I thought twice before posting this picture of a scene I came across just inside Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate. With an armed Israeli Border Patrol in the background, it looked like a human body had been dumped into a garbage wagon. On closer look, I found that a street worker had just crawled into his cart for a nap.
Behind the smile of a wrong first impression lies a heartbreak that is real. Both sides of an ancient Arab-Israeli conflict believe they have been the victims of unforgivable violence. Jewish voices point to the inexpressible loss and suffering inflicted by suicide bombers trying to force them out of their 4000 year old ancestral homeland. Palestinians say they are only trying to defend themselves against an Israeli policy of displacement and settlement that has resulted in the immeasurable loss of their own neighborhoods, farms, and lives– in a land that has been home to their ancestors for almost 2000 years.
Many Palestinians insist that in the days prior to 1948, international leaders misled the world by talking about a “land without people for a people without a land.” This slogan, say Arab advocates ignored hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were displaced in an effort to give a homeland to survivors of the holocaust. But on the other side of the ethnic divide, Jewish families believe they have a rightful claim to a “promised land” for a “chosen people.”
If both sides have made mistakes along the way, we should not be surprised. Human errors of judgment have always intermingled with the purposes of God in the Middle East. Abram, the patriarch whose estranged children are now fighting for his legacy, was 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 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 child-bearing wife (Genesis 16:3). Within a year Ishmael was born.
But the couple’s attempt to solve their own problem gave birth to trouble. Ishmael, while dearly loved, was not the son God had promised. After Ishmael’s birth the Lord told Abram that, even in their old age, Sarah would 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 wasn’t big enough for all of them. At Sarah’s request Abram asked Hagar and Ishmael to leave.
As a result of this conflict, 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” (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.
It’s just as true that, for Israel, the legacy of being a “chosen people” came with 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).
Today, even if we believe we can see God’s hand in Israel’s return, don’t we need to wonder whether her efforts to secure her borders by military strength, settlements in contested territory, and a strong international lobby, look like 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 spiritually reborn (Ezekiel 37:1-14).
As a result, I say we need to look for the difference between what God may be doing through Israel, and what Israel is trying to do without God.
But what about the promise that God would bless those who bless– and curse those who curse– Israel? Check me on this. Isn’t it true that the promise was made to Abraham who was the father of both Ishmael and Isaac? (Gen 12:3) And if the promise does extend beyond Abraham to the children of Israel, don’t we need to ask ourselves another question: When did a Jewish prophet, like Isaiah, Ezekiel, or Jeremiah ever close their eyes to “a chosen people’s” lack of faith?
So now let me ask you. Do you think it’s a mistake to say that we cannot “bless” either side of the Middle East conflict by turning a blind eye to their attempt to return evil for evil? Or, if you have anything else to say about the roots of this awful conflict, it’s your turn :-).