Why is there so much unrest in the Middle East? Why is there constant strife between the Israelis and Palestinians? The answers to these questions didn't begin with the formation of the state of Israel in 1948. The history of these conflicts goes back 4,000 years and is recorded in a place many people would never think to look-the Bible!
Until recently many Americans envisioned the Middle East as an exotic, far-away mixture of the ancient past and the modern world. This area of conflict between Arab and Jew is the land of the Bible, of Moses and Jesus, of prophets bringing messages of God's wrath and apostles proclaiming God's love.
The United States has been politically, economically and sometimes militarily involved in the Middle East for decades. The United States supported the United Nations' creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and U.S. dollars and military hardware enabled Israel to win its wars with Arab neighbors.
America's roller coaster relationship with Arab nations has run the gamut from alliance to hostility. In 1956 the United States was instrumental in putting pressure on Great Britain, France and Israel to withdraw from the Suez Canal after a lightning strike that seized the waterway from Egypt. It was a U.S.-led coalition that drove the Iraqis from Kuwait during the Gulf War of the early 1990s.
The biblical origins of Middle East conflict
The World Trade Center attacks raised American consciousness of the age-old conflicts of the Middle East. Westerners are trying to understand the reasons for the hatred between Jew and Arab and why it spilled over into the Western world.
For students of biblical prophecy these events aren't a complete surprise. The Middle East is the focal point of biblical prophecy. Jerusalem is where Jesus the Messiah delivered the gospel of the Kingdom of God and it is where He promises to return to set up that Kingdom. The Bible also contains a great deal of information concerning the roots of the bad blood between Israeli and Arab. The Arab peoples comprise numerous clans and tribes. Many historians trace the peoples of the southern Arabian Peninsula to Joktan, who is mentioned in the Bible. Other Arab peoples are descendants of Abraham's nephew Lot, who fled Sodom. But to really understand the history of the Arab peoples, we must study the life of Abraham.
Abraham and Sarah
We begin our search almost 4,000 years ago in the city of Ur, a thriving metropolis on the eastern curve of the Fertile Crescent. It was in this crescent-shaped strip stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Egyptian Nile that the first great civilizations appeared. It was in Ur that the Creator appeared to a man named Abram who would become a central figure in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. God's relationship with Abram starts in Genesis 12:1-3: "Now the LORD had said to Abram: 'Get out of your country, from your family and from your father's house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation...'"
Genesis 16 contains the fascinating, but ultimately tragic, story of Abram's and Sarai's attempt to bring about God's promise through human means. Since it was physically impossible for Sarai to bear children, she gave an Egyptian servant girl to Abram as a surrogate mother. The child of this union was named Ishmael. For 13 years Ishmael was probably told that he was the son of promise, the recipient of God's promises to Abram.
God appeared again to Abram as we read in Genesis 17:1-2: "When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, 'I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless. And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.'"
God made an amazing promise to Abraham-his descendants would be a special people for God's purposes for generations. God previously told Abraham that in him all the nations of the earth would be blessed. The promise also included the land of Canaan (Genesis 17:8).
Canaan is the geographically diverse strip of land running along the eastern Mediterranean Sea that is the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today. God reestablished His covenant with Abraham, but there was another stipulation that would come as a shock to this man to whom God had promised so much.
"Then God said to Abraham, 'As for Sarai your wife...I will bless her and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be from her'" (Genesis 17:15-16).
God's statements seemed incredible. Not only had Sarah been barren all her life, but she was now well past normal child-bearing age. What God was promising could only happen through divine intervention. Besides, Abraham already had a son, whom he loved dearly. In Genesis 17:18 Abraham says to God, "Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!"
Abraham believed for many years that Ishmael was the son of promise, but God informed him that the Sovereign Lord of history had other plans. It was always God's plan for the son of promise to come from Abraham and Sarah. The use of Hagar as a surrogate was of their devising, not God's.
What an important lesson. How many times do we proceed with our own ideas of God's will, while in reality He has totally different plans? Abraham and Sarah tried to fulfill God's promise by human means on a human timetable. What happened next shaped the history of many generations.
God promised a son to Abraham through his wife Sarah, but what about Ishmael? Abraham asked God if Ishmael could be the son of promise. God's answer is recorded in Genesis 17:19-20. "Then God said: 'No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.'"
As God promised, Sarah became pregnant and give birth to Isaac. The hurt and anger of the teenage Ishmael towards this half brother Isaac led Abraham to send him and his mother Hagar into the wilderness. The young man, told since childhood that he was the son of promise, found himself an outcast from his father. This set the stage for generations of strife between him and Abraham's other son, Isaac. Ishmael went on to become the father of many Arab nations.
A new generation of strife
The biblical story doesn't end with Ishmael and Isaac. One generation later there was competition between the sons of Isaac, Jacob and Esau. Genesis records how the eldest, Esau, sold his birthright to his twin Jacob.
In Genesis 27 we find the oft-told story of how, when Isaac was old and blind, he was tricked by Jacob into giving him the birthright blessing. It would be through Jacob's lineage that God would fulfill His covenant with Abraham. God assured Jacob that this was His will, but Esau's hatred for what he perceived as a theft of his birthright drove him to plot Jacob's murder. Jacob fled for his life, living estranged from his family for many years.
The descendants of Jacob would become known as the Israelites. Esau became the father of the people the Bible calls the Edomites or Idumeans. The relationship between these two peoples has at times been peaceful and at other times bordered on genocide.
The Arabs and Islam
By A.D. 610 the Arab peoples of the Middle East were divided into numerous tribes. All the tribes were steeped in the various pagan practices of the Middle East. It was in that year, during the month of Ramadan, that Muhammad received the first in a series of what he proclaimed were divine revelations. These revelations eventually became the basis of the Muslim holy book-the Koran.
The Koran contains alternative stories of such biblical notables as Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Job, Jonah, Saul, David, Solomon, Mary and Jesus. Muhammad claimed that Islam was a return to the religion of Abraham while Judaism and Christianity were corruptions of this true religion. In Islam's interpretation of God's plan, Ishmael takes on the role of the son of promise.
The Koran presents radical differences from the Bible concerning God's interaction with mankind. These differences are most apparent in the Koran's explanation of the nature of Jesus Christ. Christians believe that Jesus is the only begotten Son of God, the Messiah foretold in the Hebrew Scriptures, who would come to save humanity. While some in Judaism may accept the first century Jesus of Nazareth as a special rabbi, and Muslims accept Him as a great prophet, Christians ascribe to Jesus the remarkable status of divinity in a personal relationship with the Father. To many devout Muslims, this is polytheism.
Where Jews believe that Palestine was promised to them through God's covenant with Abraham and Isaac, and Muslims believe that Allah promised it to them through Abraham and Ishmael, European Christians of the Middle Ages believed that Palestine belonged to them because of God's fulfillment of His promise to Abraham in the person of Jesus. They claimed that God's promise to bless all nations through Abraham was a prophecy about Jesus.
In 1095 Christian Europe organized an army for a crusade to wrest Jerusalem from Turkish Muslims. After terrible fighting, Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders in 1099. The Muslims continued to battle for Palestine and a second crusade was launched in 1147. Finally, in 1291 the Muslims drove the Europeans from the region. Further crusades failed to recapture the city.
One of the saddest incidents in history took place with the Children's Crusade. Thousands of children from France and Germany began the difficult journey from Europe to Palestine to take Jerusalem. Many died from disease and starvation; the rest were captured and sold as slaves.
The area around Jerusalem remained in Muslim hands until the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I when it came under British jurisdiction. In 1948 the United Nations founded the modern state of Israel and hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Nazi concentration camps fled to their new home. Many Arabs felt betrayed by Europe and the United States. The last half of the 20th century experienced rocky relations between the Arab world and the West.
The Middle East in prophecy
During the Jewish Babylonian captivity of the sixth century B.C., God revealed a historical outline of prophecy to a prophet named Daniel. In Daniel 2 the prophet records a vision concerning four great empires that would interact with the land of Palestine: the Babylonian, Persian, Greco-Macedonian and Roman. Later, God shows Daniel details concerning these empires. The first 14 verses of Daniel 8 chronicle Daniel's vision of a ram and a goat. Daniel writes of a two-horned ram attacked by a male goat, arriving from the west, with a large horn between his eyes.
There have been numerous attempts to explain these passages. An important rule of Bible study is to let the Bible interpret itself. In this same chapter an angel appears to Daniel and tells him the meaning of the vision. Daniel writes what the angel says in verses 19-22: "Look, I am making known to you what shall happen in the latter time of the indignation; for at the appointed time the end shall be. The ram which you saw, having the two horns-they are the kings of Media and Persia. And the male goat is the kingdom of Greece. The large horn that is between its eyes is the first king. As for the broken horn and the four that stood up in its place, four kingdoms shall arise out of that nation, but not with its power."
This incredible prophetic passage concerns events that occurred in the centuries immediately after the time of Daniel. The Babylonian Empire of Daniel's day was overthrown by the Medo-Persian Empire. Centuries after Daniel received this vision, the Greeks, under Alexander the Great, would invade and conquer Persia. The "large horn" of the male goat is this "first king" of the Grecian Empire. At the height of his power Alexander suddenly died and his empire was divided among four generals, fulfilling the prophecies of Daniel 8.
But there's more, as we see in the very long prophecy of Daniel 11. By this time Babylon has been conquered by the Persians and Daniel now serves under the Medo-Persian king Darius. Daniel is once again visited by an angel from God who explains future events.
Notice Daniel 11:2-4: "And now I will tell you the truth: Behold, three more kings will arise in Persia, and the fourth shall be far richer than them all; by his strength, through his riches, he shall stir up all against the realm of Greece. Then a mighty king shall arise, who shall rule with great dominion, and do according to his will. And when he has arisen, his kingdom shall be broken up and divided toward the four winds of heaven, but not among his posterity nor according to his dominion with which he ruled; for his kingdom shall be uprooted, even for others besides these."
After Daniel's time there would be numerous Persian kings, but these three would be prominent in the history of the empire. A fourth king would undertake a war with Greece. The Persian Empire would prosper, but it would eventually fall to a Grecian monarch whose kingdom would be divided into four parts.
It is important to understand that most biblical prophecy is in relationship to Jerusalem. Daniel 11:5-39 records prophecies concerning the "king of the South" and "king of the North." History shows that these prophecies were fulfilled in the generations of two Greek families, the Ptolemies (who ruled from Egypt as the kings of the South) and the Seleucids (who ruled from Syria as the kings of the North). These two families marched across Palestine in numerous wars for control of the Middle East until the Maccabeans led the Jews to independence in the 160s B.C.
This brings us to an important part of the prophecy in Daniel 11:40-45: "At the time of the end the king of the South shall attack him; and the king of the North shall come against him like a whirlwind, with chariots, horsemen, and with many ships; and he shall enter the countries, overwhelm them, and pass through. He shall also enter the Glorious Land, and many countries shall be overthrown; but these shall escape from his hand: Edom, Moab, and the prominent people of Ammon.
"He shall stretch out his hand against the countries, and the land of Egypt shall not escape. He shall have power over the treasures of gold and silver, and over all the precious things of Egypt; also the Libyans and Ethiopians shall follow at his heels. But news from the east and the north shall trouble him; therefore he shall go out with great fury to destroy and annihilate many. And he shall plant the tents of his palace between the seas and the glorious holy mountain; yet he shall come to his end, and no one will help him."
When does this invasion of Egypt and much of the Arab world, the king of the South, and the "Glorious Land" of Israel by the king of the North take place? In Revelation 11:1-2 the apostle John is inspired to write that at the time just before the return of the Messiah the "holy city," Jerusalem, will be occupied by outside forces for 42 months or three and a half years.
At the end of that three and a half years, the stage is set for the greatest battle in human history as armies of the prophesied "beast" power and hordes from the East gather in the Valley of Megiddo.
Some Islamic leaders claim that a descendant of Muhammad will come and unite the Muslim world in preparation for God's final judgment. Jews wait for the coming of the Messiah to restore their birthright. Many Christians await the return of Jesus as the Christ to rule from Jerusalem. The irony is that many Muslims, Jews and Christians won't recognize the Messiah when He does come to establish God's Kingdom.
Watch events in the Middle East, for this is the focal point of biblical prophecy. WNP