Defining the Terror War Part 3: The Covenant

This is the third installment on the subject of examining the forces driving the clash between radical Islam and Western culture.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have a common similarity in worshipping the same God. But from this similarity these religions also derive much of their conflicting ideologies. Each one interprets the events of history in the way that lends the most credence to their own doctrine. In doing so, each disclaims the assertions of the others. The prize fought over in this three-way tug of war is the Covenant of God, the key that unlocks the gate to the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Covenant is in its simplest definition an agreement between God and man where man promises to live as God’s will directs him; in return he may enter the dominion of the Kingdom of Heaven. This Kingdom refers not only to the Heaven of the afterlife, but also a peace in life only attained through acceptance of God’s beneficence. While simple in concept, the Covenant entails a complex lifetime commitment on the part of man, in return for which God promises eternal reward. This Covenant forms the core of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Each of these religions has its sacred scripture. The Jewish scripture is the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. The Christian Bible encompasses the Old and New Testaments, with emphasis being put on the Gospels of Christ. In a sense the Old Testament can be viewed as a history of Judaism and the New Testament a history of Christianity. Muslims hold the Koran sacred as the direct word of God as handed down to the prophet Muhammad in the 6th century.

Judaism predates by Christianity and Islam by thousands of years. The history of the Jews is also the history of Christians and Muslims, all of which honor the prophets of the Old and New Testaments. Moses is the chosen prophet of the Jews. He freed them from slavery in Egypt and led them back to their Promised Land. Christians look to Jesus, not as merely a prophet, but as God incarnate on earth. While Muslims believe Muhammad to be God’s one true messenger, they also give Jesus and Moses great recognition as prophets of influence. The Koran mentions them both frequently, as it does a third prophet, Abraham.

Abraham first appears in the book of Genesis. God chose him to be the original recipient of the Covenant. God made a simple request of Abraham. Abandon everything he knew, take his immediate family, and travel a vast distance through hostile territory to an undisclosed location. He must obey God’s will without question, and promise to worship no other gods or false idols. In return, Abraham would receive fabulous prizes. He would have fame and wealth. God would make him the Father of Nations and would destroy any who opposed him. A truer prediction has never been made for today Abraham remains the religious Patriarch for all of the Muslims, Christians, and Jews on earth, in other words nearly ½ of the world’s population.

Abraham was a descendant of Noah’s son Shem, and therefore a Semite. From Abraham’s line descends both Arabs and Jews. This line of heredity figures prominently in the rift between Israel and Islam, which centers around the covenant. We will first look at the Biblical account of Abraham, and later at the Islamic interpretation.

When God approached Abraham, man had fallen into His disfavor by worshipping the numerous pagan idols of Mesopotamia. God chose to separate one man from the common herd and use him to found His chosen people. Why He chose Abraham remains a mystery. Abraham, like all men, had his flaws. For example, he prostituted his wife Sarah to the Pharaoh of Egypt to save his own skin, and then again with King Abilimech of Gerar. At first he shied away from the duty imposed on him by God, but eventually accepted the responsibility of the Covenant. At the age of 75, he gathered his family together and put himself in God’s hands. He left his home of Horan on the northern Euphrates and journeyed west, a journey that would cover nearly 400 miles. At Sichem, on the plain of Morah, God appeared to Abraham and said:

Unto thy seed I will give this land.    Genesis 12:7

The importance of this gift to Abraham and his descendants cannot be overstated. Sichem lay in the southern part of Canaan, which would later be known as Palestine and is today part of the Nation of Israel.

This land promised to Abraham remains unique. Modern day Israel equals an area roughly the size of New Jersey. Yet it has two coastlines, one on the Mediterranean and the other on the Red Sea. There are fertile coastal plains, diverse mountain terrain, and a sizable arid desert. It has two seas which are actually gigantic lakes. Galilee is freshwater and abundant with fish. Conversely, the Dead Sea, having nine times the salinity of the ocean, cannot support marine life and salt deposits encrust its shores. At 1,371 feet below sea level, its beaches are the lowest dry spot on earth.

Israel’s varied geography stems from the fact that it is located squarely in the center of the Jordan Rift Valley, the northern leg of the Great Rift Valley which stretches from Syria to Mozambique. Israel is the spot where the African and Arabian tectonic plates grind against each other. It is the keystone that joins three continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa. It is a gateway. Small in size, it is huge in its geographic importance. God placed Abraham in a spot that has become a lynchpin of history.

Over time Abraham began mulling over the great responsibilities that God had so suddenly thrust upon him, and he now felt doubtful. Sarah had produced no children, and since they were both nearing the 80 year mark, he felt incapable of producing an heir. Without a son to inherit the birthright of the Covenant, there would be no chosen people to become a nation. He voiced this doubt to God.

God instructed Abraham to prepare a sacrifice of herd animals and fowl which would finalize the covenant between them. As the sun set upon Abraham’s sacrifice, he fell into a deep sleep and a “horror of great darkness fell upon him.” (Genesis 15:12) God told Abraham in this dream that before his generations could become the prophesized nation, a foreign people would enslave them for 400 years. Then God would direct His vengeance towards the offending king, and his people could return to Canaan, bringing with them the wealth of Egypt. This journey home would take 4 generations.

The fulfillment of this prediction would establish the beginning of a unity between the chosen descendants of Abraham, the point when they merged from 12 related but autonomous tribes into a single identity we identify today as the Jewish people. It also sets the precedent that the Jews will always return to their given homeland, and this is a cycle has repeated itself throughout their history. It is the reason they fight so fiercely today for the land promised to them by God 4,000 years ago. Zionism, the belief in an eternal Jewish homeland granted by God, was the instrumental tool in re-establishing the nation of Israel in Palestine in 1948. While modern Zionism developed to counter the rise of anti-Semitism in late 19th century Europe, its beginnings are here, in the earliest record of man’s interaction with God.

Despite God’s continued promise of the Covenant, Abraham worried. He had no children, and his wife was barren. Sarah, perhaps feeling guilty she had not conceived, but more likely for her own benefit, prodded Abraham into sleeping with her Egyptian handmaiden Hagar. If Hagar bore a son, Sarah could adopt him as her own and Abraham would have his heir. God’s plan could continue. Abraham agreed, and Hagar quickly became pregnant. But when she did, she informed Sarah that she would keep the child when it was born. As a result, Sarah made Hagar’s life so unbearable that she fled.

God intercepted Hagar at a fountain in the wilderness. He urged her to return to Abraham’s house, and to endure the brunt of Sarah’s anger. In return, He promised great things for her unborn son, whom she was to name Ishmael. Yet God also described a life of chaos and violence for Ishmael: “He will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him.” (Genesis 16:12)

Hagar returned to Abraham’s house and when she gave birth to a healthy son, Abraham embraced him. 13 years would then pass before God intervened again.

When Abraham reached the age of 99, God appeared to him. He told Abraham that Sarah would soon conceive a son whom they would name Isaac, and that Isaac alone would be the sole recipient of the Covenant. Abraham pleaded to God to accept Ishmael, but God refused Hagar’s son any title to the Covenant. He assured Abraham that Ishmael would found his own nation, but the Covenant would belong to Isaac alone. God chose the rite of circumcision as the physical mark of the Covenant upon man, and all of the male members of Abraham’s house, including Ishmael, were circumcised. One year later Sarah gave birth to Isaac.

When Abraham gave a great feast to celebrate Isaac, Ishmael mocked the baby and Sarah overheard. She demanded that Abraham banish both Ishmael and his mother. Abraham consulted God, and God bade him to do as Sarah asked. Giving them only a loaf of bread and a bottle of water, Abraham turned Hagar and Ishmael out into the wilderness, sending them to an almost certain death.

After the bread and water were gone, thirst and starvation set in. Hagar took the weakened body of Ishmael and placed it under a bush. She retired some distance away to spare herself the spectacle of his death. At this moment of deepest despair, God appeared to Hagar. He comforted her and promised that Ishmael would yet lead a great nation.

Suddenly a well burst from the earth, saving the pair. God stayed with them until Ishmael developed the skills of a great hunter; he would soon become the master of this wilderness far to the southeast of Canaan.

Having provided for Hagar and Ishmael, God then had a final test of Abraham’s faith. He told Abraham to take Isaac to a mountain in the land of Moriah and there offer him as a burnt sacrifice. Abraham unflinchingly agreed. Along the way, he made Isaac carry the wood that was to be used for his own sacrifice. Isaac became suspicious, and questioned his father as to the whereabouts of the sacrificial lamb. Abraham responded that at the proper time God would provide the lamb, but when they reached the chosen spot Abraham built an altar, covered it with the wood, and then bound the boy to it. When he stretched out the hand with the knife to slay his son, however, God called upon him to stop. Looking up, Abraham indeed saw a ram with its horns caught in a thicket and he sacrificed the animal in place of Isaac. Satisfied with Abraham’s complete obedience, God would never appear to him again.

This place where Abraham finally proved his worthiness to God, a rock on a barren mountain slope, is today surrounded by the vast, sprawling city of Jerusalem. It is the Temple Mount, the site of both the Jewish Temple of Solomon and the Islamic Dome of the Rock, the possession of which has become the center of our modern conflict.

Soon after the incident on Mount Moriah, Sarah passed away and Abraham remarried. He had six sons by his second wife Keturah and banished all six of them to the eastern desert. Eventually Abraham died at the ripe old age of 135. Ishmael and Isaac would meet one more time, when they came together to bury their father. They could not know that the events of their lives would influence the course of history even to present times.

Isaac had two sons, Jacob and Esau. Jacob entered this world grasping his brother’s heel, pulled easily from the womb as the other struggled. So it would be throughout their lives. Esau, the firstborn, would trade his birthright to Jacob in exchange for a bowl of stew. Jacob, spurred by his mother, would then deceive his father into giving his last blessing to him by pretending to be Esau. In this way Jacob received the Covenant. He would sire twelve sons.

Jacob’s favorite son Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, gained status as a soldier fighting for the Egyptians. He gained the favor of Pharaoh, and eventually became a distinguished Egyptian governor. He forgave the treachery of his brothers and the whole family re-united in Egypt, where they prospered. Eventually, each brother’s family gained recognition, and they became the 12 tribes of Israel. Upon the death of Pharaoh, however, God’s prophecy manifested, and the children of Abraham, called the Hebrews by the Egyptians, became despised for their success and enslaved. So they would indeed remain for 400 years. Their eventual return to the Promised Land marked the beginning of the perception of Isaac’s descendents as the Jewish people.

The Bible never mentions Ishmael again after he meets with his brother to bury Abraham. To pick up the next thread of his story we must look to Islamic history.

Islam states that Abraham did not banish Ishmael and Hagar but instead led them into the wilderness where he left them to die. God then struck a spring from the earth to save them. Abraham later returned to this place only to find them making profitable living selling water from the spring. Islamic tradition teaches that Abraham did indeed take a second wife and father six more sons after the death of Sarah. This woman, however, was not Keturah, but actually Hagar, the mother of Ishmael.

When Abraham prayed to God after finding them alive, the Creator instructed him to sacrifice Ishmael (as opposed to Isaac) as a sign of faith. Again a ram appeared in the thicket, which Abraham then sacrificed in place of his son. Ishmael went on to have twelve sons, and they became the twelve Princes of Arabia. From his line came Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam.

In gratitude for Ishmael’s safety Abraham built the Ka’ba, a windowless cube, as a shrine to al-Lah, The God. The black rock that forms the cornerstone of the Ka’ba is claimed to have been given to Abraham by the Angel Gabriel, although modern rumor purports it to be in actuality a meteorite. Abraham asked for God to make the Ka’ba a place of worship and pilgrimage. The Ka’ba now stands at the center of Mecca, the holiest of Muslim cities, and it remains to this day the center of the Islamic world.

Taking into account the deep-rooted centrality of Abraham and the Covenant to both Judaism and Islam sheds light upon the extremes to which either side will go to defend what they feel is their right to inherit the Kingdom of God. Christians also lay claim to the rightful inheritance of God’s Kingdom, and each religion touts its specific proof. For Jews it is the rite of circumcision as specified by God in the original Covenant and the adherence to Judaic law as dictated in the Torah. For Christians it is the acceptance of Jesus as the only true Savior of man. For Muslims it is the claim of the firstborn to the right of inheritance and the existence of the Koran as the rightful word of God. No one side will ever yield or concede in this debate.

Abraham himself represents the most crucial turning point in the history of religious thought, a shift from capricious polytheistic gods to the monotheistic worship of an all-powerful, all-knowing Deity. Thus as a prophet he receives special reverence from Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Unfortunately they have transformed him through specious interpretation to support their respective claims to the Covenant. Now, instead of uniting his children, Abraham has become a wedge that only serves to drive them further apart. More importantly, jealousy over the Covenant has now become the impetus for war.

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