ISHMAEL THE ARAB 1866-1729   by Robert Brow    (

Chapter 6 1777 BC Abraham died

A camel was racing across the desert towards me. The rider was one of my spies in the land of Canaan. "Abraham is dying" (25:7-8). My father was about a thousand miles away, and I set off immediately with ten of my best camel riders. We were joined on the way by my sons, Nebaioth, Kedar, Dumah, and Teman (25:13-16). They had been called in from various parts of the desert.

On arrival I was met by my younger brother, Isaac (21:1-5, 25:7-9). By then I had got over my quarrel with him. Admittedly it was his birth that got me expelled from home. But now he was seventy-five years old, and he only had two sons, Esau and Jacob, and they were just fifteen. I had twelve sons each of whom was the powerful sheikh of his own Arab tribe. And I already had numerous grandsons. Isaac was still an alien living in that depressing little strip of Canaanite land. And his descendants had been told they wouldn't possess it for another four hundred years (15:13-14). I had a huge territory which was already seventy times the size of his and growing. He was certainly no threat to me, so I embraced him warmly.

At the bedside of the dying man there was an impressive gathering. His concubine Keturah (25:1) had faithfully looked after him for the past thirty six years though her sons had been sent away from her (25:6). She had summoned them, and they were standing proudly by her side. . As a result of my visit when Sarah died, the grandsons of Lot from the tribes of Moab and Ammon (see 19:37-38 and the previous chapter) also came.

I talked to young Esau, and I could see his mother was obviously favoring his twin brother Jacob (25:25). I already foresaw the day when Esau would have to leave home (27:39-40). Eventually he married my daughter Mahalath (28:8-9, see the extensive genealogies of the Edomite clans, 36:1-43), and their children would take an important place in our Arab brotherhood.

The next day Abraham called me and Isaac to his bedside to give us his final blessing (as in 48:15-16). He used the promise which the Lord had given him before he left Haran (12:1-3, see 22:17-18, 26:3-4, 28:3-4). I was glad to see my father had the terms of our inheritance clear. Isaac would have the land of Canaan, and become an important nation, but I would have the vast area of Arabia where I would become the Arab nation that "cannot be counted for multitude" (16:10, 17:20).

Isaac and I opened up the Cave of Machpelah in Kiriath-arba (now called Hebron), and buried my father next to his wife Sarah (23:19, 25:9-10). As the stone was sealed back in place, I stood in silence and wondered about my relationship with Abraham. I knew that he loved me very much till the age of fourteen, and he only sent me away because of Sarah's jealousy. I remembered her vicious words "Cast out this slave woman with her son" (21:10). But I also remembered how upset my father had been about having to disown me (21:11-12). God obviously allowed that to happen, but he immediately told Abraham that I also would become a great nation (21:12-13). It did not make sense at the time but now I could see the bigger plan working out in God's long term wisdom..

I would never see Isaac again, but as I rode back east I reflected on our common faith in the God of Abraham. Both his (Jewish) descendants and mine would circumcise our male offspring (17:10-12). We would also believe in one God (as in Exodus 20:2). And that meant that any form of idolatry or naming of other gods is an abomination (Exodus 20:4-6). We also have the same categories of moral judgment (Exodus 20:7-17).

My father Abraham used to tell me that back in Ur the priests had persuaded the kings to build huge temples. Every day they would offer sacrifices to please the gods. On special days dozens of animals would be cut up and burned with great ceremony on the altars. The idea was that the gods liked the smell of the smoke going up (see Isaiah 1:13). And of course ordinary people were told that paying the priests to do this was the only way to obtain favors from God.

When Abraham left Ur he had decided he wanted none of that. He didn't need priests to come between him and God. And I knew he talked to the Lord God every day, more like a personal friend (see 18:23-33, 2 Chronicles 20:7, as did Moses, Exodus 33:11).

I explained to my sons, and to all who joined us, that as Arabs we would continue Abraham's way of worship. I often had fellows wanting to set them up as my royal priests. And of course priests need a temple to work in, and huge amounts of money. I told them that Arabs did not need kings or priests. It was acceptable for a Sheikh's son to succeed him if he was equally capable. But I didn't want lines of incompetent fellows following me. A Sheikh must know God personally and command the loyalty of his people. If a Sheikh isn't able to do the job, he must be removed in favor of a capable relative. That is difficult enough, but a whole bunch of priests meddling in government would confuse everything (as happened in all nations where priests have interfered in decision making, Matthew 22:21, see Religion: Origins and Ideas, 1966, 1972, chapters 2 & 3).

So I wasn't pleased when some of our tribes fell into the temptation of building temples and hiring priests for their ceremonies. It often resulted in idolatry which is an abomination to God (see 1 Kings 11:7, 2 Kings 23:13). Using an idol is like a child making a clay statue of his father, and talking to that, instead of sitting in his parents' lap and chatting freely with them.

Abraham told me he had been impressed by the holiness of a priest-king named Melchizedek of Salem (later called Jerusalem, 14:18). After a great victory over four invading kings (14:9, 15-16) Abraham had paid him a tithe of the booty he had collected (14:20). There was an awesome meeting on the rock above the city, when they ate bread and drank wine together and Melchizedec gave him his blessing (14:18-20). When I got established as leader of the Arab people I was tempted to become a priest-king myself, but I saw immediately that it would destroy the very concept of our Arab brotherhood. A Sheikh has functions to perform, but he is never more important or more holy than any other brother.

After Hagar and I were turfed out of the family, I imagine Abraham was riddled with guilt about what he had done. I heard that he even got the idea that God wanted him to offer up his son as human sacrifice. To do that he went up to the rock above Salem where the priest-king Mechizedec used to worship (later the exact place where the temple of Solomon was built, 22:2, 1 Chronicles 21:28-22:1, 2 Chronicles 3:1). He had everything ready, and actually had the knife out for the sacrifice (22:9,10), but an angel (messenger) of God stopped him, and showed him a ram caught by its horns in a thorn bush. The ram was sacrificed, and Abraham realized that human sacrifice was never acceptable to God (22:11-14, see Joshua 6:26). I taught all our Arab tribes that sacrificing an animal to be eaten with thanksgiving was acceptable among us, but anyone suggesting human sacrifice should have his own head chopped off first.

I also had to deal with people who thought they were more righteous than others because of the fasting, and prayer, and almsgiving, which they chose to engage in (see Jesus' comment in Matthew 6:1-18). The problem was they wanted to force others to obey the rules which they had themselves found helpful. "Don't eat this . . . have prayers at set times . . . give so much to the poor . . . keep special days." I made clear that every Arab is different from every other Arab, and each of us must decide before the Lord what is appropriate for us.

That didn't mean we had no sense of right and wrong. I used a simple list of ten basic moral principles. We should live simply without trying to keep up with the extravagance of others. It is a very serious thing to bear false witness against another person. We are never to steal what belongs to another. And we are never to have sex with the wife of another Arab. We may have to kill criminals, and enemies in a declared war, but murder is always wrong. We must honor what our parents have given us, but that does not mean we have to be at their beck and call or worship our ancestors. We should work hard and rest one day in seven. God has no time for hypocrites who take his name in vain. And he hates any kind of idolatry to localize him in one place. And of course we worship one Creator God who made our world and made us to enjoy him for ever (These ten universal categories of moral judgment were given in a Jewish form known as the Ten Commandments, Exodus 20:1-17).

If there was a disagreement about any matter of right and wrong, all those involved should meet after the evening meal, ask the Holy Spirit of God (-ruach elohim-- in Hebrew -ruh-el-quddus- in Arabic) for wisdom, and discuss how the particular moral principle applies in that situation. It was wonderful to see how some of the brothers who couldn't even read and write would often come up with the right solution.

Everybody knew that the age of our ancestors was dropping steadily. When Shem, the father of all our Shemitic people, died at the age of 600 (11:10), it was a momentous event for us. He had outlived all his descendants, except for Eber who was still alive in the area of Ur. Terah lived to be 205 (11:32). Abraham had died at 175 years old (25:7). None of the wise men knew how to explain this. But the rapidly decreasing life expectancy was a fact and it meant that I would not live much longer. When Shem died I sensed that the future of the Shemitic race depended on my leadership and those who followed me.

I was already 124 years old, and I had tried hard to bring in those who had been ravaged by the Hamites into one Arab brotherhood. In addition to my twelve Ishmaelite sons who were Arab sheikhs (17:20), I had drawn into our family the Moabite and Ammonite tribes descended from Lot (19:36-37), the Easterners descended from Keturah (25:1-6), and the Edomite children of Esau (their genealogies are given in 36:1-42). My last journey, before I had to give up camel riding, was a long journey to the south-east to contact a branch of Sumerians descended from Joktan (10:25).who had settled in the far south-east (now called Yemen). As a result of meeting them I realized that by genealogy they certainly belonged to our Arab family, and they welcomed the plan for our great Arab brotherhood. Many of them still spoke Sumerian at home, but more and more they were using Aramaic (later called Syriac, Ezra 4:7, 2 Kings 18:6).

Aramaic had become the common trade language all over our area (Canaanite, Arabic, and Hebrew were variants of this). Our original Arab language was Sumerian (called a Shemitic language in the Bible), but because of Abraham's residence in Canaan we adopted the Canaanite language, and that was what we continued to use as Arabs. I never got to visit the Arameans of our family in Haran (11:31, 24:1-3, 15, 28:1-2, Aram was later called Syria, and there were constant contacts and wars between Israel and the Syrians throughout the Old Testament period, as is the case in recent history). But we had constant contact by emissaries who went with out trading caravans. I told my sons they must count that branch of our family as an honored members of our Arab brotherhood.

A note on the three promises made to Abraham.  At the heart of the destinies of Esau and Isaac was the original covenant with Abraham. "Go from your country (Syria) and your kindred (the Sumerians of Haran) to the land which I will show you (Canaan). I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:1-3, still celebrated nearly a thousand years later in Psalm 105:9,10).

3,777 years after his death Abraham is still a very great name among Arabs, and Jews, and Christians. Arabs honor him as the father of Ishmael, his first-born son, who is the original parent of their vast Arab brotherhood. Jews honor him as the father of Isaac, grandfather of Jacob, and so of the original twelve tribes of Jews who came into the promised land after the Exodus. Christians honor him as the exemplar of faith (Romans 4) but also the ancestor of the Messianic line through King David that ended with Joseph, who adopted Mary's son as his own (see Matthew 1:1, 2, 5, 17, 17-25).

The problematic thing about the original promise to Abraham is the meaning of "In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:3). How does God intend to bless all the peoples of the world through Abraham? Since the time of Muhammad (570-632) Arabs have tended to think of people being blessed by submitting to Allah (a variant of the Hebrew words Elohim and El). Jews have often thought of Jerusalem becoming the center of God's blessing for the world (see Isaiah 33:5-6, 20, 60:1-22, 66:7-13). Christians think their task is to make the faith of Abraham known among the nations.  And they think that their faith was fully explained by Jesus the Messiah, and is being made known throughout the world by his followers.

Chapter 7 .....