The esteemed Mideast scholar Bernard Lewis recounted in one of his books the reaction of the leader of the group of Islamists that had just assassinated Anwar Sadat, the president of Egypt: “I have just killed Pharaoh. I am not afraid to die.”1 Lewis goes on: “Clearly they were not referring to the Pharaoh of modern Egyptian schoolbooks…but the Pharaoh of the Exodus, who in the Qur’an, as in the Bible (Qur’an 20: 50-52), is the pagan tyrant who oppresses God’s people.”
The claim is made that the modern State of Israel is not the legitimate heir of the ancient children of Israel (Banu Isra il). The implication is that the Moslems, “God’s people,” are the true followers of Moise, the true Israelites, rather than the Jews. From a Jewish point of view, this is nothing less than identity theft, not unlike the claim of the Church to be the “New Israel,” only worse – Islam has claimed to be the “Old Israel.” Imitation may be a form of flattery, but not when the flatterer claims to be the original claimant. This is pure plagiarism and identity theft with deadly implications.
However, perhaps all is not lost. Let us pose the question of whether the Church and the Mosque served to transmit some of the civilizing forces of Judaism, granted that Jews suffered grievously as a result of their claims to be the true Israel. To psychologically consider this question, explore the biblical concept that sibling rivalry led to the establishment of both the Arab world and Rome.
The sibling rivalry between Jacob and Esau started in their battle in their mother Rebekah’s womb. (Genesis 25: 22-26). Their conflict is well-known: Jacob holds on to his brother’s heel (thus, his name Yaakov). Their competition continues, and Jacob convinces Esau, returning exhausted from the hunt, to sell him his birthright as the elder son for a bowl of porridge. With the help of his mother, Rebekah, Jacob later tricks his father, Isaac, into bestowing the blessing intended for his older brother on him (Gen. 27: 29). As one would expect, Esau becomes furious over being cheated, and Jacob runs away to Haran to escape his brother’s wrath (Gen. 28). Although they are portrayed as reconciling (Gen. 33), they go their separate ways. Jacob stays in Canaan while Esau settles in Edom (in the hills of Seir). Important for this essay is that later Edom became identified with Rome.
In an excellent essay, scholar Malka Simkovich2 suggests that this is due to two factors. First, King Herod of Judea, a descendant of Idumean converts and a Roman client king, was detested by the Rabbis and seen by many Jews as associated with Rome. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it provided a counter to the innuendoes or claims of early Christian anti-Semites such as Barnabas in his Epistle (13:1-2) and Tertullian in his polemic, Against the Jews3 that Esau, and not Jacob, was the spiritual ancestors of the Jews.
Yet, the Apostle Paul in the Christian New Testament does not seem to identify the Jewish people with Esau, though he identifies Christians in Rome (and elsewhere ) as also receiving the blessing of Jacob (Romans 9: 10-13). Can it be said that Paul is trying to Jacobize Esau? Put another way, can it be said that Paul is trying to Hebraicize Rome?
I ask this, being painfully cognizant of the history of Christian barbarism to the Jewish people in Rome and elsewhere. Yet were Jews better off in pre-Christian Rome? After all, Pontius Pilate, a pre-Christian Roman, crucified thousands of Jews in his role of Procurator of Judea. And the Jewish experience with the ancient Greeks was not much better. Further, in modern times, were not many champions of the Enlightenment racial anti-Semites?
Consider now the story of Isaac and Ishmael. The Torah portrays Abraham’s wife Sarah as unable to bear children. She gives her maidservant Hagar to Abraham to conceive an heir for him. Ishmael is born out of their union and is raised in Abraham’s household. Some 13 years later, Sarah unexpectedly conceives Isaac. Isaac became Abraham’s sole heir (Genesis 16:1–16; 17:18–26; 21:1–21), and Ishmael and Hagar are banished to the desert, though God promises that Ishmael would raise a great nation of his own. (Genesis 16:1–16; 17:18–26; 21:1–21),
Abraham marries Keturah three years after the death of Sarah (Genesis 25:1-4) and has six children with her. Rashi writes that Keturah was Hagar, the same one who was the mother of Ishmael, and that she was renamed to denote the goodness that she developed. (Genesis Rabbah 61:4)
Ishmael, commonly regarded by both Jews and Arabs as the progenitor of the Arabs, is considered a messenger and a prophet (rasūl nabī) in the Qur’an (e.g., 19:54). Little is said about him in the Qur’an other than he is designated as a prophet and that he assisted Abraham in building Islam’s most sacred structure, the Kaaba in Mecca (2:127). This is all well and good, but Lewis’ recording of the words of the Sadat’s assassin suggests a deeper and more disquieting replacement narrative than that espoused by Christian advocates of replacement theology. That is, Sadat’s Egyptian assassin claims to be a follower of Moise rather than Pharaoh. This is not necessarily dangerous in itself (it could be seen as an Islamic attempt to Isaacize Ishmael), but considering the source, it seems the Islamist sought to expropriate the legacy of the Jewish people.
To summarize: If the replacement interpretation of Christianity regards the Church as the New Israel, some interpretations of Islam seem to view Moslems as the original Israelites, the Old Israel. From a Jewish point of view, both are examples of identity theft. Jewish tradition is envied so much that it is appropriated, and the continued existence of the Jewish people becomes a nuisance, if not an impediment to these respective claims.
Can the love of both the Church and the Mosque for “Israel” provide the impetus for reconciliation of these three great Abrahamic traditions? Such love would require these two off-springs of the Hebrew Bible to reject their respective replacement theologies concerning the Jewish people and the modern State of Israel. And for the original Israel to consider whether these offspring, as imperfect and indeed hostile as they have been to Jews at various periods of history, served the function of bringing part of the message of the Hebrew Scriptures to the outside world.
But is it not also time that the religious progeny show respect for their parent rather than attempt to marginalize it by appropriating its heritage? This is no less than identity theft and parent abuse and violates the commandment to honor one’s father and mother.
The beginning of change can be seen in the dual covenant evangelical Christianity and the spirit of the Arab signers of the Abraham Accords. Both of these movements do recognize the validity of the Jewish claim to be Israel. Advances on all sides would be most welcome to begin to speak of the Abrahamic faiths in a serious manner.
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