For Jews in Israel, Samaria is a place to be avoided. Before Solomon’s death 1,000 years earlier, the regions of Samaria and Judea were part of a united Israel.
Originally, Samaria was a city in the hill country of Ephraim. It was located on a hill forty-two miles north of Jerusalem, six miles northwest of Shechem, and nineteen miles east of the Mediterranean. Omri, who was a very wicked king of Israel, founded it.
But as far as God was concerned, Omri lived an evil life—set new records in evil. He walked in the footsteps of Jeroboam son of Nebat, who not only sinned but dragged Israel into his sins, making God angry—such an empty-headed, empty-hearted life!
1 Kings 16:25-26 (MSG)
Omri bought the hill, Samaria, from Shemer for approximately $3,800 and named the city that he built on that site “Samaria” after the name of Shemer, the previous owner.
Omri took over as king of Israel in the thirty-first year of the reign of Asa king of Judah. He ruled for twelve years, the first six in Tirzah. He then bought the hill Samaria from Shemer for 150 pounds of silver. He developed the hill and named the city that he built Samaria, after its original owner Shemer.
1 Kings 16:24 (MSG)
This city became the capital of Israel until the carrying away of the northern tribes into captivity.
The city of Samaria figured prominently in Old Testament history, being mentioned about one hundred times. King Ahab built a temple and an altar to Baal at Samaria, and at least 400 prophets of Baal ate at his table.
Ahab of Israel
Ahab son of Omri became king of Israel in the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah. Ahab son of Omri was king over Israel for twenty-two years. He ruled from Samaria. Ahab son of Omri did even more open evil before God than anyone yet—a new champion in evil! It wasn’t enough for him to copy the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat; no, he went all out, first by marrying Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and then by serving and worshiping the god Baal. He built a temple for Baal in Samaria, and then furnished it with an altar for Baal. Worse, he went on and built a shrine to the sacred whore Asherah. He made the God of Israel angrier than all the previous kings of Israel put together.
1 Kings 16:32 (MSG)
The moment Ahab saw Elijah he said, “So it’s you, old troublemaker!”
“It’s not I who has caused trouble in Israel,” said Elijah, “but you and your government—you’ve dumped God’s ways and commands and run off after the local gods, the Baals. Here’s what I want you to do: Assemble everyone in Israel at Mount Carmel. And make sure that the special pets of Jezebel, the four hundred and fifty prophets of the local gods, the Baals, and the four hundred prophets of the whore goddess Asherah, are there.”
1 Kings 18:19 (MSG)
The city was captured by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. (2 Kings 17:5-18), and during the Assyrian captivity, the name Samaria came to be used to denote the whole region between Galilee and Judea. According to Assyrian accounts, 27,280 Israelites were taken into captivity (2 Kings 17:6). After the rebellion that divided the kingdom, Samaria became a hotbed of idol worship. The king of Assyria sent colonists to dwell in the land, and they began to intermarry with the Jewish remnant that was left in Samaria (2 Kings 17:24). By marrying outsiders, they have polluted the land. Israel’s Jews consider them to be half-breeds—mongrels—and the Jews know to watch out for them or else be bitten by temptation.
Because of their pagan practices, the Lord began to judge this mixed multitude by sending lions among them (2 Kings 17:25). The king of Assyria responded by sending one of the exiled Jewish priests back to Samaria to teach the people the manner of the God of the Jews (2 Kings 17:26-28). This did not stop the colonists from worshiping their pagan gods though.
But each people that Assyria had settled went ahead anyway making its own gods and setting them up in the neighborhood sex-and-religion shrines that the citizens of Samaria had left behind—a local custom-made god for each people:
- For Babylon, Succoth Benoth;
- For Cuthah, Nergal;
- For Hamath, Ashima;
- For Avva, Nibhaz and Tartak;
- For Sepharvaim, Adrammelech and Anammelech (people burned their children in sacrificial offerings to these gods!).
They honored and worshiped God, but not exclusively—they also appointed all sorts of priests, regardless of qualification, to conduct a variety of rites at the local fertility shrines. They honored and worshiped God, but they also kept up their devotions to the old gods of the places they had come from.
And they’re still doing it, still worshiping any old god that has nostalgic appeal to them. They don’t really worship God—they don’t take seriously what he says regarding how to behave and what to believe, what he revealed to the children of Jacob whom he named Israel. God made a covenant with his people and ordered them, “Don’t honor other gods: Don’t worship them, don’t serve them, don’t offer sacrifices to them. Worship God, the God who delivered you from Egypt in great and personal power. Reverence and fear him. Worship him. Sacrifice to him. And only him! All the things he had written down for you, directing you in what to believe and how to behave—well, do them for as long as you live. And whatever you do, don’t worship other gods! And the covenant he made with you, don’t forget your part in that. And don’t worship other gods! Worship God, and God only—he’s the one who will save you from enemy oppression.”
But they didn’t pay any attention. They kept doing what they’d always done. As it turned out, all the time these people were putting on a front of worshiping God, they were at the same time involved with their local idols. And they’re still doing it. Like father, like son.
2 Kings 17:29-41 (MSG)
They simply incorporated their pagan rituals into the Jewish religion. The result was a very corrupt form of Judaism.
When the devout Jews were allowed to come back to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem, they refused to allow the Samaritans to help them, because they had corrupted themselves (Ezra 4:1-3). The Samaritans had corrupted the Hebrew bloodline as well as perverted the Jewish worship.
The northern kings made alliances that corrupted the people by introducing foreign customs and strange gods. This split between the Samaritans and the Jews widened until the days of Jesus’ ministry. Devout Jews would not associate with or even talk to Samaritans (John 4:9 and 27). They even had the nerve to build a temple to the True God on Mt. Gerizim to rival the one in Jerusalem. By the time the twelve are traveling with Jesus, it has long been evident that the Samaritans have lost their way. John 4:25 does show that the Samaritans shared with the Jews a belief in a coming Messiah.