forty miles north of Jerusalem, an annual event occurs that transports
the modern person thousands of years back in history. The Samaritan Passover
has, for over two thousand years, been observed on Mt. Gerizim and until
today the Samaritans continue to gather there to offer the sacrifices
prescribed in the Torah (Pentateuch). The Jewish people celebrate Passover
each year, but since the temple in Jerusalem was leveled by the Romans
in A.D. 70, the biblically mandated sacrifices have not been offered.
The Samaritans, by contrast, did not give their allegiance to the Jerusalem
Temple (since the days of the Exile) and held their sacrificial services
on Mt. Gerizim instead. A reference to this is clear in the New Testament
when the woman at the well asked Jesus if worship should be held on Mt.
Gerizim or in Jerusalem (John 4:20). Excavations are now underway on the
Samaritan temple that was constructed in the 4th c. B.C. and destroyed
in the 2nd c. B.C. Even after their temple was destroyed, the Samaritans
continued to offer sacrifices on Mt. Gerizim, and do so to this day.
Samaritan Passover must be one of the most worthwhile events to attend
in Israel today. If you can get beyond the crowds and the noise, you can
almost imagine yourself back in Second Temple period times and feel like
you are actually present at the sacrifices as they used to be. Come to
think of it, keep the crowds and the noise, or the experience probably
would not be so close to how it really was then (but remove the flashes
The Passover service is not an easy sight to observe. As it was at the
Jerusalem Temple, certain areas are restricted to certain people. The
priests have the most privileged positions. The Samaritan men, the heads
of the households, take their place with their familys lamb at the
sacrificial trough. Surrounding them are their families. Outside of the
compound, the outsiders try to maneuver to get a good vantage point to
watch the festivities. By
arriving several hours early, my group was able to visit the home of the
head priest of the Samaritans. After the visit, I staked out a post on
a rooftop overlooking the sacrifice area. (footnote: The Samaritan high
priest was a direct descendant of Aaron, but the last one died without
an heir in 1624. Today the appointed religious head is known as Ha-Kohen
(the Priest) and is of Levitic descent.).
The service started near the time of sunset. The Samaritan men were dressed
in white garments, the leaders wore red hats, and the priests were dressed
in a distinctive turquoise-green garb. The Samaritans began chanting and
praying, much of which sounded like the familiar wails of the Muslim call
to prayer. Then the signal was given, and the head of each household reached
for his knife to slice the throat of his familys lamb. As soon as
the deed was done, the Samaritans all began clapping, congratulating each
other and celebrating. About thirty-five sheep were slain, about one for
each larger family unit (there are no more than 600 Samaritans alive in
the world today). Then the sheep were skinned and put on a pole (skewer)
and carried over to one of the 2-3 meter deep roasting pits to be cooked
for most of the night.
this time it was possible for me to get inside the sacrificial compound
and see the skinning, cleaning and skewering of the lambs at close range.
few, maybe obvious, observations:
sacrifice is a very bloody situation. The men had blood on their hands
and all over their clothes. To the Samaritan or the ancient Israelite,
the Mosaic statement, "the life is in the blood," must have
left a profound impression of the cost of the sin that required such a
sacrifice. Christians today in the sterile environment of the sanctuary
may miss the benefit of understanding the gravity of sin that was an integral
part of the life of the Israelites. The judgment for sin is death, and
God allowed the substitution of animal death until he provided the substitute
of his Sons death.
*The Passover sacrifice is a family affair. The children were at the ceremony,
playing with the sheep beforehand. In the Old Testament the Lord commanded
the Israelites to bring the lamb into the household on the tenth day of
the month, four days before the sacrifice. The family would get "acquainted"
with the lamb in the course of those days and the children would be especially
impacted when the father put the knife to the lambs throat. You
can imagine the cries of the children as their new pet was killed, "Why,
daddy, why?" and the teaching moment that would have been gained.
*What we saw is much like what the Samaritans have been doing since before
the time of Christ. Passover was and is a central part of the Jewish calendar,
and the New Testament records that Jesus was careful to attend each Passover
during his ministry. Jesus would have been a part of the crowds, confusion,
and blood-letting. He would have seen and heard and smelled much of the
same sights and sounds and stenches. Few events today so effectively transport
the modern person back to the ceremonies of biblical days.
with permission from Bible and Spade 14.2 (2001)
Bolen is Asst. Professor at the Israel Bible Extension campus of The
Master's College. He teaches biblical archaeology, history and geography
to students in a semester-abroad program in Israel. The photographs in
this article are from the author's collection: The Pictorial Library
of Bible Lands, a collection of more than 4500 high-resolution photographs
of geographical and archaeological sites related to the Bible. See bibleplaces.com
for more information.