The preconceptions which we bring to a piece of literature have a powerful effect on the way we perceive it. This is especially truth with the Bible. Few pieces of written work have more mental baggage attached to them than the Bible. In fact, the more I read the Bible, the more I find myself having to unlearn certain things that I have been taught taught. I find that I am not really reading Scripture, but reading someone else’s interpretation of it. One passage in the Bible where I have seen this clearly is in the story of the woman at the well in the fourth chapter of John’s gospel.
You are probably familiar with the story. It is a commonly used text for preaching about evangelism. The typical narrative is as follows: Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at a well. She has come there at mid-day because she is a social outcast. Though they are are at opposite ends of the social spectrum Jesus uses their common interest in the water at the well to began a discussion to tell her about living water. He confronts her of sin, living with a man to which she is not married. Then he tells her that he is the Messiah. She goes back to the village and her enthusiasm results in many coming to Christ. It is the perfect evangelical conversion story, or is it.
During one of the many winding lecture in my Theology 501 class the professor, Gerry Breshears, led us to John 4. He explained that the the Samaritan woman was not an adulterous woman, but the survivor of abuse. That was an interpretation I had never heard before to examine the text for myself.
To understand this story it is important to remember that the Biblical era was a fully patriarchal one. A woman’s value in the culture of the Biblical was linked to her ability to bear children. In Genesis we see Leah and Rachel’s bitter competition to produce children for Jacob and the depths to which Lot’s daughters go to become pregnant. Hannah’s pain at being barren and her husband’s attempt to comfort her, “And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?” is another of many examples throughout the Bible.
Unlike today a woman could not initiate a divorce. Deuteronomy 24 outlines the Israelite process for divorce, which the Samaritans would have followed. 2 Kings 17:24-41 explains that the Samaritans were foreigners that the Assyrians resettled in Israel after the conquest. After some of them were killed by lions, the Assyrian king sent an Israelite priest to teach them the law so that Yahweh would stop sending lions to kill them. According to the law, all a husband need to do to divorce his wife was to find “some indecency in her”, write a certificate of divorce, and put the certificate in her hand. With that she would be out on the street. A woman in the Biblical era did not live on her own. She would be considered a prostitute is she did. One option existed for a divorced woman. She must go back to her parents home and hope they took her back. Then she must seek to get remarried as soon as possible. If not she would starve to death.
The nature of the indecency was debated. Two positions on the issue existed, which were derived from the schools of two important rabbis. The Hillel school said that burning a meal was grounds enough for divorce, while the Shammai allowed divorce only in the case of a severe sin. With this in mind we can look at the story of the woman at the well afresh.
The woman at the well had been married five times and therefore divorced by her husband an incredible five times. She could have been a habitual adulterous but that is highly unlikely. In the United States we tend to think of adultery as more private, the guilt resting on the individuals involved. In traditional eastern cultures, adultery brings great shame on the woman involved and her family. It is probably safe to assume that then as now, men tend to get off more easily. A woman who was marked with the red letter of adultery in her village would not be able to marry four more times. The reason for her multiple marriages must be found elsewhere.
My guess is that she was unable to have children. Because a woman’s worth was in her ability to bear children, especially male babies, this easily could have been accepted as grounds for divorce among the Samaritans. A husband could always marry a second wife, but as we can see from other Biblical examples, polygamy was not conducive to domestic harmony and took a certain amount of wealth to make it work. Her indecency being her inability to bear child within the first few years of marriage would explain why men would continue to want to marry her. There could be better explanations, but I think this fits far better than any promiscuity on her part.
This leaves the six man she was living with. We often look at this through the lens of the 20th century, instantly recognizing the cohabitation as sin. However, cohabitation was probably non-existent in 1st century Israel. There is probably another option for an unmarried woman besides living at her parents house, if they were still alive. That is as a servant, slave, or concubine for a man. The Bible has many famous concubines such as Hagar who bore Abraham Ishmael and Bilhah and Zilpah who bore several of Jacob’s children. A concubine was basically a domestic/sexual servant of her master, a sub-wife. The Bible doesn’t tell us her exact relationship to this man so we can only guess. There is, however, no strong reason to suspect sin on her part. Living with this man was likely her only way from being cast out on the street or turning to prostitution.
The Bible doesn’t say whether or not she is a victim of abuse, thought it is clearly possible. She was in an incredible vulnerable position. With each divorce, her value in the eyes of the community became less. There were likely good men in Samaria, but there were probably just as many who would exploit her situation. Who knows the reason why the sixth man or her later husbands chose her.
As I processed all these things I wondered how I could have missed them. The interpretation seems obvious now. The woman at the well was not an adulterous woman, but a woman who had been severely mistreated. We have painted her the exact opposite of what she was. I have Gerry Breshears to thank for seeing this. In college I was taught to use commentaries and Bible handbooks to get historical background on passage. However, the Bible is often its own best source for historical background. I have tried to avoid extra-biblical sources to show that they are not necessarily needed to understand this passage correctly, though some knowledge of cultural differences help. The main barrier to my understanding this passage was not because I lacked special information about it. Rather I bent and shoved it into my own framework. I saw in this passage only what I expected to see. This passage is also easy to misread because it doesn’t fit into most peoples theological framework.
I am afraid this passage does not fit the typical salvation narrative: Admitting sin, acknowledging the need for a Savior, and accepting Jesus as taking the punishment for our sin. It is not the Roman’s road. If we look at the passage we see that the woman’s salvation comes from acknowledging that Jesus is the expected Christ. The towns people come to believe that Jesus is the “Savior of the world.” Savior from what? The text doesn’t say, though we might be able to figure it out from the rest of the gospel. In fact, John states his purpose very clearly at the end of his gospel, and it fully match up with the woman’s reaction, “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”