History of Samaria

Samaria in the Bible was plagued with racism

The Town of Samaria. Culture Club / Contributor / Getty Images

Sandwiched between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south, the region of Samaria figured prominently in the history of Israel, but over the centuries it fell prey to foreign influences, a factor which drew scorn from neighboring Jews.

Fast Facts: Ancient Samaria

  • Location: Samaria in the Bible is the central highland region of ancient Israel located between Galilee to the north and Judea to the south. Samaria refers to both a city and a territory.
  • Also Known As: Palestine.
  • Hebrew Name: Samaria in Hebrew is Shomron, meaning “watch-mountain,” or “watch-tower.”
  • Founding: The city of Samaria was founded by King Omri around 880 B.C.
  • Peoples: Samaritans.
  • Known For: Samaria was the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel; In the days of Christ, the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans was strained because of deep-rooted prejudice.

Samaria means "watch mountain" and is the name of both a city and a territory. When the Israelites conquered the Promised Land, this region was allotted to the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim.

Much later, the city of Samaria was built on a hill by King Omri and named after the former owner, Shemer. When the country split, Samaria became the capital of the northern portion, Israel, while Jerusalem became the capital of the southern part, Judah.

Causes of the Prejudice in Samaria

The Samaritans argued that they were descendants of Joseph, through his sons Manasseh and Ephraim. They also believed the center of worship should remain at Shechem, on Mount Gerizim, where it had been in the time of Joshua. The Jews, however, built their first temple at Jerusalem. The Samaritans furthered the rift by producing their own version of the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses.

But there was more. After the Assyrians conquered Samaria, they resettled that land with foreigners. Those people intermarried with the Israelites in the region. The foreigners also brought their pagan gods. The Jews accused the Samaritans of idolatry, straying away from Yahweh, and considered them a mongrel race.

The city of Samaria had a checkered history as well. King Ahab built a temple to the pagan god Baal there. Shalmaneser V, king of Assyria, sieged the city for three years but died in 721 BC during the siege. His successor, Sargon II, captured and destroyed the town, exiling the inhabitants to Assyria.

Herod the Great, the busiest builder in ancient Israel, rebuilt the city during his reign, renaming it Sebaste, to honor Roman emperor Caesar Augustus ("Sebastos" in Greek).

Good Crops in Samaria Brought Enemies

The hills of Samaria reach 2,000 feet above sea level in places but were intersected with mountain passes, making a lively trade with the coast possible in ancient times.

Plentiful rainfall and fertile soil helped agriculture thrive in the region. Crops included grapes, olives, barley, and wheat.

Unfortunately, this prosperity also brought enemy raiders who swept in at harvest time and stole the crops. The Samaritans cried out to God, who sent his angel to visit a man named Gideon. The angel found this future judge near the oak at Ophrah, threshing wheat in a winepress. Gideon was from the tribe of Manasseh.

At Mount Gilboa in northern Samaria, God gave Gideon and his 300 men a stunning victory over the massive armies of the Midianite and Amalekite raiders. Many years later, another battle at Mount Gilboa claimed the lives of King Saul's two sons. Saul committed suicide there.

Jesus and Samaria

Most Christians connect Samaria with Jesus Christ because of two episodes in his life. The hostility against Samaritans continued well into the first century, so much so that devout Jews would actually go many miles out of their way to avoid traveling through that hated land.

On his way from Judea to Galilee, Jesus deliberately cut through Samaria, where he had the now-famous encounter with the woman at the well. That a Jewish man would talk to a woman was amazing; that he would talk to a Samaritan woman was unheard of. Jesus even revealed to her that he was the Messiah.

John's Gospel tells us Jesus stayed two days more in that village and many Samaritans believed in him when they heard him preach. His reception was better there than in his home own of Nazareth.

The second episode was Jesus' parable of the good Samaritan. In this story, related in Luke 10:25-37, Jesus turned his listeners' thinking upside down when he made a despised Samaritan the hero of the tale. Further, he portrayed two pillars of Jewish society, a priest and a Levite, as the villains.

This would have been shocking to his audience, but the message was clear. Even a Samaritan knew how to love his neighbor. Respected religious leaders, on the other hand, were sometimes hypocrites.

Jesus had a heart for Samaria. In the moments just before he ascended into heaven, he told his disciples:

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8, NIV)


  • The Bible Almanac, J.I. Packer, Merrill C. Tenney, William White Jr.
  • Rand McNally Bible Atlas, Emil G. Kraeling
  • The Accordance Dictionary of Place Names
  • International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr.
  • Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Trent C. Butler. 
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Zavada, Jack. "History of Samaria." Learn Religions, Dec. 6, 2021, learnreligions.com/history-of-samaria-4062174. Zavada, Jack. (2021, December 6). History of Samaria. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/history-of-samaria-4062174 Zavada, Jack. "History of Samaria." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/history-of-samaria-4062174 (accessed June 2, 2023).