I think most people who practice a religion derived from the Bible assume that the Bible describes one and only one religion. Oh, they may realize that the so-called Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible or Tanakh) is an older version of the religion, and they may even recognize it as the Jewish religion, so at most they see it as two religions or perhaps version 1.0 and the new and improved release 2.0.
But nothing could be further from the truth.
The Bible actually describes many different religious practices over the course of thousands of years, and most of them bear only a superficial resemblance to modern religions.
The early Hebrew people who settled in the area that became known as Israel practiced a henotheistic religion. Henotheism refers to a religion that has a supreme deity (in the case of the Hebrews, Yahweh), but also recognizes the existence of other deities. As evidence just look at the very first commandment. Yahweh says, “I am the Lord your god. You shall have no other gods before me.” He doesn’t say, “I’m the only god in the universe” or anything like that. There are other references to secondary gods strewn throughout early books of the Bible.
Now according to the Bible, the kingdom of Israel had its period of greatest power during the reigns of David (circa 1000 – 960 BCE) and his son Solomon (962 – 922 BCE), when the capital city was Jerusalem. However, when Solomon died, Israel split into two kingdoms: Israel in the north (capital city Samaria) and Judah in the south (retaining Jerusalem as its capital). Judah was called Judea by the Greeks and Romans, so to simplify things, that’s what I’ll call it from here on.
In 722 BCE Sargon of Assyria conquered Israel, and he deported all of its political and religious leaders as well as its aristocracy to Assyria. 2 Kings 17:6
In the ninth year of Hoshe′a the king of Assyria captured Samar′ia, and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria, and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.
Apparently those leaders were assimilated into Assyrian culture because they were never heard from again, though there is a tradition that they are the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Thus, Sargon left Israel leaderless, and without its leaders, Israel disappeared from history, never to be heard of again. Well, not for another 2600 years or so. But I digress.
Judea was still hanging in there, though it was merely a loyal Assyrian puppet. For example, under the rule of Manasseh (692 – 639 BCE) Judea paid tribute to Assyria and enjoyed peace and prosperity. But because of this and because Manasseh practiced religious toleration, the writers of the Bible assailed him mercilessly. 2 Kings 21:2
And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the abominable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.
And there’s a lot more where that came from. But I digress.
Under Josiah (640 – 609 BCE) Judea began to flex its muscles and when he died, there was a dynastic struggle and in 597 Nebuchadnezzar (or Nebuchadrezzar, I’ve seen it both ways) of the Chaldean Empire lost patience and marched in and destroyed Solomon’s Temple. Then he deported the political and religious leaders of Judea to Babylon. 2 Kings 24:10-14
10 At that time the servants of Nebuchadnez′zar king of Babylon came up to Jerusalem, and the city was besieged.
11 And Nebuchadnez′zar king of Babylon came to the city, while his servants were besieging it; 12 and Jehoi′achin the king of Judah gave himself up to the king of Babylon, himself, and his mother, and his servants, and his princes, and his palace officials. The king of Babylon took him prisoner in the eighth year of his reign, 13 and carried off all the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king’s house, and cut in pieces all the vessels of gold in the temple of the Lord, which Solomon king of Israel had made, as the Lord had foretold.
14 He carried away all Jerusalem, and all the princes, and all the mighty men of valor, ten thousand captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths; none remained, except the poorest people of the land.
But this time the exiled leaders weren’t assimilated into the new culture. They retained their own culture and customs, in fact, they used the time to compile and edit their religious writings into the format close to what we have today. In the process they combined various incompatible stories (that’s why there are two incompatible creation stories in Genesis and two different versions of the Noah’s ark story, and many others). They also incorporated some Babylonian myths into their texts; I mean, a good story is a good story no matter where it came from, right?
Most importantly, however, they tried to hide the various references to other lesser gods, because they had now decided that Yahweh wasn’t just the most important god, he was the only god of the Judeans. They couldn’t get rid of all the references to other gods. Some of them probably just slipped past them and others were perhaps too well known to suppress, like that first commandment, for example.
Then in 539 BCE the Chaldean Empire fell and the Judeans (or perhaps we can start calling them Jews now) asked to be returned to their native home and that permission was granted.
So once again Judeans built a new temple and they had new scriptures and essentially a new religion. At some point they even decided that Yahweh was not only the only god of the Jews, he was the only god of humanity, period. And since he was the only god, there was no need to use his name. In fact it became blasphemous to use his name.
Meanwhile, I know you’re wondering what became of those leaderless people who were left behind in the former territory that had once been called Israel, aren’t you? Well, aren’t you?
They just kept on practicing the same religion that they had always been practicing. If it was good enough for their mothers, it was good enough for them.
But although it was the same religion that the ancestors of the Jews used to practice, it wasn’t the one that they were practicing these days. And so as nearly always happens when two different religious sects are located near to each other, the two groups (the Jews and the left behinds) came to despise each other.
And what were the left behinds called? Well, since their capital city had been Samaria, they came to be called after that. They were known as Samaritans.
And that, boys and girls, was the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan.
29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side.
32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.
33 But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, 34 and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’
36 Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?”
37 He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”