Christians are familiar with the story in John 4, in which Jesus interacted with a Samaritan woman who had come to the well. In Luke 17, we also read of how Jesus healed 10 lepers and only the samaritan came back to thank him. In addition, the parable of the good Samaritan is among the favorites of many Christians. So, it’s clear that Jesus did interact with Samaritans. But why were Samaritans considered unclean?
Samaritans were half-breeds who abandoned the true religion and worshiped idols hence were considered unclean. They had also turned from God. In this case, the word unclean means being physically impure such that you can’t enter a Holy Place like a temple.
The laws in Leviticus explain what is considered unclean: being in a state of spiritual impurity so that one cannot approach the presence of God. That means if a Jew was unclean, they couldn’t come near the Tabernacle, which later became a temple because it was not just a place of sacrifice and worship; it was the dwelling place of God (Leviticus from chapters 11 to 27). So, the laws in Leviticus were designed to help identify what would make a person unclean.
How Samaritans Became of Mixed Origin or ”Half Breeds”
Before Christ, there were two different kingdoms in Israel: the Southern Kingdom, where Jerusalem was called Judah, and the Northern Kingdom, called Israel. In the south, the capital of Judah was Jerusalem. In the North, the capital of Israel was originally Shechem but later became Samaria. In 722 BC, the Assyrians attacked the Northern Kingdom and won. When the Assyrians took over, they exiled many Hebrews.
Those that remained inter-married with many of the Assyrians. In fact, 2 Kings 17.24 explains that the Assyrians brought in citizens from five other countries to live in Samaria. The foreigners that came to Samaria were from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim. Then, the king of Assyria settled these foreigners in the towns of Samaria to replace the Israelites.
Shechem, one of the earliest Hebrew holy places, became the capital of Samaria. It is believed that the Jews that had remained in Samaria married people from other regions who had their own religion. This intermarriage resulted in Samaritans/half breeds/people with mixed blood who were considered unclean, i.e., not following the laws of the ordinary Jews.
A Different Place of Worship
The Southern Kingdom, where Jerusalem was located, was not overthrown by Assyria in 722 BC. It continued to exist for around 150 years until around 586 BC when they were overthrown by the Babylonians. It was then that their place of worship, the great Jerusalem temple, was destroyed.
The idea of rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem was perceived by Jews as a reaffirmation of their commitment to follow God’s laws. In fact, the Torah designated Jerusalem as the chosen location for worship. However, the Samaritans tried to stop the Israelites. The Bible states, “They bribed officials to prevent the people of Judah from carrying out their plans” (Ezra 4:1-6).
Besides, the construction of the Tabernacle and, later, the temple in Jerusalem were central to Israelite worship. The place of worship is sacred and Israelites were keen on adhering to God’s law as prescribed in the Torah. For starters, the Law of Moses forbade any other person from entering the inner and innermost courts of the temple or offering sacrifice. This was strictly reserved for the Levites (Leviticus 22:3, Exodus 30:17-21).
There is an example of the consequences of ignoring this law in 1 Chronicles 13:5-14 when David was restoring the ark to Jerusalem. During its transportation, Uzzah attempted to stabilize the ark when he thought it was going to fall down. It was an innocent mistake but it still cost him his life.
And when they came to the threshing floor of Chidon, Uzzah put out his hand to take hold of the ark, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and he struck him down because he put out his hand to the ark, and he died there before God. 1 Chronicles 13:9-10
See, Uzzah was not a Levite and only Levites were allowed to touch the ark – even in transit. Ignoring this command was a fatal mistake.
On the flip side, the Samaritans opted to construct their own temple on Mount Gerizim. Not only did they think going down to Jerusalem for worship was too far but the fact that they were considered unclean dissuaded them from the pilgrimage. The Samaritans consider Mt. Gerisim a holy and sacred location. Since the Jews only recognize one sacred location, they consider Samaritans unclean for declaring Gerizim a holy place of worship.
The Worship of Idols in Samaria
The concept of uncleanliness can also be seen when Omri became king of Israel. He bought the hill of Samaria from Shemera and called the name of the city that he built Samaria after the name of Shemer, the owner of the hill. God was not pleased with this act. When Omri died, his son Ahab took over. He erected an altar for Baal in a house he built in Samaria.
Remember, Shechem, which was considered a Hebrew holy place, became the capital of Samaria, and Ahab built an altar for Baal. So, apart from being of mixed blood, the Samaritans were also associated with idol worship In fact, the Bible in 2 Kings 17:29-33 states: “They worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods following the customs of the nations from which they had been brought.”
God had made it clear in the Torah that idolatry was not to be tolerated. In Exodus 20:3-6, he said, “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.”
As such, anyone who worshipped idols was considered unclean.
In short, the Samaritans were considered unclean for two reasons: their syncretic religious system and because they were the product of intermarriage/intermingling between foreigners and Israelites. As a result, it was uncommon for Jews to travel through Samaria or even speak or have dealings with them. Rather than take another route, Jesus went right through the heart of Samaria to show that His teachings and salvation were meant for all people (John 4:4).