Saturday, August 23, 2014

Who are the Samaritans?--by Linden Malki

What do you think of when you hear or read the term "Samaritan" ?  The power of Jesus' parable is shown by the image that comes into the mind of nearly everyone we know.   The parable itself tells us only two things about this person: he's the "good guy" in the story, and he belongs to a tribe of people who were despised by most Jews of Jesus' day.  So who are these people? 

Remember that Jacob, renamed Israel, had twelve sons who did not play well together. When the Israelites returning from  Egypt had crossed the Jordan River, entered the land and conquered Jericho and Ai,  Joshua gathered the people together in the center of the country and built an altar on Mt Ebal, near Shechem where Abraham had built an altar, and read the law to the people. This became the center of the tribal area of Ephraim, a half-tribe of Joseph, which became the dominant tribe in the northern part of the country. 

The first three kings (Saul, David and Solomon) ruled over a federation of all the tribes.  When Solomon's son Rehoboam ticked off the elders of the northern tribes, they formed a separate kingdom, with a capitol at Shechem.  Around 870BC, Omri, the probably the most powerful and prosperous of the Northern kings, built a new capitol city nearby, which he called Samaria.
 In 722BC, the Assyrian king invaded the land and conquered Samaria. They took many of the inhabitants of the northern kingdom and scattered them in other parts of the Assyrian empire, and brought outsiders from other parts of the empire into the area, and many shrines were built to foreign idols. The Assyrian authorities found an Israelite priest among their exiles and sent him back to Israel to placate the local God. The Assyrians also besieged Jerusalem during the reign of Hezekiah, but failed to take the city, thanks to a miraculous destruction of the besieging armies. 

The Samaritan priests did build temples to God, but did not deal with the pagan shrines. They had a copy of the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, which describes the original Temple being at Mt Gerizim, across from Mt Ebal near Shechem. They also claim to be descendants of Joseph.      
In 572BC, the Babylonians had conquered Assyria, and they conquered the southern Kingdom. However, instead of scattering the inhabitants, they took the leading citizens of Jerusalem into captivity in Babylon. When the Persians conquered Babylon, they allowed many of the Judeans (now referred to as Jews) to return to rebuild Jerusalem. When Zerubbabel was rebuilding the temple, envoys from Samaria offered to help, but the Jews, did not trust them, considering the history between the two kingdoms, the prevalent idolatry of the north, the foreign admixture, the lack of orthodox genealogies, and their insistence on the primacy of the Mt Gerizim temple. So the Samaritans sent messages back to the Persian authorities claiming that the Jews were troublemakers and shouldn’t be allowed to rebuild. They got a cease and desist order that halted the construction until a new king came to power.

The city of Samaria was later  conquered by Alexander and destroyed; rebuilt as a Hellenistic and then Roman city. The surviving Samaritans took refuge in Shechem and Mt Gerizim and maintained their version of the traditional Israelite rituals, rejecting and being rejected by the Jews of Judea. Looking at Jesus’ personal interactions with Samaritans: (Luke 9, Luke 17, John 4, Acts 1, and then Acts 8) he refused to buy into the mutual paranoia that was pretty much universal in the day.

This is  one of the times when there are tough lines to draw: do you avoid people who might be a “bad influence” on you—and Scripture certainly shows a lot of examples of this; do you risk trying to be a “good influence “ on them, which is actually harder, because it can lead to arrogance which does not get what you intended; or do you ignore the bad stuff and risk being an enabler? 

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