Updated: Feb 21, 2020
Chan Gin Kai
When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the Lord, the God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.” (Ezra 4:1-2)
Just as the Jews started to rebuild the Temple, some other people who were already staying in Jerusalem offered to help them. These people were brought to Israel by Esarhaddon, King of Assyria – they were the Samaritans.
Who Were The Samaritans?
Let’s go back a little in history to understand their background.
Saul was the first king over the 12 tribes of Israel. His son, Ish-Bosheth, succeeded him briefly and then David ruled the kingdom. Solomon succeeded David. The kingdom during their reign is termed the United Monarchy.
After the death of Solomon in 931 BC, Jeroboam led a revolt against Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. 10 tribes broke away from the United Monarchy and proclaimed Jeroboam their king, forming the Kingdom of Israel (aka Northern Kingdom). Rehoboam ruled over the two tribes that remained loyal to him, forming the Kingdom of Judah (aka Southern Kingdom).
Jeroboam feared that frequent pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem (in the South) might cause his people to return to their old allegiance. So he built two temples with golden calves in Bethel and Dan, for his people to worship. He led his people away from God.
When the Assyrians conquered the Kingdom of Israel in 721 BC, most of the Israelites were deported. People of other races were deliberately brought in to settle in Samaria (the capital of the Kingdom of Israel). The motive was to dilute Israel’s identity through inter-marriages; the children from these intermarriages were the Samaritans.
The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Kuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim and settled them in the towns of Samaria to replace the Israelites. They took over Samaria and lived in its towns. (2 Kings 17:24)
The Samaritans believed in the same God and the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), though it is a slightly different version from the Jews’. But they also worshipped other gods.
They worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought. (2 Kings 17:33)
When the Babylonians conquered the Kingdom of Judah in 587 BC, many of the Judeans were deported too. In 539 BC, the Persian king, Cyrus, finally allowed the Judean exiles (aka the Jews) to return to their lands. When the Jews returned, they found the Samaritans there, and their enmity started.
This rift between the Jews and the Samaritans carried on to New Testament times. The Jews despised the Samaritans and considered them as half-breeds. This feud is apparent when Jesus reached out to a Samaritan woman. “The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)” (John 4:9)
The Samaritan woman and many from her town believed in Jesus (John 4:39-42). Jesus told a parable with a good Samaritan as the main character too (Luke 10:25-37). So it’ll be wrong to stereotype all Samaritans as bad.
But the Samaritans that the Jews faced here in Ezra 4 were certainly bad; they were considered enemies. They appeared sincere and offered help, but hidden dangers lurked behind the façade.
Hidden dangers are always the greatest menace.
The Samaritans were “almost there”. They shared common ancestors, and some similar religious practices with the Jews. So why were they dangerous?
The greatest dangers to us are not those who are vastly different from us, for we can spot them from a mile away. Our guard comes up instantly, and we are prepared. But we are less careful with people who are somewhat similar. The commonalities cause us to let down our guard, and gloss over the differences.
Differences in opinions are natural and trivial. But differences in principles, in doctrines, and in the way we live our lives are crucial. We often overlook these crucial differences and sometimes get deceived by wolves in sheep’s clothing. This, as we know, can result in terrible consequences.
While we must always try to see the good in people just as Jesus did, we have to discern the wrong in people, just as Jesus did too. Let us not be blinded by the commonalities, but pray that God gives us the spirit of discernment.
Chan Gin Kai
Gin Kai is a film producer who believes in the power of media to inspire positive changes. He has spearheaded disaster relief and capacity building projects in impoverished communities across Asia. In church, he serves as a mentor to young professionals in the EDGE Ministry. He describes himself as "just a sinner who wants to get right with God". Gin Kai joined the Central Christian Church in 1988.