I Am Not Abraham’s Mistake

Arabs are not the result of Abraham’s mistake: Derek Rishmawy explains how popular evangelical theology about Arab contradicts the Gospel.

9/11 was a weird day for me. I was a sophomore in high school at the time and I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “Oh God, I hope it wasn’t Arabs,” as soon as I heard that a plane had been crashed into the first tower. I’m 3/4 Palestinian and at times have a distinctly Arab cast to me. My last name is Rishmawy. Admittedly it was a selfish thought, but I just didn’t see that going well for me in high school. And I was right.

That afternoon in football practice, upon discovering that I was of Arab descent, a “Palestilian” according to one educated linguist on the team, a teammate of mine took it upon himself to spear me in the back—twice. For those of you who’ve never played, that sort of thing hurts. Thankfully, my coach caught on quickly and put an end to that. Still, for the next few years I was lovingly called “dune-coon,” “sand-nigger,” “Taliban,” “Osama,” and so on by a good chunk of my teammates and friends. And yes, I do mean lovingly. It was wrong, and I don’t really get it, but for some reason racial slurs were a way of bonding in the locker room. Still, it grated on me at times.

As frustrating and awkward as being an Arab high-schooler in post–9/11 America could be at times, given garden-variety prejudices, fears, and ignorance—none of those slurs frustrated me as much as what some of my well-meaning, Evangelical brothers and sisters ignorantly implied: that I and my entire ethnic heritage were an unfortunate mistake—Abraham’s mistake to be exact.

Anatomy of a Mistake: Ishmael the Arab

The first time I was struck by that thought, I was working the front counter at a gym in college. At the time, plenty of the regulars knew I was a Christian and a number were Christians themselves, so we’d chat sometimes about faith, life, and the Bible. In one such front-counter chat, the subject of the end times and the Middle East conflict came up and my lovely, kindhearted brother said something to the effect of, “Yeah, if it weren’t for Abraham’s mistake with Ishmael, this whole business could have been avoided.” I’d like to say that was the only time I’d heard something in that vein, but it wasn’t. In fact, you can hear the same thing implied at churches on Sundays, in Bible studies, and on second-rate Bible and prophecy blogs.

For those of you who don’t get the “Ishmael” reference, he’s mentioning Abraham’s firstborn child by his concubine Hagar. The story goes that Abraham and Sarah were getting impatient about God’s promised child, the one through whom God would make Abraham a great nation, so they thought they’d help him out by having Abraham father a child through Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian hand-maid (Gen. 16). This caused some family problems that led to Abraham, under some pressure from Sarah, sending Hagar and Ishmael away (Gen. 16, 17, 21). It’s another one of those wholesome family values stories that makes Genesis so uplifting.

What does all of this have to do with the Middle East? Well, in his faithfulness, God promises Abraham that, although Ishmael is not to be the child of the promise, that doesn’t mean he won’t bless him. Indeed he does bless him and makes him the father of many nations, “12 princes” to be exact (Gen. 17:19–21; 21:18; 25:12–18). In the broader Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions, Ishmael becomes the father of modern-day Arabs with varying significance attached to the claim. For example, it’s common for Muslim Arabs to claim Ishmael as their ancestor and the original heir of the covenant instead of Isaac, making them the heirs to the Holy Land. Indeed, in much of the popular Christian imagination, this is at the root of the conflict in the Middle East—the conflict between the Muslims’ misguided claim on the Holy Land and God’s irrevocable promise of the land to Israel.

According to my well-meaning brother at the gym and those whom he represents, this whole conflict in the Middle East could have been avoided if Abraham had just been patient and not fathered Ishmael—and the Arabs never existed.

Sweet. Thanks guys.

The Bigger Picture

Of course, this remark needs to be set against the broader picture of general post–9/11 fears about Muslim Arabs, and a prevalent popular-level dispensationalism that contributes, not hate of course, but a sort of theologically laced ambivalence toward Palestinians and Arabs as a people group. This ambivalence has a range to it, starting with total ignorance that Palestinian Christians like myself even exist (the shock I’ve encountered in some churches when someone finds out I’m a Palestinian and a Christian can be pathetically humorous). Or American Evangelicals tending to identify more with Israelis than the dwindling Christian population still living in squalor on the West Bank. Or worse, seeing them as that group of people cursing God’s chosen Israel. I know of one particular local Orange County pastor who hosts well-attended “prophecy” conferences that, in the course of raising support for Israel, regularly engages in what amounts to fear-mongering about Palestinian/Muslim terrorists and end-times scenarios (that’s where the pop-dispensationalism comes in). None of this should be taken as some bitter, anti-Zionism or a stealth criticism of conservative support for Israel. I’ve grown up decently conservative and so I know some of the complex logic at work—that’s a legitimate policy debate people can have. Once again, I’m simply to pointing to some of the broader context in which this kind of remark is made—most of which doesn’t contribute toward creating warm fuzzies for Palestinians and Arabs.

So what’s wrong with this overall picture and the Ishmael comment in general? Well, leaving aside the various technical reasons for doubting the simple identification of the Arabs with Ishmael (biblical, genealogical, geographical, and historical), and the roots of conflict in the Middle East, the main problem is that this sort of comment betrays a seriously shoddy theology in at least a couple ways:

1. God’s Providence. First, it involves a deficient view of God’s providential ordering of history. As remarkable as it seems, God’s hand is never far from any event in human history. Jesus declares that the number of hairs on a person’s head are numbered (Luke 12:7) and that a sparrow doesn’t fall to the ground without God’s consent. OT wisdom reminds us that while you might be rolling the dice in Vegas, they land where God determines (Prov. 16:33). Your parents might have decided to move into the neighborhood you grew up in as a kid, but Paul told the Athenians you got there because God appointed it as the time and dwelling place for you to live and reach out to find him as the source of your life. This is not a denial of human responsibility or the contingency of history, but a reminder that in biblical thought, contingency and freedom are ultimately realities that are upheld, sustained, and governed by God’s fatherly hand. The point is that God was no more caught off-guard by Ishmael’s birth than by Isaac’s. Isaac is the child of the promise, but Ishmael was no accident. Most pro-life Evangelicals would object to thinking of any child as an accident, an unplanned mistake. In God’s ordering of history, no child is to be thought of as an accident—how much less should an entire people group?

2. God’s Purposes. This sort of sentiment also betrays a weak view of God’s intention to bless all peoples through Abraham. God’s original call of Abraham in Genesis culminates in the promise to bless Abraham in such a way that through him all the families on the earth might be blessed (Gen. 12:3). God reiterates this promise in various places, especially in his covenant with Abraham and his seed, or offspring (Gen. 15:18). Paul takes up that promise in his argument in Galatians and shows that its ultimate fulfillment came through Christ, the true seed of Abraham, the faithful Israel through whom the blessings of the covenant would come to the whole world (Gal. 3:15–29). God’s intention in the election of Israel has always been the blessing of the nations and the salvation of the world. The Arabs, descended from Ishmael or not, comprise part of that broader crowd of “all the families of the earth” that God intended to bless through Christ. “All” really means “all” here. If, by faith, an Arab or a Palestinian is united to Christ, then in the body of Christ they “are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29) in the truest sense, because “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). At the wedding supper of the Lamb, when members of every “tribe, tongue, and nation” (Rev. 5:9; 7:9) gather to sing the praise of the King, those redeemed from the Arab peoples, descendants of Ishmael or not, will join in the same song, giving glory to Jesus in ways that draw on their particular ethnic and racial particularity—as Arabs and Palestinians. The bottom-line is that thinking of an entire group of people, one of the families of the earth, primarily as an obstacle to peace, instead of as an object of God’s reconciling love in Christ is a sub-Christian view of God’s purposes for the nations in the drama of redemption.

I know I’ve only just scratched the surface of a complex issue. The tangle of ethnicity, Middle East politics, and eschatology in American Evangelicalism won’t be easily solved. What concerns me, and ought to concern you, is whether we in the Church have the proper zeal to carry the Gospel, in word and deed, to all nations and peoples. Do we see all people as Abraham’s potential heirs, as Christ demands? Even Ishmael’s alleged heirs? In generations past, in different parts of the globe, the Church has forgotten, excluded, or considered differing ethnic or cultural groups to be beyond the reach of the Gospel. This must not be the case with our Arab and Palestinian neighbors today.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, at the end of the day, as a Palestinian Christian, I am not Abraham’s mistake: I am God’s choice in Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Derek Rishmawy is the Director of College and Young Adult ministries at Trinity United Presbyterian Church in Orange County, CA, where he wrangles college kids for the gospel. (Think non-ordained college pastor). He is the blessed husband of a lovely lady named McKenna. He got his B.A. in Philosophy at UCI and his M.A. in Theological Studies (Biblical Studies) at APU. He loves Jesus and more importantly Jesus loves Him. Throw in too many theological tomes, coffee, craft beer, loud music, a beard, and a picture (not necessarily a pretty one) starts to emerge.

You can go read his stuff at the Reformedish blog, derekzrishmawy.com.

You can also follow him on Twitter @DZRishmawy and on Facebook (Facebook.com/derek.rishmawy).

 

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

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  • http://martyduren.com Marty Duren

    Superb.

  • Jeff Cavanaugh

    This is a wonderful, essay, Derek!

  • http://morganguyton.wordpress.com Morgan Guyton

    Thanks for writing this. It’s amazing how oblivious we can be to the racism of our banter (“Well, if Abraham had never made that mistake…”) because it’s often just careless banter but it’s so hideous.

  • http://stephencswan.wordpress.com/ Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

    This is a beautiful piece, Derek.

    I can’t even imagine what it would have been like to be an Arab immediately after Sept 11th. You’ve opened my eyes not only to the overt racism (which I could have guessed) but also the subtler refusal to see the descendants of Ishmael as heirs to Christ’s promise if not Abraham’s.

    Interestingly, I was converted out of atheism very soon after Sept 11th. That event shook Canadians as it did the rest of the world. I don’t really know how much it affected my path to Christ but it played a role for sure.

    I’ve been reading and enjoying your blog for a while now and funny thing, I always assumed you were Indian. Silly!

  • http://tellmewhytheworldisweird.blogspot.com/ perfectnumber628

    Great post! It seems like a lot of Christians have a naive “us vs them” view, but I hope we can move past that and see every person as made in God’s image and loved by God.

  • Valerie

    Hm… I had always associated the Arab community with Ishmael, but I had never thought that Ishmael was an “accident” that never should have happened. This kind of thinking implies that an entire populace of people should have never happened, and that Christ did not die for them. This is entirely untrue in light of Galations 3:28 where is says “There is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ.” Perhaps a better way to interpret this scripture for today’s understanding is, “There is neither Israeli or Palestinian…”

    Great post, by the way. I had never taken time to truly think through this, and it gave me a wonderful opportunity to see what God is doing when is claimed each and every one of us.

  • http://www.jennyraearmstrong.com Jenny Rae Armstrong

    Fabulous article! I never quite know how to respond when people say Arabs are descended from Ishamel–I mean, 2,500 years after Abraham, adherents of a new monotheism trace their biological heritage back to him? They must have had some mad geneology software! And everyone just accepts this as truth, and uses it to support their prejudices? Convenient.

    This was a clear, gracious, and winsome essay. Thanks so much for writing it. It desperately needed to be said.

  • http://www.chiefoftheleast.com/ Bryan Daniels

    Amen. Absolutely. Yes. And Thank You.

    As one of those senior football players at the time of 9/11 (and FCA president) I’m sure my speech was insensitive to those poor middle eastern souls uninvolved.

    After 9/11 I even remember one asst football coach giving a game day lunch speech on the whole Ishmael/Isaac story. From a legalistic perspective of course. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • http://quixoticiconoclast.blogspot.com Chris Todd

    Thank you for this wonderful piece, brother! I am praying for the day that American Christians will understand that we have Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ who deserve our loyalty and support.

  • Erik

    Derek, thanks for this piece. It’s very timely — we’re going through Ephesians 3 this evening at our Bible study, and the implications are right there. Everyone shares squally in the blessing. Everyone.

  • https://www.facebook.com/gwatch1776?ref=hl Sam Anon

    Well written and beautiful. I’m a Christian myself and have an interesting view regarding Israel and the end times. Please allow me a moment to share. My views regarding Israel gradually developed as I delved into research about the forces directing Israel’s government and Israel’s current geopolitical role in the grand scheme of world events. Israel, along with Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and other western countries are under the influence of a documented network of corporate-financier interests, called globalists, who direct the affairs of the respective countries according to their on-record designs of regional and global hegemony. Israel is part of their strategy of tension in the Middle East which they use to stir up destabilization which creates the waves of tension that their plans ride upon. All of this is discernible simply from research of things out in the open that shed light on the truth behind Israel and world affairs.

    The specific corporate-financier interests I refer to can be found here. Understanding their role is important to understanding world affairs: http://landdestroyer.blogspot.com/2011/03/naming-names-your-real-government.html

    In regards to Israel’s geopolitical role in the Middle East, I recommend this specifically: http://landdestroyer.blogspot.com/2012/11/netanyahu-leading-israel-to-avoidable.html

    Also, consider Israel’s role in Syria’s conflict: http://landdestroyer.blogspot.com/2012/05/syrian-war-prequel.html

    Now as a Christian, I also have a unique interpretation of this evidentially-based reality of Israel, and the even greater, over-arching role of the globalists, as it appears to flow in smoothly with Biblical prophecy. The Bible indicates that in the end-times, there will be a global order headed by a central authority and figure, the anti-Christ. This authority will run the world politically and economically through its networks and administrations of control. Looking at how globalist networks are openly acting on the world stage today, I see their actions as paving the way for the order of the anti-Christ. Israel, we know through the above links, is serving globalist designs in the Middle East. While the average evangelical Christian views Israel in a positive light and the victim of “terrorist aggression”, the plain facts demonstrate this to be a ploy of the establishment to keep people perpetually-divided in fake political camps while both Israelis and Americans are exploited for the designs of the global elite. Israel, along with the U.S. through their ties to the Saudis, are directing Islamic extremism as their “Swiss army knife” of destabilization against target nations like Syria.
    Through the Bible, it is known that the children of Israel are in apostasy and that the Messiah will restore Israel in his reign which will come from above. However, the current state of Israel came not from above but from the interests of the globalists laying the stepping stones for the anti-Christ. It is through that I can say that the current Israel is a pseudo-Israel, a counterfeit of the true Kingdom that will be set up by Christ. Many Bible verses back up this understanding.

    Romans 9:6:” Not as though the word of God hath taken none effect. For they are not all Israel, which are of Israel:”

    Revelations 2:9:” “I know your suffering and your poverty (but you are rich ) and the blasphemy of those who call themselves Jews of the Judeans, when they are not, but are the synagogue of Satan.”

    Or one can look at Galatians 3 which exalts Christ as the true Israel, the real kingdom of God.

    We can see that the facts demonstrate Israel’s insidious role in world affairs and the Bible complies quite easily with the current reality even though some have twisted Scripture to justify the current state as opposed to exposing it as a counterfeit of the true Israel in the same way that the anti-Christ shall be a counterfeit of Christ.

    Even if one does not believe in Biblical prophecy or religion, there is no doubt that Israel is serving the agenda of degenerate figures who only seek their global hegemony and subversion of any opposition to their rackets of control. This isn’t a “Zionist empire” in any way as anti-Israeli conspiracy theorists allege as Israel is simply a pawn, just like the Saudis, for the corporate-financier interests. Understanding this, and working locally to build strong, self-sufficient communities outside of the rackets of big government and its twin of big-business is crucial to undermining their agenda and empowering people to go forward into an era of independence and mutual prosperity for humanity. The world may not be a perfect place, but we must realize that we have the ability in our minds, hearts, and heads to prevail in any noble pursuit that “we the people” choose and work to build the world we all seek to live in.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    Thanks for all the supportive comments! I’m glad it was helpful.

  • Nicki

    I just want to say that this was a wonderful explanation as to how someone feels, when “puns” are made about them. As loving and jokingly as they may have been intended, people don’t stop to think of the hurt it can inflict. I always hesitate to let people know that I’m 1/2 Native American & German. People always laugh & say, everyone’s Native American. My Christian friends have jokingly referred to me as a nazi & I’ve had people even salute & Sieg Heil me. This is offensive to me as they are ignorant to the part my family had played during nazi Germany. Many of them died, were put in forced labor camps and such. We are ALL here for Gods intentional purpose. To fulfill His path for us. God bless you!

  • Steve

    What a great article! You evoked emotions, represented the opposite side with a respectful tone, and best of all, you pointed to the Christ and situated your story in the larger Story of Redemption.

    (aside)
    one editorial note, in a paragraph you have “Once again, I’m simply to pointing to some of the …”, I think this needs to be reworded.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    Nicki, I’m so sorry that has happened to you. That is a heavy and ugly weight to bear to have that history, even jokingly, put on you, especially in light of your family’s persecution. I’m glad this article spoke to you.

    Steve, thanks for the editorial comment. Sometimes things slip past us! :)

  • Josh W.

    Nice write up Derek. It is sad the amount of words that are shared out of ignorance, especially coming from Christian lips. I have lived and studied in the Near East myself, and I regularly experience how the western mind has a great propensity to completely misunderstand the people of the region. This is all the more distressing in people who profess to be followers of those whom are from there, but choose to see them in a cultural and temporal vacuum. The sad complication, especially in the west, is the infusion of their Christianity with progressive social politics, traditionalism, postmodern constructs and a redactive view of history.

    It is sad how so many who take this “Abraham’s Mistake” stance forget that before he was born an angel of the Lord spoke to Hagar and after she parted ways with Abraham the Lord Himself spoke to her saying that He would build a great nation through Ishmael and bless him. (Gen 16&21)

    I lean to the that those who claim the name of Christ, yet abide in the legalism of those worthy of receiving his blessing, might be in the “I never knew you” column when all is said and done; but that’s God’s business, not mine. I am sure you will see more negativity because of confused spiritual and dogmatic logic, but be confidant that the Lord is with you and will not forsake you. I am also sure the cathartic level of sharing your story is better met with acknowledgement that you are not Abraham’s mistake over an apology by those who are not the people who have spoken poorly in your direction. Glad to see that God has given you perspective to engage the difficulty over the frustration that sits in the problem. Praise the Lord!

  • http://twitter.com/jasonbhood Jason B. Hood

    Wonderful stuff. Thanks for sharing, Derek.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    Josh, thanks for the encouraging words. Honestly, while these things have frustrated me, thankfully they haven’t become a source of bitterness for me. The Gospel teaches me that God has forgiven me far worse through the grace of the Cross, so who am I to hold a grudge? Who am I to remain angry and hurt? God’s grace is too good for that.

    Blessings.

  • http://imeslebanon.wordpress.com Jesse S. Wheeler

    Amazing article! Great work.

  • Jess

    I love this blog post. I’m from OC, and I definitely see this type of prejudice in an unfortunate amount of the churches here. It, honestly, turned me away from the Church for awhile. Thank you so much for your perspective!

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  • rw

    I’m guessing that kind of statement (not nearly as commonplace in my experience as the author suggests) comes from hearing in some sermon that, “See, sin messes everything up. Abraham wasn’t patient, didn’t trust God, and now we have this whole Israel-Arab mess in the Middle East.”

    It’s not exactly unsound logic. And you could say the same thing about Hitler’s parents: “If only they hadn’t chosen to have children, all those Jews would still be alive, plus the countless lost in WWII.” All of the same response apply: Hitler could say “I am not my parents’ mistake” or “God is sovereign and sovereignly determined my birth and reign.”

    It’s disingenuous to suggest that this is boiling an entire group of people down to nothing more than a mistake, or to suggest that it somehow counters God’s sovereignty, etc.

  • Deborah

    Awesome! So glad to hear a well written article on a truth that is to lacking in the North American church! You sure are Gods choice it Christ!

  • http://derekzrishmawy.com Derek Rishmawy

    RW,

    Thanks for your comments. I’m glad this is kind of statement or sentiment isn’t all that common in your experience as it’s been in mine. That’s good to hear.

    I also hear your points. I am by no means looking to deny human responsibility for sin, or excuse sin by appealing to God’s sovereignty. I get the pastoral, “sin leads to consequences” point. I still think might have missed my point and the specific problem of American Evangelical attitudes towards Arabs and Palestinians.

    As for my disingenuousness, I don’t know how to defend myself other than to say…? If you want to take it as a bad-faith argument, that’s your call.

    Have a good one!

    PS. Also, just a tip, in the future please sign your actual name. When we write our articles we put our name out there for everyone to see. It’s good for dialogue when you do the same.

  • Blake

    You shouldn’t even have to provide this evidence or make excuses for who you are. We are all God’s creation no matter what some bible twisting heretics say.

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  • http://www.warrenlarson.com Warren Larson

    With your permission I would like to put this on my blog http://www.warrenlarson.com with full credit to the author. This truth needs to be given wings for as many others to hear, particularly the evangelical church in the West. I went to an evangelical mission gathering just recently on the West Coast, where booth after booth had something to say about standing by Israel in the Middle East. None seemed to stress that God loves the Palestinians and wants to save all. Thanks much for this timely piece and may God help us!

  • Richard Clark

    @Warren – feel free to link to the article with a brief quote.

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  • Nader Saliba

    Derek,
    I just read this article and had to take a minute to thank you. As a Palestinian Christian, I have experienced many instances in which I felt like a novelty or a step-child within the church. In light of current events in the Middle East and here in the states, the Arabic Christian community really needs the prayer, support, and encouragement of their brothers & sisters in Christ. Your article is sincere, and educational. Inshallah “Lord willing” it will also encourage and educate many others.
    Your brother in Christ,
    Nader Saliba

  • Frank Bernard

    The following should be kept in mind along with the mentioned Gen 17:20:

    1) Abraham listened to his wife regarding Hagar. (Gen 16:2, c.f. 3:6)

    2) Despite being told (in Gen 15:4) that “your very own son shall be your heir”, Hagar conceived with so much contempt for Sarai that Abraham let Sarai respond to Hagar—and therefore Ishmael—however Sarai wanted. (Gen 16:4,6)

    3) Of Hagar’s newborn son Ishmael, it was prophesied that he would likewise manifest and multiply contempt: “He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.” (Gen 16:12)


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