Sunday, November 22, 2009

Why Did The Samaritan Cross the Road? (Part 3)

This is the third and final installment of my series on the Samaritan people, in honor of Real Samaritans for Peace Day (November 19). Part 1 can be found here, and Part 2 here. Check out the Samaritan Medal website at

Samaritan History After the New Testament

Under Christian Byzantium, three of the great figures in Samaritan history appear: the powerful leader Baba Raba, the composer Amram Dare, and the poet and theologian Marqe.

Baba Raba, Samaritan reformer and leader, from the third century CE, is part man and part legend. He reorganizes the demoralized and decimated Samaritans, and establishes the Hukama, a council of Sages, to interpret and administer Samaritan law. He battles the Samaritan heresy known as Dositheanism, a Gnostic version of Samaritanism. (Dositheos was a follower of John the Baptist and the teacher of Simon Magus.) He launches a massive building program, and seeds Samaritan communities throughout what has been, since the Bar Kochba revolt, known as Palestine.

Some stories about Baba Raba are perhaps not fully grounded in historical fact. For example, to keep Samaritans from climbing Mount Gerizim, the Byzantines install a mechanical bird on the mountain. If a Jew or Samaritan approaches, the bird screams “Hebrew! Hebrew!” and summons the guards.

The bird comes into play when Baba Raba’s nephew Levi converts to Christianity and becomes a bishop, though he remains a secret Samaritan in his heart. He travels with other church officials to Palestine, and with his colleagues, climbs Mount Gerizim. The mechanical bird screams “Hebrew!” “Hebrew!”

“There are no Hebrews here,” says Bishop Levi. “The bird must be broken!” The others, not knowing his secret, believe him. The Byzantines remove the bird and once again the Samaritans have access to Mount Gerizim.

That story conveys the flavor of a weak, minority that finds heroism in guile.

And what about Baba Raba? Samaritan tradition says Baba Raba spent the final years of his life under house arrest in Constantinople after being invited there by the emperor . . . “Come to the palace,” Never an invitation you willingly accept.

Amram Dare, a contemporary of Baba Raba’s, revolutionized Samaritan music. The Samaritan Chorus has released several CDs of his music. Amram Dare’s son, Marqe, a poet, wrote the great work of Samaritan theology, the Memar Marquah.

During the Byzantine period, persecution steadily grows. Like Jews, Samaritans are forbidden to hold civil service jobs. They cannot serve as royal informers. They cannot hold any office or honor that would put them in a position to harm Christians.

As if to underscore the point, the Samaritans respond by cutting off a bishop’s fingers and massacring Christians in Caeserea.

Ultimately, this did not endear the Samaritans to the Christian emperor.

With a history like that, it is not surprising that in the seventh century Samaritans welcome the new Muslim invaders into Palestine, figuring anything would be an improvement over the Byzantine Christians.

At first, it seems to be a good bet. Some Samaritans achieve high political office. Although they still use Ancient Hebrew as their liturgical language, Samaritans adopt Arabic as their everyday language. Their traditional red turbans date from this period. Muslims color-coded the religions, reserving white for their own turbans, and assigning blue to the Jews, yellow to the Christians, and red to the Samaritans.

Assimilation, however, was less than total. Samaritans, who follow rigid codes of purity, didn’t like being touched by outsiders. Muslims often referred to Samaritans as “Lamasasiah,” or “Don’t Touch”-ers.

By the beginning of the 11th century of the common era, most Samaritans lived in Nablus, and the community numbered only a few thousand.

In 1099, the first crusaders arrive, demanding supplies for their march on Jerusalem. The presence of a large Christian community keeps the crusaders from sacking the city, but they do take time to convert the Samaritan synagogue at Nablus into a church. Over the next 150 years, four more armies sweep through, each taking a toll in lives and treasure.

The Samaritans managed to survive all this, but just barely. From an estimated original population of 1.5 million, by the mid-sixteenth century—when “modern” Samaritan history officially begins—there are only about 220 Samaritans in Palestine, 200 living in Egypt, and about 100 in a small community in Damascus.

By all rights, the Samaritans should have gone the way of innumerable other dying people, but they continued to hang on.

Part of it was the great gift of Jesus to the Samaritan people—the legacy of the Parable.

By the 17th century, Samaritan manuscripts started to reach Western Europe. This was the first independent European knowledge of the mysterious Samaritans of the New Testament. European scholars were hungry to know more about the people of the Parable.

This sudden interest from the West puzzled the Samaritans, who decided there must be groups of lost Samaritans living in England. Some Englishmen used this perception as a ruse to get more Samaritan holy books until the Samaritans got suspicious.

Under the Ottoman Turks, Samaritans continued a slow decline. In 1912, an article in National Geographic put the total number of Samaritans at 140. The community was on the verge of extinction. Shortly after that, only a handful of the 24 Samaritan men drafted by the Turks in the First World War returned to the Mountain.

But there was good news in the making. E. K. Warren, a wealthy businessman from Three Oaks, Michigan, was president of the International Association of Sunday School Teachers. While leading a group of Sunday school teachers to the Holy Land in the years before World War I, he met the high priest of the Samaritans. (At this time, there were 168 living Samaritans.)

Warren, like most of us, had no idea there were still Samaritans in the world. Notice the effect here. The Parable of the Good Samaritan, a story that never happened, had so fixed the Western view of Samaritans that Warren could not resist repaying that nonexistent act of charity.

Warren played Good Samaritan to the Samaritans themselves, helping the community survive. He acquired a large collection of Samaritan artifacts, which is located today at Michigan State University. It’s not too much to say that Warren’s timely intervention may have saved the community.

The Samaritans survived the Ottomans, survived the British Mandate in Palestine, survived the 1948 War and the division of the community once again, survived the 1967 War, which put the two halves of the community in contact once again, and today still practice their traditions while living in the modern world.

Today, the Samaritans still follow their ancient ways. They must live in the Holy Land. They must participate in the Passover Sacrifice on Mount Gerizim—they sacrifice lambs just as did the original Israelites. They keep the Sabbath, with rules slightly different from Orthodox Jews. And they practice the ancient rules concerning female purity.

My Adventures on the Mountain of Blessings

A year ago, in February, I disregarded the warning in Matthew 10, and went into Samaritan towns—well, one town and a neighborhood. I was there to help present the Samaritan Medal to Shimon Peres. The Samaritans had also recommended two other honorees: Palestinian billionaire philanthropist Munib al-Masri and former Nablus mayor Ghassan al-Shaq’ah.

The presentation to al-Masri got rescheduled even before we left. One down.

Our meeting with the president of Israel was scheduled for four o’clock Sunday afternoon. At noon, his office called. Peres had the flu. He was too sick to meet with us in person, though he accepted the medal.

Ah, well. Even presidents are entitled to an occasional day of sick leave.

That left Ghassan al-Shaq’ah and one more honoree, the Samaritan High Priest himself. For that, we traveled from Holon in Israel into the Palestinian Authority (West Bank) to visit the Mountain of Blessings and downtown Nablus—one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

In Kiryat Luza, we started at the Mount Gerizim International Peace Center, a living part of the Samaritan efforts to achieve peace in the heart of one of the world's most difficult trouble spots.

One thing I didn’t sufficiently plan for is that the Middle East in February is cold. And windy. The winds atop Mount Gerizim rivaled anything Chicago could offer. Ralph Benko, my fellow board member, nearly found himself levitated to Heaven by the wind. We did pick up some rocks from the mountain as souvenirs.

We had a date in Nablus to award a medal to Ghassan al-Shaq’ah. I was enormously impressed by al-Shaq’ah, and have written on him elsewhere. After our meeting with al-Shaq’ah, Aabed, our Samaritan driver in Nablus, drove into an alleyway and pointed to a building two blocks away. Armed gunmen were walking back and forth. “This is the tomb of Joseph,” he said. I quickly locked on my telephoto lens and got a few shots before Aabed pulled away. It was probably not a good idea to hang around too long.

Ralph wanted some rocks from the Mountain of Curses—he had a list of people he wanted to send them to—but that, we were told, was also a bad idea. “Don’t tease them,” Aabed advised.
We returned to the mountain as the storm clouds rushed in. Freezing rain for sure, possibly snow. We had to get back to Holon, but first, we were to visit the High Priest.

We had a small ceremony and chatted with the High Priest afterward. He was a warm and deeply sincere man, sort of a Middle Eastern Dalai Lama in his manner. He blessed Ralph and me, and then it was time to bundle back into the car to get to Holon before the roads became impassible.

That was the end of my first—but definitely not my last—trip to the Mountain.

The Not-So-Good Samaritan

At the end of it all, what did it mean? I went back to the Parable.

There are lots of ways to interpret a parable. Here’s what it means to me.

When the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” what he means is “To whom do I owe the duties of neighbor?” Being a good neighbor can get expensive. He’d like Jesus to admit it’s unrealistic to treat everyone as a neighbor.

Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly. Instead, he turns the premise upside down. By telling a story of a Samaritan who turned out to be good, he’s really answering a different question: “Whom do you want to treat you like a neighbor?”

Well, that’s different, of course. Regardless of how much the lawyer might despise Samaritans in general, he’d definitely prefer a good one if he were to find himself in a ditch.

Jesus, with an almost palpable grin, twists the debate knife. “Go, thou, and do likewise.”

Most of us are not-so-good Samaritans. Sometimes we cross the road to help; sometimes we walk by.

Isn’t it a good idea to remember that being a good neighbor is not just in their best interest, but also in yours? After all, you never know when you’ll need help, or who will be there to provide it.

We have all played all four roles in the story. We have been priest and Levite, and for whatever reason chosen to walk by when we might have helped. We have all been the Good Samaritan, helping when we didn’t have to, and perhaps helping someone who might in other circumstances be an enemy.

And, of course, we’ve all found ourselves in a ditch.

The truth is, it’s privilege and an opportunity to be a Good Samaritan. It’s a favor to yourself as much as it is a favor to anyone else. And favors beget favors in the most unexpected ways. A store of goodwill is a precious treasure, and where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.

The Parable began life as a story told by Jesus, but it has become the essential story of the survival of the Samaritans themselves, still living on the Mountain of Blessings after over 3,300 years.

Next week, we’ll return to our survey of cognitive biases.

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