Was The Samaritan Woman Really Immoral?

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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  1. Uwaoma Uchendu

    Dear Dr Eli,
    Could you tell me/us more about the Samaritans, Jews, Israelis? I personally thought they are all of the 12 tribes and descendants of the same father, Jacob. What has been the difference or differentiation between them in old Israel as well as in current Israel? What is the difference Between Israel & Judah or When I hear people rioting/being violent in Judah/anywhere in the Bible land of Israel, i don’t get it why there had become such differences with the inhabitants/ citizens of the Holy Land whom/which I love so much! Bethlehem, the birth place of my Saviour and all the Biblical account place!. I want to see all those places in their God-ordained Glory again!
    Uwaoma

  2. Uwaoma Uchendu

    Dear Dr Eli
    THIS EXPOSITION OF THE SCRIPTURE PASSAGE ON THE SAMARITAN WOMAN IS AMAZING. i HAVE NEVER HEARD OR READ IT, OR UNDERSTOOD IT LIKE THIS. IT IS AMAZING! A really new and beautiful perspective to this passage for me, indeed! i WILL SHARE THIS WITH MANY!

    Thank you!
    Thank God!
    Shalom!

    UWAOMA

  3. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

    It is important that we keep in mind that Samarians and Samaritans is NOT one and the same people group. Read a full version of the article available towards the end of the article. Blessings and much peace, Dr. Eli

  4. Suliaman

    Thanks for the explanation of the Samaria woman.As you rightly said Jesus knows about all the injustice that she receives from the village like today’s world we live in.Judging people without knowing why the Lord made it that way.Like you said Jesus is a Judean who by all standards he should be righteous .But little did she know that she was talking to the Lord.
    As we learn from the story they discuss about thing that she knows that Judeans will not do ie talking to a sinful woman.Once again thanks and regards.

  5. Rev TD Stone

    I had always raised the possibility of the “Woman at the well” being a widow, orbarren , or abused. Funny how we most often think the worst of a person, when there is more to their story. I suspect God could say the same about most of us

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Pastor Stone, see my comment to Dr. Col above. I think you are raising a similar point.

  6. Dr Col "Down Under In OZ"

    Dear Dr. Eli, What a wonderful openness you bring to the Scriptures. I was taught like many others of :The Woman At The Well”,, as being slanted a sinner. HHhmm after reading your comments I would like to now think you are likely more correct than the “Traditional STORY/OPINION”. It is SO SO true that the average HUMAN, Christian or otherwise, is more prone to think negatively and un-God like. You have presented an excellent case that is more akin to the mind of a loving caring God. THANK YOU Eli.,
    Your Cobba Dr. Col From OZ

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dr. Col, shalom. I think we are too accustomed to look for the bad news before good news (a Lutheran approach to scripture). So we just need to have her as a terrible sinner for Jesus to convert her soul to righteousness. We don’t quite know what to do with her if she was righteous woman that also were waiting for God’s redemption. We don’t know what to do with people in the NT in particular that are actually called “righteous” (simple concordance search will show that there are number of people like that). We only feel we have to contour it with saying that “there is not one righteous not even one”. Saying that there were not REALLY righteous and so on. But we don’t realize that we missing something when we hold to a theory that accounts only for part of the scriptures.

  7. Dorothy Finlay

    Thank you for fresh insights into a familiar story . I have been studying the Bible for nearly 60 years but it is only in the past 10-15 years I have had my eyes opened to the implications of the Hebraic understanding which is so rich and important in understanding truth and learning the greatness of Yeshua Hamaschiach. Despite the fact that I must stay up till 11 pm to participate, I love the Jewish Studies for Christians which I in turn share with several Bible classes I teach. God bless you Dr. Eli.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      It is better Late/r than never! Right :-)?

  8. Pauline

    Thank you! I argued against the traditional opinion of this woman’s morals in an essay for my theology course – to my mind there was nothing to suggest that she was a prostitute or immoral.

    I felt she could have been a victim of Levirate marriage, or divorced by her husbands because she was barren, and that if childless and without family she had three ways of earning a living – beggary, prostitution, or being a “concubine” (rather less dreadful than prostitution). To me, the reason people avoided her could have been because as a barren woman, she was considered cursed by God. I was marked down for my interpretation (“no evidence”).

    Appreciate your confirmation of my perspective.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Pauline, I think she may have been NOT a victim of the Leverite marriage (remember that Leverite marriage was to protect her and provide for her mainly social benefit). Judean Israelites applies benefit of Leverite marriage whether or not the marriage was consummated after the betrothal (the first part of Israelite marriage). Samaritan Israelites said that if marriage was consummated (couple had sex) the benefit of the Leverite marriage did not apply!

      1. Pauline

        Thank you – I hadn’t been aware of this subtlety. (And I think that “victim” was the wrong term for me to use, TBH). I appreciate your reply. My essay point had been that having five previous husbands may not have been her choice, and certainly if she was married to these men, there is no shadow of immorality. ( I had completely omitted the protective element of Levirate marriages. I was so busy defending her honour I never thought of it!) Thank you again.

  9. Benny

    Great insight, I love receiving this kind of knowledge

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Benny, thanks! Let’s keep thinking together.

  10. Pastora Marina

    Shalom Dr. Eli. The reality of what you said is so magnificent! When there is a removal of the scales from ones eyes the clarity of this rhema is irrefutable! Thank you for the simplicity of your connecting the dots. Truly everything in the Old is a symbolism connected to the New! I feel like the

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      So wonderful to hear! Thank you for your encouragement!