Middle East Conflict: The World's Oldest Family Feud
By Dean T. Olson
God made a promise to the Jewish people in Jeremiah 31:35-37 that they would continue as a nation forever. Satan's strategy for creating anti-Semitism is to completely annihilate the Jews so that God's eternal promise is not fulfilled. In this way Satan can make God a liar whose integrity and word are unworthy of worship. In essence, when God chose Israel as the human channel for the Savior to enter the world and redeem humanity, Satan targeted the Jews for destruction knowing that they would be God's means to ensure his ultimate defeat.
The story begins with God's promise to Abraham - the Abrahamic Covenant - that his wife Sarah would bear him a son who would be the "seed" of a great nation. As he and Sarah grew older without a child, their impatience led them to try to give God a hand by having Abraham conceive a child through Hagar, Sarah's Egyptian handmaid. The child born of that union was named Ishmael. God made it clear that Ishmael would not be the child of promise through whom the entire world would be blessed (Genesis 17:20-21).
When Sarah gave birth to the son God had promised years later, they named him Isaac. The animosity of the progenitors of the Jews, Isaac, and the Arabs, Ishmael, began almost at once. Sarah saw that the Hagar's son was mocking little Isaac so she told Abraham, "Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac." But God said to him, "Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring" (Genesis 21:9-13). Ishmael was 14 years older than Isaac, and about 16 or 17 when Isaac was weaned. God had told Hagar that her son would be a "wild ass" of a man with his hand against every man and every man's hand against him (Genesis 16:12), "This son of yours will be a wild man, as untamed as a wild donkey! He will raise his fist against everyone, and everyone will be against him. Yes, he will live in open hostility against all his relatives." He was bigger, stronger and older than his helpless baby brother, and yet he mocked him.
It doesn't stretch the imagination to sense the jealousy between Sarah and Hagar and its effect on Ishmael. It served to frame his view of Isaac from the beginning. Ishmael was told repeatedly that Isaac was God's choice to become Abraham's heir in spite of the fact that Ishmael was the first born, the traditional heir. When Ishmael and Hagar were sent away to fend for themselves the sense of abandonment must have had a severe impact on Ishmael and the roots of his resentment and hatred against his half brother, along with his general animosity towards others, took root. This feeling of being an unworthy outcast matured into resentment so strong that it permeated Ishmael's very soul. From that day to this the descendants of Ishmael have stood against the descendants of Isaac. His anger gave Satan a fertile place to grow hatred for the Jews so powerful that it has lasted all through the generations.
God did make some great promises to Hagar, promising to make Ishmael fruitful and multiply his descendants exceedingly to make of him a "great nation" (Genesis 17:20). He also gave Ishmael's descendants the land to the east of Canaan (Genesis 16:12). God has been faithful to those promises. Today there are 21 Arab nations with a combined population of 175 million people. The Arabs occupy a total area of 5.3 million square miles of oil rich land. By contrast, there is only one Jewish state with a population of 4 million people who are squeezed into only 8,000 square miles of space. That's a population ratio of 43 to 1 and a land ratio of 662 to 1. The Arabs have truly been blessed.
Arab identity is determined by ethnic heritage. And the amazing thing is that all Arabs, like all Jews, are descended from the family of Abraham. That means the Arab-Israeli conflict is a family dispute, the longest running and most intense family squabble in history. Ishmael took an Egyptian wife (Genesis 21:21) and became the father of 12 tribes which are listed in Genesis 25:12-16. These tribes were to become the nucleus of the Arab peoples, a people with a mixture of Semitic and Egyptian blood.
Other Arab tribes trace their origin to the six sons of Abraham who were born to him by his second wife, Keturah. They are listed in Genesis 25:1-4. Finally, some Arab tribes were to emerge from the descendants of Esau, the twin brother of Jacob who sired the 12 tribes of Israel. All the Arab tribes have been characterized historically by their impulsive and violent nature. They have been involved in endless wars among themselves and against both Jews and Christians. It is interesting to note that their volatile nature is a fulfillment of prophecy. As mentioned above, God told Hagar that her son, Ishmael, would be "a wild donkey of a man" and that "his hand will be against everyone" (Genesis 16:12). First, it says they will claim the land of Israel which God gave to their brothers, the Jews. The prophet Ezekiel says this claim will be made in the end times (Ezekiel 35:5,10; 36:2,5). When the Jews began returning in the 20th century, the Arabs gleefully sold them the land at inflated prices because it was considered worthless.
In 1922 the League of Nations, forerunner of the United Nations, gave two-thirds of Palestine to the Arabs by creating the state of Jordan. This was land that they had promised to the Jews. But this action did not satisfy the Arab appetite. As prophesied, the Arabs wanted all the land God had given to the Jews and they still covet it to this day (Ezekiel 35:5,10; 36:2,5). God will pour out judgment upon the Arab nations in the end times for their hostility toward the Jews and their attempt to claim the Jewish homeland as their own. "Egypt will become a waste, and Edom will become a desolate wilderness, because of the violence done to the sons of Judah, in whose land they have shed innocent blood." (Joel 3:19). Edom is commonly used as a symbolic term for all the Arab peoples, just as Israel is used as a term for all the Jewish tribes. Ezekiel says that "all Edom" will be dealt with in the end times because of its hatred against the Jews and the result will be desolation (Ezekiel 35:10-11,15). The book of Obadiah prophesies a similar fate for Edom in "the day of the Lord" a common Biblical term for the Tribulation (Obadiah 15-18).
As Dr. David Reagan notes, there is hope for the future of the Arabs. They must suffer for their sins just as the Jewish people will suffer during the Tribulation, also known as "the Time of Jacob's Trouble." Like the Jews, a remnant of the Arabs will emerge from their suffering with their hearts turned to the one and only true God (Jeremiah 12:14-17). The most remarkable prophecy concerning the future salvation of an Arab remnant is contained in Isaiah 19:16-25. It says that when the Lord strikes Egypt and Assyria, they will turn to Him and He will have compassion on them and "heal them." Isaiah then presents an incredible picture of Egypt, Assyria and Israel living together in peace, worshiping the same God.
Another remarkable prophecy concerns the Arabs who will be living in the land of Israel after the Lord returns. This prophecy relates to the fact that the territory of Israel will be greatly expanded when Jesus returns incorporating many of the Arab nations that exist today. The considerably expanded borders of Israel during the Millennium are detailed in Ezekiel 47:15-20. Amazingly, Ezekiel says that the Arabs living in Israel at that time will be "allotted an inheritance" of the land together with the tribes of Israel (Ezekiel 47:21-23; Isaiah 14:1-2). There is no partiality with God (Romans 2:11). He chose the Jews, not to be a repository of His blessings, but to be a vehicle through which He would bless all the nations of the world including the Arabs.
The everlasting hatred spawned by the circumstances of the birth of Ishmael and his conflict with Isaac was reinforced in subsequent generations by the struggles between Esau and Jacob. Esau and Jacob are introduced as struggling with each other from the womb (Genesis 25:22). Before they were born, Isaac's wife Rebekah could feel them kicking and fighting inside her. "Why is this happening?" she called out. God answered:
The two children inside you will become the fathers of two nations. Just like the two are fighting with each other now, the two nations will struggle with each other. One will be stronger than the other. and the older will serve the younger (Genesis 25:23).
The first confrontation occurred at birth. Esau was born first. He was covered with red hair so Isaac and Rebekah named him Esau, which sounded like their word for "red." Jacob was born next and he came grabbing onto Esau's heel so they named him Jacob, which sounded like their word for "heel." The twins grew up as very different people. Esau was a hunter and man of the field while Jacob was quiet and preferred to remain in tents.
In the second recorded confrontation between the two, Jacob takes advantage of Esau's unthinking impulsiveness to trick him into trading his birthright for a bowl of stew. By his actions, Esau demonstrated that he did not deserve to be the one who continues the Abrahamic line because he lacked steady, thoughtful qualities. Rather than getting his own food, after all he was not really starving to death and Jacob was not the only kitchen in the encampment, he responded impulsively to a good smell and, "despises his birthright" (Genesis 25:34).
By contrast, Jacob showed his wiliness as well as his greater intelligence and forethought and pressed his advantage over his older sibling. Much later, we are exposed to the headstrong, impulsivity of Esau again when he married two Hittite wives in violation of Abraham's injunction not to take wives from among the Canaanite population (Genesis 26:34-35). Marrying foreign wives meant the detachment of his children from the Abrahamic bloodline. More importantly, God sternly commanded them not to intermarry with the natives because it He knew it would lead them to adopt the pagan worship practices of their new spouses and contaminate their relationship with Him.
The native pagans did detestable things in God's sight as a part of their worship practices; they sacrificed to non-existent gods, engaged in ritual sex that included orgies with temple prostitutes, both straight and homosexual, and sacrificed their own newborn babies to their pagan gods. One of their main gods was Moloch. They fashioned a hollow metal likeness of what they thought he might look like and built a raging fire in it. After they had cut themselves, danced, jumped around and babbled nonsense, they would place their very own newborns into the fire while they continued to dance and listened to the child's pitiful screams.
As God had foreseen, the Israelites turned their backs on Him; the God who had rescued them from slavery in Egypt and parted the sea so they could escape Pharaoh's wrath and certain annihilation. God then sustained and supernaturally protected them by providing food, water and clothing while they wandered in the desert for 40 years. Why the 40 year wandering for what should have been a journey of less than a month? The answer lies in the sin-corrupted nature of man's heart. In spite of all the incredible miracles of preservation and protection God had performed on their behalf, the Jews kept trying to decide if they could really trust God. They wondered if He would really keep His word and bring them into the land of "milk and honey" as He had promised Abraham. When the Jews finally made it into Canaan, true to form, they betrayed God by intermarrying and adopting pagan gods.
It is easy to see how man's sin nature must have led the progenitors of the Arabs to rail against Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In two consecutive generations they had been humiliated and deprived of their presumed inheritance. Thinking of these events must have reinforced the hatred for their brothers. Esau's descendants were given land east of the Jordan River that the Israelites were not allowed to take as their own (Deuteronomy 2:4-6). Just as Ishmael did not inherit the covenant position, Esau did not get the Promised Land. Even though they were generously blessed by God, their blessing must have seemed like second best.
The land given to Esau became known as Edom because of its spectacular red rock mountains and, until their rebellion against God, Esau's descendants thrived there. The final straw came when the Edomites took advantage of God's punishment of Israel during the Babylonian wars. Plotting to capitalize on Israel's misfortune and finally get the coveted Promised Land, they sided with Nebuchadnezzar and cut off the Jews' escape from the Babylonian armies. They ambushed the fleeing Israelites and looted their homes (Obadiah 1:10-14). As a result, Edom was destroyed to the last person and the Nabateans, another of Ishmael's descendants, took their land.
During Israel's nearly two millennia absence from the world scene, the sons of Ishmael grew into the family of nations that God had promised, but the hostility remained even though the Promised Land was seemingly theirs for the taking. When Mohammed, a descendant of Ishmael, failed to convert the Jews in the region to his new religion he declared war against them and the ancient hostility was born anew. All the old feelings of resentment were re-kindled and even though the armies of Islam embarked upon an era of conquest that eventually took them all the way to eastern France and later to the gates of Vienna, they maintained a special hostility toward the Jews.
As Christian expositors note, the unimaginable happened again. For the third time the descendents of Ishmael were required to step aside in favor of the descendants of Isaac. God brought the Jews back to the land He had promised to Abraham so long ago. The land had become a desolate wasteland during the preceding 1900 years of Muslim rule. But it had been Muslim land and now it was being given back to their sworn enemies. It violated their sense of ownership, skewed though it was, and it violated the promise of their religion. Mohammed himself had told them that any land conquered in the name of Allah would never be lost again to the infidels.
By now the majority of adherents to Mohammed's religion weren't sons of Ishmael, but Persians, Egyptians, Babylonians, and Assyrians, to use their Biblical names. But their historical hatred of the Jews had been kept alive through their common religiosity. And most of the returning Jews weren't of the original 12 tribes but the descendants of Europeans who had converted to Judaism over the centuries. Only a remnant of today's Jews can trace their lineage to Jacob's 12 sons. In God's eyes, it is that remnant that validates Israel's claim to the Holy Land under the Abrahamic covenant.
The Middle East wars today aren't between Ishmaelites and Israelites but between Muslims and Jews. Contemporary problems that threaten regional and world peace boil down to a family feud between the sons of Ishmael and the sons of Isaac. The problems began when Abraham and Sarah tried to get ahead of God's will for producing a promised heir. It was aggravated by deceptive dealings between the twins of Isaac and Rebecca: Jacob and Esau. Intermarriage between the future generations of Ishmael's line with the line of Esau served to increase the turmoil. The family feud has devolved into a battle of religions. The God who inhabits eternity created the land and gave it to Abraham in an everlasting covenant. The god of this world, Satan, had taken it as his own and refuses to give it up. It makes Israel, and especially Jerusalem, the most hotly contested real estate in the universe. The contest has both its origin and its resolution in the spiritual realm, not in the halls of human government.
The struggles in the Middle East have come full circle. Ishmael, represented by the Muslims, is older, bigger, and stronger, but Isaac, represented by the Jews, is still the child of the promise. What God has promised He delivers and against all odds Ishmael will once again be driven away and God will use the occasion to reinstate His ancient covenant with the children of Israel even though the majority of Jews today do not trace their biological lineage to Abraham.
Dean T. Olson, Omaha