The Samaritan Passover
by Todd Bolen

Some 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.

The 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 and videocameras).

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 family’s 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 family’s 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.

By 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.

A few, maybe obvious, observations:

*A 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 Son’s 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 lamb’s 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.


Reprinted with permission from Bible and Spade 14.2 (2001) 

Todd 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 for more information.

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