The Bible contains several stories of holy men and patriarchs encountering women at wells. The wonderful example in the New Testament tells how Jesus met the Samaritan woman at “Jacob’s well,” where they engaged in some sharp dialogue and some dazzling theological discussions. Undoubtedly, the reader is meant to hear echoes of those Old Testament precedents, but just possibly, Jacob is not the example the author has in mind. The story is also interesting for what it suggests about how we translate Biblical passages.
Central to understanding the story is the Greek word usually translated into English as “well.” In the Septuagint, there are two different words, namely phrear, meaning a well, and pege, a living spring. Commonly, the patriarchs meet their prospective wives at a phrear. Jacob sees Rachel at a phrear (Gen. 29). Moses meets his wife Zipporah because of an encounter at a phrear (Ex 2.15). Isaac and Rebekah are brought together following a meeting at a phrear – more on that odd qualification shortly (Gen 24. 11).
In John 4, Jesus meets the Samaritan woman. He is sitting at what the King James version calls Jacob’s well, but actually, John 4.6 tells us that this was pege tou Iakob, Jacob’s spring, and because Jesus was weary, he sat at this pege. That repetition underlines a point. It is the woman who refers to it as a phrear, twice, but this is only in reported speech. When she asks how he can draw water from the well without a vessel, Jesus returns to the word for spring, and declares that “whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring [pege] of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4.14). The King James Version translates that as “a well of water springing up into everlasting life,” missing the distinction that the original text draws. And waters don’t actually “spring up” from a well, and certainly not from a cistern. Springs spring.
At this point, we need to explore one possible objection to the point I am making. Might the author be varying his vocabulary slightly in order to avoid repetition, to prevent his sentences becoming monotonous? The evangelist was after all a skilled writer who cared deeply about the choice of words. But this objection would not be correct. He deliberately and consciously uses the word pege twice in close proximity, in what we today translate as a single short sentence. He then has the woman use phrear twice (again) in adjacent sentences. Clinching the fact that the word really matters, of course, is that Jesus then makes his proclamation about the spring of water welling up inside. John really intends the distinction, and the translator must respect it.
The evangelist is pointing to a real difference between what is actually a spring against what the Samaritan woman thinks is just a well or cistern. Perhaps, we are meant to understand, when she has been educated and enlightened, she will realize that it is really a living spring, a pege not a phrear.
The early church made much use of that “living spring” idea, and the word appears several times in Revelation.
A deeper agenda is at work here, in that it is not just one Samaritan woman who is ignorant, but rather her whole people. She has after all had her “five husbands, …. and he whom you now have is not your husband.” Modern preachers quote that to suggest that she had led a colorful and perhaps sexually immoral life. More plausibly, the reference is to the five books of Moses that the Samaritans had, but have now (from a Jewish perspective) lost or betrayed. John also says the incident occurred at the city of Sychar, and thus near the old Samaritan holy city of Shechem.
Are we meant to read a distinction between the Samaritan way and its canon, which was as fixed and finite as the water in a cistern, versus the flowing and expansive Jewish tradition?
At the time, Jewish relations with Samaritans were pressing and highly contentious. When “the Jews” challenged Jesus, the worst thing they could ask him was “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” For whatever it’s worth, Jesus responded to that by denying that he was a demon, but left the Samaritan charge untouched (John 8.48-49). The early church recorded some of this Jewish-Samaritan polemic, even if its actual significance was much less relevant when it actually found its way into the gospels. Suffice it to say that a great deal is going on in this Samaritan Woman passage that we might well be missing.
Translators through the centuries have varied widely on how far they have acknowledged this spring/well issue. The Latin Vulgate did, on each occasion distinguishing fons (pege) from puteus (phrear), so that it really was Jacob’s Spring. The KJV does not observe that, and “Jacob’s well” also occurs in major English translations like the NIV and RSV.
At this point, it would be valuable if we could find an Old Testament passage that offers clear parallels and precedents to the story of the Samaritan woman, but we really don’t. There is one possible exception to that statement, but it is a curious one. If we turn to Genesis chapter 24, we find the tale of how Isaac found his wife Rebekah, and a well is involved, but it is a truly strange item that runs contrary to our expectations. Ideally, we might imagine a tale of Isaac as a traveler who meets Rebekah and falls in love with her. Instead, Isaac appears only marginally, and the whole story concerns Abraham’s unnamed servant, who has been deputed to travel to Mesopotamia to find a wife for his master’s son. He duly does so, and he finds her at a well, a phrear, which is however described repeatedly thereafter as a pege. That is notable because the word pege is not common in the Septuagint, and this one section includes a sizable proportion of the references.
To the best of my knowledge, early Christian writers did not make extensive use of this particular Genesis story, or cited the servant as a prototype of Christ. (You can find the odd citation, but they are rare). Isaac himself was a Type of Christ, because of the story of Abraham’s attempt to sacrifice him, but that does not mean that the typology is extended to his acquiring Rebekah.
I won’t go into this here, but other connecting words (apart from pege) include the term for the water vessels, hudriai, which appear in that very “watery” Genesis 24 account. Hudriai are also found twice in close proximity in John’s Gospel, first at the marriage at Cana, and then in the Sychar story – and nowhere else in the New Testament.
More on that in another post.