One of the blessings sometimes taken for granted in the United States is the availability of good Christian radio stations, which broadcast challenging messages of life and death, giving people something to think about while pursuing their daily routine. Several years ago I used to turn to one of these stations every morning on my commute to the seminary. I was constantly blessed and challenged with the Word that many times impacted me for the rest of the day. Yet, one morning, a famous preacher from the West Coast preached a message that deeply disturbed me, causing me to turn the radio off and start thinking.
I do not remember the various details of the message, but I still recall that somehow the subject turned to Abraham and Hagar. “If Abraham was not so impatient,” said the speaker, “we would have been spared much headache in the Middle East today.” Implied was that Abraham’s impatience before God—compared to our great patience, obviously—led to Ishmael’s birth and sustained enmity and struggle between the line of Ishmael and the line of Isaac until today. Though it was not the first time I had heard similar claims about Abraham’s role in the birth of Ishmael, it was the first time I stopped to ponder the reasons behind and the consequences of such criticism. What increased my interest in the subject was an earlier discovery of a veiled truth regarding Ishmael.
Over the past few years, I have come to conclude that negative comments like that of the West Coast preachers betrayed three crucial factors related to the line of the slave woman. First, they show how narrow our view of God’s sovereignty is. The same God who planned a redemptive role for the line of Isaac (Gen. 17:19) designed a major historical role for the line of Ishmael as well (16:10; 17:20). God planned to save thousands of those guilty of crucifying Christ through the same death they were culpable for (Acts 2-3). Second, they reveal how much current events in the Middle East influence our interpretation of the biblical text. Finally, they disclose our ignorance of many details in biblical and secular history, for we assume that history supports our theology in the matter of Ishmael’s enmity to Isaac, when it does not.
Had Abraham not been so impatient, we might have been spared the headache of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the Middle East today. Yet replacing Arabs with another ethnic group might have only changed the name of the conflict and unfortunately kept the headache. On the other hand, removing Hagar’s descendants from the picture would affect many details we tend to ignore in God’s design of world history and human Redemption. First, it removes large sections of secular history important to the fulfillment of God’s purpose. Most important, it removes a multitude of names written in the book of life throughout salvation history. Finally, it removes several inspired portions of the biblical texts related to this specific ethnic line.
The West Coast preacher may not have intended his casual comment to cause such damage. It was most likely a passing remark, and not premeditated. It may also have been said as an irony in order to magnify human guilt and vindicate God in his ways. Yet, this passing statement is only one among many signals that betray a negative stereotype concerning the slave woman and her line, common in many Christian circles today. The confusion can only be overcome by an in-depth study of the Word of God and an objective pursuit of the truth. However, the negative image of Ishmael in Christian circles in the West may be related, among other things, to deeply rooted biases against Arabs in general in broader Western societies.
This article is an excerpt from the introduction to Arabs in the Shadow of Israel by Tony Maalouf.