The Samaritans—a Fading People
AS THE people of China are called Chinese and those of England are referred to as English, so the inhabitants of Samaria are known as Samaritans.
The history of the Samaritan people might be said to begin after 997 B.C., when the northern ten tribes of Israel under the leadership of Jeroboam revolted against the rule of the house of David. Some fifty years afterward, King Omri, of the ten-tribe kingdom, bought the mountain of Samaria from Shemer and on it built the city of Samaria, which became the capital of Israel. After that the people of Israel, especially those from Samaria, came to be called Samaritans, and the whole northern territory, Samaria.—1 Ki. 16:23, 24; Hos. 8:5; 2 Ki. 17:29.
The city of Samaria was not only one of great beauty, located on top of a bold headland some 2,848 feet high, but also a mighty fortress. It was besieged several times without being captured. But in 740 B.C. Samaria fell, after a three-year siege by the king of Assyria, and the kingdom of the ten tribes was destroyed. The city of Samaria was demolished, and all the prominent people of the land, the heads of families, the priests and prophets, were exiled from their homeland. Thus the ten tribes that had separated from the house of David were brought to complete desolation, never again to assume strength or prominence. Possibly poor people of the land were left behind, according to the custom of the conquerors at that time.—2 Ki. 25:12.
To prevent rebellion against Assyrian rule on the part of the remaining Jews, and to keep the land from becoming entirely desolate through lack of inhabitants, the Assyrian king had a mixed group of people move into the land to occupy the vacant cities. King Sargon of Assyria wrote: “Samaria I besieged and conquered . . . 27,290 people I took into captivity . . . people out of all lands, my captives of war, I settled there; my officer I made governor over them, tribute and taxes like the Assyrians I laid upon them.” The Bible account says: “Subsequently the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon and Cuthah and Avva and Hamath and Sepharvaim and had them dwell in the cities of Samaria instead of the sons of Israel.” (2 Ki. 17:24) These foreigners made Samaria their chief city, but they made Shechem the center for religious worship. At this time any Israelites who were left behind were in the condition described by the prophet Hosea: “Without king, and without prince, and without sacrifice, and without pillar, and without ephod or teraphim.” (Hos. 3:4, AS) They were stripped of all but their memories. Pagan worshipers now dwelt in their lovely cities where once they carried on their own apostate religion.
In the lapse of time, between the exiling of the Israelites and the bringing of these foreigners into the emptied Samaritan cities, the land became infested with wild beasts. The inspired account says: “It came about at the start of their dwelling there that they did not fear Jehovah. Therefore Jehovah sent lions among them and they came to be killers among them.” (2 Ki. 17:25) These pagans believed that each district and country had its own god and that to prosper they must learn how to appease the God of this land. So they sent word to their king requesting that someone be sent to teach them the ways of Jehovah, that they might know how to worship the God of Israel. The king sent back a Samaritan priest, who took up residence at Bethel. He began to teach these foreigners the ways of Jehovah. The pagan settlers incorporated this worship of the God of Israel with their demon worship. A mixed religion resulted—the Samaritan religion. The few remaining Israelites became miserably corrupted both in their behavior and in their religion. They married foreigners and brought forth a mixed race, composed partly of Israelites and partly of settlers. This mixture of humanity became known as Samaritans.—Ezra 4:2, 10.
This idolatrous religious concoction continued for about three hundred years, down till the building of the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim by the governor of Samaria, Sanballat the Horonite, said to be with the sanction of Alexander the Great. Earlier, during the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah, some few returned to true worship. The high places of demon worship of Samaria were destroyed. Their altars were desecrated, their priests slain and all the remnant of Israel acknowledged the temple on Mount Zion or, more specifically, on adjacent Mount Moriah. Any restoration of true worship, however, was short-lived. With the death of Josiah the land of Samaria fell back into idolatrous worship.
THE SAMARITAN SCHISM
Nothing is known of the Samaritans from Josiah’s time down till the arrival of Zerubbabel and Joshua the high priest in Palestine in 537 B.C. These men were authorized by King Cyrus to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans approached them with an offer to assist them in their building program, but Zerubbabel rejected their offer. This treatment roused the wrath of the Samaritans. By the time Ezra arrived on the scene in Jerusalem nearly seventy years later, the ill feeling had faded and the Jews and the Samaritans were on the friendliest of terms. In fact, too friendly for Ezra’s liking, for the Jews had intermarried with the Samaritans. Ezra, the priest, declared these intermarriages illegal, contrary to God’s instruction given at Exodus 34:16. He called for the Jews to separate themselves from their foreign wives. This caused much resentment among both the Jews and the Samaritans. Many influential Jews refused to listen to Ezra’s appeal and fled to Samaria. The Samaritans became embittered with the way their womenfolk and children were being treated. This led to a sharp division between the Jews and the Samaritans.
During Nehemiah’s absence from Jerusalem, about 443 B.C., the Jews again married Samaritan women. When Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, he insisted that they separate from their foreign wives. Nehemiah says: “One of the sons of Joiada the son of Eliashib the high priest was a son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite. So I chased him away from me.” (Neh. 13:28) It was Nehemiah and not popular Jewish sentiment that expelled the unworthy priestling. This led to more resentment.
The Bible says nothing more about this and in no way connects it with the Samaritan schism. The Jewish historian Josephus, however, informs us that a nephew of this man whom Nehemiah chased away from him married a daughter of Sanballat, the governor of Samaria. The nephew’s name was Manasseh. The elders of Jerusalem were quite indignant that a relative of the high priest should marry a foreigner. They demanded that Manasseh either divorce his wife or not serve in the priesthood. All Jerusalem was in an uproar over this, because many priests and Levites were entangled in these marriages. When Manasseh refused to give up his Samaritan wife, he was thrown out of the country. A number of priests, who also refused to separate from their wives, joined him.
Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, took the banishment of his son-in-law as an insult. Why should he or anyone else have to go to Jerusalem to worship? Was not Jehovah the God of the whole earth? Furthermore, did He not choose Mount Gerizim as the place from which blessings were to be pronounced upon the people? For blessings, then, men should come to Samaria, yes, they should rightly look to Mount Gerizim. So on top of Mount Gerizim Sanballat arranged for building a temple for his son-in-law Manasseh. Sometime before 330 B.C. the exiled Jews in Samaria had their temple. They had their own priesthood made up of the sons of Aaron; all of these were exiled Levite priests. They brought with them copies of the law of Moses, which was read in the temple and publicly. The exact service was performed in the temple on Mount Gerizim as was performed in Jerusalem. Mount Gerizim became a holy mount to worshipers. Almost every sacred incident from the beginning of history the Samaritans in some way connect with the top of Gerizim. Was not Eden located here? say they. Did not God use the dust of Mount Gerizim to create Adam, and are not the seven steps on Gerizim where Adam came down when he was cast out of Eden? Is this not where Abraham offered Isaac, where Joshua read the law, where Joseph’s and Joshua’s tombs are located, where Jotham declaimed his parable, where Deborah judged, where Gideon threshed and where Samuel, Saul, Elijah and Elisha lived? In a word, is this not the land of Israel? This is what they professed to believe.
Soon the Samaritans claimed they were the only true Israelites, descendants of Joseph and Ephraim, of Abraham and of Jacob. Only their language betrayed their mixed origin. It was a conglomeration of Aramaic and other foreign elements.
SAMARITANS OF JESUS’ DAY
When Jesus Christ walked the earth, Mount Gerizim was still very important to the Samaritans. The discussion Jesus had with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s fountain in Samaria showed there was still hatred between the two peoples. The Samaritan woman told Jesus: “‘How is it that you, despite being a Jew, ask me for a drink, when I am a Samaritan woman?’ (For Jews have no dealing with Samaritans.)” After Jesus overcame this objection, the woman highlighted another: “Our forefathers worshiped in this mountain; but you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where persons ought to worship.” Jesus said to her: “Believe me, woman, The hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you people worship the Father. . . . the genuine worshipers will worship the Father with spirit and truth.” Showing that she believed in a coming Messiah, the woman said to him: “I know that Messiah is coming, who is called Christ. Whenever that one arrives, he will declare all things to us openly.” Jesus said to her: “I who am speaking to you am he.” The Bible says: “Many of the Samaritans out of that city put faith in him.” They remarked: “We know that this man is for a certainty the savior of the world.” Jesus was treated hospitably there. But on another occasion he was an unwelcome guest in Samaria. However, Jesus harbored no ill will against them, but taught through his illustration of the good Samaritan that the Jew and the Samaritan could be good neighbors through acts of love.—John 4:1-42; Luke 17:11-16; 9:52, 53; 10:29-37.
In his instruction to his twelve apostles Jesus drew a distinction between the Jew and the Samaritan, proving beyond all doubt that the Samaritans are not direct descendants of Abraham and Jacob, as they assert. Jesus specifically ordered his apostles not to “enter into a Samaritan city; but, instead, go continually to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” If the Samaritans were Israelites, this command would not have made sense.—Matt. 10:5, 6.
THE MODERN SAMARITAN
Since Jesus’ day the Samaritans have suffered greatly at the hands of their conquerors. During the Roman occupation they were denied the rite of circumcision. Under the Byzantine regime they were not permitted to build new synagogues or repair old ones. Under the Mohammedans they stopped offering up sacrifices. As with the Jews so now with the Samaritans, all their worship has become entirely that of the synagogue. About two centuries ago the Samaritan nation had several communities in Egypt and Syria, but now only one exists in the valley of Shechem. While the Jews have many synagogues throughout the world, the Samaritans have only one. This one is at Nablus on the slope of the base of Mount Gerizim, where the Samaritans dwell.
Like the modern Jew, the Samaritan believes that prayer has taken the place of the sacrifices they formerly offered. They still dislike the Jews and do not address them as Hebrews or Israelites, because they believe themselves to be the only stock of ancient Israel. Dr. John Mills summarizes the articles of the Samaritan creed as follows: “One only God JHWH, one only Lawgiver, Moshe (Moses), one only Divine book, the Torah (Law), one only Holy Place, Mount Gerizim, the true Beth El.” The doctrines of angels, of immortality and of the last judgment, in his opinion, are later additions. They celebrate seven feasts in the year, although only one, the Passover, is observed with all strictness. They do no work on the sabbath, not even opening a letter or lighting a fire. The name “Jehovah” they do not pronounce. Instead they use the word “Sema,” which stands for God’s name. They speak honorably of the Messiah, whom they call “Thaheb.” They believe he will be a reincarnation of Moses or Joshua and that he will restore spiritually the people of Israel and give them dominion over the nations. “The appearance of Messiah,” wrote Heinrich Petermann in 1860, “is to take place 6000 years after the creation, and these have just elapsed; consequently he now, though all unconsciously, is going about upon earth.” They maintain that Thaheb will equalize all men, live 110 years upon earth, then die and be buried near Gerizim.
According to Mills, they believe that “the soul at death leaves the body and enters another world, and a different state of existence.” As their basis for so believing they quote Exodus 3:6, where God’s eternalness is associated with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They maintain that the wicked are punished in a hell-fire. No images are used in their worship, and they do not pray for the dead. They hold that at death man’s fate is sealed forever.
Only a small handful of Samaritans are in existence today, perhaps 175 at most. They live in the southwestern part of Nablus in considerable poverty. The head of their group is a priest who claims to be a Levite, though they say that the Aaronic line has been extinct since 1658. Their principal problem is how to keep themselves as a people from passing into extinction without violating the marriage laws. As for the deliverer’s coming to their rescue, Ab Zehuta comments: “No one knows his coming, but Jehovah.”