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God's Covenant with Abraham
The origin of Israel and the Arab nations starts with Abraham. Abram (later called Abraham) was called by God to go from his home in Ur of the Chaldeans and travel to a land that God would give to him and his descendants (Fig.1). Scholars date this migration from Ur somewhere between 1900 and 1750 BC, and the land in question was Canaan. God told Abram that his descendants would become a great nation and that through this nation all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen 12.1-7). Later God confirmed this promise by a covenant:
'"I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you ... I will give to you and your descendants ... all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God."' (Gen 17.7,8)
Fig.2: The Tribes of Israel
Public Domain map courtesy Biblical Maps
The covenant between God and Abraham was unconditional, although God warned Israel that they may suffer (temporary) exile if they were disobedient to Him (Deut 28.15-37). Irrespective of how Israel behaved, it was certain that from Abraham would come a great nation and a great blessing to the nations, and Abraham's descendants would be given the so-called 'Promised Land' of Canaan as an everlasting possession. In line with His promise to Abraham (a Hebrew), God renamed his grandson Jacob as 'Israel' (Gen 32.28) and said to him:
'"The land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your descendants after you."' (Gen 35.12)
So who are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? They are of course the twelve tribes of Israel - Hebrew Israelites. Since these tribes will once more take up their role as a witness to the nations during the Millennium (Ezek 37, Ezek 40-48), it follows that they must be amongst those who are returning to the State of Israel today. Note also that, whilst it is common to refer to Abraham's descendents as 'Jews', this is not strictly accurate. Strictly speaking, today's Jews (Hebrew, 'Yehudim') are those who follow Judaism and who are descendents from the kingdom of Judah.
Lastly, where was Canaan, this Promised Land? Where did the twelve tribes of Israel settle? They settled mainly in the area currently occupied by Israel, including the West Bank, Gaza and the Golan Heights, although the tribes of Benjamin, Gad, Reuben and part of Manasseh settled east of the Jordan (Fig.2). This aligned with the boundary God gave them:
"I will fix your boundary from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the River Euphrates ... (Exod 23.31)
So at least some modern-day Israeli's are justifed in claiming that the land of Israel is theirs through God's covenant with Abraham.
God chose this great nation - Israel - to be His witness to the Gentile nations and to make a name for Himself:
'But now, says the Lord, ... He who formed you, O Israel, "Do not fear ... I have called you by name; you are Mine! ...You are My witnesses ... and My servant whom I have chosen ..."' (Isa 43.1,10)
"And what one nation on the earth is like Your people Israel, whom God went ... to make a name for Himself ... (2 Sam 7.23)
Isn't it amazing that this small nation, Israel, has survived for over 3,500 years, despite 2,000 years of exile and persecution? When King Louis XIV of France (1643-1715) asked Blaise Pascal, the great Christian philosopher, to give him proof of God. Pascal answered, 'Why the Jews, your Majesty, the Jews!'
In time Israel would lead to a blessing to all the nations. After God had tested Abraham with his son Isaac, God said:
'"... because you have ... not withheld your son ... I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens ... (and) in your seed, all the nations of the earth will be blessed ..."' (Gen 22.16-18)
Some 1900 years later this blessing was fulfilled in the birth of Jesus Christ. Christ was from the tribe of Judah (Gen 49.10), and Judah was one of the twelve sons of Jacob, who was the grandson of Abraham. In other words, salvation for the world (as in Christ) came from the Jews (Jn 4.22). Paul takes the reference to Abraham's 'seed' as a reference to Christ (Gal 3.16), whose genealogy is traced back to Abraham in Matthew's gospel (Mat 1.1-17). So in Gen 22 we have an early reference to the gospel that would be proclaimed as good news to the Gentile nations as well as to the Jews. Christ's offer of salvation for all through His death and resurrection was the promised blessing to all nations. Christ brings 'good news to the afflicted, binds up the broken hearted, and gives liberty to captives' (Isa 61.1).
Origin of the Arab Nations
In terms of married couples, the Arab nations can be traced back to Abram and his wife Sarai (later called Sarah), and the nation of Israel can be traced back to Isaac and his wife Rebecca. Both couples, and particularly Sarah and Rebecca, made serious mistakes.
Abram and Sarai were childless into old age. God had promised Abram that the covenant promises would be fulfilled through his own seed (Gen 15.4), but even in old age they had no heir. So Abraham listened to his wife and followed the custom of the day. He took her female servant Hagar (an Egyptian) as wife and she bore him a son, Ishmael (Gen 16.3).
But this was not God's plan for Abraham. When Abraham asked God to bless Ishmael as a servant of God, he was told "No"! God had other plans. This separation of the blessing is crucial to the understanding of the modern-day Arab-Israeli conflict. God said:
'"No, Sarah your wife will bear you a son (even though she was old), and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him (and his descendants) ... as for Ishmael (which means 'God hears'), I have heard you; ... I will bless him, and make him fruitful ... and I will make him a great nation ... but My covenant I will establish with Isaac."' (Gen 17.19-21)
Here we see the birth of two great peoples; Israel and the Arab nations. But the covenant promises of blessing and the land of Canaan went with Isaac, not Ishmael.
Following God's instruction, Abraham subsequently gave all that he had to Isaac (Gen 25.5), whilst, according to Gen 25.18, the sons of Ishmael (the prophesied 'twelve princes') settled from Havilah to Shur (see Fig.1). Havilah (meaning 'sandy stretch') is widely accepted to be Arabia. After Sarah died, Abraham married Keturah and gave their descendents gifts, but he sent them away from Isaac 'to the land of the east' (Gen 25.6) - again widely accepted to be Arabia.
Following the covenant line, Isaac married Rebecca who gave birth to two sons, Esau and Jacob. Here we find a reflection of the Abraham-Sarah scenario in that a serious mistake was made. God told Rebecca that two nations or peoples were in her womb:
"One people shall be stronger than the other; and the older shall serve the younger." (Gen 25.23)
Esau was born first and so Rebecca knew that it was God's plan that he and his descendants would serve Jacob and his descendants i.e. the family birthright would be Jacob's, even though traditionally it should be Esau's since he was the eldest. Unfortunately, it turned out that Jacob secured the birthright promises e.g. family leadership through deception (Gen 27.18-29), and this created conflict. Esau sold his birthright to Jacob cheaply (for a meal), and Jacob secured it by deceiving his father Isaac into blessing him as the birthright holder! Subsequently, Esau hated Jacob (Gen 27.41) and moved away from Canaan to 'the hill country of Seir' (Gen 36.5-8) or 'Mount Seir' (Deut 2.5) - an area of mountainous territory south of the Dead Sea given to him by God. This area was Edom (see Fig.1) - part of which would fall into today's Jordan - and Esau became the father of the Edomites (Gen 36.9).
Origin of Aggression towards Israel
As discussed, it seems that Abraham's son Ishmael via Hagar was not in God's original plan; the blessings to Abraham were to be through his wife Sarah, not Hagar. But God had mercy on Hagar and her son Ishmael and said 'I will make him a great nation' (Gen 17.20). This is a blessing, not a curse on Ishmael and his descendents (the Arabs), and it is interesting to note the vast oil wealth possessed by the Arabic nations today! Nevertheless, Ishmael was to be a stubborn and aggressive man, and his descendents were hostile to their relatives:
"He will be a wild donkey of a man, his hand will be against everyone, and everyone's hand will be against him ..." (Gen 16.12)
"They settled from Havilah to Shur ... he settled in defiance of all his relatives." (Gen 25.18)
But do these passages mean that the Arab nations were prophesied to be aggressive towards the Israelites throughout the ages? After all, God had blessed Ishmael. Also, today's Arabic peoples come from many racial and ethnic backgrounds and the genealogy from Ishmael has been much diluted. That said, the Arab aggression implied in Gen 16 is all too apparent today. For instance, when the Jewish State was born in 1948, five Arab armies (Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq) immediately invaded Israel. The same armies attacked Israel in 1967, only to be repulsed. Their goal was 'to wipe Israel off the map'. In recent years, Palestinian Arabs have attacked Israel from Gaza, only to suffer severe retaliation from Israel. Here we see an instance of the prophecy 'everyone's hand will be against him' in Israel's retaliation. But is there another reason other than Gen 16 for today's Arabic aggression against Israel? Islamic influence perhaps? (see below)
Hostility against Israel certainly came from the descendants of Esau. When Esau realised the folly of giving up his birthright to Jacob, he still sought some sort of blessing from his father Isaac. But Isaac replied:
"Behold, away from fertility of the earth shall be your dwelling ... by your sword you shall live ..." (Gen 27.39,40)
Note that, unlike Ishmael, Esau did not get a blessing. Rather, he was assigned a place 'away from fertility' and, as discussed, his descendents moved away to Edom (an area today partly embraced by Jordon). Despite the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau recorded in Gen 33, the Edomites generally remained hostile towards the Israelites. For instance, they refused to permit the Israelites to pass through their land, even threatening them with the sword (Num 20.18). Instead, the Israelites were forced to go via the wilderness (Deut 2:8). This 'everlasting enmity and fury' (Ezek 35.5)(Amos 1.11) from Mount Seir (Edom) towards Israel drew judgement from God:
"You will be a desolation, O Mount Seir, and all of Edom ..." (Ezek 35.15)
Edom as a nation was subsequently destroyed by invaders and, according to Jewish Encyclopaedias, the Edomites were incorporated into the Jewish people (Herod was an Edomite). And when the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD Edom disappeared into Rome. So has the aggression from Esau stopped? Some think not, and maintain that one of the two nations in Rebecca's womb was to have everlasting emnity towards Israel (Ezek 35.5). Note that Esau had a grandson Amalek (Gen 36.12), and the Amalekites were enemies of OT Israel. God commanded King Saul to 'utterly destroy' the Amalekites for their aggression against Israel (1 Sam 15.3-7), although they were not completely destroyed by Saul. Today many Israeli's regard their adversaries as 'Amalek', either in reality or in symbolism.
It is important to distinguish between Arabs and Muslims. Before the arrival of Islam the Arabs were either pagan or followed Judaism or Christianity. But from about 620 AD Islam unified many of the Arabs, using military might when people wouldn't convert willingly. Today, most, but not all Arabs are Muslim, whilst only some 18% of Muslims are Arab. For example, part of the ancient kingdom of Edom is now part of Jordan, which became Arab-Islamic from the 7th century. Today Jordan is about 98% Arab and Islam is the state religion.
So is today's Arab-Israeli conflict fuelled more by the ideology of Islam than from OT family feuds (which may have worked themselves out in history)? The aggression of Islam (and therefore Arabic nations) towards the Jews is driven for example by some hadiths (collected sayings of the Prophet Muhammad):
"... the hour will not be established until you fight with the Jews, and the stone behind which a Jew will be hiding will say: 'O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, so kill him'." (Sahih Bukhari 4.52.177)
Fig.3: Israel's Islamic neighbours
Courtesy University Texas Libraries, Austin, Texas
Why such hatred towards the Jews/Israelites? Recall that Mohammed was an Asian-Arab and he embarked on a mission to create an 'Arab religion' as distinct from Judaism and Christianity. But when the Jews in Arabia rejected him and refused to convert to Islam, Mohammed and the Quran turned against them.
Today, the Islamic claim to Palestine (the Promised Land) and to Jerusalem comes from their misunderstanding of the Abrahamic Covenant. Tragically, Muslims take God's covenant promise of land and blessing to apply to Ishmael and not Isaac, in contradiction to Gen 17.19-21! They believe that Ishmael, not Isaac, was the son whom Abraham nearly sacrificed, and that Ishmael was the son of promise. This is despite the fact that Jerusalem is mentioned more than 700 times in the Bible, but not once in the Quran! So, for example, Jordan, driven by Islamic ideology, joined four other Arab armies in 1948-49 in a war against the new State of Israel, and took by force East Jerusalem and the West Bank (Judea and Samaria).
Psalm 83 seems to draw things together. It speaks of God's enemies and the enemies of His people, Israel:
"They make shrewd plans against Your people ... They have said, 'Come, and let us wipe them out as a nation, that the name of Israel be remembered no more ..." (Ps 83.3,4)
Such hostility certainly applied in OT times, as in the Israel-Egypt, Israel-Moab, Israel-Canaan, Israel-Philistia, Israel-Amalek and Israel-Edom conflicts. But some see Ps 83 to be equally relevant today, and verses 6-8 seem to identify a present-day hostile Arab confederacy. Here we see Edom (Muslim-Arab Jordan?), Ishmaelites (Muslim Arabs in general), Philistia (Muslim Hamas in Gaza), Tyre (Muslim Hezbollah in Lebanon,) and Assyria (parts of Muslim Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria).
Many assume the root-cause of today's Arab-Israeli conflict can be traced back to Abraham's time and to human fallibility. They trace it back to disputes between Jacob and Esau, and in particular between Isaac and Ishmael. But the Bible doesn't stress a long-term conflict between Israelite and Ishmael's descendants. Indeed, God blesses Ishmael and makes his descendants 'a great nation'! Others see today's conflict to be rooted in Esau and the Amalekites. But there may be an even deeper reason.
It is more realistic to see the root-cause of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a battle between truth and error - a spiritual battle between God's word in the Bible (truth) and Satanic deception leading to error. Today this battle is fuelled by the ideology of political Islam (forms of Islam pursuing political objectives) and facilitated by the Arabic nations, which are largely Islamic.
Having said that, Israel should, if possible, avoid aggression against the Arabic people, including Palestinian Arabs. God instructed the nation Israel to care for the stranger in their land; they were not to expel them:
'"When a stranger resides with you in your land, you should do him no wrong ... (he) ... shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself ..."' (Lev 19.33,34)
So we have the concept of national Israel, a special nation in their God-given land, embracing all strangers who happen to live in the land. This again is a crucial factor in today's Arab-Israeli conflict. Strangers should be welcomed, but they must accept the existence and land-rights of national Israel.
Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible