Re-examining the Root Perspective

Re-examining the Root: The Ishmael Story and the Middle East conflict

by Robert Jones

“…asked if he would forgive his brothers’ murderers, he said that his mother would open her home to the men, and ask God to open their eyes.”

Two of Beshir Kamel’s brothers were among the 21 Christians executed by ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) terrorists in February 2015. Everyone involved in that horrific event, both victims and perpetrators, was of Arab origin.

When it comes to the Middle East we presume to know the “good guys” from the “bad guys.” Aren’t all Middle East conflicts the result of an Old Testament prophecy related to the descendants of Ishmael? Aren’t Ishmael’s descendants said to be against everyone? Aren’t the sworn enemies of Israel all Arabs?

A recent trip to Israel influenced me to re-examine a number of my conceptions regarding Arab people. A clear understanding of the biblical story of Ishmael, from whom Arab nations trace their origin, is helpful in clearing up misconceptions.

Ishmael was the son of Abram and Hagar. Hagar was an Egyptian servant of Sarai, wife of Abram, the father-to-be of the Jewish nation. Unable to conceive, Sarai offered a solution to Abram: “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go sleep with my servant; perhaps I can build a family through her” (Genesis 16:2).

When Abram and Sarai did at last have a child, the relationship between Hagar and her mistress reached a boiling point. Sarai observed the teenaged Ishmael mocking her son, Isaac. She was so upset she demanded that her husband send Hagar and Ishmael away. She was adamant that Ishmael would not share in Isaac’s inheritance. Abram was gutted by his wife’s words and sought God’s advice. God told Abram to do as his wife asked, because not only would Isaac carry the Abrahamic line, but a nation would come from the line of Ishmael as well (Genesis 21:9-13).

What’s noteworthy is that this was the second time Hagar had been driven away. When Hagar was newly pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Sarai in turn mistreated Hagar. So Hagar fled into the desert. There, the angel of the Lord came and spoke to her. Look at the promises given by the angel to Hagar. Are they blessings or curses?      

“I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count” (Genesis 16:10).

“…you will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery” (Genesis 16:11).

“He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers” (Genesis 16:12).

The first two pronouncements were clearly blessings, but what about the third pronouncement? It certainly seems to be a curse: “a wild donkey of a man” and “hostility toward all his brothers.”

Here is where hearing the Bible through Middle Eastern ears gives a clearer understanding of how this pronouncement would have been understood.

No one today likes to be called a donkey. But in desert culture a wild donkey represented freedom and the ability to survive against very harsh elements. In Job 39:5-8, God describes a wild donkey as being free and joyfully surviving in the desert. To Hagar the slave, the pronouncement would have been a promise and not a curse. Even though Hagar may not be free, God promised that her son would be free.1

What about the angel of the Lord saying that Ishmael “will live in hostility toward all his brothers”? Not all translations agree on what the phrasing means in the original Hebrew text. The New American Standard Bible translates the term, “he will live to the east of all his brothers.” The King James Version translates it, “he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.” The English Standard Version translates it, “he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”

Hebrew translators render the terms in 16:12 “he shall dwell alongside all his kinsmen and he shall be mixed (with them)” and “in the presence of all his brethren he shall dwell.” They fail to detect a sense of enmity and hostility in the expression.2 Linguistically it is valid to translate this verse as a promise of Ishmael’s “dwelling to the east” or “in the presence of his brothers.”

The context is also important. Hagar is fleeing from mistreatment and what she receives is comfort and a promise, rather than insult and a curse. The promised birth announcement gave her hope as she was told to return to Sarai and submit to her (Genesis 16:9).

The descendants of Hagar and Ishmael are not the epicentre of Middle Eastern conflict, nor are they second-class citizens in God’s kingdom. The blessing of the Jewish nation would be to produce the Messiah—the Saviour for Jews, Arabs and the entire world. His birth would be linked to both Jewish and Arab support (Matthew 2:15).

In the appalling activities of ISIS in the Middle East, we are witnessing one of the most barbaric episodes in modern human history. But the atrocities are not Arab-based; they are sin-based.

Also, in the midst of the horror and the feelings of anger and helplessness, a remarkable kind of response has emerged. When ISIS beheaded those 21 Christians in Libya, Beshir Kamel, the brother of two of the murdered men, presented an extraordinary message of grace to the killers. He thanked ISIS for including the men’s declaration of belief in Jesus as the reason for their execution. Kamel said it had strengthened his own faith.

Then, asked if he would forgive his brothers’ murderers, he said that his mother would open her home to the men, and ask God to open their eyes. He even prayed for the men involved, asking God that they would “be saved.” Could I do that?

The Middle East is complicated. Let’s not make it any more complicated as Christians by creating an unwarranted bias against those of Ishmaelite descent.

We are all in need of the extraordinary grace of Jesus the Messiah, who prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Rev. Robert W. Jones is the senior pastor of North Pointe Community Church in Edmonton, AB. He blogs at

Carol Bakhos, Ishmael on the Border: Rabbinic Portrayals of the First Arab (New York: State University of New York Press, 2007), 73.

Tony Maalouf, Arabs in the Shadow of Israel (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2003), 75, 76.

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This article appears in the May/June 2015 issue of testimony.
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