The Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well: Who Were Those Five Husbands?

Image result for samaritan woman at the well

The Gospel for the third Sunday of Lent offers a special little gem for the classically minded church-goer. As Jesus is speaking to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, He tells her that the water in the well will only bring a limited satisfaction.

Whosoever drinketh of this water, shall thirst again; but he that shall drink of the water that I will give him, shall not thirst for ever: But the water that I will give him, shall become in him a fountain of water, springing up into life everlasting. The woman saith to him: Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come hither to draw.

I am no scripture scholar, but it’s clear to me that the water that Our Lord is speaking about here is not some kind of physical or sensible water. He is not speaking about H2O.  He is clearly referring to something else; something like the waters of Baptism. Or perhaps he is referring to the gift of faith itself under the figure of water. It is through Faith that the believer springs up to life everlasting.

Image result for baptismal water

The Samaritan woman does not necessarily understand this, but nonetheless desires this special water. But then Our Lord makes this rather strange request:

Jesus saith to her: Go, call thy husband, and come hither. The woman answered, and said: I have no husband. Jesus said to her: Thou hast said well, I have no husband: For thou hast had five husbands: and he whom thou now hast, is not thy husband.

My knowledge of the customs of the Samaritans is limited. How is it that the woman at Jacob’s well had five husbands? Perhaps each husband successively died? Either that or this woman was a sort of scriptural pre-cursor to Elizabeth Taylor?

Image result for elizabeth taylor young

In addition, the shocking revelation of the number of husbands that this Samaritan woman has had sort of covers up what appears to be a strange request by Our Lord in the first place. Why does he say “Go, call thy husband”? Why do we suddenly need the woman’s husband?

But the answer to this particular question is not quite as interesting to the hearer as the simple revelation that this woman has had five husbands!

It’s not everyday that one meets a man who has had five wives, much less a woman who has had five husbands!

I confess I find it scarcely credible that anyone could have that many spouses.

Now I remember that when interpreting scripture one is always supposed to start with the literal meaning. The other figurative meanings have their foundation in the literal meaning.

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So I am ready to simply take Our Lord’s word for it that this woman did in fact have five husbands. She, on the other hand, appears to be very impressed by His knowledge of this and immediately says,

Sir, I perceive that thou art a prophet.

And later she tells her fellow townspeople,

Come, and see a man who has told me all things whatsoever I have done. Is not he the Christ?

So, again, I suppose we need to simply assent to the simple fact that the Samaritan woman has had five husbands. Perhaps her husbands were each a little like the water in Jacob’s well; stagnant, dull and unsatisfying. Hence she keeps going back to the “well” to draw up another one.

But I don’t think we should be satisfied with only the literal meaning of the Gospel in this instance. Five husbands are just too unusual to let it pass that easily.

Here are two figurative accounts of these five husbands that I find very satisfying.

The first is explained by the Catholic apologist Gary Michuta  who points out the fascinating fact that the Samaritan woman’s “matrimonial history” has an uncanny “parallel in the religious history of Samaria” itself .

Samaria was once part of the northern kingdom of Israel, which had broken off from the Davidic Kingdom…The king of Assyria brought pagans into Samaria to settle there (1 Kings 17:24).

Interestingly enough, 1 Kings 17:30-31 tells us there were five groups that settled there, each worshipping their own pagan gods: The Babylonians worshipped Marduk; the men of Cuth worshipped Nergal; the men of Avva worshipped Nibhaz and Tartak; the men of Sepharvaim worshipped their city gods; and King Hadad worshipped Anath.

Even though the Israelites were joined in covenant to the one true God, they intermarried with these foreigners and adopted their worship and practices. This is why the Jews wouldn’t have anything in common with Samaritans — because their assimilation with these pagans had defiled them. Samaria, like the woman at the well, had five husbands and was estranged from her true husband.

Now this is very revealing! Scales are falling from my eyes!

It makes abundant sense that Our Lord was referring to these false gods as husbands. How often does Our Lord compare his relation to the church through the image of the bridegroom? Christ is the husband of His bride the church. So of course, the five husbands might fittingly refer to Samaria’s unfortunate “marriages” to five false gods.

For our second figurative interpretation let us turn to Saint Augustine. It was through reading his book On the Interpretation of Scripture , that I first gained a sense for the many layers of wisdom contained in the Scriptures. It was there that I learned the principle rule of interpretation, namely the “rule of charity.” Scripture should not be interpreted in a way that contradicts any other part of Scripture. Or more positively, we ought to be open to reasonable interpretations of scripture as long as they do not contradict other doctrines or interpretations that have already been set forth.  Additionally, if I remember correctly, Saint Augustine seems to have a particular fondness towards making sense of numbers in scripture. I know there are some who downplay numbers in the Bible – and I suppose many get carried away with their numerological interpretations – but if examining numbers seriously in scripture was good enough for Augustine, then it is also good enough for me!

Image result for saint augustine

So here is what Saint Augustine says about the five husbands (among other things).

Jesus seeing that the woman did not understand, and wishing to enlighten her, says, Call your husband; i.e. apply your understanding. For when the life is well-ordered, the understanding governs the soul itself, pertaining to the soul. For though it is indeed nothing else than the soul, it is at the same time a certain part of the soul.

Now that is a shock isn’t it? Saint Augustine appears to be suggesting that the rational ability that we have, the understanding, is fittingly called “husband” by Our Lord.

I am certain that Saint Augustine meant no offense with his reference to the understanding as the husband. I think he means something like what St Paul said when he says,

But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.

The head, of course, is often associated with thinking and I think it is safe to call it the seat of the understanding. Is that a safe assertion?

And so we needn’t dismiss Saint Augustine’s interpretation as merely an interpretation coming out of the patriarchal mindset that he undoubtedly had inherited through no fault of his own.

Rather it would appear, according to Saint Augustine, that beyond any actual husbands that the woman had, he was more concerned with the “husband” that is none other than the understanding part of the woman’s soul. Call that husband.

But more importantly,Saint Augustine gives us an insight into the nature of the human soul. The “well-ordered” soul might be seen as a sort of marriage between the understanding part of the soul and the soul itself. In other words, the soul might be said to have a part which governs, and this part we call the husband.

He continues:

And this very part of the soul which is called the understanding and the intellect, is itself illuminated by a light superior to itself. Such a Light was talking with the woman; but in her there was not understanding to be enlightened.

It seems to me that there is a sort of proportion here. As the understanding governs and instructs a person, so too should Christ Himself govern and instruct the understanding.

In other words, Christ is the bridegroom of the soul. Christ is the husband of the understanding soul.

Our Lord then, as it were, says, I wish to enlighten, and there is not one to be enlightened; Call your husband, i. e. apply your understanding, through which you must be taught, by which {you must be} governed.

Image result for christ the teacher

And now you are thinking, “What about those five husbands?”

Without missing the cue,Saint Augustine responds,

The five former husbands may be explained as the five senses, thus: a man before he has the use of his reason, is entirely under the government of his bodily senses. Then reason comes into action; and from that time forward he is capable of entertaining ideas, and is either under the influence of truth or error.

We are either under the governance of our reason, or under the governance of our senses. The senses of course, in a broader sense,  also include the so-called sensitive appetites otherwise known as the passions or the emotions.

We are either governed by our reason or by our passions.

And so our understanding soul, that which ought to govern, is called “husband” by our Lord. But when we are ruled by our appetites, then we have unsatisfying and even “dull” husbands. The senses are not quite as keen as the intellect. No wonder we would marry one after another.

Image result for five senses

And when Our Lord says,

“and he whom thou now hast, is not thy husband.”

He now refers to an even worse husband than the dull senses or passions. He is referring to the “husband” who is Error. Error might be called an “adulterer”, because the understanding soul ought to be wedded to the truth, the understanding soul ought to be wedded to Christ.

It clearly follows what Saint Augustine says next:

The woman had been under the influence of error, which error was not her lawful husband, but an adulterer. Wherefore our Lord says, Put away that adulterer which corrupts thee, and call your husband, that you may understand Me.

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About marklangley

Academic Dean at The Lyceum (a school he founded in 2003, see theLyceum.org) Mark loves sacred music and Gregorian Chant and singing with his lovely wife, Stephanie, and their twelve children.
This entry was posted in Augustine, Catena Aurea, classical education, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to The Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well: Who Were Those Five Husbands?

  1. I’ve always taken the exchange to mean that the woman had been living (N.B. the editor of this blog has taken the liberty to soften the original word in bold) with 5 different men, none of whom were husband. Jesus called them husbands because she had enjoyed conjugal union with them – something that should only occur between spouses. One might also infer that the men were husbands to other women. Thus, she indeed had 5 husbands – 5 husbands to other women.

    • marklangley says:

      Eric, I see what you’re saying but I have a couple difficulties:
      1) your interpretation makes the woman look worse than the words of scripture imply of themselves.
      2) I don’t see that Our Lord could truthfully call them husbands under your interpretation. It seems needlessly complex to assert that Our Lord was speaking euphemistically.
      Hope you don’t mind me editing your comment a bit.

  2. Antoinette Merenda says:

    Was it not so in Jewish tradition a man could divorce his wife, but not the other way around? I often thought this woman had qualities that each of her husbands found undesirable and therefore could have had 5 husbands. Life was not easy for woman without a man to provide for her and the family. I try to see these things in the time period they occurred. Jesus may have been telling her to clean up your act, this man is not your husband. Turn to God and he will take care of you.
    Just my take on the story.

  3. Bob Wilkins says:

    Another interesting and yet plain interpretation might be simply we always thirst for joy at the wrong wells, we seek joy and happiness in the wrong places, in creatures/created things rather than in that font of love, joy and hope that is eternal. She had sought happiness in 5 husbands, and was living with a 6th, seeking her joy in things of the earth, as so many today, as well, and in the exact same way…..today, it might not be a formal marriage, but at least half of all adults have had multiple sex partners, looking for that ONE who will make them well….

  4. Paul says:

    Thanks Mark Langley. Very enjoyable and enlightening insights. Bravo!

  5. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    ” I find it scarcely credible that anyone could have that many spouses.”

    It is worth recalling Sara the daughter of Raguel, about whom Tobias says to Raphael (appearing as Azarias), ” I hear that she hath been given to seven husbands, and they all died: moreover I have heard, that a devil killed them” (Tobias 6:14, Douay-Rheims translation of Vulgate).

    • Alessandro says:

      Unfortunately, too many Bible scholars and theologians put Tobit in the pure realm of fiction. As for me, I believe Tobit to be based on a true story – After all, I can’t see anything extraordinary in it that justifies a rejection of Tobit as an historical account. Back on the Samaritan, she might have been repudiated by her husbands for some reason we don’t know for sure. Possibly she was constantly unhappy with her husbands and they divorced her of a healthy relationship. After all, this is what happens in our society in case of divorce.

  6. pjkizer says:

    I always thought it was five physical men (the exact number not being the point; but “more than one”). However Mark, your interpretation strikes a chord with me – and thanks for bringing St Augustine into the discussion.

  7. Douglas says:

    For such a thoughtful and well written article, and very insightful, I’m surprised you would divert attention with this “Even the present occupant of the White House has only had three wives.”. Unnecessary. Good prose, like good poetry, has exactly all that is needed, and nothing more. Unless there is a hidden message I didn’t get.

  8. Unanimous Consent says:

    In John, Christ enters into this conversation with the woman at the well by saying “Give me something to drink.” Then he enters into a conversation with the woman whom Jews at that time would see as defiled.

    He says go get your husband.

    Now, go to the Crucifixion in John. Christ says “I thirst.” Then he binds John the Beloved, as a son, to the undefiled woman, the Blessed Mother.

    Contemplate.

  9. Roberto Helguera says:

    Going back to Genesis, Chapter 23, Jacob´s well is where Abraham sent his servant to find the future wife for his son Isaac. The key words to the servant were to ask for water (apparently the water well was where a man met a woman at first to express interest in her, I heard), and if she offered water not only to him but for all the camels, then that was the sign that, in this case, Rebekah, would be Isaac´s future wife. There is a parallelism here when Christ asks the Samaritan woman for water, declaring, as it were, His interest in her as a woman. The stories are very much parallel in many respects – the asking for water by a stranger, the promise of wealth and a future husband – better life – salvation (Abraham’s servant gives Rebekah a ring and two bracelets with numerological meanings) the woman running back to tell her family what happened to her, believing it comes from God, the offer to eat and rest refused by the servant and by Christ here (in one of the accounts) until the job is done.

    All seems as if Jesus is fulfilling at a higher level that promise of God to Abraham to give him innumerable descendants through Isaac, and here Jesus opening His salvation to pagans as well, to be descendants of Abraham – the new Israel, the Catholic Church. Interesting: Rebekah was a virgin, untouched by man, whereas the Samaritan was very much touched by man, seemingly. By the time Jesus comes, things are a bit more damaged than at Abraham’s time. Christ uses the offer of a “new” water (obviously baptism and all that He needed to endure to make baptism what it is) to purify what was impure and make it worth His interest (or husbandry, after the five false husbands, if we follow the parallel stories). These could be simply five men who used the woman, or, the five false gods mentioned in your account. I had read that interpretation before, with much relish. The woman seems to understand Jesus literally, though.

    Not sure this adds much, but I heard this passage explained this way this past Sunday. Thanks Mark for your good post!

  10. Patrick says:

    As was mentioned in other comments, the well is symbolic of marriage. Marriage is a covenant relationship, similar to the covenants established between God and His people. I have always seen in this woman a type of the chosen people of God; a people of 5 failed (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David) covenants. “Come see a man who has told me everything I have ever done. Could he be the Christ?” Within this interpretation of the 5 husbands, the 5 covenantal relationships, she really could say that in that one petition to fetch her husband, it summarizes the entire history of man’s inability to remain faithful to the covenants offered him. Thus she represents the People of God, who will eventually become the Church, the bride of Christ. Christ meets his bride at the well, just as in the Old Testament. To his bride he will give living water (in baptism) we will no longer worship in Jerusalem but worship in spirit and in truth (The Holy Eucharist).

  11. David Rudmin says:

    What you said about the woman being herself an archetype of all of Samaria is pretty much straight out of the writings of Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich (In her 4-volume “Life of Christ”).

  12. Sanjay Paloccaran says:

    Very glad to hear all your views.Many levels of thinking indeed.The one from Patrick, I felt,really goes to the largest scale of thinking.Wow !

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