Isreal: the Real Woman at the Well in John’s Gospel

Jacob and Rachel

The woman at the well as a personification of Israel (Ephraim) in John 4

I preached a sermon last time John 4’s story of the “Woman at the Well” came up in the lectionary, and it turns out that many in my audience (who are Educated) liked the novelty of the thesis I used. Sometimes it’s the familiar that surprises!

I connected the Sumerian woman to Ephraim as a personification (while not denying her individuality).

On reflection, the idea really stands out; so much so, that it might just radically change the way John is nowadays dated and even understood in other places.

You are going to hate me though, because this is going to hammer on terminology a lot! When is a rose a rose?

Christ and Samaritan Woman at the Well
Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, 1705 – 1710, image courtesy of the Getty Open Project

Five different “Israels” in one pericope.

Even just the place of the meeting between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:5) is one packed with cultural imagination… a matrix shared by both Jews and Samaritan’s…

But what really gets the most confusing to manage within this swirl are ideas about Israel.

They go totally into flux around vv. 5-26.

The complex terminology issue there comes from the fact the term Israel is not something static. It can speak about when Israel wandered (the entire people in the wilderness), Israel (the man), and Israel (the northern kingdom).

And, In John 4 all are referenced in immediate proximity all with the dynamic charisma of Jesus’ person driving the conversation.

Means a lot of clarifications to repeat

To communicate all this clearly (something against my nature), we require some groundwork to fully parse the action:

  1. John 4:6 starts with a reference to Jacob, the patriarch that directly sires the 12 tribal heads and whose name is later changed to “Israel”
  1. The location, Sychar, is “near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph.” (John 4:4, NIV). That reference conjures into the narrative a second “Israel,” Ephraim was not only the tribe descended from Joseph but also an alternative name for the Northern Kingdom.
  1. The Samaritans are themselves named after the old capital of that same northern kingdom.
  1. The other “Israel” referenced the passage is only implicit. In v. 12, the woman at the well makes mention of “Jacob’s sons” which implies a reference to what we might call the “racial joint nation of Israel” in the sense of the Exodus narrative.The woman’s question asks in part, “How could a descendant of Judah be too good for what Judah himself drank?” So, the question is a reference to this “Israel” too.
  1. There is also an ideal of Israel that belongs to only Judean religion. This is the unity of the Hebrew Race hopped for in places like Ezekiel 37:15-23

The tension in the cultures rested on this very issue, yet I think we still don’t appreciate it fully

rebuilding of the temple in Ezra
rebuilding of the temple, Image courtesy of Getty Open Project


Admittedly, the notion of a racial Israel most likely drove the animosity of the two groups. Most expositors and commentators rightly go into detail on it. So we shouldn’t skip it either.

Historically, The Kingdom of Israel (Ephraim) ceased to exist politically with the Assyrian conquest, and later records such as Nehemiah witness that the natives of that area had ceased as a ethnically homogeneous group by the time of the construction of the 2nd temple. That’s a space of around 200 years!

In those same post-exilic witnesses were one finds that the issue of “ethnic purity” was abandoned in Ephraim, it was something of growing importance (or at least enforcement) in the reconstruction era Jewish (religious and now ethnic) cultic practice.

But. And a big but. A counter current has always existed

The Torah’s has both commands for taking foreign wives (Duet 21:12) and prohibitions (Duet. 7:3), and a general suspicion of intermarriage (Ex. 34:16).

On top of that, there are many records of the isolation-commands not being followed. Take for example the biblical heroines who are born of foreign nations, and the fact that there are instructions in the law for marrying foreign captives as along those that forbid foreign wives.

Outlying issues like these have even compelled some scholars to hypothesize that the “racial-purity” regulations were perhaps additions, or maybe underscores, placed by the final exile era compilers of the Old Testament.

This is really an interesting rabbit hole.

As one digs into the prophecies that condemn Israel the nation, the references to the restoration of Israel refer to the re-creation of that people in a way that is rather radical.

In fact, these are the same versus used later by Paul for inclusion of the gentiles:

I will plant her for myself in the land;
I will show my love to the one I called ‘Not my loved one.’
I will say to those called ‘Not my people,’ ‘You are my people’;
and they will say, ‘You are my God.’” (Hosea 2:23)

This was a big issue in the New Testament books, and as we dig into this story we’ll find that John is no exception.

A big issue by the time of the 2nd temple

That the New Testament reaches back to these prophecies was not something mainstream in Jewish thought. In fact, after the Judean (southern kingdom) people’s return from Babylon these regulations found strict enforcement.

Ezra’s prohibitions sound extremely sharp against the Torah, as along with inter-marriage Ezra even forbids even to “seek [the Gentiles] peace or their good” (though דּרשׁ might more imply a worship of it) (Ezra 9:12).

Contrasting Ezra with Torah rules, rules that speak about insuring the rights of the resident aliens, marks this as a big shift.

The big divorce

Even more, the divorce passages in Ch. 10 of Ezra sound barbaric to modern sensitivities. Ezra shows 2nd temple Judaism drew a sharp political and social line between the returning exiles and the remnant peoples’ ideals.

And it was real. Many women were completely helpless out of marriages, and children disowned to starve. With no counter-point anymore. There is in Ezra’s day no story of Hagar being comforted.

Such characterized the Samaritan/ Jewish relationship. So the woman’s question about a Jew being “to good for the well” is not neutral.

And while a minor point, it is interesting both that Jesus is speaking to a Samaritan divorcee… especially when he himself references Malachi’s “The lord hates Divorce” in the other Gospels to distinguish his teaching from Pharisaical doctrine. John isn’t given enough credit for how deep it is!

Still, while the developed 2nd temple Jewish (Judean Kingdom’s remnant) opinion was that the “nation of Israel” was something pure along cultural/ethnic lines. They still held out some idea of a “restoration of Israel” and it drove their messianic hope. They knew what they had wasn’t all there was.

The Samaritan view considered

On a human level. That the woman at the well even listens to Jesus is interesting! Especially when the implications about her honor in a random man approaching her might make the situation even more tense.

Judean attitudes clashed against the perhaps more loosely hereditary based ideas of “Isrealiteness” favored by the Samaritans. But it does not invalidate that sense of identity.

In fact, the woman’s question on were to worship shows old suspicious attitudes aimed mostly at the Judean religion. It had demand that Israelites travel to the southern kingdom to worship had passed on. And after the exile, IT had decided that the Samaritans were not “pure enough.”

From their perspective, disliking people who said you were impure makes sense! Why did David’s kingdom have a monopoly on God?

To their credit though, the Samaritans didn’t think their Israelite identity was complete either. They too, waited for the messiah to change that identity.

The Twelve Tribes of Israel, about 1400 - 1410
The Twelve Tribes of Israel, about 1400 – 1410, Image courtesy of Getty Open Project

Taking this all into context means stepping back and defining “Jew” with-in this cultural matrix were the term is being debated

Many commentators view the term “Jew” or its cognates in the Gospel of John from solely a gentile contextualization.

There are Gentiles, and then there are Jews.

I am not sure that this is appropriate in interpreting John 4’s story of the “Woman at the Well.” Especially if we investigate the issues John is placing underneath the dialogue

The woman at the well assumes “Israel-ness”

The woman’s pressing question when she speaks to Jesus, after his prophetic display in vv. 16-18 does not reference any of the background racial animosity just discussed, even if it is coloring the two’s interaction.

Jesus does not make a move to say she is unqualified to speak as an Israelite either.

Instead, taking her basal Israelite identity for granted, she inquiries about the remaining purely religious divide from the pre-exile first temple period. She’s not interested in hearing how pure the Jews (Judeans) are.

Johns allowing the “Israel the Nation” and the messianic hope of National reconciliation to define the encounter

For that reason, I feel here especially we need to re-align our hermeneutics to recapture a baseline motif that is often undervalued in New testament scholarship, beyond the marker of “Jewish” there existed in Palestine an even more basic identity as “descendant from Abraham.”

As a descendant of Abraham, one could during the first temple period chose (wrongly but still not affect tribal identity) to worship in Samaria (be an Israelite/ Ephraimite, etc.) or worship in Jerusalem (Be a Jew, Judean, etc.).

As all tribes existed at least in part within both kingdoms borders, they were using tribal identities far more. During the first temple period, it’s even likely Jew was probably tied far more to clan identity.

The conflict was who would come to define the entire nation. Adherence to first temple religion (Judea)? Membership in a “race” outside of religion (Ephraim’s practice)?

It is my contention that in this discourse in John 4, Jesus is not leaving such on the table. In fact, there is here subtle condemnation of the “race” view, in keeping with his statements about being Abraham’s “flesh” being meaningless, and religious adherence being definitive.

Is Jesus using the first temple period to question the second?

But the wordplay can go even deeper

Admittedly, in the second temple period, “Jew” or Ἰουδαῖος had morphed to denote the whole race, especially in foreign tongues.

But I think even if all the rest was tossed aside, the Samaritan woman at the well is speaking to a member of Jude’s clan. Jesus’ Jewish identity is double-layered. Thus, there’s even some wordplay available in Jesus’ “Salvation is of the Ἰουδαῖος.He could say that and John could condemn the Jews as a different target.  

At the very least, there is some room in a Jewish context.

Getting to the meat of the topic

Having spent so much time catching up on the variance in the word “Israel” as an idea in the people’s mind, we can pivot and look at John’s Narrative in Chapter 4 and best explore how Israel as a scriptural and religious entity peculates into the narrative.

The Woman tied to Israel in Jesus’ Rebuke

Moses Striking Water from the Rock
Moses Striking Water from the Rock, about 1645 – 1650, Image courtesy of Getty Open Project

Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” (John 4: 18-19)

The issue with the translation of the word husband, is that in a modern mind it always implies a formal legal relationship with white dresses, a cake, and tax returns.

Folks used to not be so formal to define “live-in boyfriends” etc. as very separate from husband or common-law from official marriages. The Greek word used ἀνὴρ, in fact simply means “man.”

The word denotes “husband” by context. And I would contend that translation is the most charitable rendering.

If we drop ideas of courthouses, etc. the verse can be rendered:

“You have had five men” or “You have had five live in boyfriends” and the second clause καὶ νῦν ὃν ἔχεις οὐκ ἔστιν σου ἀνήρ is literally, “and now he who you have is not your husband.” It actually allows some biting ways of taking Jesus’ charge… like she stole someone’s man or something. Ouch!

Still, we will go with the translation most used as I do not think the “husbands” language is wrong; I simply think the sting of illegitimacy about these relationships needs understanding. As such echoes, back to prophetic literature, and not just any but literature regarding our whole discussion so far: Israel.

And such probably explains the woman’s “He told me everything I ever did” (vv. 28) a bit more than saying she is being hyperbolic.

Israel – the unfaithful bride betrayed by her  lovers

The negative view carries deeper meaning than anything personal about the woman at the well herself. It speaks to that very Samaritan identity she was so proud of, for the image of Israel as a Harlot is well attested in Prophetic sources (Hosea 2:5, Ezekiel 2,16, Isiah 9-12, and elsewhere).

Even more, the idea is also often paired with Israel being active in trying to seduce multiple lovers to meet material needs (Hosea 2:5) in reference to the military alliances the northern kingdom made that proved disastrous, and in two cases at least it enters the Prophet’s visions to even portray Israel as being betrayed by those lovers and despoiled (Ezekiel 23:9-10 & Hosea 5).

Part of me wants to say we could contrast such with Jesus’ offer to provide “living water” and the slightly odd rejection of food by Jesus. The bigger point though is probably that being despoiled is a very accurate description for the reality of divorce in 1st century Palestine. There was no alimony. No child support

The connection between the woman’s life and identity as a Sumerian identity is vivid in Jesus’ statement that, from what I can tell, binds the two together.

The image of the current husband

What is also interesting is Jesus’ “the one you have now is not your husband.” I do not think Jesus is scolding her for not making things legitimate. He always seems to probe deeper:

It probably hearkens back to the conversation occurring immediately before in the text. The two had just spoken regarding the racial/ religious divide between the Sumerians and Jews. Jesus there claimed, “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” (vv 22).

In so doing he de-legitimizes Samaritan religion, which in Judean thought is very akin to adultery or an “improper marriage.”

Thanks be though, Jesus says that because he holds out that something greater than both systems:

“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (vv. 23)

That is the “legitimate Marriage” Jesus wants this personification of Israel to seek.

The cultural impart of a male/ female interaction

Marriage is a big motif that John is pulling in; this is where my view may make some pious people a tad uncomfortable.

But that’s alright because the scene itself was something uncomfortable. The disciples notice some tension themselves and don’t say anything (vv. 27)

I am not above allowing the innuendo of a man asking a random woman at a random well to give him a drink of water to remain in the scene (vv. 7). This may in fact be appropriate considering prophetic passages that speak of God being the “true husband” of the nation of Israel.

“Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her. – (Hosea 2:14)

Is the “pick-up line” or solicitation of the woman at the well to turn her to “her true husband” intended by John?

I think we can even stretch the imagination on this point.

Tamar of unknown but likely Canaanite parentage, and widow of multiple husbands, while disguised as a prostitute meets Juda at Enaim (Gen 38:13), an odd Hebrew word that in singular means “well” and in plural means eyes or “judgement” in an area of northern Palestine. The story, which ends with the Samaritans believe Jesus when the Judea’s late do not, fits John’s gospels sense of “judgement” (those who do not believe are condemned Ch. 3 And elsewhere) and occurs at a “well.” Judah even calls out “She is more righteous than I” (Gen 38:26)

On this last point, I would not lay much importance; although, it does show John’s Gospel in a Jewish context can bear out a lot of intertextuality hermeneutically.

Jacob and Rachel
Plaque depicting Jacob choosing Rachel to be his Bride, about 1755, image courtesy of Getty Open Project

The far more likely reference is being made to Moses or Jacob.

Moses, the giver of the law, meet his wife, Zephora a foreign woman, at a well too. But Jacob also meet a woman there, Rachel… who you guessed it… is the mother of Ephraim.

Who needs plenty of fish?!

Yet for all this John is aiming at an even larger target in his Gospel’s entire narrative

That the Samaritan’s then believe, in John’s Gospel implies that they are part of “his sheep.”

That John posits there is a difference between Jesus’ flock and Judean ethnic identity is well accepted and documented internally in the Gospel.

What I think John is getting at, is the author is working off a notion of a “Holy Israel” or core “descendant of Abraham” identity being established by the Messiah.

It popes up elsewhere in the book John 8:39, “If you were Abraham’s children” in a way to delegitimize the Judean identity. As was often done to the Samaritans.

And it’s also interesting to ask if this characterizes the “Father” usage of Jesus as in the passage above, and in his rebukes as well John 8:44, and his soteriology that one must enter this new Familial relationship, “Be born again.”

The Samaritans believe

The largest narrative “motif” internal to John that the story creates is a contrast between the Samaritan reaction to Jesus (a woman tells them and they believe after 2 days) and the Jewish reaction (they receive signs, a woman in the end tells them and they don’t believe).

John himself, given his stress on “Who’s your Father,” aims this whole Chapter’s exposition on a redeemed Israelite identity superseding 2nd temple Jewish Identity. It’s an implicit statement about the validity of Judean ethnic/religious identity.

“She is more righteous than I!”

And he is doing it in very Jewish terms.

Terms so Jewish I believe that with proper exegesis the guiding hermeneutic theory of John as “Greek” just might be utterly wrecked if this is expounded 100%.

Liberal Theologians saw John as very Gnostic

The dead 19th century German theologians for the most part pushed the date on John way back as they saw in it as incredibly Greek. In fact, it was only when manuscripts dating to the 2nd century were found that the book was dated to circa A.D. 90.

I am sure that the Jewish notion of “Holy Israel” offers just as clear a reading as running to “Greek” understandings:

  1. The “platonic” passages are not firmly philosophical.  “May they be one as we are one” and the other places of very high Christology might very well be a modified “restoration of Israel” ideology.
  2. Jesus word use: John 1, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit,” in John 3, “You are Israel’s teacher,” and his conference reference to Moses (a speaker to ALL Israel),
  3. Johns decision to not separate Pharisees/Sadducees but maybe establish a group character “Jew” to contrast “Israelite” is provocative.
  4. The Sheppard motif harkens to Moses too
  5. The Sanhedrin complain the people have gone over to him
  6. It’s John, there’s a lot of symbolism!

What is most interesting about John 4, is that if it is reaching to such as we’ve discussed… there’s no counter example of the diaspora that was caused by the destruction of the temple.

Honestly, I won’t give away all the sauce here… Man’s gotta pay off school debts!

Christ Preaching in the Temple, about 1625 - 1627
Christ Preaching in the Temple, about 1625 – 1627, image courtesy of Getty Open Project

Conclusions about the Woman at the Well

John’s Gospel leans very heavily on Jewish identity, and as such, the interaction between the Samaritan woman at the well and Jesus is no exception. In fact, it is a moment that John dedicates to deep introspection of what the Israelite and Jewish identities mean in relation to Jesus.

That John is reaching for a “Holy Israel” in Chapter 4 seems to me the best reading, and a radical departure from many recent exegetes who insist on rendering John’s flesh/ spirit duality as purely platonic.

John is very cautious with his born-again motif and the stories he presents to present the image of a “spiritual Israel” that supersedes and fulfills not just Jewish hopes but Samaritan hopes as well, a hope founded on a joint Israelite identity.  His hope comes through in many places throughout the Gospel like John 11:49-52:

“Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all!  You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one”


Invitation to discussion

What do you think? Did I just rehash somebody else?

Hate it/ Love it?

Please let me know!

Oh! And don’t forget to like/ share on facebook! It’s nice to get recognition!

Post Author

Paul is the founder of and a life long Christian with a childhood interest in systematic theology. He holds an M.Div. from Fuller Theological seminary and hopes to use his education to better his fellow man. He also operates an automotive blog, has worked at Google, and has diverse life interest.

reformedmonk – who has written posts on Religible.

You may also like

Leave a Reply