Talking to Students About the Middle East
It has been in the news every day for sixty years, and that is not going to change. World leaders trumpet their efforts to bring peace there, but peace never seems to come. Americans, Japanese, British, and Germans, who were at war sixty-five years ago, work together today routinely and calmly; but when Israelis and Palestinian Arabs cooperate in any way, hardly anyone can believe it. The Middle East is the perennial hot spot.
The conflict runs deep. Jews and Arabs have been at odds pretty much since Ishmael’s dad kicked him and his mom out of the house, and that’s been four thousand years. So far. First it was clubs, then bronze weapons, then iron, then steel, then TNT, and now the threat of nuclear warfare.
Who are the good guys? Who are the bad? And when will it all end?
Christians have a natural interest in the Middle East, even beyond the drama that plays out there every day. God chose to reveal Himself directly and uniquely in this corner of the globe, and our spiritual roots sink deep into its desert soil. But Christians are not agreed on the meaning of what’s happening there today or on what should be done about it—or can be done about it.
Addressing these issues in the Christian school classroom is as difficult as it is critical.
As everyone knows, the peoples of the Middle East are primarily Arabs and Jews.1 Both groups claim Abraham as their father, but the two groups have never been close in anything but geography. They spring from different mothers (Genesis 16:15; 21:3), and they lived separate lives in nearby regions for much of their history. Israel was scattered by the Romans in A.D. 70, leaving their homeland vacant for the next 1,900 years. It was natural that Arab peoples, leading a nomadic lifestyle, would move through Palestine as they sought food for their flocks and families.
In the eighth century a religious development changed the way the Middle East would look for the rest of history. The rise of Islam under Muhammad provided another basis for tension between the two peoples. Muhammad was initially relatively friendly toward both Judaism and Christianity, referring to Jews as "the people of the book" and recognizing the truth and rightness of the original forms of those religions. As time passed, however, his rejection and condemnation of their beliefs and practices grew more intense. By the time he had died, his teachings as preserved in the Koran called for Jews and Christians to be fought and destroyed wherever they might be found.2
In 1948 Israel was reconstituted as a nation under United Nations mandate. Thousands of Jews poured back into Israel, rejoicing in the rebirth of their country. But their country was not empty when they returned; there were Arab families (mostly Islamic, some Christian) living there, many of whom had been there for generations. These Arabs saw Palestine as their home; many had been living there longer than any American families had been living in the United States.3
Since Israel’s reconstitution, its Arab neighbors have desired its removal, mostly on religious grounds, though the grievances stated are usually political. There have been several clearly defined wars, all of which Israel has won handily, thanks in part to American support.4 Perhaps as a consequence, Arab/Islamic opposition to Israel has more recently taken on the look of guerrilla warfare, with isolated bombings and other forms of attack on "softer" (i.e., nonmilitary, less well-protected) targets—a tactic recently dubbed "asymmetrical warfare."
Israel’s response has been direct. The Israeli government has used a variety of tactics, from missile attacks on suspected terrorist centers, to arrests and detainments of suspected Palestinians, to high-security checkpoints, to a wall preventing Palestinians from traveling into Jewish areas except under tight controls.
There have been many peace agreements over the years since 1948, and none has yielded peace. In recent years, with the likelihood of a nuclear arsenal in the hands of an Islamic state, peace seems unattainable.
Christians form their views of the future of the region based on their theology. There are two theological factors that play into this decision.
Conservative evangelicals generally fall into one of two groups regarding the relationship of the Old Testament to the New Testament. Common among Baptists and similar groups is dispensationalism, which views the NT and OT eras as distinct.5 Common among Presbyterians is covenant theology, which emphasizes the similarities between the two Testaments. The latter group sees the NT church as the modern replacement for ancient Israel and thus sees modern Israel as essentially just another country, though admittedly occupying some really interesting archaeological sites. Dispensationalists, on the other hand, because they believe that God’s OT promises to Israel have yet to be fulfilled, continue to regard Israel as holding a special place in the mind and plan of God.
Because prophetic writing as a genre is obscure by divine design, interpreters who believe the Bible often come to different conclusions about what prophetic passages are saying.6 The most popular eschatological position among American conservative evangelicals is premillennialism, which posits a future role for Israel, including a political earthly kingdom, in God’s plan. Premillennialists have almost unanimously seen Israel’s reconstitution as evidence of the approaching of that millennial kingdom.7 Postmillennialists, however, see the church as the instrument of bringing in the kingdom and thus see Israel as irrelevant; amillennialists, who see the millennium as either occurring spiritually in the present or already over,8 similarly find no place for Israel in the prophetic schema.
So what does the future hold for the Middle East? Some Christians see a literal messianic kingdom based in Jerusalem as imminent.9 Such Christians are likely to support the modern state of Israel and to reject Arab/Islamic calls for its destruction. Others view Israel as an ordinary modern state in every way and thus may prefer either position in the conflict or have no preference whatsoever.
A Biblical Approach to the Middle East
Having recognized the differences of interpretation, we must also note that the Bible is not exclusively prophecy and that much of it is not abstruse in the way that prophecy is designed to be. The Bible is clear about a great many things, and Christians should be in agreement about those things. What biblical principles can inform all Christians in their approach to the Middle East conflict?
- God made man in His image (Genesis 1:26–27). This image continues in mankind even after the Fall (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). Thus, every human being is worthy of respect. This is the basis for the U.S. Declaration of Independence’s axiom that "all men . . . are endowed by their Creator with certain Inalienable Rights." This principle applies equally to Arabs and Jews.
- All mankind has also fallen into sin and is therefore depraved (Romans 3:10ff). This means that even "the good guys" are "bad guys"; that even the side we favor, for whatever reason, is capable of making wrong decisions and acting in sinful ways. So the dispensationalist cannot assume that Israel is always right in its treatment of the Palestinians or in any other issue. The Palestinian Christian, similarly, cannot assume that the Palestinian leadership is always right.
- Sin should be identified, condemned, and repented of. When God sent prophets to condemn the sins of peoples, He did not exempt Israel, His covenant nation, from criticism. There was a whole book devoted to criticism of Edom (Obadiah); there were two criticizing Assyria (Jonah and Nahum); and portions of prophetic books condemned several other countries and cultures (Babylon, Moab, Philistia, Tyre, and others; see, e.g., Amos 1–2); but Israel received the most attention for criticism, and the intensity of that criticism was often far greater than that leveled at “the heathen" (e.g., Ezekiel 16, 20). Even the premillennialist Israelophile, then, must admit that modern Israel can err and that when it does, it should be criticized.
- It is commonly asserted by premillennialists that "there will be no peace in the Middle East until the Prince of Peace arrives to set up His kingdom." While I think that statement may well be true, I do not find the Bible teaching it unambiguously. It is certainly true that the peace Christ’s Kingdom brings will be truer and more lasting than any other peace, but I will observe that there has been peace in the Middle East occasionally, though not much since Israel’s reconstitution in 1948. All Christians—even those who do not expect a future political Millennial Kingdom—should agree, though, that only a change of heart empowered by the Holy Spirit through His work of regeneration can yield the spiritual fruit of peace (Galatians 5:22) that is necessary to bring genuine peace to any people or region.
So how do we evaluate events in the Middle East? I would discourage trying to find a prophetic meaning behind every headline, for two reasons: (1) as noted earlier, prophetic material is notoriously and intentionally difficult to interpret, and (2) for this reason, previous attempts have not been all that successful. Perhaps we should evaluate events in the Middle East the way we evaluate events anywhere else:
- Hold them up to the light of Scripture.
- Hold fast that which is good (I Thessalonians 5:21).
- Condemn and encourage repentance of that which is evil.
- Seek the salvation of the lost and the discipleship of God’s people.
- Patiently trust God to work out His will for His glory in His own good time.
1A notable exception is the Iranians, who are descended from the ancient Persians and still speak Farsi. Much of the strain between Iran and the rest of the Islamic Near East is based on racial and ethnic differences.
2For example, 8:12; 9:5, 29, 73. Full text of the Koran is available online at http://quod.lib.umich.edu/k/koran/browse.html.
4There are two primary reasons for American political and military support of Israel. First is a large Jewish community in the United States; in fact, more Jews live in America than in Israel. Second is a large population of American Christians and a heritage of Christian belief. Since Christians view Judaism as their spiritual source and since the Christian Bible speaks of Israel as God’s special people, most Christians are inclined to favor modern Israel.
5Dispensationalism was popularized in the American Christian community by the Scofield Reference Bible, whose notes thoroughly reflected the views of Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary.
6Some mistakenly think that this is entirely a function of hermeneutical system—that premillennialists, for example, will be dispensationalists. While there are trends discernable between the groups, the lines are not clearly drawn; for example, there are premillennialist covenant theologians. For a focused discussion of the different eschatological systems, see "Relating Current Events to End-Time Prophecy," Teacher to Teacher, August 2005..
7As a premillennialist, let me admit that this line of interpretation has not always been fruitful. For example, a whole series of misinterpretations of Scripture led some to conclude that the Rapture would occur by 1988, 40 years (or, supposedly, one "generation" [Matt. 24:34]) after the founding of the modern state of Israel. The tortuous process yielding this conclusion could well serve as a negative example in seminary hermeneutics classes until Christ really does come.
9That is my view. I should note, however, that "imminent" need not mean "soon." I believe that Christ’s return has been "imminent" since His ascension, though of course His people have no way of knowing the timing. Thus the frequent admonitions to be alert and ready.