Samaria in the Old Testament
The City of Samaria
(1) Shechem was the first capital of the Northern Kingdom (1 Ki 12:25). Jeroboam seems later to have removed the royal residence to Tirzah (1 Ki 14:17). After the brief reigns of Elah and Zimri came that of Omri, who reigned 6 years in Tirzah, then he purchased the hill of Samaria and built a city there, which was thenceforward the metropolis of the kingdom of Israel (1 Ki 16:24).
Here the hill and the city are said to have been named after Shemer, the original owner of the land. There is nothing intrinsically improbable in this. It might naturally be derived from shamar, and the name in the sense of "outlook" would fitly apply to a city in such a commanding position. The residence, it was also the burying-place, of the kings of Israel (1 Ki 16:28; 22:37; 2 Ki 10:35; 13:9,13; 14:16).
Toward the western edge of the Ephraimite uplands there is a broad fertile hollow called Wady esh-Sha`ir, "valley of barley." From the midst of it rises an oblong hill to a height of over 300 ft., with a level top. The sides are steep, especially to the Samaria. The greatest length is from East to West. The surrounding mountains on three sides are much higher, and are well clad with olives and vineyards.
To the West the hills are lower, and from the crest a wide view is obtained over the Plain of Sharon, with the yellow ribbon of sand that marks the coast line, and the white foam on the tumbling billows; while away beyond stretch the blue waters of the Mediterranean. On the eastern end of the hill, surrounded by olive and cactus, is the modern village of Sebastiyeh, under which a low neck of land connects the hill with the eastern slopes.
The position is one of great charm and beauty; and in days of ancient warfare it was one of remarkable strength. While it was overlooked from three sides, the battlements crowning the steep slopes were too far off to be reached by missiles from the only artillery known in those times--the sling and the catapult. For besiegers to attempt an assault at arms was only to court disaster. The methods adopted by her enemies show that they relied on famine to do their work for them (2 Ki 6:24 f, etc.). Omri displayed excellent taste and good judgment in the choice he made.
The city wall can be traced in almost its entire length. Recent excavations conducted by American archaeologists have uncovered the foundations of Omri's palace, with remains of the work of Ahab and of Herod (probably here was Ahab's ivory palace), on the western end of the hill, while on the western slope the gigantic gateway, flanked by massive towers, has been exposed to view.
Under the influence of Jezebel, Samaria naturally became a center of idolatrous worship. Ahab "reared up an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he had built in Samaria. And Ahab made the Asherah" (1 Ki 16:32 f). Jehoram his son put away the pillar of Baal (2 Ki 3:2), and within the temple Jehu made an end at once of the instruments of idolatry and of the priests (2 Ki 10:19 f). There are many prophetic references to the enormities practiced here, and to their inevitable consequences (Isa 8:4; 9:9; 10:9; 28:1 ff; 36:19; Jer 23:13; Ezek 23:4; Hos 7:1; 13:16; Am 3:12; Mic 1:6, etc.).
Under pressure of Damascus Omri conceded to the Syrians the right to "make streets in Samaria" (1 Ki 20:34). Ben-hadad II besieged the city, but suffered ignominious defeat (1 Ki 20:1-21; Josephus, Ant, VIII, xiv, 1 f). Persistent attempts by the Syrians to reach the city in the time of Jehoram were frustrated by Elisha (2 Ki 6:8 ff; Josephus, Ant, IX, iv, 3). At length, however, Ben-hadad again invested the city, and the besieged were reduced to dire straits, in which, urged by famine, scenes of awful horror were enacted (2 Ki 6:24 ff).
A mysterious panic seized the Syrians. Their deserted camp was discovered by despairing lepers who carried the good news to the famished citizens of the plenty to be found there. Probably in the throat of the great western gateway occurred the crush in which the incredulous captain was trampled to death (1 Kings 7; Josephus, Ant, IX, iv, 5). Here the 70 sons of Ahab were slain by Jehu in the general destruction of the house of Ahab (2 Ki 10:1 ff). In Samaria, the Chronicler tells us, Ahaziah in vain hid from Jehu (2 Ch 22:9; compare 2 Ki 9:27). Pekah brought hither much spoil from Jerusalem and many captives, whom, at the instance of the prophet Oded, he released (2 Ch 28 ff). The siege of Samaria was begun by Shalmaneser in the 7th year of Hoshea, and the city was finally taken by Sargon II at the end of 3 years, 722 BC (2 Ki 17:5 f; 18:9 f; Ant, IX, xiv, 1).
This marked the downfall of the Northern Kingdom, the people being transported by the conqueror. That this was not done in a thoroughgoing way is evident from the fact recorded in the inscriptions that two years later the country had to be subdued again. Colonists were brought from other parts to take the places of the exiles (2 Ki 17:24; Ezr 4:10). Alexander the Great took the city in 331 BC, killed many of the inhabitants, and settled others in Shechem, replacing them with a colony of Syro-Macedonians. He gave the adjoining country to the Jews (Apion, II, 4).
The city suffered at the hands of Ptolemy Lagi and Demetrius Poliorcetes, but it was still a place of strength (Josephus, Ant, XIII, x, 2) when John Hyrcanus came against it in 120 BC. It was taken after a year's siege, and the victor tried to destroy the city utterly. His turning of the water into trenches to undermine the foundations could only refer to the suburbs under the hill. From the only two sources, `Ain Harun and 'Ain Kefr Rima, to the East of the town, the water could not rise to the hill.
The "many fountains of water" which Benjamin of Tudela says he saw on the top, from which water enough could be got to fill the trenches, are certainly not to be seen today; and they have left no trace behind them. The city was rebuilt by Pompey and, having again fallen under misfortune, was restored by Gabinius (Josephus, Ant, XIV, iv, 4; v, 3; BJ, I, vii, 7; viii, 4). To Herod it owed the chief splendor of its later days. He extended, strengthened and adorned it on a scale of great magnificence, calling it Sebaste (= Augusta) in honor of the emperor, a name which survives in the modern Sebastiyeh. A temple also was dedicated to Caesar.
Its site is probably marked by the impressive flight of steps, with the pedestal on which stood the gigantic statue of Augustus, which recent excavations have revealed. The statue, somewhat mutilated, is also to be seen. Another of Herod's temples West of the present village was cleared out by the same explorers.
The remains of the great double-columned street, which ran round the upper terrace of the hill, bear further testimony to the splendor of this great builder's work (Josephus, Ant, XV, vii, 3; viii, 5; BJ, I, xxi, 2). It was here that Herod killed perhaps the only human being whom he ever really loved, his wife Mariamne. Here also his sons perished by his hand (Josephus, Ant, XV, vii, 5-7; XVI, iii, 1-3; xi, 7).
It is commonly thought that this city was the scene of Philip's preaching and the events that followed recorded in Acts 8, but the absence of the definite article in 8:5 makes this doubtful. A Roman colony was settled here by Septimius Severus. From that time little is known of the history of the city; nor do we know to what the final castastrophe was due. It became the seat of a bishopric and was represented in the councils of Nicea, Constantinople and Chalcedon. Its bishop attended the Synod of Jerusalem in 536 AD.
The Church of John, a Crusading structure beside the modern village, is now a Moslem mosque. It is the traditional burying-place of John the Baptist's body.
(2) Grk: he Samareia: A town mentioned in 1 Macc 5:66 as on the route followed by Judas from the district of Hebron to the land of the Philistines. The name is probably a clerical error. The margin reads Marisa, and probably the place intended is Mareshah, the site of which is at Tell Sandachannah, about a mile South of Belt Jibrin.
The Country of Samaria
(Heb: shomeron; Grk: he Samareitis chora): The name of the city was transferred to the country of which it was the capital, so that Samaria became synonymous with the Northern Kingdom (1 Ki 13:32; Jer 31:5, etc.). The extent of territory covered by this appellation varied greatly at different periods. At first it included the land held by Israel East of the Jordan, Galilee and Mt. Ephraim, with the northern part of Benjamin.
It was shorn of the eastern portion by the conquest of Tiglath-pileser (1 Ch 5:26). Judah probably soon absorbed the territory of Dan in the Samaria. In New Testament times Samaria had shrunk to still smaller dimensions. Then the country West of the Jordan was divided into three portions: Judea in the South, Galilee in the North, and Samaria in the middle. The boundaries are given in general terms by Josephus (BJ, III, iii, 1, 4, 5).
The southern edge of the Plain of Esdraelon and the lands of Scythopolis, the city of the Decapolis West of the Jordan, formed the northern boundary. It reached South as far as the toparchy of Acrabatta (modern `Aqrabeh), while on the border between Samaria and Judea lay the villages of Annath and Borceos, the modern Khirbet `Aina and Berqit, about 15 miles South of Nablus. The Jordan of course formed the eastern boundary. On the West the coast plain as far as Acre belonged to Judea.
The country thus indicated was much more open to approach than the high plateau of Judah with its steep rocky edges and difficult passes. The road from the North indeed was comparatively easy of defense, following pretty closely the line of the watershed. But the gradual descent of the land to the West with long, wide valleys, offered inviting avenues from the plain.
The great trade routes, that to the fords of Jordan and the East, passing through the cleft in the mountains at Shechem, and those connecting Egypt with the North and the Northeast, traversed Samarian territory, and brought her into constant intercourse with surrounding peoples. The influence of the heathen religions to which she was thus exposed made a swift impression upon her, leading to the corruptions of faith and life that heralded her doom (Jer 23:13; Hos 7:1 ff, etc.). The Assyrians came as the scourge of God (2 Ki 17:5-23).
Their attack centered on the capital. Shalmaneser began the siege, and after three years the city fell to Sargon II, his successor. With the fall of Samaria the kingdom came to an end. Following the usual Assyrian policy, great numbers of the inhabitants were deported from the conquered country, and their places taken by men brought from "Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Avva, and from Hamath and Sepharvaim," cities which had already bowed to the Assyrian power (2 Ki 17:24).
It appears from the Assyrian inscriptions that the number carried away was 27,290. The number afterward deported from Judah was 200,000, and then the poorest of the land were left to be vinedressers and husbandmen (2 Ki 25:12). It is evident that a similar policy must have been followed in Samaria, as 27,290 could certainly not include the whole population of the cities and the country. But it would include the higher classes, and especially the priests from whom the victors would have most to fear.
The population therefore after the conquest contained a large proportion of Israelites. It was no doubt among these that Josiah exercised his reforming energy (2 Ki 23:19 f; 2 Ch 34:6 f). Here also must have been that "remnant of Israel," Manasseh and Ephraim, who contributed for the repair of the house of God (2 Ch 34:9). These people, left without their religious guides, mingling with the heathen who had brought their gods and, presumably, their priests with them, were apt to be turned from the purity of their faith.
A further importation of pagan settlers took place under Esar-haddon and Osnappar (Ezr 4:9,10). The latter is to be identified with Assur-bani-pal. What the proportions of the different elements in the population were, there is now no means of knowing. That there was some intermarriage is probable; but having regard to racial exclusiveness, we may suppose that it was not common. When the Jews deny to them any relation to Israel, and call them Cuthaeans, as if they were the descendants purely of the heathen settlers, the facts just mentioned should be borne in mind.
After the Assyrian conquest we are told that the people suffered from lions (2 Ki 17:25). Josephus (Ant., IX, xiv, 3) says "a plague seized upon them." In accordance with the ideas of the time, the strangers thought this due to the anger of the tutelary deity of the land, because they worshipped other gods in his territory, while neglecting him. Ignorant of his special ritual ("manner"), they petitioned the Assyrian king, who sent one (Josephus says "some") of the priests who had been carried away to teach them "how they should fear the Lord."
How much is implied in this "fearing of the Lord" is not clear. They continued at the same time to serve their own gods. There is nothing to show that the Israelites among them fell into their idolatries. The interest of these in the temple at Jerusalem, the use of which they may now have shared with the Jews, is proved by 2 Ch 34:9. In another place we are told that four score men "from Shechem, from Shiloh, and from Samaria," evidently Israelites, were going up with their offerings to the house of the Lord (Jer 41:5). Once the people of the country are called Samaritans (2 Ki 17:29). Elsewhere this name has a purely religious significance.
Of the history of Samaria under Assyrian and Babylonian rulers we know nothing. It reappears at the return of the Jews under Persian auspices. The Jews refused the proffered assistance of the Samaritans in rebuilding the temple and the walls of Jerusalem (Ezr 4:1,3). Highly offended, the latter sought to frustrate the purpose of the Jews (Ezr 4:4 ff; Neh 4:7 ff; 1 Esdras 2:16 ff).
That the Samaritans were accustomed to worship in Jerusalem is perhaps implied by one phrase in the letter sent to the Persian king: "The Jews that came up from thee are come to us unto Jerus" (Ezr 4:12). Perhaps also they may be referred to in Ezr 6:21. Idolatry is not alleged against the "adversaries." We can hardly err if we ascribe the refusal in some degree to the old antagonism between the North and the South, between Ephraim and Judah. Whatever the cause, it led to a wider estrangement and a deeper bitterness. For the history of the people and their temple on Gerizim, see &SAMARITANS.
Samaria, with Palestine, fell to Alexander after the battle of Issus. Antiochus the Great gave it to Ptolemy Epiphanes, as the dowry of his daughter Cleopatra (Josephus, Ant, XII, iv, 1). John Hyrcanus reduced and desolated the country (Josephus, BJ, I, ii, 6 f). After varying fortunes Samaria became part of the kingdom of Herod, at whose death it was given to Archelaus (Josephus, Ant, XVII, xi, 4; BJ, II, vi, 3). When Archelaus was banished it was joined to the Roman province of Syria (Josephus, Ant, XVII, xiii, 5; BJ, II, viii, 1).
Samaria is a country beautifully diversified with mountain and hill, valley and plain. The olive grows plentifully, and other fruit trees abound. There is much excellent soil, and fine crops of barley and wheat are reaped annually. The vine also is largely cultivated on the hill slopes. Remains of ancient forests are found in parts. As Josephus said, it is not naturally watered by many rivers, but derives its chief moisture from rain water, of which there is no lack (BJ, III, iii, 4). He speaks also of the excellent grass, by reason of which the cows yield more milk than those in any other place.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain.