Ishmael and Isaac: the Birth of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?


“…and this is why there is conflict between the Arabs and Jews in the Middle East,” declared the narrator from the tape in the car radio. My family and I were driving through the countryside, listening to the Bible on tape. “It all goes back to Isaac and Ishmael.” I was taken aback to hear this simplified explanation added as commentary, and at the same time, not surprised at this line of reasoning. Internationally and in this region, people and publications link the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael to the current political situation in the Middle East. Often in our experiences on a Musalaha desert trip or conference, we have heard people repeating, “There is no hope for an end to this conflict; it goes all the way back to Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael.”

In light of the current situation in this land, the subject of the Biblical roots of the conflict is a timely one. As a result, we wanted to examine the role of theological interpretations, particularly concerning the role of Ishmael. Is it truly the case that the origins of our modern conflict can be found in the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael? Did the patriarchs determine the fate of the Arabs and Jews and their modern nations? It is important for all of us involved in Musalaha and other ministries working among Israelis and Palestinians, to raise these questions. The issue has long been one that allows people to reject the other side, to resign themselves to a fatalistic and hopeless view of peace, and to be apathetic towards reconciliation and relationships with the other side.

Certain myths concerning Ishmael prevail that perpetuate division, and hinder reconciliation and evangelism. A careful reading of the Hebrew texts on the character and experience of Ishmael, as recently written about by a number of scholars, challenges these suppositions. So often, texts are interpreted in the light of the present conflict and used to justify nationalist or ethnic positions.

As Christians, we can hesitate to deal with the topic of Ishmael because it might be seen as a defense or apologetic for Islam. Muslims are linked to Ishmael mainly through post-Koranic tradition that draws the roots of Mohammed back to Ishmael. The Arab peoples, who are mainly Muslims and some Christians, originated as nomadic tribes in the Arabian peninsula, and can be traced to Ishmael’s descendants. In addition, discussion of Ishmael can be perceived as taking sides in the conversations concerning the theology of the land. Precisely because this topic has implications concerning very sensitive and relevant issues, it is important to carefully examine what the Hebrew text and its context is communicating about Ishmael. In this short article there is not room to address every issue, and there is no intention to take sides on the issue of theology of the land. Because interpretations of Ishmael have implications for Israeli and Palestinian believers and for reconciliation in this land, we would like to bring up some points and recommend further exploration of the subject.1

Myths about Ishmael

1. Rejected by God? One prevailing myth is that Ishmael, because he was not the son of the promise, was cursed and rejected by God. Glen Skirvin disputes this notion, “What is so often overlooked by Bible commentators is the tender care and concern – and yes, love – that God demonstrated toward Ishmael and his mother Hagar throughout their lives… The Lord made specific promises to him, the likes of which he has made to few other men – namely that He would bless him and build a great and prosperous nation from him….”2

Another scholar, Tony Maalouf, discusses the common misconception that because Ishmael wasn’t chosen to lead the nation from which the Messiah would come, he is alienated from God. Ishmael was not removed from the blessing of the covenant:

Ishmael was put under the Abrahamic blessing through obedience to the rite of circumcision… After the calling of Israel to the land of Canaan for a ministry of ‘light to the gentiles’ (Ex 19:6, Is 42:6, 49:6), Ishmael and his descendants were among the first people to benefit spiritually from Israel’s testimony. Despite a couple of conflicts over grazing land, the period called ‘the Light of Israel’ evidenced an integration of Ishmaelites into Israel’s social and theological life that culminated with the era of Solomon. The children of Ishmael were part of God’s people and the royal family and kingdom administration.3

2. Enmity with others? It is also important to note that Ishmael and his descendents did not live in a state of constant enmity with their brothers and neighbors. Ishmael was circumcised as part of the Abrahamic covenant, and it is clear that he came together with Isaac to bury their father (Gen. 25).

3. Wild Man? Another myth that concerns Ishmael’s character is based on the verse that calls him a “wild donkey of a man.” This verse conjures a negative image in the mind of the reader, an image that is projected on to the Arab people, implying as one commentator suggested, that Ishmael is “the father of a great tribe of wild, hostile, people.”4 A closer look at the context indicates differently. This title, pere-adam in Hebrew, refers more to his freedom found in a nomadic lifestyle. The book of Job uses the same term, in a classic description of the pere-adam as an independent, wilderness survivor, who avoids the sedentary life.5 This is contrary to a Western, colloquial image of a wild man, and hostility or negativity is not implicit. The scripture also indicates that Ishmael well dwell al pne with his brothers. Some interpret this as “facing” or “in the presence of,” while others add a measure of defiance to the interpretation. Certainly someone so fiercely independent will get into disputes with his neighbors and brothers. However, as the studies show, it was within the context of relations between tribes and then nations, and not because one side (Ishmael’s) was rejected by God and the other (Isaac’s) was chosen.6

These are brief examples of misperceptions that many have about Ishmael that can have implications in peoples’ attitudes towards Arabs and Muslims, also extending to the modern day conflicts between Arabs and Jews. Such misperceptions can cause a deterministic or fatalistic view of the relationships between Jews and Arabs. They can also lead to dehumanization of Muslims, to such a degree that they are even considered beyond or outside the redemptive act of Jesus on the cross.

As Maalouf states, “The present conflict in the Middle East over Abrahamic material blessings does not reflect a stereotype sustained in biblical history and prophecy. It does not even reflect the pattern of Arab-Jewish relationships in post-biblical history. On the contrary, it reveals a crisis of interpretation of history and theology…. This should create among Christians a desperate burden to refrain from political agendas and invest in the spiritual awakening predicted among both Arabs and Jews. The same God who predicted a shining Messiah’s glory over a faithful remnant of the Jews (Isa. 60: 1-3) foreordained the drawing of the Arab faithful remnant to the glory of salvation light (60: 5-7). God’s visitation of Jerusalem in messianic times cannot be separated from his visitation of his people among the Arabian tribes of Midian and Sheba (60:6) or the Christian worship of Ishmael’s children (60:7). Removing unwarranted biases against Arabs, which neither the Bible nor history sustains, would play a healing role in the Middle East conflict.7

A careful reading of Isaiah 60, as Maalouf mentions, reveals names of Ishmael’s descendants and the fact that they were part of God’s promises. In Acts 2, Arabic was one of the languages listed as being spoken on Pentacost. Paul spent three years in the Arabian desert. The Gospel reached the Arab and nomadic peoples very early in church history, mainly due to their geographical proximity. As such, Arab Christianity has been around since the beginning of the formation of the church. Many of the suppositions that are projected on to the Arabs are based in a failure to understand the character and destiny of Ishmael. These myths enable attitudes such as dehumanization and disenfranchising of the Arabs, because they are Ishmael’s descendants; which does little to build bridges of reconciliation and communication of the Gospel.

A solid understanding of the nature of God’s promises to Isaac and Ishmael can be used to bring healing and restoration in the midst of this intractable conflict, instead of being a means of division. As we seek to understand God’s redemptive purposes and the inclusion of all nations, including the descendants of both Isaac and Ishmael, we can live out the Biblical mandates that destroy the dividing wall of hostilities between nations and people groups.

~ Salim J. Munayer, PhD and Brittany Browning

1 An excellent and detailed study of the issue can be found in Arabs in the Shadow of Israelby Tony Maaluf of Dallas Theological Seminary.)

2 Skirvin, G. (1980) Ishmael: The Forgotten Son of Abraham. Fuller School of World Mission. Introduction to Islam. Prof. Don M. McCurry. (p. 42)

3 Maalouf, T. (2003) Arabs in the Shadow of Israel. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications. (pp. 220-221).

4 Allen Ross, “Genesis,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1985), 57.

5 Sirkin. P. 13

6 Ibid. p. 12-14

7 Maalouf, p. 223

Salim Munayer and Brittany Browning