Rockets fall from the sky like a torrential hailstorm. Military aircraft take to the skies. The earsplitting shriek of warning sirens fills the air as explosion after explosion shakes the earth. These sounds and images are familiar to most Americans only from blockbuster motion pictures, but to the inhabitants of Israel and Gaza they are all too real and altogether too frequent.
Virtually every time conflict erupts in the Middle East, a panoply of politicians and commentators fills the airwaves with earnest pleas for peace: Can’t we all just get along? A noble sentiment, to be sure. But while the desire for stability and the abhorrence of violent warfare is understandable, I’m afraid most of the talking heads demonstrate a deplorable naïveté and ignorance of the historical and theological complexities surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Historical background to the conflict
The state of Israel, in its modern iteration, was peacefully created in 1947–48 by an act of the United Nations. At that time the Holy Land belonged legally to Britain. It had been under the control of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, but following the empire’s dissolution during World War I, the League of Nations granted control of the territory to Britain. Beginning in the late 19th century, support for the creation of a Jewish state in so-called Palestine had been gradually building, chiefly through the efforts of the World Zionist Congress. In November 1917 the Foreign Secretary of the UK, Arthur Balfour, formally expressed England’s support of the Zionist cause:
His Majesty’s government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
On May 14, 1948, the modern state of Israel was born. The authority by which David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence derived from the partition plan resolved by the UN General Assembly six months earlier. That resolution called for the creation of two states in the Holy Land, a Jewish state and an Arab state. The Israelis immediately accepted the resolution, while the Arabs categorically rejected it.
The day after modern Israel entered existence, it was forced into a war for its very survival. On May 15 a coalition of Arab states comprising Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq invaded Israel. Throughout the course of the conflict they were joined by forces from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen, and three Arab irregular militias: the Muslim Brotherhood, the Army of the Holy War, and the Arab Liberation Army. The goal of the invading forces was simple: destroy Israel at any cost. Incredibly, despite facing down overwhelming odds, Israel won the day. The invaders were beaten back, and Israel had secured her independence.
Today Israel is widely blamed for driving the Palestinian refugees from their homes. But in fact the flight of the refugees was occasioned by the Arab invasion of Israel, not the creation of the Israeli state. In order to resolve the refugee problem, various parties have suggested solutions involving Palestinian statehood. Israel has consistently agreed to these proposals, while the Palestinians have consistently rejected them. The Palestinian Authority and most of the Arab states are not interested in peaceful coexistence with Israel; only Israel’s total annihilation will suffice.
After winning her War for Independence, Israel returned to the difficult labor of building a national infrastructure and carving out a space for herself in the global economy. But time after time she has been hounded and invaded by her neighbors. In the Six-Day War (1967) she was invaded by Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. In the Yom Kippur War (1973) Egypt and Syria invaded again. In each of these wars Israel demonstrated military superiority and beat back the invading forces. It is nothing short of remarkable that so small a state should withstand so many repeated and well-funded attempts to obliterate her.
In addition to the invasion of Arab states, Israel has constantly had to contend with a steady stream of attacks by Palestinian terrorists. Hamas was founded in December 1987 as a brotherhood of Palestinian militants. The organization’s stated goal is to destroy Israel and replace her with an Islamic state (see the Covenant of Hamas, 1988). The current conflict is only the latest in a seemingly endless series of Hamas’s theologically motivated attacks. In early July, in response to constant rocket barrages fired from the Gaza strip and specifically targeting Israeli civilian population centers, Israel launched a counter-offensive. This military response has succeeded in demolishing thousands of Hamas’s weapons and eliminating countless terrorist combatants. At every turn Israel has sought to minimize civilian casualties, but this has proven difficult since Hamas intentionally hides its weapons in civilian structures, such as schools and hospitals.
Throughout the present conflict Israel has supported the notion of a ceasefire. On August 1 all parties agreed to a three-day humanitarian ceasefire, but Hamas broke it after less than two hours. They reinitiated hostilities, killed several Israeli soldiers, and captured an Israeli officer. Although the global community continually shifts the blame to Israel, it is clear that she fights a defensive war. The Palestinians and Arab states have consistently been the aggressors in this protracted series of bloody conflicts. Israel seeks only to defend herself from a zealous and incorrigible amalgamation of opposing forces. What sovereign state should ever be denied that right?
Theological background to the conflict
Underlying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are two very divergent and mutually exclusive theological perspectives on the Holy Land and on the relationship between Jews and Arabs. Failure to grapple with these fundamental differences contributes directly to the naïveté reflected in the calls for Israel and Hamas to “just get along.”
Jewish perspectives. The Jewish claim to the Holy Land derives from a far greater authority than the UN General Assembly: it is authorized by an unconditional treaty with God Himself. More than four millennia ago, Abraham was promised this particular stretch of land as an eternal inheritance for his offspring. Several passages in Genesis record this:
On the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying: “To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18, 19).
I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God (Genesis 17:6–8).
In addition, Genesis explicitly identifies Isaac, not Ishmael, as the descendant of Abraham to whom this covenant would be extended:
And Abraham said to God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!” 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. But My covenant I will establish with Isaac” (Genesis 17:18–21).
Throughout Israel’s history, her religious identity has been inextricably linked to the Holy Land. After four centuries of bondage in Egypt, it was to Canaan that Israel returned. After 70 years of exile in Babylon, it was to Canaan that Israel was regathered. Zion has constantly occupied a central place in the hymnody of Israel and the hearts of her people. The Hebrew Scriptures foretell a future time in which Israel will be brought into the Holy Land and will there enter into a New Covenant with the Lord.
It shall come to pass in that day that the Lord shall set His hand again the second time to recover the remnant of His people who are left, from Assyria and Egypt, from Pathros and Cush, from Elam and Shinar, from Hamath and the islands of the sea. He will set up a banner for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth (Isaiah 11:11, 12).
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more (Jeremiah 31:33, 34).
For the people of Israel, the Holy Land is far more than a piece of prime real estate: it is a tangible link to their patriarchal heritage and a royal land-grant directly from the Lord. From this perspective, the words of Israel’s national anthem take on whole new levels of significance:
As long as in the heart, within, a Jewish soul still yearns,
And onward, toward the ends of the east, an eye still gazes toward Zion;
Our hope is not yet lost, the hope of two thousand years,
To be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.
Arab perspectives. For Arabs, the data informing this issue derive not from the Hebrew Scriptures, but from the Islamic holy books. Written more than five centuries after the completion of the New Testament, the Quran significantly revises the Old Testament account of God’s people. Sura 2:124 and 125 record God’s enacting a covenant, not with Abraham and Isaac, but with Abraham and Ishmael:
And remember that Abraham was tried by his Lord with certain commands, which he fulfilled: he said: “I will make thee an imam to the Nations.” He pleaded: “And also (imams) from my offspring!” He answered: “But my promise is not within the reach of evildoers.” Remember We made the House a place of assembly for men and a place of safety; and take ye the station of Abraham as a place of prayer; and We covenanted with Abraham and Ismá‛íl, that they should sanctify my House.
From this revisionist account, it follows naturally that the Holy Land belongs to the descendants of Ishmael and followers of Allah: the Arab people.
Furthermore, Sura 17 records the ascent of Muhammad into Heaven. Verse 1 specifies this as occurring at “the Farthest Mosque,” which is identified by Sahih al-Bukhari 5:58:226 as a mosque in Jerusalem:
That he heard Allah’s Apostle saying, “When the people of Quraish did not believe me (i.e. the story of my Night Journey), I stood up in Al-Hijr and Allah displayed Jerusalem in front of me, and I began describing it to them while I was looking at it.”
In the notes to his translation of the Quran, Abdullah Yusuf Ali explains, “The Farthest Mosque must refer to the site of the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem on the hill of Moriah, at or near which stands the Dome of the Rock, called also the Mosque of Hadhrat ‘Umar.’”
So the Land of Israel in general, and the Temple Mount in particular, has profound religious significance for Muslims, just as it does for Jews. Indeed, Muhammad’s ascent into Heaven is so important a watershed in the Islamic metanarrative that for most Muslims only Mecca and Medina surpass Jerusalem in religious significance.
Both parties, then, have deep and competing religious ties to and claims on the land. This is not a simple political disagreement that can be resolved through peace talks. It is a matter that goes down to the very heart and soul of both Judaism and Islam. Expecting the Israelis and Palestinians to reach some sort of compromise and just get along is tantamount to saying, “Just stop being Jews and Muslims.” Easier said than done.
In addition, it must be stressed that both the Quran and hadiths contain deeply anti-Jewish sentiments. Jews are portrayed as “covered with humiliation” and consigned to “the wrath of Allah” (Sura 2:61; cf. Bukhari 2:23:457; 4:56:679); cursed (Sura 4:47, 5:59); evil (Sura 5:62–66); rejecters of Allah (Sura 4:160, 98:1; Ishaq:245, 264); deceivers (Sura 2:64, 5:13, 5:41–42, 5:80; Ishaq:248); apes and swine (Sura 2:64, 5:59; Ishaq:250); self-loathers (Sura 59:14); blasphemers (Sura 5:64); and senseless and destined for damnation (Sura 4:55, 59:14, 88:1; Ishaq:254). Muslims are commanded not to make friends with Jews (Sura 5:51–57; Ishaq:262, 364); to “fight against” them (Sura 8:39; 9:5, 9:29); and to “kill every Jew” (Tabari 7:97; Bukhari 1:1:6). This goes a long way toward explaining Hamas’s rationale for violent terrorist actions against Israel, and further minimizes any chance of accomplishing a lasting ceasefire or finding common ground.
The Regular Baptist perspective. The very first sentence in the GARBC articles of faith affirms the “authority and sufficiency of the Holy Bible, consisting of the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments.” Thus, we consider the Hebrew Scriptures to be inspired, totally inerrant, and authoritative. The Quran’s revisionist history assigning the Abrahamic Covenant to Ishmael’s line rather than Isaac’s, must be rejected. When God promised the Holy Land to Isaac’s seed as an “everlasting possession” (Genesis 17:8), He meant precisely what He said. That does not mean that all non-Israelis should be forcibly expelled from the Holy Land. It does mean that the Jewish people have first claim to the land.
Furthermore, as one of the stipulations of the Abrahamic Covenant, God promised to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you” (Genesis 12:3). Since the covenant is explicitly extended to Abraham’s descendants through Isaac (Genesis 15:18; 17:2–9, 19), that stipulation applies to the Jewish people. Since the Abrahamic Covenant is an unconditional covenant, the stipulation is still in effect today. This is one of the reasons that Paul took his message “to the Jew first” (Romans 1:16), insisted that God has not cast aside His people Israel (Romans 9—11), and earnestly desired that the Jewish people would be saved by believing in Jesus (Romans 9:1–4). Christians have an obligation to be pro-Israel. That does not mean that we must necessarily agree with every decision the state of Israel makes, nor that we should automatically adopt an Anti-Arab posture. It does mean that we must make Israel’s best interests a priority, extend our hand of friendship to the Jewish people, and “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6).
The current military struggle between Hamas and Israel is the latest iteration of a long and bloody Israeli-Arab conflict. Historically the Arab peoples and nations have always been the aggressors at every point of this conflict. Israel is fighting a defensive war, seeking only self-preservation, while the Arab aggressors seek to eradicate Israel from the face of the earth. The primary reason for this is theological. God promised the Holy Land to Israel as an “everlasting possession,” but the Arabs believe that it rightfully belongs in Muslim hands. Islamic teaching furthermore contains an ancient and relentless strand of hateful, Anti-Israeli teaching that encourages the faithful not only to oppose Israel, but to do so violently.
We all want peace in the Middle East. For Israel and Hamas to settle their differences peacefully then join hands around a campfire while singing “Kumbaya” would be an undeniable improvement over the present situation. But given these historical and theological complexities, only the most naïve and gullible among us should expect any lasting peace until the Prince of Peace returns. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
David Gunn is editorial director of publications for Regular Baptist Press.