This article looks at the Samaritans, the Samaritan Pentateuch, and the gospel to the Samaritans.

Source: Clarion, 2014. 3 pages.

Be My witnesses … in Samaria!

Last fall I attended the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Baltimore, Maryland. I wasn't lonely: some ten thousand Bible scholars from all over the world descended on the Baltimore Convention Center and surrounding venues to take in presentations by experts on hundreds of different subjects related to the Bible. A very cool experience. I listened to thirty-six speakers in four days. Needless to say, the presentations have become a bit of a blur, but there are a few that stand out in my mind. One of these was on the Samaritan Bible. The Sam­aritans accepted only the five books of Moses, so their version is called the Samaritan Pentateuch. The Samar­itan Pentateuch is interesting because it's very old and in many passages it is different from the Hebrew Bible used by the Jewish community (the so-called Masoretic text).

The Samaritan Pentateuch🔗

What made this presentation particularly fascinat­ing was the speaker himself. His name was Benyamim Tsedaka, and he's actually a real live Samaritan. There are a couple of small Samaritan communities that still survive in Palestine today.1 Mr. Tsedaka is an elder in one of those communities, and he spends much of his time raising global awareness of the Samaritans, their heritage, and their contribution to biblical studies. He has made the first English translation of the Samaritan Pentateuch, published by Eerdmans just last year.2 It's a Study Bible that includes all kinds of notes to show how the Samaritans interpret their Scriptures.

For his Baltimore presentation, Tsedaka focused on one particular passage that's quite different in the Sam­aritan Pentateuch than in our Bibles. The passage is Exo­dus 4:24-26, about Zipporah circumcising her son while she and Moses were on their way to Egypt. This is a dif­ficult passage to understand, and Tsedaka tried to show how the Samaritan version solves some of the difficulties. One difficulty is found in verse 24: "At a lodging place on the way, the LORD met Moses and was about to kill him" (NIV).3 This seems odd, since the LORD had just gone to great lengths to persuade Moses to go back to Egypt to lead the people out. Why would God kill the very man that he had just sent for this purpose? Tsedaka explained that the Hebrew verb "to kill" is pronounced differently in Samaritan so that it means "to stun." God only meant to stun him, and why? Well, because Moses had taken his family along. The LORD had only told Moses to go back to his people, and Zipporah was not even an Israelite; she did not belong. Moses' mission involved complete com­mitment to God and to his people. Moses seemed to be compromising that commitment by taking his wife with him, so God encountered him to stop him in his tracks.

How did Zipporah react? That brings us to a second difficulty. Verse 25 says that "Zipporah took a flint knife, cut off her son's foreskin and touched Moses' feet with it" (NIV).4 That too is strange. For one thing we know from elsewhere that Moses had two sons, but here the passage only mentions one and does not specify which one. Further, why would Zipporah touch Moses' feet with the foreskin, and why did she call Moses a bridegroom of blood? What does this episode have to do with their marriage relationship? Tsedaka explained that the Sam­aritan version does not say that she cut the foreskin of her son (benah in Hebrew), but that she cut the foreskin of her heart (binnah in Samaritan Hebrew). That is to say, Zipporah wanted to prove that she was indeed willing to commit herself to God and his people, that she really did belong, so to demonstrate her devotion she started to cut her own chest with the flint. In the Samaritan version she did not throw the foreskin at Moses' feet, but she threw her­self at his feet, so that the blood from the cut she was making dripped on him, and hence her words, "You are a bridegroom of blood to me." In other words, she had to pay with her own blood in order to remain married to him.

The passage ends in verse 26 with the rather cryptic words, "So the LORD let him alone," or more literally, "He let him go." This is usually taken to mean that God let Moses go, allowing him to journey on to Egypt. The Samaritan Pentateuch, however, says that "he let her go." That is to say, Moses let Zipporah go, back to her father's house. According to Tsedaka's explanation, Moses was disgusted by Zipporah's actions. Her self-mutilation looked like paganism to him. He did not want to accept her gesture of devotion, so he sent her back home and carried on without her, as God had wanted him to do in the first place.

The advantage of this interpretation is that it explains how Zipporah ended up back at her father's house. After all, we don't hear about her again until Exodus 18:2, which says that Moses had indeed sent her away and that Jethro brought her back to Moses together with their two sons. The Samaritan Bible fills in the gap so that it all fits nicely together. A bit too nicely, though, I think: it seems to me that the Samaritan version is probably not original but is motivated precisely by the difficulties in the passage itself. I suspect that the Samaritans revised the Hebrew text to explain the difficulties away. Nevertheless it gives us a fascinating window into the exegetical tradition preserved by the Samaritan community, and this tradition is now becoming more widely available to the Western world thanks to Tsedaka's English translation.

Samaritans in the New Testament🔗

At the end of the session I managed to have a short conversation with Benyamim Tsedaka. In his speech he had mentioned that the New Testament gospels portray the Samaritans in quite a positive way, so I asked him for his perspective on a question that's been bugging me for a while. It's about the story in Luke 17 where the Lord Jesus healed ten lepers by telling them to go and show themselves to the priests, and as they went they were healed but only one of them came back, and he turned out to be a Samaritan. I asked Tsedaka, "When Jesus sent the ten lepers to the priests, which priest would this Sam­aritan have gone to? He could not very well have gone to Jerusalem, could he? After all, Jews had no dealings with Samaritans." Tsedaka said, "No, the Samaritan would not have been accepted there; perhaps he could have gone to Mount Gerizim, but that temple was in ruins." So then I asked him, "Is that maybe why the Samaritan came back to Jesus, because he had no one else to go to?" Well, Tsedaka did not want to go there. He simply said that the Samaritan came back to greet Jesus. So I still don't had an answer for my question.

But then Tsedaka told me something else, about John 4, where the Lord Jesus was speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well. As you recall, the woman touched on a very controversial issue, namely the question of where God was to be worshiped – in Jerusalem (as the Jews believed) or on Mount Gerizim (as the Samaritans thought). Jesus gave a two-part answer. In verse 23 he said that this controversy would soon go away: "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem." But Tsedaka wanted to talk to me about the other part of Jesus' answer, in verse 22: "You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews." Tsedaka said, "This passage is usually taken quite negatively, as if Jesus were taking the side of the Jews against the Samaritans. But it should really be taken the other way around. Jesus was telling the Samaritan woman, 'You have to go to the Jews because they do not know.'"

Thinking back on it, I find this comment really sad. First of all, it contradicts what the Lord Jesus actually said. Tsedaka was turning Jesus' words upside down, turning Christ into someone who favours the Samaritans over the Jews, reframing the Lord Jesus into someone less offensive and more palatable to him. Secondly, it reflects how much the Samaritans today still cling to Mount Gerizim. It is even enshrined in their version of the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 20, right after the tenth commandment, the Samaritan Pentateuch has these words:

And when the Lord your God will bring you to the land of the Canaanites which you are going to inherit, you shall set up great stones for yourself and lime them with lime, and you shall write on them the words of this law, and when you have passed over the Jordan, you shall set up these stones which I command you this day on Mount Gerizim.

So the Samaritans have added God's choice of Mount Gerizim to their Decalogue, giving these words the highest possible prestige.

Still today, one of the two Samaritan communities in Palestine is located at Mount Gerizim. It's amazing that these communities have survived through the centuries, and I admire the work that Benyamim Tsedaka is doing as an ambassador for these people, raising public aware­ness of their traditions. At the same time, it seems to me that this work is a stumbling block for him. He likes a Jesus who loves the Samaritans, but he does not want a Jesus who calls people to worship the Father in spirit and truth. The Samaritan identity is so tightly bound to Mount Gerizim that it is inconceivable to leave Mount Gerizim for Christ. It's no wonder that the Lord Jesus explicitly told his disciples to go to Samaria, and indeed Peter and John did so, as recorded in Acts 8.

The Gospel🔗

It turns out that all these centuries later, the Samaritans still need the gospel. And Christ himself has shown by example how to bring the gospel to Samar­itans, reaching out to them and lifting them up when the Jews were all too eager to shun them and tread them underfoot. When you read John 4 from a missional per­spective, you see how winsome the Lord Jesus was, how carefully he framed his words, guiding the woman from curiosity (What kind of man would speak to a Samaritan woman?), to wonder (What kind of man could know her life story?), to faith ("Could this be the Christ?"). As a Jewish man incarnate, Jesus could break down a wall of hostility and win the trust of a Samaritan woman, uncovering her life of sin, and revealing himself as the Saviour she needed, all the while risking the scorn of his Jewish compatriots. We cannot learn any better how to become missionaries to Samaritans than by following in the footsteps of Christ himself.


  1. ^ Much has been written about these communities and their Scrip­tures. For some recent books, see Robert T. Anderson and Terry Giles, The Samaritan Pentateuch: An Introduction to Its Origin, History, and Significance for Biblical Studies (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012); Gary N. Knoppers Jews and Samaritans: The Origins and History of Their Early Relations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  2. ^ Benyamim Tsedaka, The Israelite Samaritan Version of the Torah: First English Translation Compared with the Masoretic Version (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).
  3. ^ As the NIV's footnote points out, the Hebrew says that the Lord met "him," which in the context may refer either to Moses or to his son.
  4. ^ Again, a footnote in the NIV indicates an alternate way to read the Hebrew, namely that she "drew near Moses' feet with it."

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