Tuesday, December 16, 2008

It runs deep

The Bible, that is ...

There's the story of the Samaritan woman, in John 4. In this, various things happen - Jesus demonstrates, counter to the prevailing orthodoxy, that the message about the arrival of the Messiah is for women, sinners and cultural outsiders. He shows supernatural knowledge of the woman's circumstances. And just for good measure, he throws in a powerful image of how desirable and fulfilling following him ought to be, in contrast perhaps to the unsatisfying experience the woman had had in her life to that point, plus the stuff about worshipping in spirit and truth.

But there's more to it than that.

The woman is a Samaritan - one of the people who had once been part of the nation of Israel, but were now separate from it. What did they believe? Apparently, it is still possible to find some people who believe the same things - there are several hundreds, still living in the same sort of area. Basically, they have as their scriptures the Pentateuch - the first five books of the Bible - with some modification from the orthodox Jewish/Christian versions (for example, the tenth commandment relates to Mount Gerizim, the Samaritan holy place).

One of the big issues that Jesus faced in his ministry was the weight of Messianic expectation upon him in Israel. The Son of David was viewed as being a warrior king from God, who would kick out the Roman invaders and restore the royal line in Jerusalem (think Prince Caspian). There were times when the people around Jesus threatened to make him king by force, because it was so obvious that he was "the one". And at times, the people were more concerned about whether Jesus could supply them with bread than what he had to say.

But in Samaria, it would have been different. That the Messiah should have been the Son of David would not have been so obvious to the Samaritans, because their scriptures only ran to the end of Deuteronomy. Likewise, they would know little for themselves about the Messiah's role of suffering for others (Isaiah 53, Psalm 22), or as the Son of God (Psalm 2, for example). What were their Messianic expectations? Likely not many, really - but one that they would have had would have been that there would come a prophet like Moses:
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. For this is what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, "Let us not hear the voice of the LORD our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die."
The LORD said to me: "What they say is good. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. (Deuteronomy 18:15-18)
They would also have known that no such prophet had yet arisen:
Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face ... no-one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of Israel. (Deuteronomy 34:10-12)
Now, how much more significance does this give to the seemingly casual remark from the woman to Jesus:
Sir, I can see that you are a prophet. (John 4:19)
her puzzlement at what he says, which leads her to add:
I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.
and the way in which she then reacts about him to the people she knows:
Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?
John's gospel was written for a readership from a Greek culture - hence the persistent conversion of "Messiah" to "Christ" in the text - and such people would probably have not been that interested in the finer points of a minor religious group. And yet, when we add into the mix what we can deduce about that group, even from evidence that is available today, we find that the text is more authentic than we could possibly have expected. The account is effective as it stands, but it is startling when you begin to unpack more of the detail.

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