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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About the author

Dr. Eli Lizorkin-EyzenbergTo secure your spot in our new course “The Jewish Background of New Testament” - CLICK HERE NOW

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Join the conversation (72 comments)

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  1. Jeremías R. Tolentino

    Es una excelente apreciación del pasaje

  2. Kat

    I understand progressive revelation as God revealing himself and his will increasing in SCRIPTURES. I experienced God revealing himself and his will TO ME increasingly with little scripture from the Torah (thus no Biblical language). How the West evangelizes (getting people “saved) based on easy access to Newer Testament Scripture is concerning to me. I don’t know if I got “saved” the same way, so I don’t know how to reach those who are “under grace” 🙂 Is there a Jewish perspective on evangelism?

  3. Suliaman

    Thank you for the insight that you have given us. Sometimes if a Christian brother or sister is going through some difficulty it is really sad that it is the same brothers or sisters in Christ that spread things that might not the case, instead of praying for them that God should strengthen them in their difficult times. Jesus new everything about her, and she knows that the Messiah is come but little did she know that she was speaking with Him and Salvation came to her entire village. Once again thank you for explaining this to us in a different perspective. God richly bless you.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Suliaman, thank you for your kind words! Let’s keep thinking together about these things.

  4. Lucia Tulcan

    I was waiting for many years to finally hear the other, or new perspective , of the Samaritan woman story. I enjoy reading it and all the comments. Thank you , for sharing with us, I love it.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thank, Lucia for your kind response. This possible rereading of this story shows that it also possible that we have been misreading many stories that we think we already know everything about :-).

  5. Ruth Cockram

    Shalom Dr Eli, so happy to read all your wonderful explanation about the conversation of our Lord Jesus Christ & Samaritan women…so fascinating love of God & it is inpac wonderful in our life as we think in the way He think about the trouble we face it in this world, we will have peace & joy indeed…have a blessed day brother.

  6. Valeria Imaculada

    gostei mto do estudo. concordo que essa abordagem não condenativa, mas empatica tem muito masi a ver com o Jesus que conhecemos. deixo a pg salva p ve mais msg. porem só assino de puder fazer sem essas conexões manipulativas googlemais…

  7. Uwaoma

    Such exposition of the Gospel is great and will go a long way to enlighten every one that reads it.
    Great job, Dr Eli! And let’s have more of such, please!

  8. David Bartholdi

    Dr. Eli,
    Thank you for these spiritual truths, and makes perfect sense understanding the culture of the time.
    I visited Israel and Jordan (from north to south) recently for the first time and was amazed at what I saw. It makes me realize the urgency of prayer and support for my Jewish brothers and sisters as well as the gentiles in the land that have not accepted Christ yet. As we traveled from Jericho and could see Jerusalem, I wept then and continue to weep for Jerusalem knowing the trials and tribulations that will come upon our beloved city. But I also have “read the end of the book” and I know by God’s divine mercy, grace, love and judgment, WE WIN. As a believer in Christ, It is a day I look forward to experiencing and I believe is very near..
    I know Jesus avoided Samaria several times (because the timing was not right) by using the Jordan valley for travel. I also know the Holy Spirit must prepare people to hear and receive Gods word to understand the salvation for all who will believe, repent and receive the forgiveness provided by the perfect sacrifice of our Lord Jesus. Jesus knew exactly the time the Samaritan people would be receptive and left no stone unturned.

  9. Kat

    The language development in John 4:29 is an important lesson for modern evangelism. The association of “all things that I ever did” doesn’t seem to be associated with shame an sin. Having someone repent for the gift and the sacrifice (twice) seems to contradict Hebrews 6:6. How can one connect God to brotherly love if the gift rather than the sacrifice is taught as “turning away from sin and turning to God”?

  10. Lanil

    The disclose about the Samaritan woman is excellant. It is an angle that one would not consider. As a Pastor and a teacher of The Word of God I would say it did open my mind. Traditon of that time did not allow a woman to divorce. And even Namoi instruced Ruth to go and lie down where Baze did and she did by his feet. This instrction was given by Naomi for Ruth’s security.