Looking at Mt Ebal from Mt Gerazim, Samaria
Looking at Mt Ebal from Mt Gerazim, Samaria
"Don't worry - I brought my gun!"
I was in Israel to research my latest novel – the Bible account of the Samaritan woman at the well - and get a feel for the land where, over the centuries, a host of different cultures and religions have jostled uncomfortably against each other.
It was a hot June afternoon in Samaria and the road we were driving down looked awfully like one I had seen on the news the week before.
‘Did you hear about the man who was attacked and his car smashed with rocks?’ I asked Eli, our excellent Jewish tour guide.
'Oh yes, it happened just up here.' He could have been pointing out another scenic spot or commenting on the weather. Then, in an attempt to calm my obvious angst, he added, ‘Don’t worry, I brought my gun.’ Oh great - just the way to calm a girl's nerves!
We passed by the checkpoint guarding the way into the Palestinian-only area of Nablus, turned left and wound our way up Mount Gerizim to the Samaritan community who live at its summit. In the first century around one million Samaritans lived in this region, including the main character of 'The Silk Merchant of Sychar.' Today they number just eight hundred and live either on Mount Gerizim or in a community near Tel Aviv.
Which Holy Mountain?
Samaritans follow strictly the first five books of the Bible and believe that Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem, is the true holy mountain. This difference of opinion over which mountain to worship on caused great animosity between Jews and Samaritans in the first century, so much so that most Jews walking to Jerusalem from northern Israel would take an extra day just to avoid going through Samaria.
‘I can’t take you into Nablus,’ Eli told me when I asked to visit Jacob’s well. ‘But I will find a Palestinian who can.’ It seemed not much had changed in two thousand years: Jews were still not particularly welcome in Samaria. We left Eli on Mount Gerizim and went with Nasser, a Palestinian Muslim, down the other side of the mountain through the dusty, narrow streets of Nablus.
Ancient City of Shechem
At the base of the mountain, tucked between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal was Tel Balata - the ruins of the ancient city of Shechem. It was here that Abraham first stopped in the land of Canaan and where the Lord first promised him the land (Gen. 12:6-7).
We wandered around the stone altar, still standing after all these thousands of years and I wondered if it was the same site where Abraham had built his altar to the Lord. We picked up sherds of patterned pottery and white plaster, scattered amidst wild olive trees and half exposed stone walls and I wondered if what we held in our hands were perhaps once part of a plastered wall or an ornate water jug.
Had the first century children of nearby Sychar also combed these ruins for treasure? Had the woman at the well ever come here? After all it was only a five minute walk to Jacob’s well (built by Abraham’s grandson) where the women of Sychar came each day for water, and where weary travellers refreshed themselves on their long walk north to Sebaste and Galilee or south to Jerusalem.
Walking the Back Streets of Nablus
Our five minute walk to Jacob’s well wound through the back streets of Nablus. A group of young men stared suspiciously as we passed them. I was glad to be with Nasser. He seemed to know everyone, including the man who was caring for Jacob’s well and the Greek Orthodox church that is built over it.
‘The priest is in Greece on holiday so it is a Muslim who will show you through the Christian church!’ The man chuckled and went on to praise the priest and the work he has done over the years to make the church so beautiful. ‘You can take photos up here but not of the well,’ he said.
The Well where Jesus Drank
We walked down stone steps and there was the well, now surrounded by religious icons but still an ancient well. We drew water from its depths and drank; it was sweet and cool. I placed my hand on the stone, telling myself that Jesus touched this same stone all those years ago. This was the well where he rested after a long day’s walk and spoke with a Samaritan woman – an outrageous thing for a Jewish rabbi to do, both because she was a woman and a Samaritan.
As we walked back through the church I thanked Nasser’s friend, giving him an Australian key ring as a tiny gift. ‘For that,’ he said, smiling broadly, ‘would you like to take a photo of the well?’ We hurried back down. This was the one thing I had most wanted on the trip and I was so thankful I had bought the arguably ‘tacky’ present at the airport.
Mount Gerizim - the Mountain of Blessing
We wound our way back up Mount Gerizim. It was on this mountain that the Israelites, after forty years of wandering, promised to follow the ways of the Lord. Six tribes stood on Mount Gerizim to pronounce the blessings of obedience, and six tribes stood on neighbouring Mount Ebal to pronounce the curses if they did not follow God. (Josh. 8:33)
‘See how everything grows on this mountain and not on the other,’ said the Samaritan priest who escorted us through the Samaritan museum. He pointed through the window at the lush growth outside, and beyond to the barren slopes of Mount Ebal.
As we left, the Samaritan priest made a final, heartfelt statement: 'Without God, you have nothing.' We all nodded emphatically in agreement - Samaritan, Muslim, Jew and Christian. It was a moment of connection, something we all deeply believed. It was a moment I will treasure.
Since then I have pondered the dichotomy of people who believe in God but disagree with each other, sometimes to the point of hatred and violence. Is it that each religion follows a different human explanation of who God is? The Samaritans follow the teachings of Moses; the Jews follow Moses plus the Prophets; Christians follow Jesus - a Jew who said he was the son of God - the Messiah who the Jews and Samaritans were waiting for. He said that he came not to abolish, but to fulfil the law of Moses and the Prophets. (Matt. 5:17)
Worship in Spirit and Truth
The woman at the well clearly struggled with this when she spoke to Jesus at the well: 'Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.' Jesus declared, 'Believe me woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem... for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.' (John 4:20-24)
When the religious leaders tested Jesus by asking him what was the greatest commandment he replied:
'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' All the Law and Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matt. 22:37-39)
Perhaps in loving God some of us forget to love those who think differently to us. Most importantly, perhaps in focusing on loving others some of us forget to love God first.