Genesis 21:1-19 Jews and Arabs : A Family Quarrel

A meditation at the student service, St. James Anglican Church, Kingston, Ontario, Canada

by Robert Brow ( November 29, 2000

Today our reading from Genesis gives us the origin of a family quarrel. It was a quarrel between two brothers, Ishmael and Isaac. And it has gone on for 3800 years. That's a long time if you remember that Columbus gave to America only 500 years ago.

Abraham's son Ishmael was born when Sarah, who was way past childbearing age, told her husband to give her children by going in to Sarah's own maidservant , Hagar (Genesis 16:2). That was morally acceptable and perfectly legal in those days. So there is no question that Ishmael was Abraham's legal heir.

Fourteen years later, as God had promised (Genesis 17:15-16), Sarah gave birth to Isaac. And very soon she told Abraham to "Cast out his slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac" (Genesis 21:10). Abraham was very upset, but God assured him that this had to be. There would have been no room in the land for the tribe of Lot (Genesis 13:8-9), and there would have been even less room for the twelve tribes that God had promised Ishmael (Genesis 17:2).

A few days later Abraham gave Hagar a load of pita bread to carry over her shoulder, and a skin of water for Ishmael to carry, and told the mother and son to move off east. When the water ran out, and Ishmael was dehydrated and ready to die, it looked as is that was the end of the story. But God directed Hagar to a nearby spring of water, and assured her that "I will make a great nation of him" (Genesis 21:19). Ishmael lived and prospered, but obviously he felt defrauded of his inheritance and was then cruelly told to get lost by his parents. That was how the family quarrel between Jews and Arabs began, and it has gone on to this day.

The Jews were called bene Israel (children of Israel) because they are all descended from Abraham's grandson, Jacob, who was renamed Israel (Genesis 32:28).

The descendants of all other branches of Abraham's family gradually united under the leadership of the tribe of Ishmael, and so became the Arabs or bene Ishmael.(children of Ishmael). The Bible chronicles the emergence of the Arab nation, and the many battles between them and the bene Israel.

Abraham was told "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). The Ishmaelite tribes were later joined by the Midianite and other Arab clans descended from Abraham's second wife Keturah (Genesis 25:1-6). The Edomite tribes descended from Abraham's grandson Esau were also included as Arabs (Genesis 36:1-43). Abraham had adopted his nephew Lot and the Ammonite and Moabite tribes settled east of the Jordan in the area north and south of modern Amman (Genesis 19:36-38). The family of Abraham's parents, who remained in Aram or Mesopotamia, were called Arameans, and they became the Syrians (see Genesis 10:23, 22:20-24, 28:5, 31:20, Deuteronomy 26:5). The constant wars chronicled in the Bible between the Jews and all these groups of Arabs is proof that the quarrel continued for centuries.

Much later Muhammad was able to unite the Yemenite Arabs descended from Joktan (Genesis 10:26-30) under the leadership of the Ishmaelite tribes. The result is that a vast number of people now call themselves Arabs and by intermarriage and tribal alliances they are all viewed as bene Ishmael.

It is interesting to see how in God's providence the Jews and Arabs ended up speaking the same language. Ishmael and Isaac were raised speaking Canaanite, the language of Canaan, which was later called Hebrew. The bene Ishmael continued speaking that language, which was later called Arabic. So when Jews went back to the land of Abraham and began using Hebrew as their national language, Arabs and Jews found themselves speaking variants of the same original Canaanite language.

Both Abraham's sons Ishmael and Isaac were circumcised (Genesis 17:23-26, 21:4), as is still considered essential for Arab and Jewish boys. And until the time of Muhammad (2400 years after Abraham) the Jews and Arabs had the same Abrahamic faith.

So what do we learn from this 3800 year quarrel between Arabs and Jews?

First of all it is obvious God is not in hurry. And God does not take sides. Each side is equally loved, whether they are Jews or Arabs, or any other nation. And each side can look to him for help.

Secondly if people want to keep up a quarrel, God lets them suffer the consequences. Some of your parents are suffering because they cannot forgive each other. And you remember how Jesus told the story of a man who refused to forgive a brother servant a trifling sum, and God handed him over to the tormentors (torturers) until he came to his senses (Matthew 18:34-35). That was not sending him to be tortured in eternal damnation, but it was certainly very painful.

But most important of all is the fact that Abraham looked in faith to the Lord, King (Messiah) Son of God. He came to Abraham, and Ishmael and Isaac, to Moses, and to David, and all the prophets. It is by looking like Abraham that we are put right. Paul tells us that whether for Jews, or Arabs, or Christians, or anyone else, faith is following "the example of the faith Abraham had before he was circumcised." You can look to him this morning just as simply as Abraham did, and the long term consequences are beyond anything you can imagine.

To go deeper into Arab origins, you could look at Ishmael the Arab, 1866-1792 on this site.

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