In these complicated days of geopolitical confusion, here is a straightforward question: What does the Bible say abut the Arab people? It’s a clear enough question, but who do you know who could put together more than a few sentences on the subject?
There must be only a handful of such people, and one of them is Tony Maalouf, a Lebanese Christian who has taught in Jordan and Beirut, and who is currently teaching at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. I got to meet him a couple of years ago when he came to Biola University, where he gave a series of lectures and interviews on the neglected subject of the biblical theology of Arabs.
Maalouf is well-informed, articulate, and opinionated on all the hot issues that cluster around this topic, and it doesn’t take much, once he’s warmed up, to get him going on all things cultural, social, historical, and political. But it is as a biblical scholar that he makes his main contribution. He has searched the scriptures for years, following the trail of God’s love for the Arabs. For all his sophistication, what sticks with me is Maalouf’s heart for his own people.
You have to start by accepting the claim that the Arab people are descendants of Ishmael, which requires taking the earliest biblical genealogies literally and then collating them with other classical sources all the way down to the Nabataeans. Once you see those connections, you’re ready to follow Maalouf as he guides you from Genesis (the expulsion of Abraham’s servant Hagar) to Revelation (Israel seeking refuge at Petra during the tribulation) with the Ishmaelite line in mind.
Maalouf is a careful reader of the Hagar story in Genesis, and provides a beautiful, heartfelt interpretation of the way God intervened to establish this rejected single mother, first a slave and then a discarded exile, as the matriarch of a great nation. Hagar called God “the living one who sees me,” and God named her child Ishmael, “God hears.” If God sees Hagar and hears Ishmael, we should too. Opening our eyes and ears to the line of Ishmael is what Maalouf accomplishes.
Once you’re sensitized to their presence, the Ishmaelites start to show up all over the place. The Proverbs 31 woman? Arab. Caleb the good spy? Arab (Edomite). Job? Probably Arab. The Magi who brought gold and spices to Jesus? Arab. The Rechabites of Jeremiah, the scribes of I Chronicles 2, and so on and so on: Arabs all over the Bible.
Ishmael himself benefits from Maalouf’s attention: You may think of Ishmael as “a wild ass of a man” whose “hand is against all” and who dwells “in the face of his brothers,” because of course that’s what the Bible says (Genesis 16). But Maalouf points out that none of that is necessarily a negative thing. Wild donkeys are nomadic and admirably free, a positive symbol in Bedouin and ancient near eastern culture. It’s apparently only can-do yankees who find donkeys to be mainly an irritant, because we’ve got plans for their lives that they’re not interested in. And to live “in the face of” your brothers certainly means “in close proximity to,” but it takes some strong interpreting to make that a bad thing. Much more could be said, and Maalouf says it: Ishmael, the first person to be named before his birth by God, received the name “God hears” while Isaac got “Laughing Boy” and Jacob got “God-Wrassler.” Okay, blame me for that last part. But otherwise it’s all there.
Maalouf’s biblical theology of Ishmaelites is not an attempt to remove Israel from its central place in God’s plan for the world and substitute Arabs in that place. Everything he says presupposes the centrality of the Jews and therefore the impossiblity of a fully independent account of the role of Arabs in salvation history. As the title of his book has it, he is interested in Arabs in the Shadow of Israel. Whatever special arrangements the God of Abraham has worked out with the line of Ishmael, it cannot be called a capital-c Covenant in anything like the way the line of promise runs through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But Maalouf is working with a strong salvation-historical doctrine of election in which God chooses somebody so that he can use them to bless the rest. Election therefore does not require rejection of the non-elect, nor does it imply neglect of the non-elect. Maalouf’s deliberately ethnocentric reading of the Old Testament effectively demolishes the widespread notion that Ishmaelites are under God’s curse, or that God hates Edomites as such.
And anyway, while the sharp line between elect and non-elect divides Israel from everybody else, it’s interesting to see that some people are closer to the line of election than others. Specifically, the Ishmaelites are right there on the borderline itself. God loves everybody, and is gathering a new people out of every tribe and tongue and nation, but the Jews continue to be special because of their unique, unparalleled Biblical role. And right after them, “in the face of their brethren,” are the Arabs.
If this is true, and if it is just sitting there in the Bible waiting to be read, wouldn’t now be a perfect time in world history for Christians to start paying attention to it, and dealing with their Arab neighbors in light of it? We hear a lot, too much in fact, about how evangelicals (especially of the dispensationalist flavor) are uncritically pro-Israel because of a numinous admiration for this unique Biblical people. What if evangelicals saw some of what Maalouf sees, and began thinking of Arabs with a similar sense of awe and fascination? God saw Hagar and heard Ishmael, and has watched over the Arab peoples, the other children of Abraham, for all this time. Mass Arab conversion to Christ is hard to imagine these days, but so is the kind of mass Jewish conversion envisioned by the book of Revelation. Tony Maalouf is persuaded that the two belong together.
There may be a better biblical theology of the Arab people out there somewhere, but I don’t know of it. The most engaging book I’ve found on the subject is Tony Maalouf’s Arabs in the Shadow of Israel.
(This review was originally written in October 2006, following Dr. Maalouf’s visit to Biola).