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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Join the conversation (72 comments)
I personally thought when I read this chapter that a Samaritan woman was a church which have experienced a downfall in spiritual understanding and gain because Samaria was a city in which there were prophets before Jesus for an example Elijah,Elisha, Joseph,Isaac and Abraham.
Abraham and dug the wells. The jealous destroyed the wells.
Eli and Samuel tried to maintain the wells people did not listen and likewise Elijah and elisha.
To me the water signified the knowledge
Jesus s water the truth.
Husband the prophets because Jesus sometimes said I am the vine and my father is the hasbandman.
So at the scene there was Jesus, water,Samaritan, woman, and a well, and disciples.
Douglas, shalom. It is indeed sad what happens with us some times :-).
I agree whole-heartedly, Dr. Eli.
It is not just the Samaritan woman who gets too quickly called “fallen”, but several other women in the Gospels (Mary Magdalene, for instance) when we are told nothing of the sort.
Given the very superstitious attitudes of the time, one can well imagine that a woman who had “lost” two or three husbands would be seen as jinxed and avoided, so one who had lost 5? Thus if she was shunned it could be from fear, not sin.
I agree that it does not say her current man is a lover,but if it is the case that all 5 had died in one way or another I am not sure if she had a suitor he would be very cagey/scared to marry her! And she might have been just as frightened
David, listen to this and other podcasts by the same professor on Mary Magdalene – http://podacre.blogspot.co.il/2009/09/nt-pod-13-mary-magdalene-first-woman.html You will love it!
Dear Dr Eli, I see the possibilities you pointed out could indeed be more likely than the popular traditional interpretation for this passage; and especially appreciate that proper and thorough exegesis supports this far more! This reading is not only more consistent with the heart of the Gospel but also with facets of broken humanity. I’m very thankful for your work. There are timing issues that have held me back from enroling in your classes but I hope to do so sometime in the future.
Eirene, formal courses take both financial and time resources. Not everyone has them, so I fully understand. But it should not stop us from consistently making progress in rereading and rethinking many of NT stories in a very different light – new ways, which are really very old :-).
Maybe 25 years ago, I read a book in which a Rabbi questioned the same “traditional” description of this woman. Instantly my heart connected with hers and for all these years I’ve defended her. I so appreciate your understanding and defense of her….she was not worthless. Her questions and comments were, to me, obviously coming from a heart wounded and heavy and spending much time looking to the Only One who loved her completely. I am absolutely certain that with the first words from Jesus’ mouth, the sound of His Words penetrated her pain and she knew – it IS HIM!! This teaching-all by itself-has the authority and grace to rescue so many faceless, hurting hearts. Thank you!
The only reason we think that her question and comments were superficial and deficient in some way is because we don’t live in her world that is defined by the Judean-Samaritan conflict. The things she was saying were complicated, complex and HIGHLY relevant for any kind of first-century Israelite.
If I may, I knew a divorced woman living with a man that was not her husband. He was her ex-husband and he had divorced her. He asked her to take him in because he was dying of cancer and had nowhere to go. A lot to reconsider.
I just read again, that post by Kat & it just struck me today, 7/5/16, 1 1/2 yrs. later. Yes, I know a person in similar circumstances right now, & one, in the past. So it isn’t uncommon. How would those women be viewed down through the ages? At the present, no one (here) would blink an eye!
As a student of theology for some 50 years and with most of that as either a skeptic or from a traditional Christian perspective, I see much of this as truly tragic! As you referred to the evil of replacement theology (fancy word for one more version of anti-Semitism), we have here one more sad example of how much the Christian world has developed false assumptions of a biblical passage only because they dare not realize just how totally Jewish the entire Bible is!!
Thank you so much for this article. Tragic tho’ it is, it’s one more reason for us to dry Maranatha, the return of the Jewish Mashiach. Thank you always, Hal Miner
Dear Dr. Hal Miner, thank you very much for your comment. I think the basic issue here is that unless a real effort is made people that are separated from the original context of the Bible will interpret the ancient stories in their contemporary context instead. It is not simply the fault of replacement theology (lets not give it too much credit here) it is a general interpretive problem of any people I think. Once again thank you very much for your comment!
This, dear doctor, has been the real challenge and the root of much of the misconception of the Bible. One of the things I have been realising over the past few years is that we, especially in the western word, have largely interpreted the Scriptures according to our context and beliefs. If we are truly going to be student’s of the Word and truly seek to “rightly divide the Word of truth” we must go back to the original language and cultural context of the people who wrote and to whom they wrote.
This article is truly eye-opening and thought provoking. Thank you, sir.
Thank you, Dane for your encouragement! Let’s keep on thinking about this together!
You need to click on the link in the end of the article. It offers to read a full version.
You are welcome, and thank you for directing me to the longer version. I shall be reading same.
Thank you Dr. L-E for this article as I read the full version. I agree with Dane’s comments that we in the West have read the text through Western eyes importing our context into theirs. I am continually intrigued by how we all import (and export) ideas into and from the text that upon closer examination have no foundation. I would recommend a read of Joe Kovacs book “Shocked by the Bible” for a whole book dedicated to looking closely at the text and exposing false ideas. I believe the best way ultimately to read the text is in a community of faith so that multiple eyes and ears evaluate the text. Without original languages, historical context, and sound exegetical methods we’re at risk.
Thank you, Brent for your comment.
Rebbe, Melech HaMoshiach is drawing the isha of Shomron in a Jewish based discussion for the purpose of drawing her closer to G_D. John 4:14 appear to be a Jewish understanding of the saving creative power of G_D. The Samaritan woman is rooted in the things of this world and Jesus Christ is drawing her nearer to the things of G_D. Isn’t “thirst” symbolic of “the love of G_D?” Isn’t “love” the basis of all true worship? A passionate love of G_D which leads to understanding and the knowledge of G_D. I believe this is the lesson G_D is drawing us toward in this story. A lesson Jesus Christ is very familiar with.
Dr. Eli. I find this to be a very thought-provoking, intriguing, powerfully insightful scriptural interpretation. I can’t help but be challenged to reconsider this biblical encounter in light of your meaningful discussion provided, might I commend, with excellence.
Dear Judy, thank you very much for your kind words!
Well put, Judy, these are my thoughts exactly.
This comment is based off of the many incredible articles on this site. There seems to be a connection between the “gift” and the second law (divorce). Divorce meets the requirements of the law therefore there is no need for a “gift” or a sacrifice. Only a greater love (beyond what the law requires) would need the “gift”. Yes it is possible for those who strive to love beyond what is required by law to fail (John 18:27). What is impossible is to offer the gift (allow a man to eat of the tree of life) prior to offering the sacrifice (the shedding of blood) (Gen 3:24). Therefore, the Samaritan woman had to want to love beyond what the law required.
Wonderful on many levels, the implications this reading projects can be tremendous. I love unflappable logic, especially when it turns convention on its head; the woman had 5 husbands… how young could she have possibly been?? Then go on from there point by point, the Good News going out to all, Joseph’s bones, suffering servant that brings life, keepers of the law, etc., this reading is a better fit all around.
With Replacement Theology, the Christian Church has a void to fill and uses saving souls to fill it. Nothing wrong w/ evangelism, but sometimes a sinner gets created, and that may be the case here.
Truly the Fruitful Vine is climbing His way over many walls in our lifetime.
Jerry, thanks for your comment. One thing I am not sure about it here is “the replacement theology” fault in all of this :-). I think the moment anyone (we are talking as soon as 2-3 century CE) who is removed from understanding of the original politico-socio-religious climate of the place they are bound to make this mistake. Samaritans as “half Jews” instead of being according to their own claims – the children of Israel has contributed to it. Perhaps, it is not replacement theology that is to blame, but wrong attitudes and information about Judaism/s per say. Picturing Judaism as earthly physical tribal only religion, while Christianity was universal and Samaritan being somewhere in between (within this kind of logic), but Samaritans we not half Jews in Judeo-Samaritan conflict as most seem to think.
Apologies extended, I did dedicate more available space to discuss article ILO causality or why the prevailing reading of the passage exists. I agree ignorance, attitude and misinformation also play part throughout the centuries. I refer to RT in effect being the cause of removing the need for Torah observance, creating the “void” I wrote of. This has been the observation of my past and of those around me in the church since studying the Hebrew roots of my faith. This came to mind as I read your alternative view of the passage and why I brought it up. The saving of lost sinners and church conversion takes preeminence over, dare I say our “relationship” forged through Torah observance.
Folks, I would love you to comment on this. What do you think? Any ideas?
Interesting discussion which highlights a different interpretation on the overall passage. Usually any discussion I had heard stated or implied that not only was the woman a Samarian but of dubious morals at best. One point (John 4:4) is made that ‘Jesus HAD to pass through Samaria’ which is the more direct from the Galilee but usually strenuously avoided as ‘The Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans’. When asking why He HAD to pass through the answer is usually given that He had an Appointment with the woman at the well. Both Samaritans (The Good Samaritan parable ) illustrate the redemptive non-discriminatory nature of Jesus’s ministry.
Shalom, Stewart! Do read also a longer version. The HAD TO GO is because he is as the King of ALL Israel reaching out to ALL Israel (including the heretical Israel – the Samaritans), but do read the longer article where I explain the right view of Samaritans (not the one we always hear about – that they are half-Jews).
To my own opinion that passage is revealling the fact that Jesus Christ also had enconter wit an immoral woman yet He did not fall into her deception. So it is no excuse for any youngman to capitalise on the romantic dressing of any lady to fall into her deception
I loved the online class I just completed a few weeks ago.
Thank you for these tidbits that allow one to view the scriptures from more perspectives.
I am previlaged to be part of great team of people!
Its really sad to see this divide between the brothers Israel and judah….Hashem himself said Isint Ephraim my dear son, I yearn for him and love him deeply. God never forgets the house of Joseph. he is a beloved, yes Ephraim strayed but he will come back like the prodigal son and be restored to the house and heart of YHWH.