This is a post about a well, two mountains, and five husbands. We learn about each of these elements in a story told in the book of signs, which we know as the Gospel according to John. The story tells of an encounter between a teacher from Galilee and a woman from Samaria. That story is offered as the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, the Third Sunday in Lent (John 4:5–42).
The well is Jacob’s well (John 4:6). It is the location for the meeting of the teacher and the woman. This site is not explicitly named in Hebrew Scriptures, but it is thought that the account of Jacob buying land in Shechem in Gen 33 records the site, which Jacob, it is said, calls El-Elohe-Israel (Gen 33:18–20). The name signifies “the God of Israel”, which is the name that Jacob had adopted just before this, after wrestling all night with a man at Peniel (Gen 32:22–32).
In fact the narrative has earlier given a long account of how Jacob married the two daughters of Laban—Leah and Rachel—after he had met the younger daughter, Rachel, at a well in the land of (Gen 29:1–35). Laban lived in Paddan-aram, a tableland area in northern Mesopotamia (28:5); the well in this region was where Jacob first sighted Rachel (29:4–12).
Wells, of course, were vital parts of the infrastructure of ancient societies—as indeed they continue to be so for many people today. As well as water for washing, drinking, and cooking, people needed wells to provide water for their animals. We are told that the oldest servant of Abraham, whilst journeying to Nahor, a city in Paddan-aram, “made the camels kneel down outside the city by the well of water; it was toward evening, the time when women go out to draw water” (24:11).
Not only was the well used to collect water for animals, however; it was a place where men could go to meet women—which is what the servant did, meeting Rebekah, Abraham’s niece by marriage (24:15–21), who would become the wife of Abraham’s son Isaac (24:67). So it was no surprise that Jesus would meet a woman beside the well identified as Jacob’s well.
What is a surprise is that he met her at noon (John 4:6). The clearest explanation for this is that it provides a striking juxtaposition to the story just told, of Nicodemus, who “came to Jesus by night” (3:2). It is one of the many literary devices so favoured by the author of the book of signs. We should not take this time reference as a direct historical fact in a story which the author of this Gospel has developed.
The two mountains in this story (John 4:21) are Gerizim and Zion. We know about Mount Zion because the long historical narrative of Israel that exists in the Bible (from Deuteronomy through Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings, Ezra and Nehemiah) was compiled by southern kingdom writers, using sources from both the north and the south. Zion was captured from the Jebusites by David’s army (2 Sam 5:6–10) and was honoured as the location for the Temple built under Solomon (1 Ki 8:1–13).
It was on Zion that the Lord God dwelt (Ps 9:11)—at least for southerners—and Zion was praised as “beautiful in elevation, the joy of all the earth” (Ps 48:2). Jesus reflects the southern view of life when he asserts to the Samaritan woman that “salvation is from the Judeans” (John 4:22).
Centuries before, people in the northern kingdom had built a rival temple on Mount Gerizim, one of the ancient holy sites in the northern kingdom (Deut 27:12; Josh 8:33–34; Judg 9:7). That temple survived beyond the invasion and resettlement of the north, continuing on until it was destroyed in 107BCE, when John Hyrcanus razed the temple and the capital city of Samaria.
The city of Samaria gave its name to the whole region, and the people were known as Samaritans. Southerners looked down on them as being the descendants of the people who committed idolatry after the Assyrians had conquered the northern kingdom (2 Kings 17:5–6) and resettled the northern region with people from other locations in their empire (2 Kings 17:24), from “every nation [who] still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the people of Samaria had made, every nation in the cities in which they lived” (2 Kings 17:29).
Flavius Josephus, a late 1st century CE historian, retells the sequence of events we read in 2 Kings, indicating that the Samaritans descended from this hybrid, unfaithful group of people (Antiquities 11.297–347). He also recounts an incident which entrenched the antagonism of southern Judeans towards the northern Samaritans (Antiquities 11.297–347).
The Samaritans attempted to undermine the returning exiled Judeans with their Persian rulers and slowed the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple (Ezra 4:6–24). Josephus notes disagreement about which site should be the location for the temple (Josephus, Antiquities 12.9–10). This is the same issue that is reflected in words attributed to Jesus at John 4:20–22.
Josephus also recounts a later time when some Samaritans scattered bones of dead people in the in portico of the Jerusalem Temple, thus rendering it unclean (Antiquities 18.29–30), and he gives a graphic description of the time when Cumanus (governor of Judea 48–52 CE) was bribed by some Samaritans, leading some Judean brigands to mount an uprising. Cumanus ordered the Romans to join with the Samaritans in battling the Judeans; many were killed, many more taken captive (Antiquities 20.118–123).
References to the Samaritans in the 3rd century CE Mishnah may reflect views current at the time of Jesus: “Rabbi Eliezer used to say, ‘He that eats of the bread of Samaritans is as one who eats the flesh of swine’” (m. Seb. 8.10); “the daughters of Cutheans [Samaritans] are menstruants from their cradle” (m. Nid. 4.1). That undergirds the author’s comment in the Johannine narrative, that “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” John 4:9). Jesus was stepping across the prescribed boundaries by asking for a drink from the woman (John 4:7–9).
The five husbands have occasioned much debate amongst interpreters. One entirely predictable and utterly incorrect interpretation is that the woman was an outcast amongst her people, because she had been married five times. Adultery and promiscuity are assumed by the—always male—interpreters.
This line of interpretation has no justification at all in the text. No reason is given for the five husbands—neither adultery nor promiscuity are mentioned in John’s narrative. Perhaps it could have been an application of the Levirate law of marriage to the brother of a deceased husband (see Deut 25:5–10; also Ruth 3:1–4:13; Mark 12:18–23)?
And if the woman had been such an outcast amongst the people of her own village, why would they have listened to what she had to say about Jesus (John 4:39)? Although Jesus comments that “the man you have now is not your husband” (4:18), this does not indicate sexual irregularity; this man could well have been the protector of the woman, the man who heads the household in which she has been given shelter.
Certainly, the main rationale for this particular interpretation can only be the patriarchal bias of the interpreters. The fact that it is so often cited does not lend weight to it; it simply reflects the ubiquity of sexist patriarchal interpreters!
Other interpreters regard the “five husbands” as symbols for the five groups of people who were imported into the northern kingdom after it was conquered by the Assyrians. 2 Kings 17 does give an account of “the origins of the Samaritans”, in which it provides the claim that the Assyrians deported the Israelites living in the northern kingdom and imported people from five areas (people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim; see 2 Ki 17:24) into the region.
This accurately reflects what we know of the practice of the Assyrians—deporting locals and importing vassals from other conquered territories from elsewhere in their kingdom. This was a clever power play; there was not much chance of local resistance, once the men were deported elsewhere, and a strong chance that those imported from elsewhere into the territory would maintain the status quo and ensure “peace” in the newly-conquered territory.
However, we need to bear in mind that 2 Kings and other historical narratives (1–2 Samuel, 1 Kings, Ezra—Nehemiah) are compiled and written by people in the southern kingdom, some time after the events reported—indeed, quite some time later, centuries later. The southern author(s) seem to have had a consistent programme to depict the northern kingdom as resolutely and persistently evil.
Just look at how so many of the northern kings are described in this formulaic manner: Jeroboam, son of Solomon, at 1 Ki 14:1–20 (and have a look at verse 11 for a gory fate!), the first king of the northern kingdom; and then Nadab at 1 Ki 15:25–26; Baasha at 1 Ki 15:33–34; Zimri at 1 Ki 16:15–20; Omri at 1 Ki 16:25–28; Ahab at 1 Ki 16:29–30, 22:37–40; Ahaz at 1 Ki 22:51–53; Jehoram at 2 Ki 3:1–2; Ahaziah at 2 Ki 8:26–27; Jehoash at 2 Ki 13:10–13; Jeroboam II at 2 Ki 14:23–29; Zechariah at 2 Ki 15:8–12; Menahem at 2 Ki 15:17–22; Pekahaiah at 2 Ki 15:23–26; Pekah at 2 Ki 15:27–31; and Hoshea at 2 Ki 17:1–4. In other words, almost all of the kings of Israel!!!
So what we have in 1–2 Kings is southern propaganda about those evil northerners, right from the time of Solomon’s death, on through the centuries, until the fall of the north under Assyria—who then imported pagan foreigners, had them “pretend” to follow the Lord God; but they brought their own various pagan religious practices, even whilst giving a show of worshipping the Lord God as the ancestral god of the land (2 Ki 17:7–18). So they defiled the land even further!!
We can see how the rhetoric in 2 Kings piles up against the northerners, courtesy of the southerners, writing at a time when great antagonism had built up about them. So I take the claim that this narrative was “history” with a big, big pile of salt.
And then we still have the question, how do we say that the text of John 4 is pointing to the story (the propaganda) told in 2 Kings 17? I can’t see anything in the John text that does so, other than the (typically southern) criticism of the northerners’ worship “on this mountain” (John 4:20–22) that is placed on the lips of Jesus—who, curiously, was a northerner from Galilee, not a southerner from Bethlehem. So the reference must maintain something of a mystery.
The understanding of John 4 that I have outlined above has been developed through many fruitful conversations over the years with my wife, the Rev. Elizabeth Raine. My exploration of the “five husbands” has most recently been prompted by a question from Alison Campbell, a faithful reader of this blog.