Thursday, May 10, 2007


Tensions among the followers of the three major monotheistic religions are front and center in the news headlines. But history shows that these tensions are nothing new — Christians, Jews, and Muslims have been battling one another for centuries. Each tradition values peace, but generation after generation, hostility and resentment seem to overcome idealism and end in violence. Though the human picture holds little hope, these obstacles to harmony direct our attention to a more spiritual perspective. And it is in this spiritual realm that there is hope for lasting healing and peace.

The history of the Middle East is filled with ironies. First, it’s important to understand that these three religious traditions share a common ancestor: the patriarch Abraham. Bearing a name that some scholars interpret as “exalted father,” Abraham grew up about 4,000 years ago in Ur, a city in a section of southern Mesopotamia, later called Chaldea. Today this region is part of Iraq. Biblical tradition has Abraham receiving a covenant, or formal agreement, from God on behalf of Abraham’s descendants. In God’s covenant, He promised Abraham that his family would become a great people and would inherit land.

The concept of a covenant is central to Biblical theology. Borrowed from ancient contract law, covenant gives a framework and vocabulary to what entered human experience as pure revelation: a sense of God’s identity, nature, and care for His creation. This covenant articulated a bond between God and His children comparable to a contract—a binding agreement. Later, this covenant’s specific terms were set forth in the Ten Commandments. While some groups have interpreted the covenant as limited to a specific religion or culture, in its highest sense God’s covenant is one of love. And this love embraces all, in every place, and throughout all time.

Viewed from a human perspective, the covenant presented two serious problems.

Viewed, however, from a human perspective, the covenant presented two serious problems from the outset. First was the matter of who had a right to the land. Abraham, under divine direction, had left the prosperous city of Ur for Canaan, to settle there. Ger, meaning sojourner, was a term used to describe someone who settled for a time in a country not his own; such an individual had certain rights under the law, but was not a citizen of the community.

According to Biblical tradition, under the terms of Abraham’s covenant with God, Abraham and his family were entitled to lay claim to Canaan, the Promised Land. The Hebrews eventually settled in the land, but were expelled by subsequent conquest. Today, many centuries later, the ownership of that relatively tiny parcel of land is still in contention.

Such contention is fueled by the second problem inherent in a solely human interpretation of God’s covenant with Abraham—ancestry. Who, exactly, are his descendants? And does every descendent have equal claim to the ancestral estate?

In effect during Abraham’s era in the ancient Near East (and for centuries afterwards) was the law of primogeniture, where the majority (and sometimes all) of a father’s estate went to the firstborn son. Abraham had not one, but two, sons. The elder, Ishmael, was the son of Hagar, Abraham’s Egyptian slave. Yet both mother and child were eventually banished from the family at Abraham’s wife’s insistence.

Sarah wanted to be sure that her son, Isaac, received his father’s estate.

Sarah had been Abraham’s wife from the outset, and when it appeared she was not able to have children, she encouraged him to have a child with their servant, Hagar. But God later blessed Sarah with a child, even though she was far beyond childbearing years. So when Sarah’s son, Isaac, was born, she wanted to be sure he, and not Hagar’s son, Ishmael, received his father’s estate.

As the child of the legal wife, Isaac did inherit Abraham’s possessions, including—according to Biblical tradition—rights to the Promised Land of Canaan. It finally came into Hebrew hands some 700 years later, after the Hebrews went to Egypt at a time of famine, became enslaved there, and then were liberated under the leadership of Moses, as described in the book of Exodus.

Ancient Semitic tradition included a vibrant and enduring sense of family, whereby all family members, throughout every generation, are symbolically united in, and present with, their patriarch. So a promise made to Abraham is in effect made to everybody descended from him. That includes both Muslims and Jews, with Christians developing their religion from the foundation of Judaism.

When the concept of ancestry is spiritualized, each one of us can rightfully be regarded as a child of God.

Like the idea of a covenant, ancestry—when weighted down with long-standing traditional limits and viewed from a sense of ownership—leads to inevitable conflict. It can produce a sense of “win/lose” that turns individuals into adversaries instead of brethren. But when the concept of ancestry is spiritualized, each one of us—throughout human history—can rightfully be regarded as a child of God, a member of His family. Therefore, each one is a vital part of Abraham’s kindred and covenant.

The great division between Jews and Muslims on this specific issue arises from differing interpretations regarding the principle of primogeniture. Among Hebrews, primogeniture was repeatedly set aside in favor of the view that God specifically chose a leader from each generation, rather than leaving the matter to birth order.

However, Muslims, who are the descendants of the first-born son of Abraham, Ishmael, hold a strict interpretation of primogeniture in this instance, and claim that the descendants of Abraham through Ishmael are entitled to the land. Those descendants are Arabs, and the land that they claim includes the territory known today as Israel.

This land has been called by several names throughout history.

This land actually has been called by several names throughout history. Before the Hebrew conquest, it was Canaan. Then it was renamed in honor of Abraham’s grandson Jacob, who received the new name, Israel, after his struggle with an angel of God at Peniel. Then in Roman times, cartographers noted several Philistine cities near the coast, and so they renamed the territory Palestine, “the land of the Philistines.”

While technology has improved this land’s value for agricultural purposes in recent times, it nevertheless remains a stony, semiarid territory. And it is also rather small. Other far more promising territories surrounding this land are oil rich and flourishing.

The land of Israel symbolically represents a treasury of spiritual inspiration to all three religions.

But the land of Israel symbolically represents a treasury of spiritual inspiration and strength to all three religions. To the Jews, it is the land of Abraham, Moses, and David; to the Christians, it is the land where Jesus lived and preached; to the Muslims it is the land promised to Abraham and through primogeniture, to his first-born son, Ishmael.

Century after century, the issues of ancestry and entitlement have been the impetus for war. And from this brief overview, it’s clear that the pattern of human history offers little hope for a future reconciliation among age-old enemies. Solutions can only come from a radically different perspective—that is, from a God’s-eye view of His creation.

So long as the discussion begins with disparate groups who demand rights to various claims and convictions, the situation will never end in unity. The discussion must begin with God and what He has created—each individual in every nation and culture in His own image. Not, ultimately, as mortals, but as spiritual beings, as must be the case with whatever reflects God, Spirit.

In God’s creation there is but one Parent and one family.

In this creation there is but one Parent and one family, one power, and one Love that is truly infinite, blessing everyone, all the time. No one is cast out, put down, forgotten, or oppressed in God’s sight. Such human perspectives have no standing with Him, and must eventually be seen for the distortion that they are. In limitless God there is limitless good and a unique place for every one of His children.

Mary Baker Eddy gave a clear explanation of this idea: “One infinite God, good, unifies men and nations; constitutes the brotherhood of man; ends wars; fulfils the Scripture, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself;’ annihilates pagan and Christian idolatry,—whatever is wrong in social, civil, criminal, political, and religious codes; equalizes the sexes; annuls the curse on man, and leaves nothing that can sin, suffer, be punished or destroyed.” That “one infinite God” tends to it all.

Now all of this could be just brave talk and little else, unless as individuals we actually govern our lives by these truths. Aligning ourselves with peace—being “peacemakers”—aligns us with divine strength for daily life. And our prayers for those directly involved in the conflicts around the world gain authority and practicality to move events and transform lives. We can begin at the beginning—with God—and move in accordance with His grace and love. One step at a time.

BY Elaine Follis
Reprinted from the November 2006 issue of The Christian Science Journal.