Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Modern Samaritans

Picture taken from Der Spiegel
One doesn't have to be familiar with the Bible to know about Samaritans. The phrase "Good Samaritan" has entered into our language and is applied to any number of people who have provided selfless acts in the service of others.

 I suspect, however, that many people have no clue that the idea of the "Good Samaritan" come from one of Jesus's parables. Yet, the name is almost ubiquitous.  From where I am sitting I can see the houses on Samaritan Drive. And through the trees I can see that roof line of Samaritan Hospital. Most of us in town, myself included, give little thought to origin and meaning of these names.

For those who do know that the "Good Samaritan" is a character in one of Jesus' parables, many would be surprised to learn that the Samaritans are not some group in the past. The Samaritans still exist and they represent a religious community that is older than Christianity. If you drive out of Jerusalem and head north you will eventually come to Mount Gerizim, the ancient and modern home to the Samaritans. This is where they have live and worshiped for more than 2500 years.

In the spring of 1998 Lori and were part of a group privileged to visit  Mount Gerizim and to observe the Samaritan Passover. We were introduced to the Samaritan High Priest, toured their small museum and visited the ruins on Gerizim. It was a unique religious and cultural opportunity.

The highlight of the day was being able to witness the slaughter of the lambs. Fifty men, each dressed in white coveralls, entered a fenced off area pock marked with deep, narrow pits. Each man had with him a lamb and a long knife. As they stood there the high priest chanted a number of prayers in their language. After the space of about thirty minutes the 50 men all caught the throats of the lambs at once. They then took some of the blood and wiped it on one another and then took some home in a container. Finally, they skewered the lamb on long poles and placed it in the pit, fleece and all, where there was already a fire burning. The lamb would cook slowly all night and would be retrieved for the meal the next day. 

The Samaritans are a people who keep to themselves. So much so that there is a high-rate of birth defects among them. But over the past few decades they have been opening up to the outside world. In the German Magazine Der Spiegel there is an article about the Samaritans and the work that has been done there to excavate the remains of their temple.  That is another thing few modern Bible readers known is that the Samaritans had their own temple at one time, which was destroyed by the Jewish Hasmonean John Hyrcanus in 128 BCE. It is a small wonder that Jews and Samaritans didn't get along in Jesus day. 

If you know nothing about the modern Samaritans this article is a good place to start.

Update: Be sure to read Jim Davila's critique of some of the statements made in the article.

(HT: Charles @ BibleX)

Here is a brief video of the ceremony that I found on youtube. 


  1. In the link you posted as a "good place to start", it says: "In the Bible the Samaritans were nearly always portrayed as unsavory characters. They were also said to be ethnically impure because their blood had supposedly been mixed with that of foreign colonialists."
    Funny how Jesus uses the Samaritan in his parable. A priest and a Levite both pass by a traveler (who may or may not be Jewish) who was beaten, robbed and left half dead in the road. Yet the Samaritan (who was an unsavory character - see note above) stops and helps the man out. I sometimes wonder if Jesus was to repeat that parable today if he might use some minority in place of the Samaritan or even perhaps a minority (or person who is not in the majority) in place of the victim. I can easily see where, if the victim today was a Muslim, a GLBT person, a person w/ HIV, etc etc, that some of the "christian" leaders of today would pass them right by... in the same regard, I can see one of these people stopping to help a person who was a victim. I think it's something we ALL can learn from.. Unfortunately, some people who preach it the most, don't see it at all.. Sad.

  2. oops, last few lines should read: I can see one of these people (Muslim, glbt, hiv+) stopping to help a person who was a victim. I think it's something we ALL can learn from.. Unfortunately, some people who preach it the most, don't see it at all.. Sad