A Counter-Cultural Detour Through Samaria

The fall of Samaria, which resulted in the deportation of thousands from the northern kingdom to Assyria, raises another question: Was the subsequent Assyrian importation and settlement of people from “Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim” (2 Kings 17:24) into the towns of Samaria the beginning of the people known in the New Testament as the Samaritans?

While the traditional assumption is that the Samaritans of the New Testament are the descendants of those imported peoples mentioned in 2 Kings 17, a comparison of the two groups does raise reason for doubt. For example, the imported peoples were syncretists – i.e. “They worshipped the LORD, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought (2 Kg 17:33).”

Because clear evidence of such syncretism doesn’t exist among those later identified as Samaritans, scholars like Everett Ferguson suggest that a connection between the two peoples isn’t so clear, and may be nothing more than a later attempt of Jews to slander the Samaritans (Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd Edition, p. 534). But what would be the motivation for such slander? The Samaritans created a rival religious institution that preferred Shechem and Mt. Gerizim over Jerusalem and Mt. Zion as the location of the Holy Place (p. 534).

In contrast to Ferguson, the Archaeological Study Bible (Zondervan 2005), says the Samaritans are “a mixed race made up of a combination of Israelites who remained in the land and these non-Israelite settlers (note 17:24-41, p. 557).” And in spite of their syncretistic origins, they eventually “came to follow the teachings of Moses, including monotheism (note 17:24-41, p. 557).” I might add that their (ASB-Zondervan) conclusion of an evolution from syncretism to monotheism may be correct, but I have not been able to find a justification for that conclusion in any of their many notes on the Samaritans.

While the origins of the New Testament Samaritans may not be as clear as we might wish, we can see – and I think some may be surprised – how this “slandered, mixed race” people are referenced in the New Testament.

The references to the Samaritans fall clearly into three groups: First we see Samaritan used as a pejorative as in John 8:48 when Jesus was asked, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” We can see this negative sense also in the story of the (Samaritan) woman at the well in John 4. Her initial words to Jesus illustrate the inferior position of the Samaritans among Jews: “‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?’ (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.)”

The second type of reference to Samaritans is simply geographical. For example, when Jesus sent his disciples out (Matthew 10), he specifically told them not to go among the Gentiles or any town of the Samaritans. Rather, he charged them, “Go to the lost sheep of Israel.” Luke mentions an occassion when Jesus sent his disciples into a Samaritan village to prepare things for his arrival (9:52). None of these types of references should be deemed positive or negative.

The third category includes those times Jesus mentions or interacts with Samaritan people, and is clearly the most positive portrayal of the Samaritans in the Bible. I’ve already mentioned the John 4 story of the (Samaritan) woman at the well. In this story, we don’t see Jesus distancing himself from her because he is a Jew and she a Samaritan. We don’t see him reference her pejoratively. What we see is Jesus offering her “living water” and engaging her in a meaningful conversation about the messiah. John concludes this story with a very positive view of the Samaritan woman: “Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony (John 4:39).”

Another illustration of how Jesus views the Samaritans differently than the surrounding culture does is how he juxtaposes the Samaritan with religious Jews in the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Since Jesus was crafting that story himself, he could have painted any picture he wanted, yet he chose to cast the Samaritan as the good neighbor and the religious Jews as the bad neighbors.

Finally, in Luke 17 we see the story of Jesus healing ten lepers. While on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled between Galilee and Samaria and was approached from a distance by ten lepers. They called out to him and he healed them. One of them, realizing that he was healed, came back to thank Jesus. Then, as if in a parenthetical note, Luke adds, “He was a Samaritan” (LK 17:16). Notice Jesus’ response: “Weren’t all ten healed? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Once again, Jesus juxtaposes the outsider against those representing the majority culture.

In all three cases – the woman at the well, the good Samaritan, and the leper who was healed – the Samaritans were cast in a much more positive light than some might expect considering the hostility of the surrounding culture toward them.

Is there an application for us in how we should treat/view those who might be considered negatively by the surrounding culture?

Hezekiah’s Life and Death

A study of King Hezekiah’s life is one that can be greatly beneficial for us.

In his life we can see a man of great accomplishment: He restored the Passover observance immediately upon ascending to the throne. He undid all the idol worship that his father Ahaz had promoted throughout the land. He withstood the pressure to submit to Assyria. He rerouted the Gihon spring into what we now call Hezekiah’s Tunnel. He accomplished so much. In fact, “He succeeded in everything he undertook (2 Chron 32:30).”

The foundation for these many accomplishments was a faith in the LORD. One of the reasons I think it is beneficial to study the life of Hezekiah is to see Hezekiah’s sin, the time his pride directed his trust away from the LORD and toward himself.

Yes, it’s possible for a godly person to fall in that way and to be restored. So often people think that being godly means never sinning or wavering in faith. However, we see from the life of Hezekiah that even godly men at times lose their way. That’s not to excuse anyone’s sin, but it is to say that we need to be careful in the way we define godly. And the definition isn’t “being perfect.”

Godliness deals with the heart. Certainly, the more God matures us toward godliness, the less we should sin. However, the focus of godliness is on the heart’s desire to obey and trust the LORD. Notice that God mercifully restored Hezekiah when he repented. And, in spite of his sin, he is described as a good king.

Turning Back Time

As I have surveyed the life of Hezekiah, I have drawn details from 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, and Isaiah. To have the most complete understanding of Hezekiah’s life, using all three sources is necessary. Though at times, trying to get a handle on how the details are presented in the three sources can be confusing.

For example, when we look at Isaiah 38-39, it might be natural to assume that chronologically, chapters 38 and 39 occur after chapters 36 and 37. After all, that’s how it’s written, right? Well, there are a few indicators in those chapters, 38 and 39, that suggest that the correct chronology of Isaiah is 38, 39, 36, 37.

Here is the best one: 38:6 – “I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria.” This promise of protection and deliverance clearly occurred before the angel of the LORD defeated the Assyrian army and before Sennacherib broke camp and returned to Nineveh, both of which were already detailed in Isaiah chapter 37.

So, let’s “turn back time” and review Isaiah 38-39, which actually took place before the things we have already discussed. As you will see, these chapters actually give some explanation of why chapters 36 and 37 occurred.

All three records – 2 Kings 20, 2 Chronicles 32, and Isaiah 38 – say that Hezekiah was ill and at the point of death. And they all record Hezekiah’s prayer, which resulted in the LORD mercifully restoring Hezekiah’s health. In response to Hezekiah’s prayer the LORD said three things would occur:
1. Hezekiah would go up to the Temple three days later,
2. The LORD would add 15 years to Hezekiah’s life, and
3. The LORD would deliver Hezekiah and the city of Jerusalem from Assyria.

In contrast to his father’s rejection of a sign from the LORD (Isa. 7:11-12), upon hearing of his restoration and 15-year life extension, Hezekiah asked for a sign. Isaiah inquired as to which Hezekiah would prefer as a sign from the LORD, that the sun would move forward or backward.

Hezekiah realized that the shadow of the sun moving forward may not be a clear sign. After all, the sun naturally moves forward. So, he asked for the shadow of the sun to move backward. In other words, he asked for time to be turned back.

Here is the LORD‘s response: “I will make the shadow cast by the sun go back the ten steps it has gone down on the stairway of Ahaz.” It isn’t clear how this was done, but God, who put all things in motion, is able to reverse things and still keep all things in order. Don’t forget, during the days of Joshua the sun had already stood still over Gibeon (Joshua 10:13). It’s not something that happens every day, or even often, but God, as it pleases Him, does what appears to be impossible to us. “So the sunlight went back the ten steps it had gone down (Isa. 38:8).”

Interestingly, the account of Hezekiah’s punitive illness in 2 Chronicles is abbreviated, apparently for the purpose of highlighting the reason for both his condition and the perilous situation of Jerusalem – his pride.

Once again, the chronology can be confusing. By the order of presentation in 2 Chronicles 32:24-25, one may get the impression that the LORD healed Hezekiah and still his heart was proud. However, like we did in sorting out chapters 36-38 of Isaiah, we need to examine the complete presentation. In doing this we will see that as a result of Hezekiah’s pride, the LORD‘s wrath was on him and on Judah and Jerusalem (2 Chr 32:26), which clearly occurred before the LORD restored Hezekiah. As was pointed out above, one of the elements of Hezekiah’s restoration was that the LORD would deliver Hezekiah and Jerusalem from Assyria.

It shouldn’t surprise the reader that Hezekiah struggled with pride. The elements were clearly in place for pride to be a potential problem: In addition to being the king, he had very great riches, built many buildings and villages, and acquired great numbers of flocks and herds. “He succeeded in everything he undertook (2 Chron 32:30).” Hezekiah started out well, restoring Passover and removing the high places, but his wealth and success created a proud heart in him.

Thankfully, the LORD knows how to bring about humility. And in Hezekiah’s case, a punitive illness and potential destruction of Jerusalem were the LORD‘s instruments of merciful correction in Hezekiah’s life.

That is the back story to the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem.

The order of events as I understand it is:
1. Hezekiah was proud
2. God sent Assyria and a punitive illness as a form of discipline
3. Hezekiah repented
4. God restored Hezekiah
5. God delivered Hezekiah and Jerusalem from the Assyrian threat.

Isaiah Brings A Welcome Word

According to both biblical and Assyrian accounts, Sennacherib was intent on punishing Hezekiah for not adequately submitting to the Assyrian’s demands. And, according to both sides’ accounts, the prospects for Jerusalem’s survival weren’t very good.

However, one must take a step back, and look at the greater picture. Where is God, the master planner, in this scenario? How is God working here? Those questions serve to introduce the prophet Isaiah.

In my last entry, Hezekiah’s Motivation, I discussed the nature of Hezekiah’s prayer; namely, that it was spoken for God’s glory. God’s response to that prayer was to send a word through Isaiah to Hezekiah against Sennacherib (2 Kings 19:20-34).

A careful reading of the word against Sennacherib reveals some interesting things: First, we see that Sennacherib’s insults weren’t primarily against Hezekiah. Rather, from God’s perspective, they were against, “the Holy One of Israel (vs 19).”

Second, we also see that pride was the cause of this insult and blasphemy (vs 19).

Here is Sennacherib’s list of accomplishments (2 Kings 19:23-24 NIV):

“And you have said,
1) ‘With many Chariots I have ascended the heights of the mountains,
the utmost heights of Lebanon.
2) I have cut down its tallest cedars, the choicest of it pines.
3) I have reached its remotest parts, the finest of its forests.
4) I have dug wells in foreign lands and drunk the water there.
5) With the soles of my feet I have dried up all the streams of Egypt.”

After examining his list of accomplishments, many might say, “After all he’s done, he deserved to brag a little.” But such an assessment discounts the third thing we see in the word delivered by Isaiah: God’s sovereignty.

“Have you not heard? Long ago I ordained it. In days of old I planned it; now I have brought it to pass, that you have turned fortified cities into piles of stone (2 Kings 19:25 NIV).”

God clearly says here that Sennacherib conquered the fortified cities in Judah because God ordained, planned and brought it to pass. Sennacherib was a tool designed by God. Why should that provide encouragement for Hezekiah? Because, the sovereign God who raised up this wrecking machine, knows exactly how to disable it.

And, that’s what Isaiah goes on to say: “But I know where you stay and when you come and go and how you rage against me. Because you rage against me and your insolence has reached my ears, I will put my hook in your nose and my bit in your mouth, and I will make you return by the way you came (2 Kings 19:27-28 NIV).”

The next day, the Assyrian army awakened to a great surprise: During the night, the angel of the LORD put to death 185,000 of their troops, which resulted in Sennacherib breaking camp and returning to Assyria (2 Kings 19:35-36).

Let’s not forget Isaiah’s previous word regarding Sennacherib’s personal future: “This is what the LORD says, . . . he will return to his own country, and there I will have him cut down with the sword (2 Kings 19:7 NIV).”

Sennacherib’s end was just as Isaiah had said it would be: “One day, while he was worshiping in the temple of his god Nisroch, his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer cut him down with the sword, . . . (2 Kings 19:37 NIV).” By the way, this occurred after Hezekiah’s death, which means that Hezekiah had to rest securely in the fact that God brings about His will in His own timing.

The LORD knows how to raise up and take down. And He does so to demonstrate His sovereignty and supremecy.

Hezekiah’s Motivation

It is clear that Hezekiah feared for his life and the life of the kingdom of Judah. And like most others would have done, he asked God to rescue him. However, unlike many, his motivation wasn’t self preservation.

Let’s analyze his prayer.

First, he acknowledges the serious physical threat that Assyria poses: “It is true, O LORD, that the Assyrian kings have laid waste these nations and their lands. (2 Kings 19:17)”

Second, he distinguishes between Yahweh and the gods of those defeated nations: “They [the Assyrians] have thrown their [the defeated nations’] gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by men’s hands. (vs. 18)”

Finally, he begs God to deliver Israel not for his well being, but for God’s glory: “Now, O LORD our God, deliver us from his hand, so that all kingdoms on earth may know that you alone, O LORD, are God. (vs. 19)”

In this case, God chose to answer Hezekiah’s prayer favorably, and Jerusalem was spared.

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