News Articles

Mideast turmoil: More complex than the Ishmael-Isaac rift

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–While it’s an oversimplification to say the strife in the Middle East at its core is just bad blood between brothers, some people believe there is biblical justification for that position.

They’re referring to Abraham’s two sons by two mothers: Ishmael, the firstborn to handmaiden Hagar, and Isaac, born in God’s timing to 100-year-old Sarah.

Islamic studies professor Samuel Shahid, however, sees the biblical justification theory as flawed, cautioning that it plays to Islamic interests.

“Muslims insist that all Arabs are the descendants of Ishmael in order to give legitimacy to Muhammad as a descendant of the prophet,” said Shahid, a Palestinian educated in Lebanon who teaches at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Arabs actually belong to many different branches.”

All Arabs could not have come from Ishmael, Shahid said, because after Sarah died, Abraham married an Arab woman, Keturah.

“Where did she come from, if Ishmael were the first Arab?” Shahid asked.

R. Dennis Cole, professor of Old Testament and archaeology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, concurred.

“The current designation ‘Arabs’ is itself multifaceted, including many groups which have no Semitic ancestry,” Cole said. “It includes many whose native tongue today is Arabic, but whose ancestry may be Indo-European, African, Arabian (as in from the Arabian peninsula), and many others.”

A look at the past provides a roadmap of events leading to the current war raging between Israel and Hezbollah, who are Lebanese Shiites said to be undergirded by Persian Iran, and between Israel and Hamas, who are Palestinian. Both groups call for the eradication of Israel.


Some people in discussing the current crisis between Israel and Hezbollah to the north and Hamas in the south point to the Roman destruction of Israel by Hadrian less than 150 years after the birth of Jesus. That’s when the Romans, to obliterate any connection Jews might have felt to the area, renamed Canaan with a Latin name -– Syria Palestina –- which corresponded with the Hebraic word rendered “Philistine.”

The name was chosen to remove any connection Jews might have had for the land, Cole said. The Philistines had been Israel’s enemy during the days of Israel’s judges. Who were the people who imprisoned Samson and who grew a giant named Goliath? God in Amos 9:7 said He brought the Philistines from Caphtor, which some say is another name for Crete.

“The majority of the Philistines came to the region as part of a mass migration of Aegean and Mediterranean tribes known collectively as the Sea Peoples, who had repeatedly attacked Egypt,” Cole said. Ramesses III drove them out from much of Egypt, but he was unable to oust them from what today is known as the Gaza Strip and north to what today is modern Tel Aviv.

Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria by 732 B.C. had conquered the Philistines, and all traces of them “as a people or ethnic group” disappeared by the time of Alexander’s conquest of the land in 332 B.C., Cole said. He said he sees no geneaological connection between ancient Philistines and modern-day Palestinians.

The Roman Emperor Hadrian, from 132-135 A.D., squashed a major Jewish uprising, banned Jews from living in Jerusalem and dispersed most remaining Judean Jews throughout the Roman Empire, Cole said.

Arab conquests took Palestine from the Roman Empire in the seventh century, Shahid said, and for the following 850 years, the biblical “Land of Canaan” known as Palestine was occupied by various Arab peoples before becoming part of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire in 1517.


By the early 1800s, Jews, the largest non-Christian group in Europe, were targets for ridicule and discrimination, just as people often are by those who fear anyone “different.” The concept of a homeland for Jews in Palestine was mentioned as early as 1840, Shahid said. By the 1880s, European Jews were buying land in Palestine and farming it, to the chagrin of Bedouin Arabs who didn’t like the fences, and the cry for a Jewish homeland intensified.


The Ottoman Empire was defeated in World War I with the help of Arabs inspired by “Lawrence of Arabia,” a British intelligence officer. As part of the Treaty of Versailles, in 1919 the British Empire was given control of “Palestine,” an area that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to Iraq. That same year, Britain approved the Balfour Declaration, which appeared to favor the establishment in Palestine of a homeland for Jews, said Nancy Duke, associate professor of history at Louisiana College.

Three years later, the newly formed League of Nations gave Britain a “Palestinian Mandate,” which included “the establishment of the Jewish national home” and “safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine,” according to Article 2 of the mandate.

Three months after the signing of the Palestinian Mandate, Britain separated what today is known as Jordan; it then was known as the Transjordan because it was on the other side of the Jordan River from the rest of Palestine. That separation limited Jewish expansion in Transjordan, which resulted in its intensifying in what today is known as Israel, Duke said.


During the 1920s, 100,000 Jewish immigrants settled in Palestine, and the British began to set quotas to stave off rising Arab resentment. One outcome of the resultant hostilities was the separation of the Jewish and Arab economies in Palestine, which had been more or less intertwined until that time.

“That disengagement was a pivotal point at which the Jewish population in Palestine became independent and self-sustaining,” Duke said.

The Great [Arab] Uprising of 1936-39 was essentially a revolt triggered by increased Jewish immigration stemming from European anti-Semitism. The British response included the MacDonald White Paper of 1939, which appeared to many people to rescind the Balfour Declaration. The White Paper indicated that since more than 450,000 Jews were at that time already living in Palestine, the “homeland for Jews” aims of the Balfour Declaration had been met.

“It should be noted that, according to ‘The Modern Middle East from Imperialism to Freedom: 1800-1958’ by Emory Bogle, the Jews remained a decided minority of the population and owned about 5 percent of the land,” Duke said.

Jews felt betrayed by the White Paper; Arabs felt squeezed by Jews buying land that the Arabs hadn’t seen any need for “owning.”

Then came World War II. In its aftermath, 250,000 Jews were stranded in displaced persons camps in Europe, unable to get into Palestine because of British-imposed immigration quotas, set to appease Arabs. Leon Uris’ best-selling book “Exodus” and an Otto Preminger movie of the same name describe that tumultuous time.

“The British continued the immigration ban because they considered it more important to support Arab interests, because of British interests in Egypt and other Arab lands, and especially to guarantee the friendship of oil-rich Saudi Arabia,” Duke said. “As Bogle states, ‘It [the Labour Party] had to protect British interests in the Middle East while it considered necessary adjustments upon the possibility of ending its long domination of India and elsewhere. Also, the Labour Party only endorsed a limited Zionist presence of a Jewish National Home in a bi-national Palestine.’”


The Jewish underground militia, which had been growing in strength since the late 1930s, began terrorizing the British, including bombing British headquarters at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem in 1946.

“Seeing that the situation was quickly spiraling out of hand, the British announced their desire to terminate their mandate,” Duke said. They were gone by May 1948.

“The Jews seized the opportunity and declared their independence as a state,” Shahid said. “The Arab League fought them, and lost, and the borders were redefined.”

More than 700,000 Arabs scattered during the fighting, mostly to Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. Most expected to return to their homes within a few months, but when the Jews won, Arabs were not allowed to return. Resentments festered, Shahid said.


Political tensions between Israel and her neighbors erupted as armed combat in 1967. That’s when Egypt expelled United Nations forces from the Gaza Strip and closed the strategic Straits of Tiran to Israeli vessels. Israel attacked on June 5, 1967. Six days later, “the Jewish state emerged victorious,” Shahid said. “Israel had defeated the armies of three large Arab states and decimated their air forces. Territorially, Israel conquered the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Sinai Peninsula and Golan Heights.”

Egypt’s foiled attack on Yom Kippur six years later, in 1973, was a blip on an otherwise relatively calm 15-year period, except for near-continual resentment-fueled skirmishes between Israel and her Arab neighbors.


With ancient roots growing into the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon became part of France’s Syrian Mandate, the mainly Christian part of it, after World War I. Enough Arabs lived there, though, that when Lebanon acquired its independence in 1943, agreement was reached that its president would be Christian; prime minister, Muslim; and the head of Parliament, Shiite.

“That is the same still today,” said Shahid, who moved to Lebanon from Jordan in 1960 to study at American University of Beirut.

More than 110,000 Palestinians left their homeland in 1948, when Israel declared itself a Jewish nation. Most expected to return within a few months, but when the Arab League forces were defeated, Arab resentment festered. Starting in 1968, several factions of Palestinian militants began to use southern Lebanon as a launching pad for attacks on Israel, said Shahid, who studied, taught and pastored in Lebanon until the late 1970s.

Resentment simmered between Palestinians and native-born Lebanese as well, and boiled over into a civil war starting in 1975, which ultimately left the nation with no effective central government, Shahid said.

“The civil war reached its peak in 1975, but it continued and continued and things were so bad for 18 years,” Shahid said.

Israel took advantage of the weakened government and retaliated in 1978 for the Palestinian attacks on Israel but was curtailed by the United Nations. Israel invaded Lebanon again in 1982, this time capturing Beirut in its desire to eradicate the Palestinian Liberation Organization from Lebanon. That’s when Hezbollah with the support of Iran started developing, Shahid said.

Israel occupied about a five-mile-wide strip of southern Lebanon until 2000 to protect northern Israeli cities from Hezbollah attacks. U.N. peacekeepers have -– ineffectively, Israelis say –- occupied southern Lebanon since 1978.

Most recently, a seemingly unending series of Hezbollah-driven rocket attacks into northern Israel erupted into retaliatory action July 12, after eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two soldiers kidnapped, according to multiple news sources. Israel went on the offensive, and that’s where we are today.

    About the Author

  • Karen L. Willoughby
    Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for Baptist Press, online news service of the Southern Baptist Convention: All by Karen L. Willoughby ›