The Origins of a Family Quarrel

by Robert Brow   (

Kingston, Ontario : JLP Web Publications , 1999


The present quarrel between Arabs and Jews has gone on for 3850 years. And the Jewish book of Genesis gives us an even handed account of how the quarrel began. Based on that, this very human story is offered as an outside mediator's contribution to a resolution of their differences.

Many commentators assume that the Table of Nations (Genesis 10) and the stories of the Old Testament patriarchs are the pious inventions of scribes well over a thousand years after the event. But why would Jews write with such sympathy about the ancestors of their Arab enemies? I prefer to take the structure of dates and genealogies for the life of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac, very seriously.

Whatever route we take, as sceptics or believers, we have a very precise model as one explanation of this ancient quarrel. Even if we doubt the facts, stories can work very powerfully for us. And understanding how a quarrel was said to begin is often a good way to see the possibilities of reconciliation.

But there is no such thing as objective history. Every historian brings a mass of very slanted assumptions to filter what seem to be facts. Every day the best newspaper correspondents miss the real motives of the people they describe. And even when we have known a person intimately for many years we can misunderstand the heart longings and drives that move them.

So writing three thousand years after the events, and on the basis of very terse documents, I know I am caricaturing the main characters. Caricatures can be deliberately vicious. But I would like this story to offer a model for Arabs and Jews, and even Christians, to look at where they have come from in creative ways.

I have set out the story from the very personal point of view of Abraham's legal heir,  Ishmael. And every twist and turn of events is documented from the chapters and verses of Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible. Translations are from the New Revised Standard Version, 1989.

A note about terminology

Our story is written without footnotes, except to suggest some later Geographical locations. The dates given for the headings of each chapter are one way of connecting the life of Ishmael with our western system of dating, which goes backwards from the birth of Jesus. But if the dates are changed a century or two, it does not affect the structure or the power of the story.

What does confuse the whole picture is the terminology nineteenth century scholars used for the main nations involved. Because Abraham settled in Canaan, they assumed that Hebrew and Arabic were Semitic languages. They describe Canaanite, from which Hebrew and Arabic both evolved, as the bridge between what they call West Semitic languages such as Akkadian, Ugaritic, Eblaite, Akkadian to the north, and various Egyptian type languages to the south.

We will follow the terminology of the Table of Nations (Genesis 10) which makes clear that Abraham was descended from Shem (Genesis 10:21-24, 11:10-27). He and his sons Ishmael and Isaac were therefore Shemites. But they settled in Canaan where the inhabitants were descended from Ham (Genesis 9:18, 10:6) and spoke a Hamitic language.

We will also assume that Abraham was a Sumerian whose ancestor was Arpachshad (10:23). For a thousand years Sumerian was the highly respected classical language of the Middle East, and it is inconceivable that the writers of the Bible were ignorant of that civilization. We are told that Terah and his son Abraham emigrated from Ur, which was certainly a Sumerian city. (11:31). And in our story we will describe them as moving because Hamitic people from Africa led by Nimrod (10:8-10) had crossed the desert to ravage their Sumerian cities (10:8-10).

Arabs and Jews were therefore Shemitic by race, and began speaking a Hamitic language in Canaan. The Hebrew Bible consistently views the Canaanite and Egyptian family of languages as Hamitic (as in Genesis 9:18, 10:6, 20, see Psalm 78:51, 105:27, 1 Chronicles 1:8, 4:40). So it is unfortunate that nineteenth century scholars confused us by calling these languages West Semitic.

The Jewish Old Testament was written in classical Hebrew which is one form of the Canaanite language. When that language was adopted as the national language of modern Israel, Jewish people had forgotten their Sumerian origin. By a strange twist of God's providence Arabs and Jews are now very close neighbors in the Canaanite land where they began their quarrel 3850 years ago, and both sets of cousins now speak a very similar Canaanite language. What better proof that their God has a sense of humor stretching over a very long period of time.


Chronological Outline Linked to each Chapter

Chapter 1   1866 BC Ishmael was born

Chapter 2   1853 BC Circumcision

Chapter 3   1850 BC Isaac was weaned

Chapter 4   1815 BC Sarah died

Chapter 5   1792 BC Esau and Jacob

Chapter 6   1777 BC Abraham died

Chapter 7                   Job the Arab

Postscript    On Later Arab history.

Chapter  1  .....