I am a Messianic Jew living in Israel, located right smack in the Middle East. I’m sure I don’t have to tell any of you that this is a pretty turbulent area (understatement). I can’t tell you though how many times I have heard or read from someone that our “problems” all go back to an unfortunate decision made by Sarah in which she demonstrated a lack of faith, thus bringing about the birth of Ishmael and hence all of the problems we experience in the Middle East. I have heard/read this viewpoint from both believers in Yeshua as well as from religious Jews. I think this viewpoint is wrong for multiple reasons.
For the moment, I am going to put aside the fact that many times God used Israeli’s enemies to test Israel, to judge Israel, or to bring Israel back to Himself. Instead, I want to first take a look at the identity of Israeli’s enemies over the centuries and then at Sarah’s actions taken in cultural context.
In the Biblical record, the enemies that Israel encountered (in chronological order) were the following: Egypt (entire book of Exodus), Amalek (Ex 18, 1 Sam 15), Arad (Num 21), Canaan (Num 21), the Amorites (Num 21), Bashan (Num 21), Moab and Midian (Num 22-25, 31), Canaan (entire book of Joshua). In Judges 3, it is explained that God left the following nations to test Israel (the Philistines, Canaanites, Sidonians, and Hivites) and Israel lived amongst the Canaanites, the Hivites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, and the Jebusites. God raised up judges who delivered Israel from nations already mentioned as well as Ammon (Judges 11). During David’s time, there was war primarily with the Philistines (and he also captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites), but in his later years there was also war with Ammon and Aram (2 Sam 10). War with Aram continued throughout the book of 2 Kings. Then Assyria and Babylon carried Israel’s Northern and Southern Kingdoms, respectively, away into exile.
Before continuing with a list of Israel’s enemies, let’s take a look at the origin of the enemies listed so far.
Egypt (Mizraim) and Canaan – descended from Ham (Gen 10:6)
The Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, Girgashites, Sidonians, and Hivites were Canaan’s sons (Gen 10:15)
Arad was a Canaanite (Num 21:1)
The Perizzites were living in the Land before Abram fathered any children (Gen 13:7)
Bashan was from the Amorites (Dt 4:47)
Aram was Shem’s son (Gen 10:22)
The Amalekites were around before Abram fathered any children (Gen 14)
Moab and Ammon were Lot’s sons/grandsons (Gen 19) (Lot was Abraham’s nephew – (Gen 11:27))
Midian was born to Keturah, Abraham’s concubine (Gen 25:1)
The Philistines were descended from Mizraim (Gen 10:13-14)
Babylon (i.e. Bavel) was descended from Nimrod (Gen 10:8)
Assyria is mentioned in the Bible (Gen 2, 10) long before Abram fathered any children
So let’s count how many of Israel’s enemies were descended from Ishmael for the first 2500 years (i.e. – the first half) of Israel’s existence. I got zero. How about you? Maybe I miscounted.
Let’s proceed now with the next few centuries. While some of the exiles were returning to the Land, some residents of the Land tried to prevent them from rebuilding the Temple. This group included both Ammonites and Arabs. It is possible that some of the Arabs were Ishmaelites, though it is unknown for certain. Over the next few hundred years, the primary persecutors of Israel were Greece (Antiochus IV Epiphanes) and Rome. After the church was born and the Roman Empire fell, sad to say, the primary persecutor of Israel’s descendants was the church, despite the Bible’s clear instructions to love one’s enemies and that the Jewish people are especially beloved (Gen 12, Romans 11).
In the beginning of the 7th century, Islam was born. Mohammad is commonly believed to have been descended from Ishmael and writings in the Koran, which claim Ishmael was in the akeda rather than Isaac, go a long way to perpetuate the idea that Mohammad and consequently all of Islam is attributed to the birth of Ishmael. This is one factor that has planted a root in people’s minds that Sarah’s actions were what has led to the major problems of the Middle East. However, there are a few things to consider here. One is that despite the problems that Islam has created for the descendants of Israel over the past centuries, the poor treatment of Israel’s descendants at the hands of Moslems pales in comparison to the treatment by the church. Second of all, to say that Ishmael is to blame because one of his descendants was responsible for the ideology of Islam would be like saying that Israel, by way of Karl Marx, was responsible for all of the persecution that Israel received upon itself at the hand of communism.
It is currently believed that the descendants of Ishmael comprise part of the population of nations in the Arabian Peninsula, primarily Saudi Arabia and perhaps the Emirate nations. It is also generally believed that the tribes comprised by Ishmael’s sons were war-like wanderers who were in conflict with others around them back in ancient times, thus fulfilling the prophecy given in Genesis concerning Ishmael (Gen 16:12). There is no indication that the prophecy concerns Islam or the modern era. Mohammad led people (including some descendants of Ishmael) in Jihad and so there was certainly a time period in which Jews suffered terribly at the hands of some of Ishmael’s descendants. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia and the Emirate nations have not been particularly friendly to Israel since its rebirth (aside from the past few years); however, to their credit, not a single one of those nations directly attacked Israel since its rebirth. The direct descendants of Ishmael have formed a very, very small percentage of Israel’s enemies.
So let’s take a look now at Sarah’s actions and see how they can be interpreted according to the culture of the day.
In modern culture, a couple that has trouble having children will often turn to modern medical methods to aid in having a child. If a believing infertile couple of today had a strong sense (or a prophetic word) from God that they were going to eventually have children, they may or may not seek medical help to bring that about — either way, it would not be considered a lack of faith if they had no conviction or word from God about how they were going to have that child.
In Gen 15, God promises Abram that he will have a son. The promise does not say who will bear the child. We often make the mistake of interpretting Biblical records through the eyes of modern culture. In ancient culture, it was not uncommon for a man to have more than one wife. In ancient culture, the equivalent of our modern medical interventions was called “you give your slave to your husband and have a child through her”. It wasn’t until years after Ishmael was born that God visits Abraham to tell him that he will also have a child through Sarah, and that the child of miraculous birth will be the one to inherit the promise.
So to summarize, most of the enemies with which Israel and her descendants have struggled over the centuries were not descended from Ishmael. Furthermore, Sarah’s actions don’t imply a lack of faith or a breaking of any command, and they were very reasonable given the culture of her time.
So why does the Middle East have so much turmoil, and who is to blame if not Sarah? That is a complex question which would require many pages to answer in detail. I’ll give you a few sentence summary of a subject that deserves a lot more detail.
From a human perspective, most of the problems in the Middle East are due to three things: the Sykes-Picot agreement, human greed centered around Arab oil, and the very nature of Islam which has conquered most of the Middle East. The Sykes-Picot agreement divided up the Middle East by drawing lines a map that completely ignored ethnic and religious groups, thus forcing people together into nations that were completely different and bound to create major tensions. This alone has caused problems that continue today in Israel, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon. The greed for Arab oil has led to intervention by nations all over the world, particularly Europe and the US, to try to maintain control over source of oil regardless of what that control did to the native populations. And the nature of Islam itself has led to Jihad against all who are different (including pitting Sunni against Shiite Moslems).
From a spiritual perspective, Satan does not want Israel to exist as a nation, both because Israel’s existence testifies to God’s faithfulness, and because modern Israel’s existence indicates that Satan’s time prior to the final judgment is drawing to a close.
So the next time you hear from someone that all of the problems Israel faces in the Middle East are a result of Sarah’s actions that brought about the birth of Ishmael, I hope that these points give you something to think about and put those statements in perspective.