Sandwiched between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south, the region of Samaria figures prominently in the history of Israel in both the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament. The city of Samaria was founded by Omri, King Ahab’s father, as the capital of Israel in 870 BCE. According to tradition, John the Baptist is buried there. It was also known as an area that worshipped Baal and other gods as well as its people “intermingling” with other tribes in the region. Today is it a dry, but green, land of single mountains, hills, and fields.
Why were Samaritans considered people to be avoided in Jesus’ time? There is an interesting article here about the causes of prejudice in Samaria. They worshipped God at Shechem on Mount Gerizim just as in the time of Joshua, as opposed to the Jews who worshipped at the Temple in Jerusalem. The Samaritans furthered the rift by producing their own version of the Pentateuch. This is probably why Samaritans were considered people to avoid in Jesus’ time. Even Jesus confronted the woman at the well while passing through this area. Rivalry with the southern kingdom (Judah) and the northern kingdom (Israel) continued through the first century.
Burqin: Luke 17:11-19
On his way to Jerusalem from Nazareth, Jesus passed through the village in Burqin where he heard cries for help from ten lepers who were isolated in quarantine in an underground cave, a common practice at the time for people afflicted with this disease. Today the majority of Burqin’s residents are Muslims and it was reported that only ten Christian families now live in the town. Located on a high hill in the village, Burqin Church (also known as St. George’s or Church of the Ten Lepers) it is the fourth oldest church in the world built in the fourth century. Since the miracle of healing the ten lepers, Christian pilgrims have visited this site as St. Helena asked that a church be built here.
The church itself is filled with icons and lamps. Within the present structure you can walk into an ancient cave that contains a small opening in the ceiling. Tradition holds that Jesus healed the lepers in this cave and that it is through the hole in the ceiling that people may have dropped food and water to the lepers quarantined inside. Within the main sanctuary is a bishop’s throne carved out of stone. About 1,600 years old, it is the only one of its kind in the Holy Land. Outside the church in the garden area a cave/cistern was “open” to climb down into. While I didn’t venture down the steep steps into the dark, others who did reported it opened up into a large cave-like room.
Nablus (Shechem): John 4:1-42
Today, Nablus is the capital of the region of Samaria. It lies between two mountains, Gerizim and Mount Ebal within the West Bank. It was here we visited Jacob’s Well, also the site of where Jesus encountered the Samaritan woman (Photini) at the well. We visited St. Photini Greek Orthodox Monastery and the church that was built over this well so often mentioned in scripture. Damp and full of icons in little rooms found at the bottom of steps from the sanctuary, a number of us drew water from the well (it was deep!) and drank the cool, crisp water.
Following this treat, we stopped by a local “bakery” to watch how they make Kenafeh, a cheese pastry soaked in sweet sugar-based syrup that is typical of the region.
Taybeh (Taibe): Psalm 36:5-9
Taybeh is the only 100% Christian town in the Palestinian Authority. The village of Taybeh was first settled by Canaanites about 2,500 years before Jesus came to visit. It is mentioned as Ophrah (or Ofrah), a town of the tribe of Benjamin, in Joshua 18:23, and shown on the sixth century Madaba mosaic map as “Ephron also Ephraia where went the Lord.” The Muslim sultan Saladin changed the biblical name to Taybeh (meaning “good and kind” in Arabic) around 1187 after he found the inhabitants hospitable and generous. We also experienced this hospitality: lunch at a restaurant where the owner sells Peace Lamps and a number of local merchants we visited (and supported). The Taybeh brewery, launched in 1994, is one of two in Palestine and now also produces its own wine. It is an excellent example of Palestinian entrepreneurship and succeeding in the face of adversity. It is the first microbrewery in the Middle East and they distribute to Boston, Massachusetts!
Just a short way from the brewery, St. George Byzantine Church and the remains of a crusader castle are located to the east of town, with stunning views out across the rolling countryside. A fourth century church, the ruins are 1,600 years old. Animal sacrifices are still made at this location today (the meat is donated to the poor).