arabs and the bible

by Robert Brow   (web site -

Arabs and Jews both claim they originated from an astonishing promise made to Abraham eighteen centuries before the coming of Jesus Christ: "Go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation ... and all peoples of the earth will be blessed through you." The promise has three distinct strands concerning nationality, land, and the blessing of all peoples of the earth. All three strands were evidently of great importance for those who compiled the Book of Genesis. The threefold promise is reaffirmed in various ways to Abraham, repeated exactly to Isaac, then to his grandson Jacob. (Genesis 12:2-3; 15:5-6; 17:2-8; 18:18; 22:17-18; 26:3-4; 28:13-4). How do these three strands of promise relate to the Arabs?

arab nationality

Although the Bible speaks again and again of nations it is impossible to define exactly what is a nation, and who are its members. The composition is changed by invasions, migration, and in our day by immigration and marriage. What is obvious from history is that a people with a strong sense of national identity can continue for generations however much their political boundaries are changed. The Jews, for example, survived more or less as citizens of dozens of different countries for nineteen centuries without a homeland of their own.

 To this day the Arabs view themselves as a people who look back to Abraham as their father. According to the rules of the day Ishmael was Abraham's firstborn legal heir. It was Sarah who jealously wanted him to be disinherited (Genesis 20:9-11). But it is interesting that although the final compiler of Genesis must have been a Jew, he wants us to know that the progeny of Ishmael still has a great destiny. "As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation" (Genesis 17:20).

 This ancient Jewish writer is also careful to list the twelve Ishmaelite tribes, and he noted their territorial area: "They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria." Some of their settlement or tribal names such as Kedar, Tema, Dumah, and Nebaioth (the Nabateans) were known in historical records for two thousand years (Genesis 25:12-18). There were Ammonites and Moabites from Abraham's nephew Lot (Genesis 19:37-38). Other tribes such as the Midianites (Kenites) originated from Abraham's second wife Keturah (Genesis 25:1-6; Exodus 3:1; Numbers 10:29; Judges 1:16; 6:1), and the Edomite tribes were traced back to Esau (36:1-43). The Bible records constant contacts and skirmishes between the children of Israel and these Ishmaelites, Midianites, Ammonites, Edomites, Moabites, Amalekites and other tribes from the east (Exodus 17:8-14; Deuteronomy 2:5; Judges 3:12-13; 6:1, 3; 11:4,12-18; 1 Samuel 15:5, 6; Jeremiah 25:23, 24; Joel 3:8).

 Evidently the original children of Ishmael made tribal alliances and intermarried with other close relatives connected with Abraham. And in time other tribes also became known as Ishmaelites (See for example Genesis 37:27 and 36; Judges 6:12 and 24; Psalm 83:7). We might compare European immigrants calling themselves Americans. Though the Bible does not use the term "Arab" for these Abrahamic tribes, it seems that they all became related by marriage and all spoke the Arabic language which slowly developed from the language that Abraham spoke in Canaan. As a result modern Arabs can reasonably claim descent from Abraham through his firstborn son Ishmael.

 For convenience we will define Arabs as the people who speak Arabic as their mother tongue. Obviously this is not a sharp definition according to race or national boundaries. It is as if we used Winston Churchill's idea of the English speaking peoples to include Americans, Canadians, and Australians, as well as the English. In that sense Arabic speaking people tend to view themselves as Arabs, though they may also be Saudis, Omanis, Kuwaitis, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, Jordanians, Egyptians, Tunisians, Algerians, Moroccans, or Americans.

arab religion

The Arabs only became Muslims comparatively late in their history. Muhammad came on the scene twenty four centuries after Abraham. We have very few historical records to evaluate their religion in the period from Ishmael to Jesus. Presumably they continued worshipping the God of Abraham: Elohim, El, Allah, or whatever he was called in their developing local dialects. Some of them slipped into various forms of henotheism, or polytheism, and witch doctor animism. Arab faith is only mentioned in passing by their Jewish cousins in the stories of Job and the Queen of Sheba. In Isaiah Arabs are described as singing for joy (Isaiah 42:11; see 2 Chronicles 9:14,).

 Residents of Mesopotamia and Arabs were present on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:8-11). And from the history of the eastern churches we know that huge numbers of Arabs became Christians when they heard the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. During the first three centuries of church growth Christians were suffering terrible persecutions in the pagan Roman Empire. Meanwhile in all the Arab lands during this period there were very large flourishing churches. This suggests that faith in the God of Abraham made easy sense to them. After all, Paul defined Christian faith as walking 'in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had' (Romans 4:3, 11, 12). If we only had the fourth chapter of Romans we would assume that for Paul all genuine Jewish, or Arab, or Christian religion is pure and simply Abrahamic faith.

 If the Arabs at first accepted the good news of the faith of Abraham so enthusiastically, why did they follow Muhammad to deny the Trinity in the seventh century? One reason was that, as opposed to the grasp of genuine Trinitarian Theism among Greek Orthodox churches, some eastern theologians like Paul of Samosata, had already become essentially Unitarian. Before becoming Bishop of Syrian Antioch, he was a senior official in the service of Zenobia, queen of the Arab oasis and trading centre of Palmyra. From there caravans travelled constantly to Mecca and as far as present day Yemen, so it is possible that his ideas had taken root and eventually flowered in Mecca. After the fall of Jerusalem many Jews moved as traders into Arabia, and Muhammad was also in contact with their form of Unitarianism.

 Perhaps more serious was the fact that churches in the east used Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, which was also the language of the trade routes from Jerusalem to India and China. The written language was known as Syriac, and it was used for the first authoritative translation of the Scriptures in the whole area of the Arab lands east of Jerusalem. Syriac is still the language of worship of several ancient churches in India and the Middle East.

 Though Syriac was as helpful in the first advance of the Gospel as for example Swahili has been in east Africa, Arabs needed to worship in their own language. But there was no known translation even of the New Testament into Arabic until long after Muhammad gave the Qur'an in a "clear Arabic tongue" (Qur'an 16:103, 105; 26:195. See W. Montgomery Watt, Bell's Introduction to the Qur'an, Edinburgh, 1970). The response to Muhammad's Qur'an in their own beautiful Arab language was immediate. It seems that many who had previously become Christians were converted to the new religion.

 Europeans first heard about Arabs when the followers of Muhammad captured Jerusalem in AD 637. Then they trembled as Alexandria fell five years later and Spain was lost by 715. Islam seemed as menacing as Communism was to us a few years ago. And the whole of Europe breathed a sigh of relief when Charles Martel finally managed to stop the Arabs in 732 at the battle of Tours only a hundred and fifty short miles from Paris. Even after that we were awed for centuries by the magnificent Arab civilization when Christian Europe was still in the dark ages.

arab land

Abraham was told to go to a land that God would indicate to him (Genesis 12:1). And that promised land is still of immense significance to the Jews. It is defined as "north and south, east and west" but only as far as Abraham could see from a place just north of Jerusalem (Genesis 13:14-15). Moses was later promised more or less the same land as seen from the top of Mount Nebo across the Jordan valley (Deuteronomy 32:48-49; 34:1-3). It is usually called the area from Dan to Beersheba, from the source of the Jordan on the south slope of Lebanon to the Negeb.

 In the nearly four thousand year-old quarrel over land between the Arabs and the Jews it is interesting that only the very small strip of land from Dan to Beersheba is claimed by the Jewish children of Israel. This fact is obscured by the first Bible translators who assumed that the Hebrew word parath or "river" must always be translated as the Euphrates. It was the Greeks who gave the river Euphrates its name. Herodotus named it "the river that makes glad" (from the Greek, euphraino). But that does not prove that the word parath in the Hebrew Bible always refers to the Euphrates which was a very distant five hundred miles to the north.

 The word parath occurs in fourteen chapters of the Old Testament, and in half of these passages it would make much better sense to translate it as "the river Jordan." This would be on the assumption that parath meant any river, and it was viewed as great or overflowing in comparison with the smaller wadis of the land.

 Our interest is specially in the reference to the river that defines the territorial area claimed by the Jewish children of Jacob. In the following verses let us try translating "Jordan" instead of "Euphrates." "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt (probably the very large wadi fifty miles south of Beersheba) to the great river, the river Jordan" (Genesis 15:18). This seems a believable area for what Jews took to be their land, and it exactly fits the various tribes which are mentioned in the next verse. But if in this verse we translate parath as "the Euphrates" we have to include Damascus and another two hundred miles of Babylonia to the north.

 At the beginning of Deuteronomy Moses reminds the people that they were to go in and occupy Canaanite territory from Lebanon to the Jordan (Deuteronomy 1:7). To suggest they were to take the area up to the Euphrates is inconceivable. Similarly Moses outlines the promised land as "from the wilderness (the Negeb) to Lebanon and from the Jordan to the Mediterranean" (Deuteronomy 11:24). Joshua is told to cross the Jordan and occupy the same territory (Joshua 1:4). There would be no point in crossing the Jordan to mount a campaign five hundred miles north towards the Euphrates.

 David is described as defeating the Syrian king of Zobah at the river Jordan (2 Samuel 8:3-6; 1 Chronicles 18:3). There is no historical evidence to suggest that David ever took an army up the Euphrates. When the Chronicler mentions Reubenite territory "this side of the Jordan" it makes far more geographic sense then trying to stretch the boundary of that tribe up to the Euphrates (1 Chronicles 5:9).

 By the time of Pharaoh Necho's defeat at Carchemish it seems that the word parath was understood as referring to the Euphrates and not the river Jordan (2 Kings 23:19; 2 Chronicles 35:20; Jeremiah 46:2, 6, 10; 51:63). But in the story of the linen girdle it makes better sense for Jeremiah to have hidden the garment by the river Jordan, since there is no account of him leaving the area of Jerusalem to travel all the way to the Euphrates (Jeremiah 13:4, 5, 6, 7)

 This digression was needed to explain how the Jewish claim to territory has always stretched from Dan to Beersheba in a rough rectangle bounded by Mediterranean on the west, Mount Lebanon to the north, the Jordan valley, and the Negeb as far as the big Wadi on the way to Egypt. It is also defined as "from Lake Huleh (the Sea of Reeds) to the Mediterranean (the Sea of the Philistines), across the Negeb (the desert), and up the river" (Exodus 23:31; here the NRSV inexcusably translates ha nahar as the Euphrates). In all other cases the Jewish promised land in Canaan is again and again very sharply limited (Numbers 32:29-30; 34:1-12; Deuteronomy 32:49; 34:1-4; Joshua 3:10-11; 13:1-7). It seems certain that Jewish territory was understood to be bounded by the Jordan valley. When Reubenites and Gadites asked for territory beyond the Jordan, Moses granted their request but expressly pointed out that it was not part of the land given by God (Numbers 32:1-7). There is in any case no suggestion anywhere that the Euphrates was ever viewed as a border for Israel.

 What of the territory occupied by the Arab children of Abraham? Abraham lived among the Canaanite tribes which are listed in the promise (Genesis 15:20-21). But Kenite and Kenizzite tribal areas are also mentioned, and these are names which were later adopted by Midianite and Edomite Arabs (Genesis 15:19; Exodus 3:1 compared with Judges 1:16 and Genesis 36:10-19). This would be comparable to European settlers adopting Indian tribal names for their towns and territories in Canada and the United States. The Kadmonites (Easterners) certainly lived in what is now called Arabia (Genesis 15:19 and 4)29:1; Numbers 23:7; 1 Kings 4:30; Isaiah 11:14; Ezekiel 25:1-4).

 Arab lands now cover a vast area including the various states of Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and all the countries of North Africa. And several of these countries have become unbelievably wealthy. The Jewish cousins object that for their pains God only gave them a pile of rocks and Jaffa oranges, but he hid unbelievable wealth for the Arab cousins under the sands of Arabia, Iraq, and Lybia.

arab language

According to the Jewish Bible Arabic and Hebrew were not the original languages of the Arabs and Jews. The writer of the tenth chapter of Genesis divided the peoples of the Middle East into three main racial and linguistic groups. Noah's sons were named Shem, Ham and Japheth. We have no problem with our own racial group, the Indo-European Japhetites whose languages included Norse, Saxon, Old German, Latin and Greek, ancient Iranian, and the Sanskrit of the Aryans who descended into India soon after the time of Abraham (Genesis 10:2-5).

 Unfortunately we were confused by naming Hebrew and Arabic as Semitic languages. It is true that in the table of nations of Genesis 10 the children of Abraham are listed as Shemites. But Abraham is viewed as coming from Ur of the Chaldees and entering into Canaanite territory where he adopted a Hamitic language. The Hamitic group of nations is described as including Babylonians, Assyrians, Canaanites, and Egyptians, and scholars now agree that the languages of these nations were originally from the same Akkadian and Canaanite root (Genesis 10:6-14). The great nineteenth century linguists unfortunately called these languages Semitic, and thereby made it impossible for us to make sense of the Biblical picture of a common racial origin for Jews and all Arabs of the Middle East.

 Next we note that the table of nations makes no mention of the Sumerians. A century ago there was next to no knowledge of the vast Sumerian civilization connected with the city of Ur from which Abraham came. Now we know that Sumerian language and culture had as long and pervasive an influence in the Middle East as Latin had in Europe. Darius the Great's famous inscription, which can still be seen carved in the rock face of Persepolis, was written in the Cuneiform script. When it was eventually translated it proved to be written in Persian, Babylonian, and Sumerian. This was twelve hundred years after Abraham, and it is strong evidence for the continuing importance of the Sumerian language in the Middle East.

 It is hard to believe that the writer of Genesis had no knowledge of this highly visible Sumerian people and civilization. A tidy solution would be to assume that the writer of Genesis viewed Abraham as a Sumerian by race and original language. Abraham certainly came from Ur, a very definitely Sumerian city (Genesis 11:28-32).

 It is impossible at present to identify the other languages which were originally related to Sumerian. The Bible lists Elamites, Lydians, and perhaps the earlier inhabitants of Assyria and Aram as descended from Shem (Genesis 10:21). We also know that the island of Dilmun, which is present day Bahrain, was a centre of Sumerian trade with the pre-Aryan Indus Valley civilization of Mohenjodaro and Harappa in Pakistan (For an introduction to this see Geoffrey Bibby, Looking for Dilmun, 1969). It is tempting to guess that when the language of the Indus Valley civilization in Pakistan is deciphered it will prove to be closely related to Abraham's Sumerian mother tongue.

 Already by the time Abraham was leaving Ur the Akkadian language had become dominant all over the northern part of the fertile crescent. With Akkadian as his second language he would have had no great difficulty with the closely related Canaanite language, or even with the language he encountered in Egypt (Genesis 12:10-13:1).

 According to very ancient tradition some Arab tribes from the area of present day Oman and Yemen trace their ancestry from Yoktan, and the writer of Genesis identified thirteen of these tribes (Genesis 10:25-31). These are also listed as Shemitic, which suggests that they might have had a Sumerian ancestry, but in the process of time adopted the prevailing Arabic language. A group of Arab tribes from Oman and Yemen trace their origin from Yoktan, whose descendants were rather more distant cousins of Abraham (Genesis 10:25,26; 11:16-27). It was Muhammad who managed to weld the Yoktan group of Arab tribes together with the Ishmaelite Arabs as one united Abrahamic nation that nearly conquered the world.

 Several of the Arab Gulf states have established flourishing departments of archaeology which study their pre-Islamic roots. If the Sumerian origin of the Arabs turns out to be correct, as may be suggested in the table of nations from Genesis 10, we should expect this to be reflected in the ruins of ancient civilizations which are constantly being discovered as a by-product of oil exploration in the Arab lands.

 What is quite clear is that for the writer of Genesis all Jews and Arabs are racially descended from Shem. Abraham and his children then adopted the Canaanite language which slowly developed into classical Arabic, and was recently resurrected in its original Canaanite form as modern Hebrew. If we wish to use Biblical terminology Arabic and Hebrew, which both derived from Canaanite, should therefore be viewed as Hamitic, not Shemitic languages

arab blessing

According to the original promise God's purpose is to bless all nations through the descendants of Abraham (Genesis 12:2-3; 18:18; 28:14). To do that God chose to use one nation forged in the Exodus to have a royal priesthood among all other nations (Exodus 19:5,6). Unfortunately Israel remembered this only rarely (1 Kings 8:41-43; Isaiah 2:2-4; 24:15, 16; 37:16, 20; 42:1, 4; 42:10-12; 49:1, 6; 51:5; 52:10). Mostly they forget their international function, and Jesus complained that the Jerusalem temple had become a den of thieves instead of a house of prayer for all nations (Matthew 21:13, quoting Isaiah 56:7).

 The structure of Matthew's Gospel is designed to show how the Son of God had to terminate the Jerusalem religious establishment and replace them with disciples of Jesus who would teach all nations. (Matthew 8:11; 12:18; 21:28-43; 24:2, 14, 31; 28:19, 20) In the book of Acts the work of establishing the new Christian synagogues is described.

 Paul points out that the unbelieving Jewish children of Abraham were rejected from their Abrahamic mission to the world, and people of all nations took their place (Jews could still be grafted back in to do their Abrahamic work if they chose, Romans 11:11-24). Other epistles describe the new kind of people, body, temple, and royal priesthood that God is now using to bless the world (1 Corinthians 12:4-30; Ephesians 2:19-22; 4:1-16; 1 Peter 2:4-9). In doing our work it is good to remind ourselves that it is the true Arab and Jewish faith of Abraham that is to be imparted to all nations. And people of all nations can become faith children of Abraham: "He is the father of us all. As it is written: 'I have made you a father of many nations'" (Romans 4:9-17).

 Evidently the Arabs also have a part in blessing the nations according to the original Abrahamic covenant. Although Muhammad was a pure Ishmaelite Arab, and had no doubt of his racial descent from Abraham, his followers had the wisdom to see that the faith of Abraham could not be limited to racial Arabs or even to those who spoke Arabic. As a result Islam became an international religion to include people like the Iranians and Turks and Bosnians who do not speak the Arab language.

 It is a sad fact of history that most Arabs, most Jews, and sadly most members of our Christian churches have missed the point about the faith of Abraham. Blessing and righteousness and fruitfulness are purely by the grace of God, and are received by faith alone. So Abrahamic faith in God is the very opposite of our own righteousness and Pharisaic legalism (Romans 4:1-5, 13-14). Paul tells us that Abraham looked away from his own sin and deadness and believed in God (Romans 4:19-24). He was also "looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God" (Hebrews 11:10). That is very good news for Arabs, Jews, and all others who wish to be faith children of Abraham.

 Finally we note that Arabs are puzzled by what Christians say about the Trinity. Like them we believe that God is one, but we differentiate various kinds of oneness. There is the mathematical oneness of an indivisible unit. There is the scientific oneness of protons, neutrons, and electrons held together in one atom by tremendous atomic force. We know the organic oneness of a peach or a plum with the skin, flesh, and stone held together by their life force. But to Christians the highest form of oneness is that of the three persons of the one God held together by the infinite creative power of love (For the love of God experienced among the Jewish children of Abraham see Genesis 32:10; 39:21; Exodus 15:13; 34:6; Numbers 14:18).

 If God is love, and love is the very purpose our creation, then we cannot picture God as a mathematical digit. We experience him like a little child with a loving parent. We know him as the friend who walks with us and forgives us in spite of our sin. We are inspired and empowered by the Spirit for every kind of loving task in our world. But there also Arabs who look to God as parent. Way back in the Old Testament Abraham, the ancestor of both Arabs and Jews, was viewed as a friend of God (Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23). And in the Qur'an there are references to the Spirit of God and the Holy Spirit. The Arab word for spirit is ruh which is the same root as the Hebrew ruakh.

 It seems that Abraham knew God as loving Parent, Friend, and Spirit in that way and, whether we are circumcised like our Arab and Jewish cousins or uncircumcised, we can follow in his footsteps (Romans 4:12). It would be a useful dialogue for Arabs, Jews, and Christians to explore together the loving oneness of the God of Abraham, the friend of God (Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23).

 august 1997

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