Was the Samaritan Woman Really Immoral? (by Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg)
In the gospel of John Jesus engages in a most unusual conversation with a Samaritan woman at the well. “So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.” (John 4:5-6) From the start a first century Israelite reader is alerted to the fact that conversation takes place next to the burial place of Joseph’s bones brought from Egypt, “they buried the bones of Joseph, which the sons of Israel brought up from Egypt, at Shechem…” (Josh.24:32) immediately hinting at the connection of the Samaritan woman story with the story of Joseph. What kind of connection you may ask? Please, allow me to explain.
Traditionally the Samaritan woman is presented as a person of ill repute; a loose and sinful woman who already (though always pictured young) had five husbands and at present lives with a man who is not her husband. She comes to the well in the midday heat (sixth hour is about noon) avoiding the eye of the community. (The painting accompanying this article is a good example of traditional this theory: She is young. She is beautiful. She is out to attract men.) So as the traditional theory has it, Jesus called her on her sin and she had to admit it.
The conversation at the well, however, with this seemingly unrighteous woman bears all marks of deep theological engagement on both sides. The woman knows that according to the traditions of Judean Israelites Jesus would be ritually contaminated were he to use a vessel that belonged to a Samaritan. She therefore wonders how she can help him to drink since he has no vessel of his own (i.e. ceremonially clean vessel). They discuss worship, salvation and even Messiah – the concept that Samaritans didn’t have, but Judeans did. The initial tension is soon resolved and the conversation results in her testifying about Jesus to her entire village, belief of many Samaritan Israelites in Jesus and Jesus staying with them for two days.
Why did members of her Israelite (non-Judean) community trust her witness, if she was a known sinner? Why would they drop everything they were doing and come to see a Judean young man (given religio-political adversarial climate)?
What if the description of the Samaritan woman has been misunderstood by us, later interpreters?
“But wait!”, you may think. What about avoiding people, five prior husbands and a live-in boyfriend? Isn’t that enough evidence? Well, not really. Avoiding people, among other possibilities, (if she was indeed doing so) may have been a symptom of depression caused by life’s difficulties, such as multiple divorces. “Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” (John 4:17-18). The mere fact of having had multiple husbands is not a sin in and of itself.
In ancient Israelite society women did not initiate divorces. Five husbands could have died of sickness, killed by bandits, perished in war or divorced her because of infertility. Still the result would have been devastating each time. The book of Tobit (2nd century BCE), for example, talks about a Jewish woman named Sarah who had seven husbands, who all died on the day of their wedding (with the help of demonic forces). She was scorned by the community, looked upon as cursed and guilty of their death. Depressed to the point of suicide Sara prayed to God to end her shame, insisting in her purity to the end. (Tobit 3:7-17) People were harsh to Sarah and no doubt the social standing of the Samaritan woman brought her great anguish as well. (My own grandaunt had four husbands, she outlived them all. So I know that this happens.)
Jesus stated that she lived with a man that was not her husband and many assume that means the woman cohabitated with her boyfriend, but that is not a fact. Because she needed help, she could have lived with her distant relative or in some other undesirable arrangement in order to survive. Moreover, Samaritan Israelites did not practice Leverite marriage as did the Judean Israelites, to which Jesus belonged. Samaritans believed that the benefit of Leverite marriage should not apply to a woman, if the marriage was already consummated. So it is likely that Jesus was not nailing her down to the cross of justice, but instead was letting her know that he knows everything about the pain she had to endure. This is certainly more in line with the Jesus we know from other stories.
What is interesting is that the suffering of Joseph (remember the conversation is taking place not far from his tomb) and the Samaritan woman is not the only thing they had in common. Just as with Joseph, so also the suffering of the Samaritan woman, in the end brought forth the same result – salvation of their people.
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