by Robert C. Brow
Arabs, Jews, and the Nations
In this chapter we attempt to develop a model of God's dealings with nations based on what the Bible actually says rather than on modern political theories. Such a model will inevitably require a more extensive study of the Bible than we have engaged in so far.
We begin with Paul's sermon before the philosophers of Athens. "From one ancestor God made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him - though indeed he is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:26-27)
Paul's model suggests that nations have a continuing existence, and that God uses national distinctions to help people "grope for him and find him." By taking the nations of his world back to "one ancestor" Paul may be using the model of national origins in the table of nations in Genesis 10.
Most Old Testament scholars have assumed that the Genesis table of nations has little relationship to the historical situation in the ancient world. But without prejudging the issue by making historical assumptions we should see if we can make sense of the model of national identity used by the ancient writer, and which Paul seems to take for granted.
Our modern mind divides people racially by colour, hair, and facial characteristics but the Bible has no interest in those distinctions. We don't know any of those details even in the case of Jesus. There is however constant reference to the language which is used by a people. So we try dividing the peoples of the Middle East into three main linguistic groups which we will name after Noah's sons Shem, Ham and Japheth (Genesis 10:1).
It is easy to make connections with our own language group, the Indo-European Japhetites whose languages have been demonstrated to have a common origin. The Indo-European languages included Norse, Saxon, Old German, Latin and Greek, ancient Iranian, and the Sanskrit of the Aryans who descended into India soon after the time of Abraham (Genesis 10:2-5).
In the second Hamitic group scholars unfortunately confused us by naming Hebrew and Arabic as Semitic languages. It is true that in the table of nations of Genesis 10 the children of Abraham are listed as Shemites descended from Shem. But Abraham is viewed as as Shemite (11:10-31) coming from Ur of the Chaldees and entering into Canaanite territory where he adopted the language of Canaan.
The great nineteenth century linguists unfortunately called Hebrew and Arabic Shemitic languages. Then when they studied the early Canaanite texts it then became obvious that Hebrew is really a form of ancient Canaanite. Scholars later identified other Middle Eastern languages originally from this same Akkadian and Canaanite linguistic group including Babylonian, Assyrian, and Egyptian. These peoples are clearly labelled Hamitic in Genesis 10:6-14. By calling the language of these people Shemitic it immediately became impossible to make sense of the model that was used in the biblical table of nations. We also miss the fact of a common Shemitic racial origin for Jews and all Arabs of the Middle East.
So now we focus on an interesting group of people which the table of nations in Genesis 10 calls Shemitic. Within that group Abraham is clearly defined as a Shemite (11:10-32). Next we note that the table of nations makes no mention of the Sumerians. A century ago there was next to no knowledge of the vast Sumerian civilization connected with the city of Ur from which Abraham came. Now we know that Sumerian language and culture had as long and pervasive an influence in the Middle East as Latin had in Europe. Darius the Great's famous inscription, which can still be seen carved in the rock face of Persepolis, was written in the Cuneiform script. When it was eventually translated it proved to be written in Persian, Babylonian, and Sumerian. This was twelve hundred years after Abraham, and it is strong evidence for the continuing importance of the Sumerian language in the Middle East.
It is hard to believe that the writer of Genesis had no knowledge of this highly visible Sumerian people and civilization. A tidy solution would be to assume that the writer of Genesis viewed Abraham as a Sumerian by race and original language. Abraham certainly came from Ur, a very definitely Sumerian city. [Genesis 11:28-32]
It is impossible at present to identify the other languages which were originally related to Sumerian. The Bible lists Elamites, Lydians, and perhaps the earlier inhabitants of Assyria and Aram as descended from Shem (Genesis 10:21). We also know that the island of Dilmun was a centre of Sumerian trade with the pre- Aryan Indus Valley civilization of Mohenjodaro and Harappa in Pakistan. (For an introduction to this see Geoffrey Bibby, Looking for Dilmun ) It is tempting to guess that when the language of the Indus Valley civilization in Pakistan is deciphered it will prove to be closely related to Abraham's Sumerian mother tongue.
Already by the time Abraham was leaving Ur the Akkadian language had become dominant all over the northern part of the fertile crescent. With Akkadian as his second language he would have had no great difficulty with the closely related Canaanite language, or even with the language he encountered in Egypt (Genesis 12:10-13:1) In any case Abraham and his children adopted the Canaanite language of the promised land , and this language slowly developed among the Arabian tribes into classical Arabic. By a strange accident of history it was the language of the hated Canaanites which became the classical Hebrew of the Old Testament, and was resurrected this century to become modern Hebrew.
Arabs and Jews both claim they originated from an astonishing promise made to Abraham eighteen centuries before the coming of Jesus Christ. "Go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation ... and all peoples of the earth will be blessed through you." The promise has three distinct strands concerning nationality, land, and the blessing of all peoples of the earth. All three strands were evidently of great importance for those who compiled the Book of Genesis. The threefold promise is reaffirmed in various ways to Abraham, repeated exactly to Isaac, then to his grandson Jacob. (Genesis 12:2-3, 15:5-6, 17:2-8, 18:18, 22:17-18, 26:3-4, 28:13-4). How do these three strands of promise relate to the Arabs?
To this day Arabs also view themselves as a people who look back to Abraham as their father. According to the rules of the day Ishmael was Abraham's firstborn legal heir. It was Sarah who jealously wanted him to be disinherited (Genesis 20:9-11). But it is interesting that although the final compiler of Genesis must have been a Jew, he wants us to know that the progeny of Ishmael still has a great destiny. "As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation" (Genesis 17:20).
This ancient Jewish writer is also careful to list these twelve Ishmaelite tribes, and he noted their territorial area. "They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria." Some of their settlement or tribal names such as Kedar, Tema, Dumah, and Nebaioth (the Nabateans) were known in historical records for two thousand years (25:12-18). There were Ammonites and Moabites from Abraham's nephew Lot (Genesis 19:37-38). Other tribes such as the Midianites (Kenites) originated from Abraham's second wife Keturah (25:1-6, Exodus 3:1, Numbers 10:29, Judges 1:16, 6:1), and the Edomite tribes were traced back to Esau (36:1- 43). The Bible records constant contacts and skirmishes between the children of Israel and these Ishmaelites, Midianites, Ammonites, Edomites, Moabites, Amalekites and other tribes from the east (Exodus 17:8-14, Deuteronomy 2:5, Judges 6:1,3, 3:12-13, 11:4,12-18, 1 Samuel 15:5,6, Jeremiah 25:23,24, Joel 3:8).
Evidently the original children of Ishmael made tribal alliances and intermarried with other close relatives connected with Abraham. And in time other tribes also became known as Ishmaelites. (See for example Genesis 37:27 & 36, Judges 6:12 & 24, Psalm 83:7) We might compare European immigrants calling themselves Americans. Though the Bible does not use the term Arab for these Abrahamic tribes, it seems that they all became related by marriage and all spoke the Arabic language which slowly developed from the language that Abraham spoke in Canaan. As a result modern Arabs can reasonably claim descent from Abraham through his firstborn son Ishmael.
For convenience we might define Arabs as the people who speak Arabic as their mother tongue. Obviously this is not a sharp definition according to race or national boundaries. It is as if we used Winston Churchill's idea of the English speaking peoples to include Americans, Canadians, and Australians, as well as the English. In that sense Arabic speaking people tend to view themselves as Arabs, though they may also be Saudis, Omanis, Kuwaitis, Egyptians, Jordanians, Syrians, Iraquis, or Americans.
According to very ancient tradition some Arab tribes from the area of present day Oman and Yemen trace their ancestry from Yoktan, and the writer of Genesis identified thirteen of these tribes (Genesis 10:25-31, 11:16-27). These are also listed as Shemitic, which suggests that they might have had a Sumerian ancestry, but in the process of time adopted the dominant Arabic language of the Arabian tribes. It was Muhammad who managed to weld the Yoktan group of Arab tribes together with the Ishmaelite Arabs as one united Abrahamic nation that nearly conquered the world.
The Arabs only became Muslims comparatively late in their history. Muhammad came on the scene twenty four centuries after Abraham. We have very few historical records to evaluate their religion in the period from Ishmael to Jesus. Presumably they continued worshipping the God of Abraham, Elohim, El, Allah, or whatever he was called in their developing local dialects. Some of them slipped into various forms of henotheism, or polytheism, and witchdoctor animism. Arab faith is only mentioned in passing by their Jewish cousins in the stories of Job and the Queen of Sheba. In Isaiah Arabs are described as singing for joy (Isaiah 42:11, see 2 Chronicles 9:14).
Residents of Mesopotamia and Arabs were present on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:8-11). And from the history of the eastern churches we know that huge numbers of Arabs became Christians when they heard the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. During the first three centuries of church growth Christians were suffering terrible persecutions in the pagan Roman Empire. Meanwhile in all the Arab lands during this period there were very large flourishing churches. This suggests that faith in the God of Abraham made easy sense to the Arab people. After all Paul defined Christian faith as walking "in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had" (Romans 4:3, 11, 12). If we only had the fourth chapter of Romans we would assume that for Paul all genuine Jewish, or Arab, or Christian religion is pure and simply Abrahamic faith.
And if this is what Paul defined as faith, it seems likely that this is exactly what he thought God had in mind for people of all nations, in and through their tangled national history, to "feel after him and find him." And if that is the case then Paul must have believed that Jesus' incarnation and life and death and resurrection was to enable all nations to see more clearly the God they were already looking for.
That seems like a very radical conclusion to arrive at as a result of our attempt at model construction in the case of the Jewish and Arab people. But as we have seen again and again a model is not a proof, only a way of arranging the evidence. If the model is not acceptable the answer is to produce a better model for God's concern and dealings with the nations of the world.