THE MIDDLE EAST AND THE BIBLE
on the Crises in the Middle East
and the Plan of God Revealed in the Scriptures
II. The Promises to Isaac and Ishmael
The Place of Ishmael in Islam
Abraham is clearly significant in the formation of Islam; he is found in 25 suras of the Koran. He is a prophet, one who received revelation, the example of pure faith, who paid his debt in full, and a strict monotheist who struggled with idol worshipers. Islam is said to be an expression of the religion of Abraham, the friend of God; and Abraham is considered a prototype of Mohammed.
The Koran is said to have been given by revelation to the illiterate Mohammed by dictation. But it is certain that was made from several sources chosen because they fit the ideas of Mohammed: (1) pre-Islamic traditional beliefs in poetic form, (2) Talmudic legends from Jews in Arabia, (3) misinformation from heretical Christian sects, (4) eastern ideas from Persia and India (Arabia was under Persian control), and (5) ideas from his friends who were seeking truth. The most frequent source is the material from the Jewish Talmud.
Mohammed appears to have made several changes in the traditions. First, people would now face Mecca to pray, and not Jerusalem. Second, Abraham and Ishmael are said to have built the Kaaba, the black structure in the middle of the shrine in Mecca (originally housing many gods), and rivals Solomon’s building of the temple. Third, Ishmael comes to prominence as the “chosen of God.”
Ishmael then becomes recognized as a prophet (even though he came to prominence late in the Koran--early on he is not mentioned, only Isaac and Jacob).
But later Mohammed taught that Abraham went to Mecca to sacrifice his son (who is not named)--that son came to be identified as Ishmael. Mohammed also believed that Abraham accompanied Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca before returning home to Sarah. Ishmael married a South Arabian; Abraham came to visit him and together they built the black stone shrine. Islam heralds God as the “God of Abraham, Ishmael, and Mohammed.”
And in the traditions Ishmael is in strife to inherit the promises to Abraham (Genesis 16, 17, 21 form a paradigm of the conflict). At the center is Jerusalem, which becomes another holy spot for Islam (the third in order after Mecca and Medina), for the tradition is that Abraham built it, Mohammed’s flight and descent were located there, and Arabs possessed it. Jerusalem is not important in the Koran.
Christians need to know more about these kinds of traditions in Islam, because right or wrong they are traditions deeply rooted in religion and politics. In dealing with Islamic people Christians should focus more on God’s grace in choosing a disobedient people rather than giving the impression that Israel was God’s favorite over all other nations.
Ishmael and the Arabs
The question of racial classification is a difficult one. There are many criteria that are used to determine links, but they all fail. There are some broad biological features that characterize some of the Arabs, but no similarity among all of them. The Arabs are a collection of local races that make up a geographical race (and no geographical group is pure). The Arabs are a real melting pot because of nomadic movement, so that all origins are forgotten. The geographical location is the Arabian peninsula, with the apparent origin in the northern part. Note: We are concerned here with the Arabs because we are looking at the beginnings of Islam; today there are many non-Arab nations that are Islamic.
In the Bible the word “Arab” is ‘arab, which seems to mean a “nomad, bedouin,” i.e., the free moving people of the desert. Arabs are classified as desert Arabs (‘araab) or city dwelling Arabs (‘arab). The Arabic language was named for the ‘araab.
The name is first used in secular sources in the Assyrian texts of the 9th century B.C. and then in each subsequent century (750 by Tiglathpileser; 717 by Sargon, etc.). They are desert tribes who had kings and queens, and caravans with camels, and spice trade. Southern Arabia was highly advanced by the 8th century B.C.
In the biblical records there are passages that tell of Solomon’s trading for gold with the Arabs, as well as wars with Arabs by subsequent kings, such as Jehoram and Uzziah, and threats by Arab tribes after the restoration. They are clearly understood to be tribal groups of free moving nomads in opposition to Israel.
The name may be etymologically connected to the name for “Hebrew” as well. “Hebrew” is ‘ibri, and “Arab” is ‘arab (the same letters, but in a different order). Both seem to describe a nomadic or bedouin traveller in the land: Abram the Hebrew!
The Arabs are divided into what may be called indigenous Arabs and “arabicized” Arabs. There are five early origins or heads of Arab nations: (1) Lud, son of Shem, (2) Aram, son of Shem, (3) Joktan, son of Eber, (4) Ishmael, son of Abraham, and (5) Midian, son of Abraham. The first two are indigenous (see the genealogies in Gen.10, 11). The Ishmaelites are only a fraction of the Arabs, but the name Ishmaelites in the Bible and in extra-biblical literature is used for other Arab tribes too (Midianites, Amalekites, Arabs). So the interchange enables one to speak of the name Ishmael as representing the Arabs in the region. Besides, Islam practices circumcision, usually at 13, even though it is not mentioned in the Koran--again, the Ishmaelite tradition forms a strong link to Arab or Islamic custom. So “Ishmael” is a useful designation of the Arabs, especially since he is one of the fathers of Islam, giving them an identity. But the actual identification in history is more complicated.
Islam has a geneology from Adam to Mohammed. It follows the line through Ishmael, and then from Kedar and Nebaioth of Ishmael through about 25 generations to Mohammed. So in view of all this, we can say that what is said of Ishmael in the Bible applies to the bulk of Arab tribes in the Fertile Crescent.
The Covenant Promises through Isaac
Isaac, according to the Bible, was God’s choice to be the heir of the covenant and its promises. But this does not mean that God’s covenant promises were fulfilled, or will be fulfilled, to anyone born into a Jewish family. The promises made to Abram in Genesis 12 were contingent upon Abram’s obedience: Properly read, Genesis 12:1-3 says:
Get you out from your country, your people, and your father’s house
to the land that I will show you;
and (then) I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you,
and I will make your name great, (in order that you might)
Be a blessing; (and when you are a blessing, then)
I will bless all those who bless you,
but the one who treats you lightly I must curse,
and all the families on earth will be blessed through you.
In Genesis 15:7-21 God turns the promises into a covenant by swearing by himself to fulfill the promises. The Abrahamic Covenant is therefore unilateral, unconditional, and eternal. It is repeated through both testaments as such. And, it is repeated during the great apostasy in Jeremiah 31:36.
However, even though the covenant is sure, as all God’s sworn covenants are, and the promises certainly to be fulfilled, there are conditions. But the conditions do not concern whether the promises will be fulfilled, but when, and for whom (this is a fundemental distinction many miss in reading the Bible--sinfulness in Israel did not end the covenant or covenant promises, it eliminated them from participation in them, and indicated another generation would receive them). In other words, the promises to Abraham through Isaac will be fulfilled, but individual participation in them requires faith demonstrated by obedience, and only when the nation as a whole fulfills these conditions will the final fulfillment come (we will have a section on prophecy). Only those who receive God’s loyal love and walk in obedience to him will receive the full blessings of the covenant.
The land was a gift from God by grace, and not deserved by Israel or anyone else. He is the owner of the land and will bestow it on Abraham’s seed when the time is right. But if Israel is not a blessing, if they do not receive the love of God and enter the covenant by faith in Christ, they will not have a share in it. Now that Christ has come, they can only receive the promises by faith in their Messiah. God will fulfill the promises in the eschaton, in the latter days, and not to an atheistic or disobedient state as we find today. For Christians to defend Israel’s possession of the land at the expense of the lives of Palestinians misses the point--God himself drove the Israelites out of the land time and time again because of such practices and unbelief. We can believe that God has a future for believing Israel, but that does not mean we must endorse everything unbelieving Israel does.
The Arabs and the Jews can only be united in the blessing of God when they come to faith in Jesus Christ.
The Promises to Ishmael
The setting of the Ishmael material is with the story of Abraham and Hagar (Gen. 16, 17, and 21 for the most part). In 16 Sarai decided to follow social custom and gave Hagar to her husband for a slave wife. When Hagar became pregnant, Sarai realized she would lose her status and oppressed the woman. Hagar fled, but God found her and provided water by the well. He named the boy “Ishmael” (God hears); and the place was called “Beerlahairoi” (the well of the God who sees). Sarai had no right to expel Hagar; but God took care of Hagar and made promises to her by the well. She then returned to inform Abram that “God sees” and “God hears.”
The promises made for Ishmael were without conditions: (1) God would bless him greatly [God uses the same language that was used for Abram], (2) he would be fruitful and multiply [again the language is repeated], (3) he would be the father of 12 princes, and (4) he would become a great nation. The fact that there are so many Ishmaelite Arabs in the region is a fulfillment of the promises of God to Hagar and Ishmael! Most people miss that point. God has a good deal of interest in them too, and desires that they be saved too.
In chapter 17 God announced that Sarah would have a child. Abraham was delighted, but wondered why it could not be Ishmael, because he loved him. God promised a future for Ishmael, but the covenant would remain with Isaac’s line. Now Abraham would be the father of a multitude of nations.
In Genesis 21 when Isaac was born there was a conflict between Ishmael and the new child, so that again Hagar was to be sent away. Here again Hagar was in difficulty, and God rescued her again and repeated the promise of a great nation.
The care for Hagar by God, and the love for Ishmael by Abraham, should make us cautious about discarding this people. So the promises to Ishmael were four:
(1) promise of descendants;
(2) promise of divine attention [God hears and rescues the outcast and the afflicted and will not let them perish],
(3) promise of a unique character [a wild donkey of a man, a complement--tough, reliable, valued, and suited to the terrain], and
(4) the promise of a divine destiny--antagonism and conflict with everyone, and his brothers will fear him. When the descendants act like the ancestor, they will fulfill this destiny of animosity.
The departure of Hagar from the land was not divine displeasure, but divine wisdom and love. They will not possess the land, but they will make it difficult for unbelieving Israel to have it either. The Arabs are not here and numerous just because of Abram’s sin with Hagar; they are here because God has blessed and multiplied them through a son of Abraham. God’s choice of Israel was not favoritism, but the choice solely by grace of one line to be the channel of blessing so that all might be blessed. This includes great blessings for the Arabs, now, and even greater if they come to faith in the only one who can bless people with an eternal identity and inheritance based on the promises to Abraham. Christians must keep a balanced biblical perspective on the people in the land and the grace of God. “Grace” does not mean one group is better than the other--it means in spite of their sin God chose them to be the instrument of his revelation and salvation in the world. Choosing to work through Israel does not mean that all Israelites are automatically saved, and all Arabs are not. Salvation is another matter for the grace of God.
Today we have to have a better theological understanding of God’s workings so that we do not follow the shallow minded and popular approach of simply being pro-Israeli because God chose them. It is far more complicated than that; and all we have to do is look at how God dealt with unbelieving and unrighteous Israel to see the point. All people, both Jews and Arabs too, must turn to Christ by faith to have any share in the promises, i.e., salvation, eternal life, a share in the world to come. And God will not fulfill all his promises until the coming of Christ in glory and the beginning of his making all things new. If the ultimate fulfillment of the promises will be in the new heaven and the new earth as Isaiah and Revelation say, then only those who have a share in Christ’s kingdom will ever see it. The Christian witness must set aside the question of the land and the choice of Israel as the instrument of God’s revelation and focus on God’s grace to sinners.