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THE MIDDLE EAST AND THE BIBLE

 

 

Reflections

on the Crises in the Middle East

and the Plan of God Revealed in the Scriptures

 

 

 

The complicated troubles in the Middle East raise all kinds of questions for Christians, especially those living in the West.  While it would take a good deal of time to address each and every one of them in detail, it is important to keep some very basic things in mind.  This series will focus primarily on the subjects of the Jews and the Arabs, and the Land, especially in connection with the Palestinian cause, not only because Islamic people constantly list this as one of their main causes, but also because it has been an ongoing problem for some time, much longer than the last fifty years.

People in Christianity have a number of differing views on these issues. The evangelical Christians for the most part take a more pro-Israeli stance in the conflict for any of a number of reasons: biblically because of the relation of Israel to the biblical line to Jesus and prophecy, emotionally because of the holocaust and the constant effort by other nations to deny Israel’s right to exist, and practically because the Arab world is so foreign and troubling to them, and terrorism seems to them to be connected to the troubling Arab world.  Mainstream denominational Christianity is likely to be ambivalent towards Israel and may even be pro-Arab for a number reasons: theologically because they like to focus their attention on needy people, especially in the third world, biblically because they have replaced Israel with the Church in their thinking about the text, and emotionally because there is a carry-over of anti-Semitism that has plagued the history of the Church from the Fathers to today.  (I am speaking in very general descriptions here, I need to say; the issues are  complex and open to many views).  

In the land itself there are major disagreements.  There are Jewish people who are atheists and really do not care about Jerusalem or biblical promises; there are the very religious ultra-orthodox people who do not believe that the modern state of Israel is legitimate because Messiah has not yet come; and there are militant Jewish settlers who believe the land is their land and they should not wait for God to give it to them.  To them their settlements are permanent and there will be no Palestinian takeover.   A large number of secular and religious Jews just want to live in peace.  And there are a growing number of Messianic Jews (they do not like to use the word “Christian” for obvious reasons), although the exact numbers are not certain.

On the Arab side there are militant groups who do not want Israel to exist, leaders and educators who do not even refer to Israel, teach their children to despise Israelis and the west that supports Israel, and often support acts of violence.  The official Palestinian position has not changed: there is no place for Israel on their future map. But there are many ordinary Arabs who simply want recognition and freedom to be out from under Israel’s control. And then there are Arabs who are Israeli citizens, and in the past have even served in the Israeli army (but they are turning more and more against Israel).  And we must not forget the large number of Arabs who are Christian, usually Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Anglican (although their numbers are dwindling as they move to the States).  The situation in the land is not at all as simple as the news media would imply.

In spite of the cycle of violence and the rhetoric, the Jews and the Palestinians are going to have to find a way to live together in that land because they simply have no place else to go--no one wants them, and they do not want to be anywhere else.  And they both have claims to the land.  The first step to any solution will have to guarantee security and recognition to Israelis and respect and recognition to the Palestinians.   Then they will be ready to consider other things.  But they have not been able to get to the first step yet.  Many strategists have concluded that nothing will be achieved without strong pressure on both sides by other countries (which has not happened yet) and some kind of international security force to maintain the integrity of agreements (which is not acceptable to either side).  The problem, of course, runs to different ideologies and traditions that have centuries of animosity behind them. 

So in these reflections I will consider some very basic things about the land, the people, and the situation in general, and try to clarify something of the biblical teaching on the matter.  It is an area in which almost everything that is said will be controversial.  And so I would hope that these comments will be useful as people study and come to their own conclusions.  People may certainly have their own ideas about many of these matters, but they must be sure that they have a clear understanding of what the issues are, biblical and otherwise.  I do not have the answer for the Middle East--there may not be an answer, other than cultivating an uneasy co-habitation in a troubled land.  I am only interested in laying out some of the facts and figures that will help people understand more the reasons behind the turmoil and the difficulties to be overcome.  Politicians and preachers make it sound so easy--“Why don’t the Arabs do this?” or “Why doesn’t Israel just do that?”  Perhaps if they lived in the Arab world, or the Israeli world, for a while, they might understand more.  

 

 

I.  The Players:

Political History of “the Land”

                                                             

Who are all these nations and groups in the Middle East?  What is their history, especially in relation to Israel?  And what is their interest in the ongoing crisis? And who has a right to live in the land known as Israel/Palestine?  Who was there first?  Who has been there the longest?  When we look at the issues from these questions alone, then we would have to answer no one and everyone.  Let’s run down the history--not just who lived there, but who controlled it.  We can go back thousands and thousands of years to start this survey--the present groups are late-comers.

 

Old Stone Age                       Neanderthal types found in Mount Carmel caves with modern type remains, so Indo-european

Stone/Copper Age                  River Settlers of unknown origin; refining settlements in the desert region

Bronze Age                             Major cities built by early early inhabitants:

3200-2000                   Canaanite Empire of mixed ethnic groups (dozens);

Overtaken by Amorite “invasion” or western Semites;

Three “world empires”: Egypt, Canaan, Sumer/Akkad

2000-1500                   Abraham’s time--Canaanite empire disentegrated, but Canaanites still controlled the good land; Babylon a major power (southern Iraq); Hittite raids (south-eastern Turkey);

Various bedouin tribes in trade caravans and raids.

1500-1200                   Egyptian control at its strength, from Megiddo down the coast; Hittite (Indo-europeans from Turkey) control in the north, engaged in wars with Egypt over territory; Israelites “conquered” the land, held only the major cities and environs inland; Canaanite tribes remained in the land in the hills especially; and Philistines (Aegean “Greeks” tried to conquer Egypt but driven north) entered in the south (Gaza) and spread throughout the land to menace Israel (compare the Iliad with Trojan wars in the Aegean). 

Iron Age

1200-1000                   Regular disruptions and terrorist raids by many local tribes (not unlike terrorist groups today);

Israel never controlled the whole promised land.           

1010-930                     Israelite United Monarchy; major world powers weak, but

Egypt controlled the coastal plain.  Wars with Syria.

931-722                       Two kingdoms: Israel in the north, Judah in the south, so often at war with each other.  Syrians from Damascus a constant problem; no lasting peace from surrounding tribes, Moabites, Ammonites, Midianites, etc.

Egypt dominant at first (sacked and looted Jerusalem)

Assyria (northern Iraq) dominant from 850-700 B.C.

722-586                       Judah now remained alone: partially under Assyrian threat at first (722-700), and then under Babylonian (southern Iraq) control at the end.  Babylon defeated all the puppet states in the way; Tyre and Sidon destroyed, Canaanites fled to Carthage in North Africa.

586-536                       Babylonian Captivity (people exiled to Babylon or fled) Those remaining in the land under governors for Babylon.

Persian Period                        Persia (Iran) defeated Babylon (539) and restored Israel.

536-333                       Land under Persian governors, conflicts with Ammonites (Jordan) and Samaritans (what is today the west bank); Persia occupied more and more with Greek wars.

Greek Period                        Greek conquest of “world” put the land under Greek control; Jews favored by Alexander.

300-200                       Division of region under generals Ptolemy in South and Egypt, and Seleucid in North, Antioch in Syria.  Struggle between Ptolemaic kings and Seleucids.

200-160                       Seleucids gained control, ruled the land from Antioch, sought Hellenization of the whole region.  Opposition.

Hasmonean Period      

160-140                       Wars of rebellion by Jews, led by the priestly Maccabeans

146                              Carthage destroyed, ending Canaanite existence           

140-60                        Hasmonean Rule--but very corrupt and confusing

Roman Period

60-37                          Rome stepped in and made the region the Syrian

Province of their empire; ruled by client kings

37-4                            Herod the Great reigned; he was Idumean (=Edomite)

4BC-325AD               Direct Roman rule over Judea, client kings, and governors.

66-70                          Jewish revolt in the empire; Jerusalem and temple destroyed; zealots held out for 3 more years in the desert

135                              Hadrian ended second Jewish revolt; slew 600,000 Jews; named the land Palestine (after Greek “Philistine” presence, connecting it to the beloved Troy [Iliad and Aeneid); banned Jews from Jerusalem and Bethlehem; they and many Christians fled to Jordan; new Jewish center of study was in Galilean cities.

Byzantine Period

325-550 A.D.             Christianized rule from Constantinople, church building in the land; synagogues and churches flourished.

A time of peace

Persian Invasion                    Brief time of invasion and plunder by Persia, weakened the empire’s hold on the region.

Islamic Period                       Conquest of Arab pagan world by monotheists (622); and Jerusalem seized by 637.  Period of conquest was 632-732. Islamic rule was charitable to people who surrendered and lived by their law and paid their taxes.  Now the rule of the whole Middle East was by Caliphs (successors of the prophet), first from Damascus, then Bagdad (when Syria and Palestine were let to decline) and then Cairo.

Crusader Period                    Seljuk Turks invaded from the north and seized Bagdad and Cairo and Jerusalem.  They suppressed Christian worship and pilgrimages. The response--the crusades began (period is roughly 1095-1291).

Kingdom of Jerusalem          For 100 years there was a Christian Kingdom 1099-1199.

Crusade type wars continued for centuries, with Islamic forces gradually gaining control and making inroads into southern Europe, but stopped at Venice and driven back.

Islamic Control                     For the next few centuries the land was controlled by first Abayyids and then Mamelukes for 250 years (1291-1516).  Mamelukes were European boys captured in the wars and trained in Islamic culture and warfare; they became powerful and took over for a while.

Ottoman Empire                    By 1516 the Turks gained control of a vast empire, bringing to an end the thousand year Byzantine reign; they controlled it for 400 years.  At the end of World War I, the Islamic Empire of Istanbul was defeated and sectioned into the modern states.  Wars were fought between Russia and France over who would control then region.  But it was sectioned for mandates.

(Al Qaida looks to the end of this empire as one cause to fight to regain an Islamic empire over the whole region--an Islamic empire was dismantled by the western powers!)

Mandates                               Contrary to promises made to the Arabs during the great war, the land was divided between the British (forming Iraq, Israel/Palestine) and the French (Syria, Lebanon).  The Arabs were pushed back to the Arabian peninsula under King Faisel.  The Kingdom of Jordan was also formed.  Syria and Lebanon fought to gain their freedom from France.  Damascus was again the capital of Syria.

State of Israel                       In 1948 the State of Israel was formed by the Nations; the West Bank and East Jerusalem were part of the new kingdom of Jordan centered in Amman (Ammonite kingdom).  Arab tribes living in the land, “Palestinians,” were in Jordan’s kingdom (he was not Jordanian, but a descendant of Muhammed). In 1967 King Hussein threw in with Egypt’s war against Israel, and lost the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Israel; Egypt lost the Sinai. The  “Palestinians” were welcomed into Jordan; but they attempted to kill the king and take over.  Arafat, a Libyan, became head of the Palestinian cause.

 

 

Observations

 

So who has controlled this land?  Almost every major power in the history of the race.  And today many countries have lingering ties and claims to the land, this little section of real estate that has no other claim to fame than that it is a land bridge between continents, and before the modern age of travel was the heart of international trade.  There are over 250 million people around the land who claim Islam; and in the land there is the State of Israel, about 6 million people.

 

Egypt              Mostly Arab and Islamic, but with a large Christian population (20%) that is often persecuted by extremists; Egypt made treaties with Israel to regain the Sinai they lost in the war. 

Syria               Closest ties to Israel ethnically, but at war with Israel for over fifty years now (without any shooting), Syria wants the Golan Heights back, but will not try another war to do it (they have lost three).  They are believed to support Hezbolah to trouble northern Israel, but officially deny it.

Turkey           Not an Arab world, but European; and yet 99% Islamic.  Have treaties with Israel, and are facing tension with Syria and Iraq over water (which flows from Turkey into those lands), and with the Kurds who want independence.

Iraq                 Arab and Islamic world predominently, not as strict as Iran and the Taliban.  Saddam was not a rigid Moslem, and the million or so Christians had freedom; now with the fall of the Baath party, Islamic extremists would like to turn the country into a religious state, and Christians are concerned.

Iran                 Indo-European stock, and not Semitic, and yet Islamic.  Ancient Persia, now called Iran, always at war with the people of Iraq, who are Semites (today Arabs).  The Iran and Iraq war of the 80s copst about a million lives.

Arabia             Saudi and Gulf States are Arab and Islamic.  Ancestry is largely Joktanite, but mixed.  Saudi is the religious center for Islam.  Islamic extremists are offended by the presence of western armies stationed in this holy Islamic land.

Palestine         Arab tribes that may have been partly Ishmaelite, but mostly so impoverished and disconnected it is hard to distinguish.  Arab bedouin have lived there for ages.  The modern attempt to claim Canaanite ancestry is not at all convincing.  A people that no one cares to help.

Israel              Small country (about 6 million people), but among the 25 richest in the world.  Jews have inhabited the land since the conquest under Joshua; but most were exiled or fled (important to note that there have been Jewish cities in the land all through the last two thousand years).  Jewish immigrants from Russia, Europe, Ethiopia and elsewhere have returned to the land.  Jerusalem is their capital--but five other countries also lay claim to Jerusalem as their capital (at least spiritually).