Did you know Ruth, the most famous woman in the Old Testament, was an Arab of Moabite extract—from today’s Jordan? Ruth held a Jordanian passport!
Moses’ wife was a Midianite—a woman he’d met and married when he was forced out of Egypt. Midian, in antiquity, which is now northwestern Saudi Arabia. Yes, Moses’ wife was an Arab. Does that sound incredible to you?
Moses’ wife had a Saudi passport; Ruth had a Jordanian passport. Can it really be there were Arabs in such critical places? Yes. And there are plenty more examples.
Faith-based Bible readers enter a world often frequented by Arabs.
The rabbi from Tarsus, Paul, left an indelible mark on Christian Faith and understanding. Though Jewish to the core—both before AND after accepting Yeshua/Jesus—unlike the other apostles, he didn’t have an Israeli passport. Paul, by contrast, was from Tarsus—a city in modern Turkey today. Paul held a Turkish passport.
Luke tells us Paul was headed to Damascus, Syria when his life was upended by an encounter with Israel’s Messiah. Paul tells us in Galatians that, rather than return to Israel, he spent three years in Arabia after which he took a two-week trip to Jerusalem before falling off the radar during a subsequent ten-year stint in Tarsus. His biographer, Luke, informs us that Barnabas later invited him to Antioch, Syria to minister and the rest is history—biblical history.
The number of Christians that populated the Arab world as a result of early believers evangelizing was enormous—until Islam conquered most of these areas and began in the 7th century converting massive expanses of populations to Islam—mainly by the sword. The fact is, the ancestors of multitudes of Arab Muslims were Christians.
But here’s the most famous story of all! Did you know the first men to worship Jesus were Arabs—not Jews? Though we’re not told a great deal about them, Matthew does say wise men from the “East” came bearing precious gifts. (As mentioned, the people who had moved and settled east of Israel were a conglomerate of Abraham’s descendants and relatives.) Today there is a tradition among Iranians that the wise men were Zoroasters. Bible scholars connect them to Isaiah 60:1-7 as we shall see.
Arab Worshipers Outwit Herod the Great
Here’s how the story unfolds: A non-Jewish Idumaean/Edomite (a descendant from Esau whose name was changed to Edom) had stealthily worked his way into the throne of Judah under the banner of the Herodian dynasty. “When Herod the king” heard about the birth of an alleged Messiah—someone he knew would be construed as a more legitimate “king of the Jews” than he—Matthew says he was “troubled” and was determined to find the child, ostensibly to “worship” Him.
That such was not his intention, however, is amply noted in the New Testament. Herod’s covert consternation was stimulated by “wise men from the East” who came to Jerusalem, guided by “His star in the East.” Herod inquired about the timing of the great light’s appearance. Matthew records their response: “The star, which they saw in the East, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.”
Matthew continues, noting that “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy,” after which they entered the house and “presented unto Him gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.” That business attended to, they made haste to return to the East from where they came, albeit by another way for fear of Herod, who was obviously up to no good.
Despite its having worked its way into popular lore, the text never says there were “three” wise men or astrologers. Over and over again, though, it does note that these men were from the East and that they were guided to Israel by a star. Though the number of these eastern travelers has been the object of fanciful speculation, the question of exactly who the first Gentile worshippers of Jesus were can be ascertained with a much greater measure of certainty: The first non-Jews to worship Jesus were Arabs.
How Can We Be Sure?
First, it is clear that “sons of the East” is a biblical phrase referring to what lies immediately to the east of Israel and its natural borderline, the Jordan River, in what looks like a wide crescent-shaped cluster of territories—inhabited by an ethnic amalgam of Ishmaelites and distant relatives from various descendants of Abraham, Esau and Lot.
Second, worth noting is that from ancient times the regional spice trade was Arabian in origin. You may recall, for example, that when the Queen of Sheba (southern Arabia) visited Solomon, she brought with her “spices and very much gold, and precious stones.”These were the very types of gifts later presented to the divine infant Jesus—a descendant of Solomon. This, in fact, reflects a regional tradition of the type of honorary gifts presented to royalties and dignitaries in the ancient world.
Third, Justin Martyr, a church father who grew up within the territories of Israel, in his debate with a Jew named Trypho around AD 135, referred to the Magi as being from Arabia:
For, at the time of His birth, the Magi came from Arabia and worshipped Him, after they had met Herod, then the king of your country, whom Scriptures calls king of Assyria because of his wicked ungodliness…at the time when the Magi from Arabia came to King Herod and said…. Now, these Magi from Arabia came to Bethlehem, worshipped the Child, and presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh…. There the Arabian Magi found Him…. Now when the Arabian Magi failed to return to Herod…
Fourth, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah—who, by the way, is the most oft-employed Old Testament writer in the New Testament— saw the coming of Israel’s redeemer and voiced it in various ways. In Isaiah 60:1-5, he encouraged folks with, “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.” Though deep darkness is said to have engulfed the people, there was a promise that “the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee.”
Seen by whom? Isaiah reveals, “The nations [Gentiles] shall come to thy light,” and then he noted, “The wealth of the nations shall come unto thee.” The Queen of Sheba’s visit bearing gifts to Solomon—which took place more than two centuries before Isaiah’s prophetic writings—was a foreshadowing of the future Arabian interaction with Jesus.
Midian, Ephah, Sheba, Dedan and Cushites
And then, particularly striking, Isaiah reveals exactly who these “Gentiles” would be.
Continuing in 60:6–7, Isaiah describes the gift-bearers, noting that, “The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come; they shall bring gold and incense, and they shall show forth the praises of the Lord.”
What definitely needs to be emphasized here is that Matthew’s “Gentiles” coming to Jesus as his first worshippers were some of the Jewish people’s estranged Arab relatives. Located northeast, eastward, and southward in Arabia, Midian is mentioned first. Ephah follows immediately in the text. Who was Ephah? He was actually the son of Midian and likewise descended from Abraham by his wife Keturah.
That their descendants were more firmly entrenched in Southern Arabia is evident by the places named after them in Southern Arabia. The people of Sheba—or Sabeans, as they are known—were noted in the Bible as traders of gold and spices, the very gifts the famous Queen brought to Solomon. Jeremiah noted frankincense that was coming “from Sheba.”
Ezekiel spoke of “merchants of Sheba,” Ezekiel spoke of “merchants of Sheba,” informing that they traded in the “best of all spices…and gold.”
In fact, Jacob’s sons sold their brother Joseph to a band of Ishmaelite/Midian traders traveling from Israel to Egypt.Incidentally, from this story, it would appear that Midians intermarried with Ishmaelites.
Just to interject a bit more biblical history: As with Isaac and his descendants, Midian was himself a legitimate son of Abraham, though in his case he came by Keturah— whom Abraham married after the death of Sarah.In Genesis 25:6, Moses recorded that “Abraham gave gifts” to the sons of his concubines (notice the plural) and “sent them away from Isaac, his son, while he yet lived, eastward, unto the East country,” as he had with Ishmael previously.
Far back in history, Arabian elite came bearing gifts to a king of Israel. The second time they crossed the border carrying their wealth and gave it to One who was greater than Solomon.
But isn’t it amazing to discover that Arabs were the first to acknowledge Jesus? Their doing so gets more interesting yet.
Prophecies Yet to be Fulfilled
Yes, there’s much more to come! Indeed, it would appear that this 60th chapter of Isaiah reveals prophecies yet to be fulfilled at the great return of King Messiah Yeshua. The Lord will accept the return of the Arab people to the God of Israel, and they will minister to Isaiah’s people, the Jews.
All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered together to you, The rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; They shall ascend with acceptance on My altar, And I will glorify the house of My glory.
Nebaioth is actually Ishmael’s first born. Kedar is his younger brother. In another chapter of Isaiah,he envisions these sons of Ishmael worshiping and praising the one true God:
Sing to the Lord a new song, And His praise from the ends of the earth,
You who go down to the sea, and all that is in it,
You coastlands and you inhabitants of them!
Let the wilderness and its cities lift up their voice,
The villages that Kedar inhabits.
Let the inhabitants of Sela sing,
Let them shout from the top of the mountains.
Let them give glory to the Lord, And declare His praise in the coastlands.
And more! We cannot forget the Arab people to the north of Israel – when they too will be granted a great spiritual awakening.
Is it not yet a very little while Till Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field,
And the fruitful field be esteemed as a forest?
In that day the deaf shall hear the words of the book,
And the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity and out of darkness.
The humble also shall increase their joy in the Lord,
And the poor among men shall rejoice In the Holy One of Israel.
And lastly, we mustn’t finish this article without recounting Isaiah’s famous “Grand Finale” vision of revival throughout the Middle East! He foresees the day when there will be a highway right across the entire Middle East—from Egypt through Israel across to the Arabian Peninsula. That will be possible because the entire Middle East will be worshipers of the One True God of Israel!
“In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border. . . In that day Israel will be one of three with Egypt and Assyria—a blessing in the midst of the land, whom the Lord of hosts shall bless, saying, “Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance.”
In sum, the Arab people—the whole of the Middle Eastern tribes—coming to acknowledge the One known as the “King of the Jews” is predicted by Isaiah. The forerunners— the Wise Men, Ruth and Moses’ wife were all Arabs faring from Arab lands who followed the God of Israel. Though of Hebrew extract himself, Paul frequented the Arabian world. Arabs often appear inside the biblical narrative, and in very interesting and influential places.
Reaching out with God’s love and grace should be our goal for the Arab nations. Let’s pray for them and consider how we might build bridges and, in the process, begin a dialogue of hope and joy that only God can give them. Some of these stories would be a thought-provoking way to start a conversation with Muslim friends and acquaintances.
This article originally appeared in Maoz Israel Report, August 2016, and reposted with permission.