What about the idea that the Arabs and Jews are descendants of Ishmael and Isaac respectively? Ruth Lyons
On Aug 3 I received the following question on Facebook from a prayer partner:
“Ruth, from your ministry there and also your knowledge of the Bible, what do you believe about the idea that the Arabs and Jews are descendants of Ishmael and Isaac respectively?”
I learned quickly after arriving on the Eurasian field in ME that there are a few very sensitive topics: the Crusades, Palestine, Cyprus and Kurds. Greece is not sensitive –the Turks and Greeks just don’t like each other! Palestine and Israel is a very sensitive subject in the country where I minister and I do not easily discuss this with people because of this. I’ve also learned there is always more than meets the eye! We have to dig sometimes to discover the truth.
The issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is very political here. More so these days as the present government is very pro-Palestinian. When I first came to the field, I believed the land belonged to God’s chosen people, and Arabs just needed to accept reality; but now I must admit, I still hold my belief that the land belonged to God’s chosen people but at the same time I think people need to compromise when possible if the end result is peace and avoids the killing of innocent people.
Over the years I have met many Middle Easterners (Arabs and Turks) who are deeply troubled when U.S. evangelicals zealously support political policies and aggressive expansionist actions of the state of Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. And they automatically associate all evangelicalism with Christian Zionism—which they see as political and an instrument of Western colonialism and American imperialism.
Christian Zionists characteristically anticipate fulfillment of a prophetic scenario that is reflected in popular books such as the Left Behind series. I do not agree with the teaching in this series. This theological framework understands that despite the creation of the church, the nation of Israel continues to have a distinct role in the redemptive plan of God. Upon Christ’s second coming, a regenerate Israel will play a leading role in mediating God’s blessing to the nations during the millennial reign. Being raised Church of God and a COG minister, I am amillenial. However, as a consequence of the teaching, many give unquestioning allegiance to Israel, concluding that God is on the side of the Jews. Most Arab evangelicals, on the other hand, are pro-PLO, anti-Israel, and deny any unique role for eschatological (end-time) Israel. Both camps filter their political and social experiences through their theological grids, with some unhealthy consequences. Arab Christians often seem to justify, or at least “understand,” the mentality that sanctifies suicide bombing as martyrdom. Pro-Israeli evangelicals often overlook Israel’s abuse of Palestinian rights because their theology says that God is on the side of the Jews. (The Turkish evangelical church is young – really only entering its second generation therefore we try to avoid this whole issue.)
My personal experience which includes 34 years of ministry in the Middle East, has acquainted me with both of these positions. I used to think God was not finished with Israel and would fulfill all biblical promises and prophecies concerning his chosen people, before studying under Dr. Jones at GBC and being in ministry. But seeing current events and recent history through Arab and Muslim-colored glasses revealed to me that the Palestinians (including many Christians) had suffered serious injustices. I do believe that Israel remains God’s chosen people but can’t reconcile all the violence. Jesus was confrontational but not violent. The result of living in this part of the world and personal study of the Bible, I believe, I have obtained a more balanced theology, one that allows me to take seriously both the biblical teaching about Israel’s special place in God’s unfolding purpose and the cries of injustice by Palestinians.
I will share some points from a piece I read a few years ago in Christianity Today, “A Middle Way in the Middle East: A third theological path through the Israeli-Palestinian thicket” by Mark Harlan (April 1, 2003). Harlan states two scriptural teachings which make sense to me which he suggests we don’t have to always side with Israel against the Palestinians, or vice versa, in order to be biblical:
1. The Abrahamic covenant is both conditional and unconditional. The basis of God’s plan for the nation of Israel is his covenant with Abraham. Theologians have hotly debated whether this covenant is conditional (and thereby invalidated by Israel’s unfaithfulness) or unconditional (and therefore a permanent promise).
Arab Christians, often influenced by Islam and the plo, normally focus exclusively on the conditional elements. On the other hand, pro-Israeli Western Christians tend to focus solely on the unconditional elements.
It is best to recognize that there are both conditional and unconditional elements in the covenant. The unconditional elements demonstrate God’s unmerited grace in electing the participants and his unwavering faithfulness in fulfilling the covenant. At the same time, certain conditions had to be fulfilled for the covenant to become a reality: Abraham had to leave Ur and most of his family and go to Canaan. Once he had done that, the Lord entered into an unconditional covenant with Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and Jacob (with whom God confirmed and expanded the covenant).
But later restatements of the Abrahamic covenant (such as Gen. 22:16ff.) suggest conditionality. Rather than trying to deny this duality, we can harmonize it as follows: The promise of land, seed, and blessing to Abraham’s descendants is an irrevocable covenant from God. The experience of these blessings, however, was conditioned by the faith-obedience of each generation of Israel. The purpose of the Mosaic covenant (plainly conditional) was to make clear to Israel the faith-obedience necessary to participate in the blessings of the promises given to Abraham.
Adherence to the Mosaic covenant would enable any generation of Israel to experience the blessings promised by the Abrahamic covenant, while unfaithfulness would result in curses, though the promise of restoration to the land (after repentance) remains in perpetuity.
2. Israel must fulfill the covenant stipulations of righteousness. If Jews today want to make a Scripture-based claim to the land, then all parties can fairly demand that they adhere to the stipulations of their own Scriptures which are as follows:
The purpose of God’s granting the covenant to Abraham’s seed was that they might bring blessing to “all the families of the earth.” Possession of the land must bring blessing to non-Israelites and ultimately to the world.
We must also remember that ownership of the land is ultimately God’s. The Israelites are only residing “aliens and tenants” (Lev. 25:23). The Lord warned the Israelites that if they failed to adhere to the covenant, then the land would “vomit them” from it (Lev. 18:24-30; 20:22-26; Deut. 4:25-27, 40; Deut. 8 and 9).
The Law of Moses forbids murder, theft, and coveting. Obtaining any land by means that violate any of these commands would invalidate alleged claims to such land on biblical bases. The case of Ahab murdering Naboth in order to obtain his land clearly reveals God’s intolerance for such conduct (1 Kings 21).
The conquest of Canaan does not provide a precedent for genocide or confiscation of land. Joshua’s mandate applied to a period when Canaanite religion and culture had plummeted to the depths of pagan depravity: it included sorcery, spiritism, and child sacrifice (Deut. 18:9-15). God gave Israel a special assignment to act as an instrument of his judgment on the Canaanites. Genesis 15 cannot be stated rationally that the Palestinian Arabs today are in the category of the Canaanites. The prophetic vision of resettlement of the Land after the exile is not based on violent takeover but on divine intervention (Isa. 60-61, Ezek. 36-37). We must also remember that the Lord promised to expel the Israelites from the land if they practiced any of these evils (Lev. 18:24-28).
Neither should the Palestinians be dealt with as Philistines. Socio-anthropologist support the idea that there is no relationship whatever between the Philistines of biblical times and the Palestinians of today, even though the names are related. The Philistines were descended from Japheth, while the Palestinians are Arabs descended from Shem. Many of the Palestinians are a genetic mixture of other peoples over the millennia.
Non-Israelites living in the land are not to be abused or oppressed. The Law repeatedly instructs Israel: “Do not mistreat an alien or oppress him, for you were aliens in Egypt” (Ex. 22:21). “The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt” (Lev. 19:34). Social welfare programs cared for aliens along with orphans and widows. These included the right to glean from harvest fields (Lev. 19:10; 23:27; Deut. 24:19-21), to receive a part of the distributed tithes (Deut. 14:29; 26:12) and to have protection from permanent slavery (Lev. 25:47-50).
Non-Israelites were to have access to the same legal system as Israelites. No law could bind aliens that did not also bind Israelites (Lev. 24:22; Num. 9:14; 15:16; 15:29). There was to be only one system of justice for all (Deut. 1:16; 24:17), and Israel could not deprive aliens of their rights (Deut. 27:19). Wages had to be fair and never withheld (Deut. 24:14). Aliens were equally entitled to the system of “cities of refuge” to protect the accused from revenge (Num. 35:15; Josh. 20:9).
The Palestinians as Arabs are not accursed sons of Ishmael destined to be eternal archenemies of Israel. Recent evangelical scholarship reveals the mistake of deriving a stereotype of Ishmael and his descendents from their portrayal in Scripture. To summarize Tony Maalouf’s findings in his 1998 dissertation at Dallas Theological Seminary, God promised to bless Ishmael (meaning “God hears,” Gen. 17:20), whom he so named after hearing Hagar’s affliction. To comfort her and encourage her to return to her mistress, the Lord promised to reverse Hagar’s fortunes in the life of her son.
Though Hagar experienced subjection, helplessness, and separation from her people because of her flight from the face of Sarah, the Lord promised to make her son free as a nomad, strong enough never to be subjugated permanently, and given a place in the presence (face) of his brothers (Israel) (Gen. 16:12). God was “with” Ishmael and remained uniquely present in his land of Paran and made him a great nation (Gen. 21:17-21; 25:12-17; Hab. 3:3).
In short, the Law demanded kind and just treatment of non-Israelites living in the land. Generous treatment should all the more be extended toward Arabs and Palestinians—for they are not “bad guys of the Bible,” but rather those whom God has determined to bless alongside Israel. Establishing peace between Ishmael and Isaac will not be easy, but it is not a hopeless cause—and certainly not precluded by theological necessity. Christians cannot succeed in fulfilling our biblical mandate to be peacemakers, however, unless we take more balanced theological and political positions on this issue.
One thing is for certain: We need to pray for peace and reconciliation though the latter may seem to be unthinkable. Let’s not forget that “all things are possible with God.” It’s important when talking with a Muslim to stick to basic Christianity and those truths and avoid sensitive issues.