Many have long envisioned the Middle East as an exotic, faraway 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. It supported the United Nations' creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and U.S. dollars and military hardware helped 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 military 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, and another that toppled Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The horrifying attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, dramatically raised American consciousness of the age-old conflicts of the Middle East. Westerners are trying to understand the reasons for the hatred between Arab and Jew and why it spilled over into the Western world.
For students of biblical prophecy these and similar 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.
Over the centuries, the land of Israel has been at the center of conflict between Arabs and the Israelites—and between foreign powers vying for control of the area. Let's consider the origins of this conflict—and where it is headed.
Ancient animosities rooted in the family of Abraham
The Bible 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 the biblical figure Joktan (Genesis 10:25-30), who was born five generations before the patriarch Abraham. Other Arab peoples are descendants of Abraham's nephew Lot, who fled Sodom—those of Moab and Ammon. But to really understand the history of the Arab peoples, we must study the life of Abraham.
We begin our search some 4,000 years ago in the city of Ur near the Euphrates River in 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.
In Ur 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 the attempt of Abram and his wife Sarai 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 renamed him Abraham and made an amazing promise to him—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 (Genesis 12:3). The promise also included the land of Canaan (Genesis 17:8)—the geographically diverse strip of land running along the eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea.
God reestablished His covenant with Abraham, but there was another promise 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'" (verses 15-16).
God's statements seemed incredible. Not only had Sarai, now renamed Sarah, been barren all her life, but she was now well past normal childbearing age. What God was promising could only happen through divine intervention. Besides, Abraham already had a son, whom he loved dearly (verse 18).
What about Ishmael?
Abraham had believed for many years that Ishmael was the son of promise, but the Sovereign Lord of history informed him that He 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 miraculously became pregnant and gave birth to Isaac. The hurt and resentment between the mothers of the two boys led to Sarah demanding that Ishmael and his mother Hagar be sent away into the wilderness—and Abraham acquiescing at God's direction.
The young man—again, likely 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 new son, Isaac. Ishmael went on to become the father of many Arab tribes and nations. (Later, after Sarah's death, Abraham married a woman named Keturah and had other children through her. Other people groups, including smaller Arab tribes like the Midianites, came through descendants of these later children, as described in Genesis 25:1-6.)
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. Before their birth God explained that "the older shall serve the younger" (Genesis 25:23). Genesis 25 goes on to record how the eldest, Esau, sold his birthright to his fraternal twin Jacob.
In Genesis 27 we find the oft-told story of how Jacob tricked his old and blind father Isaac into giving him the birthright blessing. It would be through Jacob's lineage that God would fulfill His covenant with Abraham.
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, also known as Edom, 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. Some of today's Arabs are evidently of Edomite descent—as are other people in the Middle East.
Islam and the Crusades
By A.D. 610 the Arab peoples of the Middle East were divided into numerous tribes, all steeped in pagan practices of that part of the world. 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 eventually became the basis of the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an or 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 rather than Jacob.
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 prophet, Christians ascribe to Jesus the remarkable status of divinity in a personal relationship with the Father. To devout Muslims, this is polytheism and heresy.
While Jews believe that the Holy Land 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 the Holy Land belonged to them because of God's fulfillment of His promise to Abraham in the person of Jesus.
In 1095, Catholic Europe organized an army for a crusade to wrest Jerusalem from Muslim control. After terrible fighting, Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders in 1099. The Muslims continued to battle for the Holy Land 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 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 it came under British jurisdiction after the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. In 1948 the United Nations approved the formation of the modern state of Israel, and tens of thousands of Jewish refugees from the Nazi concentration camps rushed to their new home.
Many Arabs felt betrayed by Europe and the United States. Ever since then the Arab world and the West have experienced rocky relations—a situation not helped by a succession of wars in the Middle East.
Mideast history written in advance
During the Babylonian captivity of the Jews in the sixth century B.C., God revealed a historical outline of prophecy to the Jewish prophet Daniel.
In Daniel 2 he recorded a vision concerning four great powers that would dominate the Holy Land—the Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman empires. Later, God showed Daniel details concerning these empires. The first 14 verses of Daniel 8 chronicle Daniel's vision of a ram and a goat. Daniel wrote of a two-horned ram attacked by a male goat, arriving from the west, with a large horn between his eyes.
There have been many attempts to explain these passages. An important rule of Bible study is to let the Bible interpret itself. In this same chapter an angel appeared to Daniel and told him the meaning of the vision. Daniel wrote what the angel said 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 more than two centuries 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 Greek Empire, Alexander the Great. At the height of his power Alexander suddenly died and his empire was divided among four of his 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 had been conquered by the Persians, and Daniel now served under them. Daniel was once again visited by an angel from God who explained 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. This was the famous Xerxes. The Persian Empire would prosper, but it would eventually fall to a Greek monarch whose kingdom would be divided into four parts. Again, the reference here, as in Daniel 8, is to Alexander the Great, whose empire was "broken up and divided" among four of his generals.
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 the "king of the North."
History shows that these prophecies were fulfilled in the descendants of two of Alexander's generals, the Ptolemies (who ruled from Egypt, south of Jerusalem, as the kings of the South) and the Seleucids (who ruled from Syria, north of Jerusalem, as the kings of the North). These two dynasties marched in numerous wars for control of the Middle East for a long time, with dominion over the land of Israel passing back and forth between them until the Maccabean resistance led the Jews to independence in the 160s B.C.
The future of the Middle East
In Daniel 11:40 the prophecy skips ahead to the time just prior to Jesus Christ's return. Here the players have shifted.
The northern Seleucid kingdom was ultimately absorbed into the Roman Empire—an empire that has been revived numerous times in the history of Europe, with one final revival remaining, according to other prophecies. Thus, the final king of the North will be head over a new European-centered superpower. Egypt was also absorbed by the Roman Empire but it later became part of a southern power bloc again with the Muslim conquests. So it appears that the final king of the South will be a leader from the Arab world.
Daniel records: "At the time of the end the king of the South shall attack him [the northern ruler]; 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 [the land of Israel], and many countries shall be overthrown; but these shall escape from his hand: Edom, Moab, and the prominent people of Ammon [these designating the area of modern Jordan].
"He [the northern ruler] 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 [or in] the glorious holy mountain [Jerusalem, between the Dead and Mediterranean Seas]; yet he shall come to his end, and no one will help him" (verses 40-45).
So it appears that an Arab leader of the south will launch an attack against the European superpower of the north, triggering a European invasion and occupation of North Africa and other areas of the Middle East—with Jerusalem set up as the northern leader's new headquarters.
When does this takeover of Egypt and much of the Arab world—as well as 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 3 1⁄2 years.
At the conclusion of those 3 1⁄2 years, the stage is set for the greatest battle in human history. Armies of this prophesied king of the North and hordes from the East, mentioned elsewhere, gather in Israel for what is commonly called the battle of Armageddon, but which the Bible refers to as "the battle of that great day of God Almighty" (Revelation 16:14).
We all need to remain alert. Some Islamic leaders claim that a successor 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 Messiah 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!