Why Did The Samaritan Woman At The Well Have So Many Marriages?


The Woman of Samaria (John 4:7-30)

There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. Therefore the Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me for a drink since I am a Samaritan woman?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) 10 Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” 11 She said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? 12 You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?” 13 Jesus answered and said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.”

15 The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water, so I will not be thirsty nor come all the way here to draw.” 16 He said to her, “Go, call your husband and come here.” 17 The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You have correctly said, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; this you have said truly.” 19 The woman *said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that You are a prophet.20 Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you people say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” 21 Jesus *said to her, “Woman, believe Me, an hour is coming when neither in this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” 25 The woman *said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ); when that One comes, He will declare all things to us.” 26 Jesus *said to her, “I who speak to you am He.”

27 At this point His disciples came, and they were amazed that He had been speaking with a woman, yet no one said, “What do You seek?” or, “Why do You speak with her?” 28 So the woman left her waterpot, and went into the city and said to the men, 29 “Come, see a man who told me all the things that I have done; this is not the Christ, is it?” 30 They went out of the city, and were coming to Him.


This passage has been used so many times as an illustration of an immoral woman who had perceived that Jesus was the Messiah. Yet, few bother to explain the point that the Samaritan woman is an immoral woman. While it’s possible that the Samaritan woman had some immorality I believer there is more to her story than most people tend to consider. Yes she had 5 husbands but we need to ask why. In this post we will examine some information that might point towards a drastically different picture of the woman at the well. In fact, I believe that she is more of a victim than a sinful woman.


3. Women typically could not divorce their husbands

First Century Certificate of Divorce
Divorce certificate from 71 CE Masada:
“… You are free to become the wife of
any Jewish man you may wish”

When examining the woman at the well we have to remember that her societal context is different than ours. If a women today has that many husbands it’s assumed she’s not quite right or that she has commitment issues. However, in the 1st century typically only men could have a divorce granted. The Bible is full of examples of how men can divorce their wives but it’s a different situation if a wife wants to divorce her husband.

When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house,and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man’s wife, and if the latter husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts itin her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife, then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)

Moreover, women could not propose marriage to a man. Of course there were ways in which women could persuade men into marrying them but no woman could legally propose marriage to a man since they were technically property and marriage was an exchange of property on many accounts. Thus, if a woman is in a situation like the Samaritan woman, where she needs a home and a male provides her with one, she can’t exactly give the guy an ultimatum. She would be stuck between living in the streets or living with someone in sin (at least we presumed in sin).


2. Women of divorce (or widows) could not survive on their own

Women in biblical times were considered property. They were bought and sold as such and as property they typically had few rights. They would have been the outcasts of society once divorced or widowed. One example of this is the story of Onan and Tamar. Onan is classically known as the guy God killed for spilling his seed, but most Bible readers know that that is not why God killed him. In the story of Onan, Onan’s brother dies and leaved behind a widow.

Now Judah took a wife for Er his firstborn, and her name was Tamar. But Er, Judah’s firstborn, was evil in the sight of the Lord, so the Lord took his life. Then Judah said to Onan, “Go in to your brother’s wife, and perform your duty as a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother. Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother’s wife, he wasted his seed on the ground in order not to give offspring to his brother.10 But what he did was displeasing in the sight of the Lord; so He took his life also.11 Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up”; for he thought, “I am afraid that he too may die like his brothers.” So Tamar went and lived in her father’s house.(Genesis 38:6-11)

If a woman was lucky enough to have a father still alive it was common to go “back home” after a divorce or widowing. We saw this same thing with Samson’s wife after he sent her away for giving away the answer to his riddle. The same thing happened with the unnamed Levite in Judges 19.

But after a while, in the time of wheat harvest, Samson visited his wife with a young goat, and said, “I will go in to my wife in her room.” But her father did not let him enter. (Judges 15:1)

Now a Levite who lived in a remote area in the hill country of Ephraim took a concubine from Bethlehem in Judah. But she was unfaithful to him. She left him and went back to her parents’ home in Bethlehem, Judah. (Judges 19:1-2)

What we do not know about the Samaritan woman is whether or not her father was still alive and if he was alive, what was the reason she did not go back to live with him. We have a lot of gaps in the information. All we know is that she was repeatedly divorced (not of her own doing) and that her current living situation was with a man whom she was not married to.

Divorced woman in ancient times often had to turn to prostitution in order to gain access to money and provide for themselves a place to stay. Since prostitution was very common in ancient times it was not a difficult thing to accomplish.


1. Barren women had no value and were cursed by God

Today women are more educated then men and have a world of opportunity awaiting them if they choose. They are increasingly putting off marriage and family in order to finish school and start jobs. But 2000 years ago that was not the case. In fact, in Jesus’ time most women were seen as having only one purpose; making babies. Moreover, barrenness was seen as a curse from God.

If there is a man who lies with his uncle’s wife he has uncovered his uncle’s nakedness; they will bear their sin. They will die childless. 21 If there is a man who takes his brother’s wife, it is abhorrent; he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness. They will be childless. (Lev. 20:20–21)

Thus says the Lord,
‘Write this man (Coniah the son of Jehoiakim king of Judah) down childless,
A man who will not prosper in his days;
For no man of his descendants will prosper
Sitting on the throne of David
Or ruling again in Judah.’”

(Jer. 22:30)

For the Lord had closed fast all the wombs of the household of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. (Get 20:18)

It was common for women to be known in history for providing many sons. Often women who were despised were written down in history as having no children or that the Lord caused them to be barren.

Michal, the wife of King David and Daughter of Saul was known as an immoral wife and worshipped idols. The author of II Samuel recorded her death thusly,

Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death. (II Sam 6:23)

Beyond being considered cursed by God, barren women were often divorced so that a man could marry another woman who might better provide a son. This was not always the case, however. It was not unheard of for a man to take on a second wife in order to gain a son. But it was much more common to divorce the woman cursed by God and marry another who would be able to provide sons.

We see one woman in the Bible struggle deeply with such issues as barrenness and taking on a second wife.

Now there was a certain man from Ramathaim-zophim from the hill country of Ephraim, and his name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, the son of Elihu, the son of Tohu, the son of Zuph, an Ephraimite. He had two wives: the name of one was Hannah and the name of the other Peninnah; and Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children. (1 Sam 1:1)

Then Hannah rose after eating and drinking in Shiloh. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat by the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She, greatly distressed, prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. 11 She made a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give Your maidservant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and a razor shall never come on his head.” (1 Sam 1:9-11)

Additionally, a man who was left without a son was also viewed as cursed. A childless Jewish scholar was not eligible to sit on the Sanhedrin (San. 36b.) and would have been limited also in his business dealings.


Conclusion

I believe that there is a real chance that the Samaritan woman was barren and that she was unable to remain married because she could not provide a son for any of her husbands. If she wanted to live a life of immorality she could have become a prostitute and not had to lean on the help of a man. She did not have to be married to a man to live a life of sin. The harlots Delilah and Rahab both had their own places to live as far as the story leads us to believe.

The other reason I think she might have been barren is that Jesus encountered prostitutes and immoral women. When he did we are told that he forgave there sins and told them to go and sin no more. No such exchange happens in this passage.

Lastly, she bears no sign of being embarrassed or remorseful for her living situation. Other sinful women fall at Jesus’ feet and repent. She does nothing of the sort. While this does not mean that my thesis is correct, it’s that her behavior is slightly different than other women depicted in the gospel of John.


 

29 thoughts on “Why Did The Samaritan Woman At The Well Have So Many Marriages?”

  1. Thanks for this article. All the comments were enlightening. I enjoyed reading through them. A couple years ago, I did a sermon on this same woman at the well and during my research, as I was preparing, I realized how ill informed I was, resulting from prior church teachings. As the Holy Spirit began to download into me, I realized that it was the Jews, (God’s chosen) who had nothing to do with the Samaritans, not the other way around. I also realized that the Samaritans too were awaiting this “savior”. I also discovered the fact that Samaritans kept all of Moses’ writings and are somewhat more religious than Jews. There’s a lot to garner from this story but I like the fact that when she found out that the long awaited savior actually appeared to her (first) in Samaria, at their father, Jacob’s well, she was super excited that she ran to tell everyone to come and meet Him. Now, the Jews would have nothing over the Samaritans! Their long awaited savior too, had come!

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  2. I kinda agree with the possibility that it was barrenness and not death nor her being a difficult wife. The Samaratins are a collective group of people. So if she was a difficult or uncooperative woman, surely she would have not made it to husband # 2 much less 5. Culturally if it was due to death.. One of the deceased families shouldof had a brother or someome one to care for her. There was a sense of shame present in her answer. No being able to have a child make sense. The 1st marriage could have been to infertility, but after 4 additional husband and nothing. It is fair to say she was the problem. Beautiful way of veiwing it. It also give insight on how we as Christians can assume the worse of a person, but Jesus sees the heart!

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  3. The woman at the well may have been married to a brother who dies, then to his brother, and so on down the line. We are now familiar with the way plague, or any epidemic, might destroy a family in a very short time. Under the circumstances of giving a deceased brother a family, I believe it was permitted to have more than one wife at once. It would also be normal for a family to live in a compound, so a widow might be passed from apartment to apartment with the simplest of marriage ceremonies.

    This may well be why the first five husbands are married husbands, and the sixth man is not: Mr 6 has to arrange a more formal ceremony, calling in the priest and the bridesmaids etc!

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  4. I studied this text a few times and noticed a lot of parallels to the story of Jacob and Rachel at the well.

    When we are born again by the spirit, we become part of the bride of Christ. Jesus did not say the specific words in order to confuse the woman or others.. but He was inviting her to be (part of) His bride.

    Jacob was an imperfect man so the picture of his life was not quite perfection. He waited 7 years, then married a woman with poor eyesight, Leah. He did his duty as a husband but it was a difficult marriage. After his marriage to Leah, 7 years later, Jacob married his beloved, Rachel who he’d met at the well.
    God married the Israelites, who had poor spiritual eyesight. He loved them, but they lived by the law and were not the true, complete bride.
    The well represents the living water of the holy spirit. The church of Christ, born of the spirit, will marry Jesus after ‘7 years’ ,

    The woman at the well has had five husbands, so had been rejected many times, and the sixth man wouldn’t marry her. Jesus would be number seven. Completion.

    It’s an imperfect story – Jacob is not Jesus. But in John 4, the woman at the well asks ‘Are you greater than Jacob?’ and Jesus says YES!!

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    • This is a wonderful insight. Is it possible that the Biblical authors/Jesus were employing some commentary on Israel being a bad bride? It’s certainly likely. Jesus mentions more than once that the tree of Israel is either dying or being replaced by a new people that will produce good fruit.

      Ezekiel had a great influence on the NT authors and he employs vivid imagery of Israel as a bad bride, as does Hosea. It’s a very common theme.

      Thanks for the comment. I think there might be something there.

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    • Beautiful writings Christa. Just one correction though. Jacob did not wait until “7 years later” to marry his beloved Rachel. The bible states that they were married one week after the marriage of Jacob and Leah took place. I know this sounds strange right now. Don’t feel bad, a lot of preachers miss this fact. It was the Holy Spirit that showed it to me while preparing to preach at a Women’s conference some years ago. Genesis 29 states…

      21 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.” 22 So Laban gathered together all the people of the place and made a feast. 23 But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob, and he went in to her. 24 (Laban gave[b] his female servant Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her servant.) 25 And in the morning, behold, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?” 26 Laban said, “It is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn. 27 Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me another seven years.” 28 Jacob did so, and completed her week. Then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel to be his wife. 29 (Laban gave his female servant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel to be her servant.) 30 So Jacob went in to Rachel also, and he loved Rachel more than Leah, and served Laban for another seven years.

      Check out verses 27 & 28. It is a fact that Jacob served Laban for another 7 years after that, according to the verbal contract BUT Rachel’s wedding was done within one week of Leah’s wedding . Immediately following this encounter, we learn of the 4 women ( 2 wives and 2 handmaids) having babies for Jacob.

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  5. I think that people always want to fault the woman- with rare exception, only women appear to commit adultery in the bible – That is because it was a male dominated society.
    If the women was of ill repute, who would listen to her? How would she be able to convince so many men to seek Christ?

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  6. Though the issue of having been married 5 times and now living with the sixth person are mentioned in the story, Jesus does not address those issues. However, He does bring them to light. He has such an impact on the woman, that after being offered “living water” and identifying Himself as the Messiah, she leaves everything and goes and tells the men of the town. Her testimony is enough to cause them to come and see for themselves. I think of what Jesus said in John 3:17 (ironically the chapter just before this one) For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. Maybe because she had been condemned because of her lifestyle so many other times, she is blown away that, this did not seem to be Jesus’s agenda. Though He gave her a great Bible study!!

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  7. Your commentary on the women’s status makes perfect sense. I find the answer I was searching for. Thank you author.

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  8. I know we live in modern times so I won’t expect anyone to understand my dilemma but I too like the woman live with a man for survival and I need to know from Jesus HOW to go and sin no more when for me that really is a choice of living in the streets. In 2018 I made that choice and did go live in the streets because I am so serious and desperate for Jesus and obedience, but my leap of faith turned into an embarrassment to my witness, instead of a powerful testimony. The streets were dangerous and I ended up making the hard decision to go back home to the man who provides for me. I make it a while trying to believe that we ARE married but like the Samaritan woman he is not my real husband. I struggle… Today I’m supposed to go to work; So common for me to have a mental battle going on constantly thinking “should I go live in a homeless shelter? but then I’d have to quit my job” etc. I’m not asking any specific question to you because you aren’t God but just commenting why I found your article and how meaningful it is to me in my situation which feels like Paul’s thorn.

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    • Sounds like you’ve been through quite a bit. Thank you for sharing your experience. I know it is difficult to share such personal matters. We will be praying for you and that you can get security off the streets.

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  9. To speculate is fun however the key to the story is how Jesus proved the Holy Spirit communicated to Him. He knew everything about proving He was who He said He was and that is the point of the story. The story isn’t about her but Him and I also believe the fact that He spoke with a female gives us the idea that Jesus works through both men and women. There isn’t enough background for us to know and it really doesn’t matter. Jesus didn’t condemn her or acknowledge sin so my guess is she was barren and had to deal with that as best she could but that is only speculation and I’m not going to play God in this.

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    • I’m not sure anyone in this thread (or the author) is suggesting that the condition of the woman is the point of the story. The question of why she was married so many times is relevant to the narrative even if it’s not the main point of the narrative. It doesn’t take a degree to see that the story is really about Jesus and his miraculous nature.

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  10. I was going to mention the tradition that she had two sons and several daughters, but it’s been done. I think that traditions such as this one can give us a clue as to what was in the background of the story. So though we can’t say with authority, I still tend to think that it wasn’t barrenness. Untimely deaths might make a better answer. Or maybe she was mean and sarcastic (she did come to the well when no one else would have been expected to be there!) and the husbands put her away. This would make her testimony with Jesus all the more poignant. And the fact that the village listened to her very touching as well.

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  11. That is a good explanation you gave. Many people today will preach that a woman can only have one husband and (no matter the reason, whether it be adultery or brutality or the husband putting her away) she can never remarry. If she does, any man she marries after the first is not her husband. But this passage clearly states that the woman has had 5 husbands. It’s possible that all 5 of her husbands died, but not likely, it makes more sense that they put her away and she remarried. The only question that remains in my mind is the fact that this situation is believed to have taken place before the sermon on the mount, where some people say that Jesus did away with remarriage. But if Jesus knew what he was going to preach, why would he not have told her something about her past sin, unless it wasn’t sinful for her to remarry after being put away by her husband. Just some random thoughts. Good article. :)

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    • Thanks for your thoughts. I think people have made divorce into a special sin of some nature. But it’s a sin just like any other. One is not better than the other. That being said, I am not sure she can control the fact that she was divorced (assuming she was put away). Without remarrying she would end up in a life of prostitution, so I think remarrying (even if it’s a sin) was necessary for survival.

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      • Just a side note here….. In that culture, you could not be “Put away” and “divorced” at the same time. It had to be one or the other. “Put Away” and “Divorce” is not one and the same. They are different.

        “Put away” was simply that, put away. Today we call it “Separation” in our culture. If you are “put away” you could not remarry because you were still married. The Hebrew word “shalach” and the Greek word “apoluo” are translated ‘put away’. Both of those words are used for the husband orally dismissing and sending away his wife without giving her a certificate of divorce. “Putting Away” is what God hates. Malachi 2:16a….For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away:

        A divorce had to be written and given to the woman in her hand. That allowed her to leave the man’s house and remarry. The Hebrew word “kĕriythuwth” and the Greek word “apostasion” are translated “divorce” and it means to cut a matrimonial bond.

        It should be noted that unlike some church doctrines, Yahweh permits ‘divorce” and remarriage but He does not permit “Putting-Away” nor “separation”

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    • Jesus said if a person marries a divorcee, it’s adultery (thus, divorces are man’s law and not a split in God’s eyes), a sin that bars one from Heaven shirt of repentance and stopping the sinful arrangement ASAP. God knows if one does it ASAP.

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  12. Men usually did not marry until they could provide a home for their wife, and so men were often 35 or so when they married. Of course, he would not marry a woman his age, because she would be too told to have children. As in the marriage of Joseph and Mary, the bride would usually be a teenager. With the husband 15 or 20 years older, it is likely that he would die first. Also, if they were married a couple of years with no pregnancy, the husband may become anxious about his choice for a bride. He might divorce her hoping for a more productive wife. If the now divorced woman were a beautiful and talented young lady, another man might want to try for successful marriage with her. When this second marriage didn’t work and she found herself divorced again, her attitude may have changed from trusting and hopeful to bitter and angry. Still beautiful, a third man wants her attention and she advises that she needs to be married first (for her security and safety), and this time, perhaps the lack of progeny combined with an unhappy disposition, she is divorced again. Now she is getting older and has no son to provide for her. Her parents may have passed already or lived far away. Finally, after divorce #5, she is getting scared. What will happen to her now? #6 comes along, willing to let her live with him, but he doesn’t want the other men to laugh at him for marrying her. This could be her story. Women without children were considered cursed and like Naomi (except for heroic Ruth’s loyalty) were poor and destitute.

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  13. Those were pretty violent times, so I’ve never felt it unrealistic to take the text literally and assume that maybe the woman really had had five husbands, all of whom passed away or were killed or had accidents. We are not told how old she is, which might be something of a guideline. Life expectancy was much lower, people died from what would be minor health problems now, there was much unrest between peoples, and the roads could be dangerous to travelers, as another Samaritan discovered. Maybe the woman was barren and set aside by all those men, but I imagine that word would get around after the second husband or so, and available men would be reluctant to try marriage with a possibly barren woman before she got as far as a fifth spouse. Whatever her circumstances, they were far less important than the Water she got at the well that day!

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    • Amen. That’s a good point about her husbands possibly passing away. She may have been widowed multiple times. I’ll remember that idea next time this comes up. I should add that possibility into the post also. Great suggestion!

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  14. Tradition tells us this woman became an evangelist called Photina and had two sons who were all martyred brutally. I thought that about her being barren also, it doesn’t add up.

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