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.