How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Who is my enemy? The parable of the good Samaritan

Generative AI summary:

Amy-Jill Levine provides a new interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, emphasizing the message of compassion and challenging traditional interpretations. The author of this article suggests that the presence of violent rebels or militants in the parable may have political connotations and draws parallels between the parable and the story of the Samaritans aiding their Judean captives in 2 Chronicles 28.

Read time: 6 minutes
The good Samaritan

I came across this intriguing perspective on Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan in an article by Amy-Jill Levine in the Biblical Archaeology Review (2012). She dismisses a number of what she regards as misinterpretations of the parable of the Good Samaritan and comes to this conclusion:

The parable offers another vision, a vision of life rather than death. It evokes 2 Chronicles 28, which recounts how the prophet Oded convinced the Samaritans to aid their Judean captives. It insists that enemies can prove to be neighbours, that compassion has no boundaries, and that judging people on the basis of their religion or ethnicity will leave us dying in a ditch.

A man is travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho. He falls among lēistai—usually translated “robbers”—who strip and beat him and leave him for dead.

Levine’s insistence that these lēistai were nothing more than robbers or bandits in this context rather than “freedom-fighters” may be correct, but I wouldn’t rule out the political connotations quite so confidently.

First, it is not said that they took his money or possessions; they merely “strip” him and strike him, leaving him naked and badly wounded. The attack appears gratuitous.

Secondly, the word lēistēs can certainly have the connotation of violent “rebel” or “militant,” though perhaps without the positive overtones associated with “freedom fighter.” Josephus uses the word frequently and pejoratively for the Jews who led the revolt against Rome, though admittedly he may mean only that in his eyes these insurgents were no better than “bandits.” For example:

But on the next day the high priest was caught where he had concealed himself in an aqueduct; he was slain… by the robbers (lēistōn): hereupon the seditious (stasiastai) besieged the towers, and kept them guarded, lest any one of the soldiers should escape. (War 2:441)

Thirdly, Jesus was crucified between two lēistai in the place of Barabbas, who had been “thrown into prison for an insurrection (stasin) started in the city and for murder” (Lk. 23:18-19). Barabbas is a forerunner of the lēistai or stasiastai who would within a generation bring the wrath of God down on the heads of the Jews, and it is very much to the soteriological point that Jesus was arrested as though a “robber” (lēstēs: Lk. 22:52) and executed in his place.

So perhaps the man was merely robbed—of his clothing if nothing else—but the story, as Luke tells it, may hint at a turbulent political dimension: the presence in Israel of a lawless class whose activities ranged from banditry to insurrection, the age-old enmity between the Samaritans and the Jews, the failure of a priesthood which had made the temple a “den of robbers (lēistōn)” liable to destruction, and the curious precursor to the story in 2 Chronicles 28:8-15.

Let’s have a look at this obscure passage.

Because king Ahaz in Jerusalem worshipped the Baals and offered human sacrifices in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, YHWH “gave him into the hand” of the kings of Syria and Israel (2 Chron. 28:5).

The Israelites killed 120,000 Judean fighters and “took captive 200,000 of their relatives, women, sons, and daughters” (2 Chron. 28:5-8) and brought them to Samaria.

A prophet of the Lord in Samaria named Oded went out to meet the Israelite army and fiercely reproached them:

Behold, because the LORD, the God of your fathers, was angry with Judah, he gave them into your hand, but you have killed them in a rage that has reached up to heaven. And now you intend to subjugate the people of Judah and Jerusalem, male and female, as your slaves. Have you not sins of your own against the LORD your God? Now hear me, and send back the captives from your relatives whom you have taken, for the fierce wrath of the LORD is upon you. (28:9-11)

In order to avert the wrath of God, the leadership in Samaria refused to allow the army to bring the captives into the city, but then they took a surprising further step:

And the men who have been mentioned by name rose and took the captives, and with the spoil they clothed all who were naked among them. They clothed them, gave them sandals, provided them with food and drink, and anointed them, and carrying all the feeble among them on donkeys, they brought them to their kinsfolk at Jericho, the city of palm trees. (28:15)

So these brutalised and humiliated Judeans became the recipients of the benevolence of their enemies because, unlike Ahaz, the leadership in Samaria feared the wrath of YHWH.

The Samaritans clothed the naked among the captives. The good Samaritan no doubt found some way to cover the man who had been stripped of his clothes.

The Samaritans “anointed” the captives and set the sick on donkeys and brought them to Jericho. Then they went back to Samaria. The good Samaritan poured oil on the man’s wounds, so anointing him, set him on his own pack animal, and brought him to an inn, presumably also in Jericho. Then he also went away.

This is not mere coincidence, surely?

Nolland maintains that “there is little to commend the conjecture that the parable has been spun out of the account in 2 Chr 28:1–15” (J. Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34, 595), but it seems very likely that some echo of the Old Testament story must be heard.

If nothing else, it reminds a Jewish audience that Jesus tells his stories against a backdrop of intense national controversy. The point is not just the moral one that compassion has no boundaries.

The story in 2 Chronicles is an indictment of Judean political-religious failure and another warning to the Jews that better faith may be found outside Israel than in it:

But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian. (Lk. 4:25-27)

The seemingly arbitrary violence of the “robbers” anticipates the madness into which Israel will descend in the coming decades and the appalling suffering that will be inflicted on the general population—in the first place, by those supposedly fighting for freedom.

The priestly castes are at best indifferent to the fate of the ordinary Judean, at worst complicit in the lawlessness, having made the temple a “den of robbers.” Ironically, the robbers will provoke a war that will lead to the destruction of the temple—all because neither the insurgents nor the priests feared the wrath of God.

So if the righteous Samaritan was the neighbour, in Jesus’ prophetic outlook, both the lēistai and the priests had become enemies of Israel.