by Lindsey Abston Painter | 12 October 2023 |
Centuries ago a woman named Sarah couldn’t give her husband a son. She was getting old. They were both worried about who would inherit the property. They decided (Sarah actually suggested the plan) that Sarah’s husband would have a child with Sarah’s maid, Hagar.
Please remember, this wasn’t a clinical thing with a syringe. This was Sarah waiting outside the tent while her husband was in bed with her young and pretty maid.
And, according to the story, it worked. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn.
But then, well past menopause, Sarah became pregnant and had a son.
That wasn’t expected. It set up a bad situation. Jealousy. Who was the real heir—the wife’s son, or the firstborn son of the maid?
Ultimately, Hagar’s son gets kicked out of the home and (according to the Quran) becomes the ancestor of the Arab people. Isaac is, of course, the ancestor of the Jews.
This is the founding myth of the clash in the Middle East between the Jews and the Arabs. Genesis 16:12 prophesies of Ishmael:
He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.
Hagar’s son’s descendants eventually became one of the most powerful and feared religions in the world: Islam. The prophecy has come true: the Islamic people in Palestine, the Palestinians, are hostile to their brothers in the Jewish world. And vice versa.
Then, this week
Over the next weeks (heaven forbid, possibly years) you are going to see an awful lot of people try to make it seem simple. It is not. It is anything but simple.
About five years ago I went with my then-husband, who was a pastor, to tour Israel and the Holy Land with a group of other pastors and their wives.
In Israel, as I toured the Temple Mount, our Jewish guide—his voice powerful with emotion—recounted how exiled Jews all over the world for hundreds of years solemnly promised together at the end of every Passover “next year in Jerusalem.”
My eyes brim with tears even now as I remember how much that moved me. That a people without a home, who have flourished in the world despite centuries of persecution, exile, attempted genocide, and global national homelessness, could hold that faith for so long. That Israel meant so much to them that their desire to return there wouldn’t dim over centuries.
It does not take very much expertise to see that this centuries-old conflict is complicated. It’s no longer just about Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael. But they remind us that even though the State of Israel didn’t exist until 1948, these two peoples had already had centuries of conflict. The founding of Israel and the subsequent forced relocation of thousands of Palestinians only added more layers to it.
Next year in whose Jerusalem?
The experience one gets on Holy Land tours is very curated, and I certainly would not suppose that my few days there made me an expert on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
But I did have to ask myself: do the Jews have a valid claim to Jerusalem, Israel, and a homeland? Resoundingly yes! What kind of heartless person would say they don’t?
But then I remember that during those hundreds of years that the Jewish people were in exile, other people lived on that land. For centuries they also toiled. And their connection to that land was just as strong. Their holy site is there too—in fact, it is said to be on the exact same spot as the Jewish holy site.
When Israel was established, Hagar’s descendants were forcibly removed from the land they had lived on for centuries. They went from having stable prosperous lives to being refugees.
And the world did nothing to ease their suffering. Just shrugged and said “Them’s the breaks!”
So, do the Palestinians have a valid claim to Jerusalem, Israel, and a homeland? Resoundingly yes! What kind of heartless person would say they don’t?
But here’s the part where I get stuck. Because they can’t both have that land. And I don’t have any magical solutions for solving the problem.
And that’s the point. There are no magical solutions.
It’s just not simple
If you are reading this, I urge you to resist any temptation to oversimplify, despite what powerful people will argue in the coming weeks.
Do not listen to one side when they tell you that the state of Israel is the bad guy and the Palestinians get a pass for any abhorrent behavior because it’s justified. It’s not that simple.
And do not listen to the other side when they tell you that the Palestinians are the bad guys and Israel gets a pass for any abhorrent behavior because it’s justified. It’s not that simple.
Sarah and Hagar could not have known that their family problems would lead to this terrible outcome, a conflict that today threatens to draw in the entire world.
I believe that peace is possible in the Middle East. I hold to that hope. But peace will not come through war. And it will not come through simple, partisan solutions.
It will take hard work. Building trust after a conflict that long and that complex will require a lot from both sides. And any attempts to turn it into a political talking point in order to get someone elected dishonors both sides, and makes the possibility of peace even more distant in the future.
But I want to say each year in the meantime, “Next year, peace in Jerusalem.”
Lindsey Abston Painter is a mental health training supervisor living in Northern California. She is also a member of the Adventist Today editorial team. She is passionate about feminism, social justice, and sci-fi. She is a proud parent and has too many cats and one goofy dog.