A Good Samaritan Sacrifice

Mount Gerizim—a stout, scraggy mountain that rises up to a height of about 900 meters in the heart of the West Bank—is another one of those places that seems to punch well above its weight. Much like all of the other famous mountains in the Holy Land, it would barely qualify as a foothill if it went up against an Alp or a Himalaya. It is unimpressive even in its own surroundings, with an undistinguished appearance and a peak that is only slightly higher than its neighbors’. But, much like all of the other famous mountains in the Holy Land, this unassuming hill is in fact the beating heart of an ancient religion. Overachieving topography is a common thing around here, where dusty landscapes and middling ruins have long been a perennial cause for competing passions and global attention.

 

So every year, when thousands of spectators from around the world gather on the slopes of this nondescript mountain to observe the ritual sacrifice of a few dozen purified lambs, contradictions of scale are the norm. It is both exotic and ordinary. It is a public spectacle that attracts global attention, but its purpose is also deeply meaningful and private. There is much blood and death, but there is also a peacefulness to it. It only makes sense once you’ve really seen it.

 

There is a spectator area. The crowd quickly swells to press against the tall fences erected to keep the crowd out of the ceremonial compound, a paved yard about the size of two, maybe three, basketball courts. There is a sense of excitement hanging in the air, like everyone is waiting for a show to begin. I suppose they are. The bus-load of middle-aged Korean tourists was the first to arrive, claiming all the good seats in the bleachers (yes, bleachers), while kids climbed on nearby playgrounds and claimed the last remaining good spots. Everyone else strained on their toes to find a decent view in the thickening crowd. The ceremonial compound itself is technically closed off to outsiders, but you can easily get in if you ask nicely, point vaguely toward someone who looks like they belong inside, and tell the guards that “that guy over there said it was ok.” A handful of news crews, documentarians, and the odd Korean tourist with an overkill camera are milling around inside. The faint buzzing of consumer drones overhead marks this as a distinctly 21st-century spectacle.

 

But at the moment there isn’t all that much to see. On the inside of the barrier fence, the remaining members of one of the world’s more ancient religious sects mill about casually, seemingly oblivious to all of the attention directed at them. Some are wearing colorful robes, many are busy preparing the fire pits, while the boys are chasing after the sacrificial lambs, herding them into a corner—gleefully taking responsibility for the task of keeping them there. The kids, especially, they’re the only ones on the inside that seem to let on that they are excited. They tell me that this is their favorite day of the year. They tell me how many years they’ve been old enough to participate in the ceremony. They tell me that they think that the bloody ritual is cool. They tell me that they love being a part of something special. They also tell me that it is fun to see all their friends.

The boys can sense that their community is the center of attention, and they relish the idea that they are part of something special. I get the sense that the adults feel this way, too, but only the boys will excitedly tell you about it in those terms

Everyone gathers in the compound a few hours before the ceremony begins. Except for the gathering crowd of spectators and the ceremonial garb, the general vibe is relaxed and festive just like any family reunion

The busload of Korean tourists arrive first, filling the bleachers and taking pictures of everything

Were it not for the bleachers and the growing crowd of spectators, the vibe is just about like any other large family reunion. Gaggles of kids weave through the crowd in their waist-height world, while the adults ask about each others’ work and health, and everyone can’t wait for the barbecue to start. They are Samaritans. Yes, they’re the people from that one story Jesus told about what it really takes to be a good neighbor. Today is Samaritan Passover, and they will slaughter dozens of lambs to commemorate their people’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt.

 

Samaritanism is a close relative to Judaism. Their community’s size and influence has fluctuated throughout the centuries, but today they are only a tiny religious minority, with about 750 members, that is split between two communities—one located in an unassuming Israeli suburb, and the other on the slopes of their holy mountain (Mt. Gerizim) in the Palestinian Territories. There used to be a million of them, as they will often tell you.

 

On the surface, there are a lot of similarities between Judaism and Samaritanism, but Samaritans consider their beliefs and practices to be unchanged from those that were practiced by the ancient Israelites. They believe that their religious tradition is true to what God originally conveyed to Moses atop Mt. Sinai. They’re pretty competitive about this. I’m frequently reminded that their religious text is more accurate because they limit themselves to the laws laid out in the first five books of the bible, well before it was corrupted by prophets, politics, and a couple of millennia spent in exile. They are quick to point out that their version is written in Paleo-Hebrew, a far more ancient version that is therefore true to the original message. They claim that they have worshiped in the same place, in the same way, throughout the ages. As they see it, Judaism has evolved. Rabbinical tradition, the Talmud, the Mishna, even the book of Psalms—they are all man-made modifications to the true heart of the one true God’s religion.

The ceremonial garb for most of Samaritans is simply a white tunic, or white clothes, along with a hat that is unique to their family. Priests are distinguished by their colorful robes

The Samaritan Pentateuch is written in Paleo-Hebrew, an ancient form of the language that predates the Hebrew found in the Torah of the Jews

Although someone has counted, and there are apparently about 6000 differences between Jewish and Samaritan versions of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), most discrepancies are fairly minor and do not really result in any significant differences for the overall meaning of the texts. Yet, there are significant differences in practice. Most of these stem from a fundamental disagreement over the proper location for priestly ritual practice. Jews generally believe that the priesthood and all of its sacrificial responsibilities can only be carried out in Jerusalem, specifically atop the Temple Mount, specifically inside a temple. The Samaritan Pentateuch, on the other hand, makes it clear that the proper location for these things is atop Mt. Gerizim.

That might seem like a fairly minor disagreement, but the consequences of these differences are enormous. The Jewish people have spent many centuries in exile, geographically separated from holy places that have generally been destroyed and/or woven into the region’s intractable political or religious complexities. With much of their religious practice being entirely dependent on the availability of these places, there has been an effective moratorium on practicing many of the rituals and practices described in the Torah.

 

This has set Judaism on an evolutionary course that yielded a Rabbinical tradition that can be practiced by the diaspora, in distant lands, far removed from Jerusalem. The Samaritan’s holy site, on the other hand, has remained comparatively uncontested throughout the years—at least relative to other places in what seems to be the planet’s most contested plot of real estate—and therefore they have been able to maintain a more or less continuous presence at Mt. Gerizim. So, as the story goes, their practices have remained unchanged.

The Sacrifice

The sun is about to set. The kids herd the lambs over to the ceremonial grounds—an earthen trench that runs like a gash down the middle of the otherwise paved compound. Everything is custom-built for this event. There are hoses that emerge from the ground at regular intervals for rinsing, blue scaffolding for hanging the lambs while they are prepared to be burned as an offering, and plenty of drainage for the blood.

 

The trench is a drainage ditch with a few feet of grass on either side. It is about 50 feet long, and it runs between the spectators’ bleachers on one side and the main altar on the other. The altar is where they will burn all bones, entrails, and any part of the lambs that they do not manage to eat before sunrise the following day. Just beyond the main altar are six deep fire pits where the lambs are to be cooked. The Samaritan women sit in plastic chairs gathered in rows on one side of the trench, and the Samaritan priests sit on plastic chairs gathered in a semicircle on the other side. The priests are the only ones wearing colorful ceremonial garb. The women dress in normal street clothes, and the men wear white. The trench is filled with white. All of the male members of the community who are not priests gather with their lambs in the grass surrounding the trench and wait for the ceremony to start.

 

The priests begin reading. The pace begins with the erratic din of hundreds reading the same passage of scripture and slowly builds into the unified, rhythmic drone of a chant. The intensity builds from there—always a little faster, always slightly more frenetic. They are chanting in Paleo-Hebrew and reading directly from the Samaritan Pentateuch. I can’t understand anything, but I get the distinct sense that they are imparting something upon the lambs. It seems like they are ridding themselves of some unspeakable evil. Some of the kids actually yell at the sheep, as if scolding a dog.

The Priests are chanting in Paleo-Hebrew and reading directly from the Samaritan Pentateuch. I can’t understand anything, but I get the distinct sense that they are imparting something upon the lambs

The pace begins with the erratic din of hundreds reading the same passage of scripture and slowly builds into the unified, rhythmic drone of a chant. The intensity builds from there—always a little faster, always slightly more frenetic

It seems like they are ridding themselves of some unspeakable evil. Some of the kids actually yell at the sheep, as if scolding a dog

As it approaches the crescendo that everyone came to see, their intensity transfixes me. The sound of hundreds of people sharing a religious experience, the sound of hundreds of people feeling emotions that deal so directly with life, death, and sin—it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It is deafening, and it shakes you. In that moment I had completely forgotten my apprehension about the slaughter, and I could barely focus on taking any pictures of it.

 

When it finally happens, the pure sea of white clothes is corrupted by bright splashes of crimson, and the loudest cries explode from the men just as the final cries of the lambs are extinguished. There is a clear sense of urgency since the slaughter must be carried out as quickly, and as painlessly, as possible. They then have just moments to bleed the sheep, and then they skin them and prepare them for the fire pits. Everyone is running around while waving unsheathed knives, helping others finish the job. It is a miracle that nobody gets stabbed in the chaos. I’m struck, also, by the seriousness and the care with which they conduct the slaughter. The Samaritan who is holding the knife at the neck of the lamb that is closest to where I am standing waits at attention, prepared for his moment. His focused approach reminds me of an orchestra percussionist counting empty bars before a cymbal crash. When the moment finally arrives, his actions are swift and efficient. He doesn’t hesitate. The lamb is dead within seconds.

The slaughter is conducted in strict accordance with the laws outlined in Leviticus. The lambs must be monitored for purity, the act must be swift, the blood must drain completely and be allowed to flow into the dirt

Once all of the sheep are finished, the next order of business is to frantically greet family members, hug them, wish them a happy Passover, and smear some of the lamb’s blood on their forehead. It is a reminder of the blood spread on the Israelites’ doorposts to distinguish them from the Egyptians, whose eldest sons were struck down by the plague of the firstborn. They are happy—many tearfully so.

 

It is the intense emotion of this moment that left the biggest impression on me. I was struck by the enormity of the chasm between all of the reasons that we (the spectators, the tourists) were watching, and what it all meant to the Samaritans themselves. It was hard to catch from the bleachers. It was hard to miss on the other side of the fence.

 

On the one hand, they do welcome the crowds. They are happy to pose for selfies. They extend a very warm welcome to journalists. They even go through the trouble of putting up bleachers for anyone who wants to gawk at their esoteric customs. But the warmth in their smiles contradicted all of this. It seemed out of place. Their joy was the joy of people who have no doubt that they belong to something. It was borne of exclusive membership in their little, ancient club. They are a tight-knit community that finds a common identity and purpose in ancient stories and customs, and everything they were doing was meant to affirm this. Why were we even there? Is the crowd necessary? Shouldn’t being God’s chosen people be enough?

 

We came with cameras, we filled bleachers, and we flew drones because we wanted to see something exotic. We came to see history live, like one of those museums where low wage actors show us how life used to be. And it was the violence, too; Game of Thrones is popular for a reason, and the journalists knew full well that the story would sell. I’m sure that everyone rushed to share pictures on social media, probably just moments after the blood stopped flowing. They were gone well before the evening was over.

It is the intense emotion of this moment that left the biggest impression on me. I was struck by the enormity of the chasm between all of the reasons that we (the spectators, the tourists) were watching, and what it all meant to the Samaritans themselves

The next order of business is to frantically greet family members, hug them, wish them a happy Passover, and smear some of the lamb’s blood on their forehead

The rest of it is a blur. The lamb’s carcasses are hung from the scaffolding. The skin and entrails are expertly ripped off and out, ֿֿthrown onto the main altar, and sprinkled with salt as they burn (Leviticus 2:13 reads: “With all your offerings you shall offer salt”). Anything that isn’t eaten goes on the main altar. Someone runs by with a bundle of giant wooden skewers that are sharpened on both ends. The stakes go right through the cleaned out body of each lamb, and then they’re carried over to the fire pits that have been burning since mid-afternoon.

 

The heads of each family stand in circles around the six fire pits, seven or eight per pit, holding the skewered lambs at the edge. Once the command is given, they plunge the sheep into the fires.

 

Suddenly everyone scrambles like ants after you kick their hill. Waves of people come running toward the fire, each with a job to do. The first wave comes with metal grates and throws them over the pits. The next comes running with large black tarps, and spreads them over the grates, pressing them down so that the wooden stakes poke through. Finally the last wave sweeps over the tarps with buckets of mud, which they dump out and spread around with their hands and feet. The goal is to seal in all of the heat and smoke the meat. Some smoke still escapes from cracks and gaps that remain, but they are quick to seal these off with a splash of mud and a few pats of the hand to press it into a hermetic seal. They take this just as seriously as all of the other rituals thus far, so I assume that it has some ceremonial significance. I ask about it, and nope—it just tastes better that way.

Any part of the lambs that are forbidden to eat (such as entrails and internal organs) and anything that is not eaten by sunrise the following day must be sprinkled with salt and offered as a burnt offering in accordance with Leviticus

Standing at the edge of the fire pits, the head of each family holds their slaughtered lamb, waiting for the command to plunge it into the fire

Once they throw the lambs into the fire pits, everyone scrambles like ants to quickly cover the fire with a metal grate, then a tarp, and then a layer of mud

The last wave comes running with buckets of mud that they throw over the fire pits in order to seal in the smoke and the heat. I assume that there is some ceremonial significance to this, but I’m told that it’s mostly just because it tastes good

The last remaining cracks that let out smoke are carefully patted down by hand

Finally, once the smoke settles, a quiet dominates the compound. It comes as a bit of a shock after the chaos of the ceremony. Most of the Samaritans begin to gather their things and head home. They have a long night ahead of them. The lambs will cook for a few hours, and the Samaritans will return when they are cooked. They will pull them from the firepits, and bring them back home.

 

Then, they will finally have their Passover meal. They will sit around the table with family, read through the steps of a traditional passover meal, execute the procedure, and eat the lambs that they had just sacrificed. Then, before the sun rises, they will return to the ceremonial grounds and discard anything that wasn’t eaten into the main altar, and sprinkle some salt on it.

 

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