also forced inhabitants in southern Idumea to do the same – this was the birthplace of Herod the Great). Jews from Judea were invited and encouraged to move north to occupy the territory of Galilee. Samaria was reduced to a circumscribed territory between each.

Harsh feelings between the two continued. Josephus reports incidents of militant groups of Jews and Samaritans creating trouble for each other that sometimes erupted in violence. This is the background for our story of the encounter between Jesus and the woman from Samaria.

The Gospel of John indicates that Jesus “had” to pass through Samaria to go south to Jerusalem. He did not. Many Galilean Jews chose to take the eastern road down the Jordan River. But Jesus seems to have had other plans. We are introduced to this unnamed woman as the two meet at the well of Jacob, possibly in Shechem, the modern city of Nablus. The author says “it was about noon.” Jesus asks the woman for water and she is startled that a) a Jew was asking help from a Samaritan, and b) that a man was demanding service from a woman he does not know. The conversation turns theological as Jesus contrasts water from the well with “living water” which of course is Jesus’s teaching. But that need not deter us here. We want to learn more about the woman.

Jesus appears to entrap the woman by offering her the living water only if she goes and fetches her husband and brings him back. She admits she has none. Then Jesus startles her by disclosing that she has had five husbands and she currently lives with a man who is not her husband. From this bit of information, and the presence of the woman at the well at noon, traditional patriarchal interpreters conclude that she was promiscuous. They cite as evidence that she came to the well at an odd hour whereas most came in the cooler hours of morning or evening. That must indicate that other women would not have appreciated her presence. They point to her multiple husbands as if this proves she was an adventuress, an adulteress, or even a prostitute. Let’s take a closer look at these narrative issues.

First, there is no historical evidence that women separated themselves from other women at wells because of their perceived immorality. There is no evidence that immoral women had to come to the wells at the hottest part of the day. We cannot even be sure that there were no others at the well; the author does not say. The focus of the story is on the woman and Jesus, not on the surrounding environment. As for her multiple husbands, let’s look at the situation in its historical and cultural contexts.

Life expectancy in the time of Jesus was short by our standards. Men could expect to live to about the age of 40, women a little longer. Most women in this part of the world were betrothed at a young age, often too young to have sexual relations with a man. Thus, they sometimes only came to live with their husbands later (this seems to be the situation with Jesus’s parents). Men tended to marry in their late teens or early twenties. Living conditions were harsh and many women ended up married to multiple husbands by the time of their death. Not only that, divorce was possible in both Jewish and Samaritan culture based on the teachings of Moses (Deut. 24:1-4). A divorced woman was not necessarily considered immoral.* We cannot know if women could sue for divorce in Samaritan culture; it seems that most Jewish women likely could not until the second century or so. While five husbands can sound like a significant number to us today (though I am reminded of the Hollywood actress Elizabeth Taylor’s eight marriages), it likely was not all that unusual in the first century. Some combination of widowhood and divorce can easily account for her situation. We don’t even know how old she was – she could have been elderly! But what about her admission that the man she was living with was not her husband?

Living with a man that was not her husband can be interpreted in a variety of ways. She does not claim this man acted like a husband. While we might infer that they had a sexual relationship, this is not demonstrated. If they did have such a relationship, she might have been a concubine. At this time in history, men sometimes preferred to have a sexual partner as a concubine rather than a wife. Reasons for this included a marked difference in social rank preventing a man of higher status from marrying a woman of lower status. He might have been married to someone else or a widower. He may have wished to preserve the inheritance intended for the children of his marriage and not dilute it through sharing with children of his relationship with his concubine. In short, there are too many unknowns in this story to jump to the conclusion that this woman was somehow immoral by the standards of the day. She may have not met Jesus’s strict standards of marriage fidelity, however. Remember, he apparently taught that divorce, though allowed in Torah, was unacceptable. Perhaps in this case he was making such a moral claim.

The whole point of Jesus’s awareness of the woman’s marital situation does not seem to be judgmental; he does not condemn or chide her. What he did was demonstrate his prophetic gift: he knows her situation when there was no logical way he could have. He had divine insight. This point is emphasized when she responds, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet.” Jesus goes on to address her reservations about the preferred place in which to worship God, Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim. He says neither option will be in play. Rather, people will worship “in spirit and truth.” Whether the author was aware that the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed (70 CE) just like the temple on Mount Gerizim is unclear but the result is the same.

The anonymous Samaritan woman then admits that she knows that a “Messiah is coming.” It is unlikely she would have used the word “messiah” as that generally indicates a renewal of the Davidic dynasty, something no northern Israelite would have been anticipating. But she elucidates that “when he comes, he will tell us everything.” We know that Samaritans expected a coming one, the “one who returns,” called the Ta’eb. Samaritans do not accept as canonical and authoritative any document from the Jewish Bible/Old Testament except their version of the Torah called the Samaritan Pentateuch. They clearly wanted nothing to do with Judean prophets and tales of Judean history from a Judean perspective. But how then could they expect a coming one without the messianic prophecies of the Davidic Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah? Their expectation came directly from Moses: “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you—from your fellow Israelites; you must listen to him” (Deut. 18:15). This prophecy naturally has nothing to do with a restoration of the line of the Judahite King David.

At this point in the story, Jesus admits that he is the expected one whereupon his disciples, who had been away, return. The woman “left her water jar, went off into the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Surely he can’t be the Messiah, can he?’” While the author tempers her proclamation by quoting her comments in the negative, we must not miss the real importance of what she is doing. Based on her report, the people from her town “left…and began coming to him.” She has just fulfilled the role of apostle, which in Greek (apostolos) means “messenger.” She delivered the message of the arrival of the messiah. Her spreading of this “good news” (euangellion = “gospel”) caused “many Samaritans from that town” to believe “in him because of the report of the woman who testified.” But this is not the final word on her importance.

The gospel author makes the statement uttered by the townspeople, that, “No longer do we believe because of your words, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this one really is the Savior of the world.” With this story, the anonymous woman with all the husbands becomes the apostle to the Samaritans; she founds the Samaritan church (ekklēsia = “assembly”) of believers. And this brings us full circle back to where we started. Remember that only John and Luke invest any time at all in Samaritan believers. The author of Acts, who also penned the Gospel of Luke, knew a different origin story of the Samaritan church. He attributes its beginnings to the preaching of Philip, Peter, and John, male disciples of the crucified Jesus (Acts 8). This patriarchal origin is confounded by the story in the Gospel of John of an apostolic outreach in the time of Jesus by a woman who also met and spoke with her savior.

*The meaning of the Hebrew ervat davar was debated in the time of Jesus and beyond. The JPS translates into English as “something obnoxious.” The Septuagint renders it as “shameful thing.” Other bibles use terms like “something indecent.” Some scholars believe the term to have originally meant “nakedness” implying some sort of sexual impropriety. The house of Shammai (1st c. BCE/1st c. CE), like Jesus, interpreted ervat davar as something like adultery meaning that only if a wife committed adultery could she be divorced. But the slightly older house of Hillel interpreted the Hebrew simply as “something,” meaning a man could divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever. Both Josephus and Philo agreed. Therefore, we are not permitted to presume that the Samaritan woman behaved in a sexually improper way in her own cultural context. The jury was still out.

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