Posted by: mattcolvin | February 14, 2012

The “Woman at a Well” Typescene in John 4


Wednesday of Sexagesima Week: John 4:1-26.

The Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 is the climax of a number of earlier Biblical “woman at a well” typescenes. These are doubtless discussed in numerous works of scholarship, but the one I’ve enjoyed most is Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative. We find the typescene at work in the betrothal of Rebecca, of Zipporah, of Rachel, and even (in a warped form) the meeting of David and Bathsheba. Alter gives the ingredients:

– The bridegroom or his surrogate travels to a foreign land.
– He encounters a girl (invariable denoted with the Hebrew na’arah) at a well.
– Someone draws water.
– The girl rushes home to announce the stranger’s arrival. (Verbs meaning “hurry” and “run” usually occur.)
– The betrothal is made, usually after a meal.

A knowledge of the ingredients of the typescene enables us to recognize the significance of deviations and variations from this norm. For instance, the fact that Isaac, the most passive of the patriarchs, operates via a legate, Eleazar of Damascus. Or that the girl draws water, because Rebekah is a woman of initiative. Or that Jacob has to remove a stone from the mouth of the well — the first of many he will move or use in his life. Or that Moses has to drive off hostile shepherds by force, already acting as a deliverer. Ruth 2, despite not taking place at a well, alludes to the typescene when Boaz asks, “Whose na’arah is that?” and instructs Ruth (2:8-9), “Stay here with my na’arotai… When you are thirsty, go to the jars and drink from what the young men (ne’arim) draw.” There are also aborted versions of this typescene, as when Saul, in search of his father’s asses, decides to turn aside and consult the local seer, Samuel. “They were just coming to the ascent of the town when they met some young women (ne’aroth) going out to draw water.” But no betrothal follows.

John 4 must be read against all this background:

4:4 – Jesus “needed to go through Samaria” (foreign country!). Not only is there a well, but it is expressly said to be Jacob’s well.

But the Samaritan woman is no Rebekah, and emphatically not a virgin. She hastens to the city to bring good news to others, but it is not the same sort of news as the other rushing maidens in Scripture.

It is also significant that Jesus has already been called the νύμφιος (“bridegroom”) in John 3.


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