King's Evangelical Divinity School

12 February 2010

Two Peoples, Not One? (Part 2)

Read Part 1 here. (Won't make full sense without it.)

Phase 2: "Two peoples, not one"

Moving on from “people, not land”, I want to explore the extent to which a second approach towards the Israel-Palestinian conflict, encapsulated in the phrase “two peoples, not one”, might be possible among Christians who eschew supercessionism. (I also have a third phase I will discuss at a later stage).

In short, how does God view the Arab people, and what does such a focus bring to the table during a Christian discussion of the current conflict? Or worded another way, to what extent might a biblical focus on God’s special and covenantal dealings with two peoples, rather than always focusing on one, have upon and contribute towards a Christian understanding of the current conflict in the Holy Land? I am, of course, referring to God’s covenant with Hagar, mother of Ishmael who, according to ancient Jewish and Muslim traditions, is the original patriarch of the Arab people.

My aim here is simply to outline an idea already held in embryonic form by some Evangelical Christians (including some Christian Zionists), though I am not aware of it having being developed academically, especially in the context of a Christian response to the Middle East situation (if you know different, please do let me know). If it transpires there is merit in the approach it will, of course, need to be developed and critiqued via a conference paper and journal article or two. So the question is if there is sufficient biblical evidence to postulate the existence of a divine covenant with the Arab people, so that together with God’s special covenant with His people Israel, we may in fact speak of “two people, not one”.

Let us consider first the biblical narrative dealing with Hagar and Ishmael. Genesis 21 details how Abraham’s wife Sarah, unable to conceive, gave her slave girl Hagar to her husband so that he might have an heir, leading to the birth of Ishmael. Later, however, Sarah herself conceived and gave birth to Isaac, the father of Jacob (also known as Israel), who in turn begat the fathers of the twelve Israelite tribes. The arrival of Isaac eventually led Sarah to drive out Hagar and her son, partly because she was unwilling for the slave’s child to be a co-heir with Isaac (21: 8-11). Cast into the desert and close to death, God intervenes and Hagar and Ishmael are saved. In the meantime, God tells Abraham that because Ishmael is his offspring He will make a powerful nation of the boy, a promise repeated to Hagar (21:18). We are told Ishmael later marries someone from the land of Egypt, the country where Hagar originated.

Actually, much of this is a replay of an earlier occurrence of Sarah’s mistreatment of Hagar, causing her to flee and God to intervene (see Genesis 16). Once again God promises He will greatly multiply Hagar’s offspring so that (like Israel) he will become a nation with offspring too numerous to count (16:10).

We refer to these divine dealings with Hagar and Ishmael as the Hagaric covenant. Thus, God makes two covenants with Abraham and Hagar, the beneficiaries of both being, significantly, Abraham’s two sons. Through the bloodline of one – Isaac – the Jewish people trace their origins. Might the Arab people trace their origins through the other, that is, through Ishmael and his descendents?

History versus Faith

There are substantial historical and anthropological challenges tracing such a bloodline (establishing familial and ethnic roots stretching far back in time is always fraught with difficulties even with the best of records). For example, I raised the Hagaric covenant briefly in a recent post here, and one commentator named Lee quite rightly pointed out how the Arabs only entered the Levant from the Arabian peninsula during the conquests following the rise of Islam in the seventh century, some 2000-3000 years (views on dates vary) after the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael. Lee also recognised the difficulties of tracing ethnic origins to a patriarchal figure so far back in time.

I acknowledge these difficulties and indeed doubt we can prove, scientifically or historically, that Ishmael is indeed the father of the Arab people. After all, most anthropologists, archaeologists and liberal Protestant theologians today tend to doubt the Old Testament patriarchs even existed, believing instead such characters are amalgams of ancient beliefs and unnamed nomadic figures which have passed into folklore and attained mythical status. Of course, to Christians who hold to a high view of Scripture and rely on faith, the existence of the Old Testament patriarchs is a reality because they believe the Bible as the inspired word of God which records accurately the existence and lives of people such as Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael. Hence, given we can't ptove the exitence of the original patriarchs, any argument claiming Ishmael is the father of the Arab people is bound to be rely on biblical and theological, rather than historical, arguments.

This said, the view of Ishmael as the original Arab patriarch is supported by several pieces of circumstantial historical evidence which some will argue bolsters a biblical argument to this effect. For example, the tradition of Ishmael as the father of the Arab people is an ancient one which existed long before the rise of classical Arabism in the wake of the emergence of Islam. The intertestament Book of Jubilees states:

20:11 And he [Abraham] gave to Ishmael and to his sons, and to the sons of Keturah, gifts, and sent them away (12) from Isaac his son, and he gave everything to Isaac his son. And Ishmael and his sons, and the sons of Keturah and their sons, went together and dwelt from Paran to the entering in of Babylon in (13) all the land which is towards the East facing the desert. And these mingled with each other, and their name was called Arabs, and Ishmaelites.
Now I recognise Jubilees is not a canonical book. But this text does help to push back the tradition of a link between Ishmael and the Arab people to around 150-100 BC, when Jubilees was written, incidentally some 750-800 years earlier than the rise of classical Arabic culture.

Meanwhile, we can push the origins of the Arab people even further back, with evidence of early, or proto-Arab culture and dialects existing even during later Old Testament times. We know the word translated “Arab” (and variants) appears in the Old Testament several times (though we cannot be sure exactly how this term was understood in those days), as well as in Assyrian and other inscriptions stretching back as far as the 9th century BC. Moreover, there appears to be evidence of proto-Arab dialects stretching back to the 6-8th centuries BC, a full thousand years before the rise of classical Arabic culture (and thus a thousand years closer to the time of Abraham). It therefore seems reasonable to assume the reference to Arabs in Jubilees draws on these contemporary understands of proto-Arabism. Meanwhile, neither does the fact that the modern Arabs migrated from the Arabian peninsula following the rise of Islam require this to be the cradle of early Arabic culture. After all, a Middle East history of rife with nomadic activity (which we know from archaeological and other records to be the case) allows for almost anything.

So far, then, the supporting historical data does not render the concept of Ishmael as the father of the Arabs impossible. Rather, the historical evidence helps to bolster the view. However, we are still a long way from demonstrating any historical connection between Ishmael and the Arabs. All the historical record suggests is that this is an ancient tradition, while proto-Arabic culture and language stretches back at least a thousand years before the rise of Islam. Again, I suggest it may be impossible to prove categorically outside the biblical witness the verifiability of this particular tradition. But that is not the point here. Given how Evangelical Christians view the biblical record as accurate and faithful, what matters here is if there is a biblical basis for the Ishmaelite tradition. In other words, it is a theological rather than an historical argument, and it is to the Bible we must now turn to consider if it offers an argument worth considering in support of Ishmael as the original Arab patriarch.

Some Evangelicals may well find the tradition finds reasonable support in the Bible. Two Semitic peoples – Arabs and Jews – seem to be in perpetual conflict. Both lay claim to Abraham as their father, one people tracing their origins through his son Isaac, the others through his son Ishmael. Just as today, these half-brothers and their offspring were in perpetual enmity (Genesis 16:12, 25:18). Also, God makes a covenant with each of them, promising they would become great nations with countless offspring. Significantly, just as Isaac fathers Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, so God promises to bless and multiply Ishmael and his descendents so that he too will become a leader of twelve tribes (Genesis 17:19-22).

If we cannot push the historical record any further back than around 6-8th centuries BC, the biblical record seems to offer a tantalising possibility of pushing the record forward somewhat. For example, Ishmael’s second son was named Kedar (Gen 21:13), which some have associated with the northern (pre)Arabic tribes of the 8th century BC, the Qedarites. Kedar is also a biblical name for at least part of the Arabian peninsula (eg Jeremiah 2:10, Galatians 4:25). It is also interesting that the Ishmaelites eventually become synonymous with the Midianites (Genesis 37:25-28), while several archaeologists and scholars believe Arabia is the original land of the Midianites. The Bible later records the Ishmaelites/Midianites as living in the East (Jdg 6:3). Esau married an Ishmaelite which, given the difficulties between Jacob and Esau, possibly plays on the motif of two half-brothers in enmity. Meanwhile, Joseph was sold by his brothers to a band of Ishmaelite traders on their way to Egypt.

Finally, in Judges 8 there is the incident of Gideon’s defeat of Zebah and Zalmunna, the kings of Midian (which as we have seen is synonymous with the Ishmaelites). Verse 21 records how Gideon took the crescent ornaments from the camels of these Midianite kings (see also 8:25). Great care must be taken here for two reasons. First, the crescent symbol clearly precedes Islam, likely an astrological symbol. Second, some Muslim scholars would reject the notion that Islam actually regards the crescent as a Muslim symbol today, rejecting on theological grounds the practice as somehow idolatrous. This said, early Islam arguably syncretises early regional customs, beliefs and practices, and the crescent has clearly become a symbol strongly associated with Muslim nations. Thus, some at least will find this biblical reference to crescent symbols among the descendent kings of the Ishmaelites convincing, others clearly less so.

To the non-Christian or those with little interest in the Old Testament genealogical records all of this may seem a bit bewildering, even irrelevant. After all, what have events from thousands of years ago to do with a very real conflict in the Middle East now? Well, the answer is that it is potentially important for Christians because the biblical data will have an inevitable bearing on the development of theological responses to the current conflict. After all, whether Christian Zionist or pro-Palestinian, Evangelicals on both sides claim to draw on the Bible as the basis for their respective positions. If, therefore, the arguments advancing the view the Arab people are related to Abraham and the recipients of a divine covenant through Hagar are biblically and theologically persuasive, this will inevitably have a bearing on how some Christians at least view and respond to the present conflict, helping to see it in a new light and move the debate forward among us.

Practical Advantages of Such a View

I suggest a focus on “two peoples, not one” offers four distinct advantages when considering to the current Israel-Palestinian conflict from a Christian perspective.

First, it highlights two people in the conflict. I’ve met some thoughtful Christian Zionists in both ecclesial and academic settings who genuinely feel for the Arab people despite their theological conviction that God has not finished with the Jewish people. Thus, I do rather think some Christians on the pro-Palestinian side have rather over-egged the notion that the bulk of Christian Zionists are thoughtless and cruel in this regard. This said, I have no doubt some on the fringes of the movement have so focused on the Jewish people they almost ignore the Arabs, particularly Christian Arabs. I recall a field trip to Israel to carry out research for my forthcoming book, during which I interviewed various Jews and Arabs. I was introduced to a Christian shopkeeper who explained how one American Christian tourist couple came to his shop, asking if he was Jewish. He said he was an Arab but also a Christian, whereupon they left his shop, saying they wanted to buy from a Jewish shop in order to bless God’s people. Such insensitivity by some Western Christians only serves to alienate Arab Christians.

Second, if “two peoples, not one” might help to balance some of the more extreme Christian Zionist thought or action, conversely might such a position, that is, a covenantal focus on both the Jews and Arabs through Abraham and Ishmael, also help moderate some of the more extreme pro-Palestinian Christian responses which have sometimes come across as bitterly anti-Israel? In short, by focusing on God’s plans for both peoples, might this help to take some of the vitriol and polemics out of the current highly polarised debate among Christians if both sides feel the other seeks to understand the people they champion? Thus, in a debate which frequently draws on the language of election and covenant, it helps to highlight how God’s covenant with one people does not necessarily downplay the value or esteem of another people (and I speak as a Gentile not privy to God’s covenant either with Israel or Hagar except through adoption).

Third, and very importantly, I suggest a focus on “two peoples, not one” represents a source of encouragement for Christian Arabs caught in a wider conflict between Jews and Muslims. Arguably, there are people from among both Christian Zionists and pro-Palestinian Christians who draw on the situation of Arab Christians for their own means, the former sometimes seeking to appear even-handed in their response to the conflict, while some of the latter for strategic reasons, cynically widening the number of Christian stakeholders to further their own far broader ideological aims which are not limited to Arab Christianity in the Holy Land. Either way (and of course notwithstanding many Christians on both sides who are genuinely concerned about the situation Arab Christians find themselves in), the result is that Arab Christians are often relegated in the wider theological and ideological debate currently being raged between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian Christians. Yet a focus on God’s love for and covenant with both peoples helps to offset any imbalance and ensure we champion Arab Christianity together with God's calling of the Jewish people, as well as ensuring our motives for doing so are biblical rather than ideological or strategic.

Finally, “two peoples, not one” eschews the language of polarisation. It illustrates how the present conflict involves two groups of people which are special in God’s eyes, and so however we approach and view the conflict this ought to influence our bearing and language. Unfortunately all this is lost in much of the current conflict, which is reduced to a slanging match by ideologues on both sides who hurl polemical argument and insult from their opposing trenches. Yes, there is a time for robust argument and standing up for what is right, though objectivity and thoughtfulness are far more constructive than polemics, straw man building, or a pejorative-driven approach. Focusing on both peoples may help to avoid much of this.

Having outlined the advantages of such an approach, I conclude by stating what “two peoples, not one” is not. First, "tow peoples, not one" is not a declaration that God has somehow made a covenant with Islam. Though a pluralist society frowns upon religious absolutism, and while I agree it is important for dialogue or debate to remain respectful rather than inflammatory, both Christians and Muslims regard their respective faith as true to the detriment of all others, and thus they seek to make proselytes accordingly. As such, as a Christian I do not believe Islam represents God’s revealed truth. I consider it an erroneous religion. Hence, a focus on “two peoples, not one” in this context must be understood as a concern for the Arab people within the wider Israel-Palestinian conflict, and particularly the situation in which Arab Christians find themselves, rather than any apologia towards Muslims.

Neither does “two people, not one” in any way downplay God’s love for His people Israel. I am on record having taken a stance against replacement theology and structural supercessionism. And this leads me to an important point: this whole approach does not work if we deny God has elected the Jewish people for a special purpose. The theological view that God elects a particular people (the Jews) for His historical purposes allows for the theological view that God has also dealt favourably with the Arab people, whereas to deny the former negates the latter.

Finally, “two people, not one” is not an attempt to propose a pecking order within the Church (first Jews, then Arabs, and lastly, adopted Gentiles). The apostle Paul makes clear that in Christ there is no difference between Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free (Galatians 3:28). Note here how the apostle is saying that once we are believers in and through Christ there is no difference between peoples. This view is echoed in Romans 10:12 and 1 Corinthians 12:13, all in the same context of sonship and baptism into the body of Christ, and this theological point is precisely the one made by Paul in Ephesians 2. The New Man God makes – consisting of both Jew and Gentile – is, again, within the context of those who are in Christ. Paul is not saying that with Christ’s sacrifice he has made all people one, but rather, once in Christ all believers become one. Furthermore, when speaking of the beneficiaries of the Abrahamic or Hagaric covenants, we must also take care to consider those beneficiaries in corporate rather than individual terms. We are not saying here individual Jews or Arabs are somehow special and inferior, but rather we are referring to their uniqueness as peoples by virtue of divine covenants. Thus we can speak of God’s plan for the Jews, another for the Arab people, and His dealings with the nations generally through a Jewish Messiah. But once in Christ there is no difference between Messianic believer, Arab or Gentile (though that is not to deny their respective cultural identities).

As I say, “two peoples, not one” may not be historically provable, though biblically and theologically some may find the arguments somewhat more persuasive. Importantly, though, for the purposes of the current debate within Christianity concerning the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it conceivably offers an important way forward while eschewing the language of polarisation often employed to mask weak arguments.

Or perhaps as a theological approach it raises more questions than answers. Over to you. I would be interested to hear your views.


Andrew Sibley said...

Hi Calvin - these are a few thoughts. Firstly, is there a difference between God’s promises of blessing (Gen 12) and God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen 15?) – perhaps a promised blessing is a covenant, but that needs some more thought. Ishmael received a couple of blessings from God.

I would also agree that Arabs are descendants of Ishmael – that seems a strong tradition. Ishmael’s promise (Gen 16:12) was that he ‘will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers." That is a promise that one might wish to be released from. You may have a point that Ishmael is in covenant with God, but I am not sure it takes you where you want to go in relation to the Israeli - Palestinian question.

Thirdly, Palestinians, especially the Christian community, are only partly Arab, they are also the descendents of other Semitic Middle Eastern people and including ethnic Jewish community roots from the early Church. Even after AD70 many Jews converted to Christ in the land, the first 15 Bishops of Jerusalem were Jews according to Eusebius. To what extent do the promise of Abraham belong to the Palestinian Christians ?

I think also we need to consider the message of Galatians 4:22-31

Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?
22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman.
23 His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise.
24 These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar.
25 Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children.
26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.
27 For it is written: Be glad, O barren woman, who bears no children; break forth and cry aloud, you who have no labour pains; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.
28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.
29 At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now.
30 But what does the Scripture say? Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son.
31 Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

Surely our job as Christians is, in humility, to lead people from slavery, whether it is spiritual Ishmaelites or ethnic Ishmaelites. The 'Getting rid of' is not a replacement of people, but of maintaining freedom so that those in slavery can be brought into freedom.

Stuart said...

Brilliant, perfect equilibrium.

You have opened my eyes to my own tendency to polarise.

Chris said...

Hi Calvin, I bought your book and look forward to getting the revised copy when it comes out. I'm new to this so will try to be clear. The land belongs to the Lord and He has promised it to the Jews, but it is not to the exclusion of all others (Ez 47.22 and Lev19.33-34). Though God rejects no one who comes to Him (John 6.37)I believe He has called certain people for certain purposes. The Jews were chosen not because they are special but because they were called to be 'ministers' unto the nations, again, this does not exclude God's love for all people,it's just that certain individuals or nation for this matter are called to serve, not lord over others. I believe the Arabs will also be blessed. Many sheep has the great Shepherd and flock which are not of this fold(John 10.16). yours in good faith, chris

Calvin L. Smith said...

Stuart, thank you for your vote of confidence. Much appreciated, as always, and encouraging.

Chris, thank you for your kind words. You raise an important point, namely, while many of us believe God has not finished with the Jewish people, nonetheless we should take care not to elevate them as individuals. I have always sought to differentiate between the Jewish people as a corporate entity and as individuals.

Andrew, thank you for your thoughtful comment. I will comment in greater depth at some stage. In the meantime I would say this: I looked at Galatians 4 carefully and decided it was an exegetical device used by Paul to highlight a dualism between those born of the Law (ie slavery, Ishmael) and the Spirit (epitomised by Isaac, the son of promise). All of this must be understood in the context of Galatian Christianity, which had been bewitched by the Judaisers who said now they were saved in Christ they also needed to embrace Torah observance.

At this stage, however, I had not intended to go any further, keen simply to encourage Christian Zionists, through God's dealings with Hagar and Ishmael, to look upon the Arab people in a slightly different light. However, the way in which you (I think quite eloquently) express views on Ishmael's relations with his brothers may well give sustenance to some Christian Zionists highlighting the theological basis for enmity between Ishmael's descendents and their Jewish brothers. This may not have been your aim, and indeed I don't know yet if I agree with you (I will need to think about it a while). Nonetheless your view expressed above may be taken by some to mean God has somehow cme down hard on the Arab people.

Andrew Sibley said...

Thanks Calvin - But Christians surely have a clear mandate to make disciples of all nations. That is to bear the fruit of the spirit in our dealings with all people "by their fruit you will know them" so there is no excuse for some Christians to use an ancient family blessing/curse to attack people today even if it still applies at a spiritual level. Our own duty is clear as Christians to release people from slavery and the past, bringing all under Abraham's promised spiritual blessing in Christ.

It is true that many Christians are fearful of Islam - a shame because Islam is being degraded by war and violence and Muslims need Christ. The real threat to Christianity in the west is secularisation and neo-pagan idolatry.

I think the best way forward for peace in the Middle East is to highlight the part Jewish ancentry of Palestinian Christianity and to build bridges between Messianic Jews and Palestinian Christians, and also to work to bring the teachings of the Messiah, the King of Israel, into the Israeli government and to the Palestinian authorities.

Philip Blue said...

I've found this series interesting.

My first question (and I'll leave at one for now) is: what exactly do you mean when you say a people is a beneficiary of the Abrahamic or the Hagaric covenants? In practice what are the benefits that these people get from these covenants? Clearly you don't mean an alternative method of rescue, so I just wonder what else it could mean.

Calvin L. Smith said...

Philip, in both covenants the recipients are promised blessing, land, to become great nations etc (read some of the Scriptures indicated in the post, also Genesis 12:1-3 and parallels for the Abrahamic covenant). Importantly, we are talking here about being in covenant with God Almighty, which seems to me to be a great honour.

Now, I hold to the view God has finished with the Jewish people, whether an older or new covenant the Bible describes His dealings with them as perpetual (eg Jer 31:31-34, 35ff). Christian Zionists, too, hold to this view (though it is possible to hold to the former without being one of the latter). The problem is, by so focusing on one covenant we can easily forget God may have dealt covenantally with the ancestors of the other people involved in the current conflict.

So my point, then, by dwelling on the Hagaric covenant is simply to highlight this, helping to bring some balance to how Christian Zionists view and respond to the current conflict.

Philip Blue said...

So you're saying IF Jews have a right by convenant to a national homeland THEN Arabs also have a right to a national homeland too?

Does your argument apply then to people who assert that the Bible does not grant the Jews the right to a national homeland any more?

Calvin L. Smith said...

All I'm saying is that the OT makes clear the land of Israel was to be a homeland for the Jews as part of their covenant with God. Pretty well all theologians on both sides of the debate at least agree on that. Likewise, I am suggesting God blessed also the descendents of Ishmael with nationhood, and presumably land too. What/where that land is isn't specified in the OT.

Some Christians might argue the Arab people have been blessed with oil-rich lands and massive wealth and would claim this is the outworking of the Hagaric covenant. I'm not going that far (yet) because this might be specualtion (though it does put in context, I think, Arab antipathy towards Israeland its anger over a small strip of land given the Arab nation's geographical reach and access to raw materials which the world has envied).

It is important not to read too much into what I am saying. Really, all I'm trying to do at this stage is bring a little balance to the Christian Zionist viewpoint, namely, yes, God has blessed the Jewish people with land as part of a perpetual covenant (Is 59:20-1, Jer. 31-31-34 cf 35-37), but when approaching the current conflict it is important to recognise the other side may also have received special favour from God which, while not the same kind of perpetual or unique covenant with biblical Israel, nevertheless demonstrates the Arab people in the conflict as possible descendents of Ishmael have been looked upon favourably by God at some stage in human history. I think this can have a bearing on how the more zealous Christian Zionists approach the issue, moderating their tone and making them approach the conflict a little less emotionally. But this emphasis on the Hagaric covenant doesn't challenge Israel's the theological view that God has given the land to the Jewish people.

Philip Blue said...

Yes, that's what I was trying to get at. It's about trying to bring balance on the Christian Zionist side. As you were saying in another conversation on this blog with someone (sorry can't remember who) it's about trying to moderate the more extreme elements on your side. Which is admirable.

So if the Jewish people's covenant with God is still valid, and they have been blessed with a land, then a similar, though lesser, thing is also true of the Arabs, and they are blessed with a land, though not the same one. Is that about right?

My second question is this: how do these covenants fit together with the multitude of covenants in the Bible? I guess you would argue that they all fit into one covenant (they are all sub-convenants perhaps?) and that none of them is superceded? Or is that presumptuous? Is there any easy to access web resourc I can read on this?