The Arab-Israeli Conflict

Editorial November/December, 2002 Volume 37, Number 6
The establishing of the state of Israel in 1948 ended nearly two thousand years of exile for the Jews. Five wars with surrounding countries, rising pressure from the Palestinians, and acts of terrorism by radical Islamist groups–have sapped some of Israel’s stamina. Even Israeli society itself is deeply divided about an appropriate peace process. Christians are not of one mind about the conflict in the Middle East. Those who view the return of modern Jews to the state of Israel as a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, believe that present-day Israel should enjoy God’s favor in the region. Multitudes of Jews returned to Israel during the 1900s, and the return accelerated after the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and Ethiopia. Many see the present-day return of Jews as a fulfillment of the prophecies in Ezekiel 20:33-35 and Ezekiel 36:16-24. The major problem is that most Jews have returned to their ancient land in unbelief. God chose Israel out of all the peoples of earth to have a special place in the history of redemption through Jesus the Messiah. Deuteronomy 7:6 says, “For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth.” God’s choice of Israel stemmed from His love, and from faithfulness to His covenant purpose for them. God clearly promised the land of Canaan to Abram and his seed. We read in Genesis 13:15, “And the Lord said to Abram … all the land which you see, I give to you and your descendants forever.” And in Genesis 15:18 the boundaries of the “promised land” were fixed in a covenant from God to Abram. The text says, “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates.” In Genesis 26:3-4, the covenant made to Abraham was confirmed to Isaac, and in Genesis 35:10-12, the promise about “the land” was confirmed to Jacob (later named “Israel”) and his descendants. And when the tribes of Israel were about to enter the promised land, the Lord said to Moses, “This is the land of which I swore to give Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants”‘ (Deuteronomy 34:4). Yet, when Israel was punished and scattered throughout the world (as foretold in Deuteronomy 28:15, 63-64), Palestine was inhabited by people from a number of other lands. The most notable occupants of Palestine during Israel’s exile, were the Arabs who settled there from surrounding nations. Obviously, from having lived in Palestine for several hundred years, the Arabs claim a right to the land. But in Deuteronomy 30:3-5, God through Moses foretold the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland. And so today, both Arabs and Jews claim that the land belongs to them. Those who take the Bible promises seriously believe that the Jews have a divine right to the land. However, when Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem, and explained that His people Israel had rejected Jesus, the beautiful Cornerstone, He said, “Therefore the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruit of it” (Matthew 21:43). The New Testament promises that God has a future for Israel (Romans 11:25-27), but for now most of the Jewish people are at enmity with God. They reject the Gospel of Jesus as their Messiah (Romans 11:28). And so, until the people of God’s Chosen Nation come to believe on Jesus as their Messiah, there will be no attempt on their part to live by the standards of the Sermon on the Mount. Christians living in Palestine generally condemn the suicide bombings carried out by the Palestinian terrorists, but they do support the Palestinian struggle for independence. Palestinians consider themselves under occupation by Israel, and they long to be liberated from that Israeli control. Even conservative denominations like the Assemblies of God (who sponsor workers among the Palestinians), sense the plight of the Palestinian refugees, and feel that injustices toward the Palestinians need to be corrected. The secular Israelis will of course retaliate when their citizens are killed. Both Jews and Arabs lay claim to the land. Some day the Lord Jesus will return and settle the dispute; in the meantime, we need to pray for a just settlement of the conflict. The article in this issue of the BRF Witness is what I believe to be a fair assessment of the current conflict in the Middle East. Also, in this issue of the Witness, we invite readers to do a fresh study of the Christmas story as found in Luke 2:1-20. This will be the text of the International Sunday School lesson for December 22, 2002.
–Harold S. Martin

The Arab-Israeli Conflict

By Mart DeHaan Conflict in the Middle East flows from generation to generation like a river of tears and bad blood. From the days of Abram there has been an unending current of personal rejection, revenge, and mutual loss. The Jewish and Arab problem affects all of us. It costs us at the gas pump. It divides us at church. Some of us think our faith leads us to be pro Israel. Others are just as sure that the Bible gives us reason to support those who feel wronged by Israel’s return to the land. AN INCLINATION TO SIDE WITH ISRAEL For several reasons I have sided with those who are sympathetic to the Jewish struggle for a homeland. 1) We are embarrassed by the anti-Semitism of church fathers who saw all Jewish people as Christ killers. 2) We see God’s hand in Israel’s rebirth and believe it is His purpose to restore Israel in the last days (Isaiah 11:12). 3) And we hear God say to Abram, “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). A TENDENCY TO FORGET ARAB INTERESTS I am beginning to see, however, that in praying for the peace of Jerusalem, I have not prayed for the peace of Damascus or Cairo or Baghdad. While seeing biblical reasons to love the Jewish people, I have not done as well in seeing the needs of families who worship in mosques rather than in synagogues. I regret that over the years I have used my biblical convictions as an excuse to care more for Jewish people than for their neighbors. I am beginning to see how prone I have been to decide against Arab advocates because of their anger toward the modern state of Israel. I have not done well in distinguishing between what God is doing in Israel and what Israel herself is doing with or without the approval of God. THE NEED FOR DISCERNMENT Human error always intermingles with the purposes of God. Abram, the patriarch whose estranged children are now fighting for his legacy, is no exception. God had promised him descendants (Genesis 12:1-3). But at the age of 85, “the father of many” was still childless. Believing that his wife Sarah could no longer have a child of her own, the couple decided it was time for them to solve their own problem. Acting within the customs of their times, Sarah gave her Egyptian handmaid to Abram as a childbearing wife (Genesis 16:3). Within a year Ishmael was born. THE BEGINNING OF CONFLICT But the couple’s attempt to solve their own problem gave birth to trouble. Ishmael, while loved dearly, was not the son whom God had promised. After Ishmael’s birth, the Lord told Abram that even in Sarah’s old age, He wanted her to have a son of her own (Genesis 17:15-19). Although the idea sounded laughable to Sarah, it happened. She conceived and gave birth to Isaac. Now, however, there were two wives and two sons competing for Abram’s affection. The house was not big enough for all of them. At Sarah’s request, Abram asked Hagar and Ishmael to leave. Hagar and her son were pushed out into a hot barren wilderness. But they were not alone. Earlier the Angel of the Lord had given Hagar’s son a name that means “God will hear” (Genesis 16:11). Now in response to their cries, Heaven responded tenderly to their tears (Genesis 21:17-20). God assured Hagar that He had heard the voice of Ishmael and that He would make him a great nation. The assurance came, however, with a troubling prophecy. The Lord who loved Hagar went on to say of her son, “He shall be a wild man (literally, a ‘wild donkey’); his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him. And he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren” (Genesis 16:12). The prediction seemed to anticipate a common result of human rejection: hurt people tend to hurt people. THE BALANCING FACTORS Gradually I have sensed a deepening conviction: God’s covenant relationship with Isaac does not give me an excuse to care only for the Jewish people. Although Isaac was chosen to be the son of promise, God cared about Ishmael as well, and was ready to be his protection and provider (Genesis 21:17-20). Although Ishmael was predicted to be a “wild donkey” of a man, there were equally unflattering names and predictions in the Jewish legacy. Jacob, father of the twelve tribes of Israel, was given a birth name that meant “betrayer” or “deceiver.” Later, the prophets of Israel described their own nation as a “lusty donkey,” as a “prostitute” (Jeremiah 2), and as a community that made Sodom and Gomorrah look good by comparison (Ezekiel 16:48-52). The legacy of the chosen people included a heavy burden. They were chosen not only to showcase the love of God for all nations (Isaiah 9:6; Genesis 12:1-3), but also to show all the people of the earth what happens to those who wander from the wisdom of their Creator (Deuteronomy 28-30). Even if God’s hand can be seen in Israel’s presence in the land, we need to remember her spiritual condition. Israel today mirrors what the prophet Ezekiel foresaw in his vision of the dry bones. Hundreds of years before Christ, God predicted that in the last days, Israel would come together physically before being reborn spiritually (Ezekiel 37:1-14). Israel’s present efforts to secure her borders by military strength and international support, provide a striking parallel to Abram’s and Sarah’s attempts to have a son by Hagar. Attempts to solve their own problem of barrenness resulted in unintended consequences for themselves and their descendants. Yes, God has chosen Israel through whom to reveal Himself to the world. But we need to make that affirmation with discernment and impartiality. There is a difference between what God is doing through Israel, and what Israel is trying to do with or without God. Let’s not get tangled in the political and military arguments. Let’s instead try to help everyone see that the problems in the Middle East are a reminder of how much we all need the grace and peace of the Messiah born to this nation.
Mart De Haan, in the course of doing the Day of Discovery programs from the Middle East, has been continually touched by the plight of both the Jewish and Arab people. Out of that concern he used space in his June, 2002 Radio Bible Class Newsletter to write the above essay. Copyright 2002 by RBC Ministries, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Reprinted by permission. It can also be found on the RBC website here.
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