Voices

Stubborn unbelief

A lack of trust in God's promises is both the ancient root of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the current reason it is unlikely to be resolved

Issue: "Earthquake in Bam," Jan. 10, 2004

WHATEVER ELSE YOU MIGHT HAVE optimistically in view for this troubled old world in the year 2004, my guess is that you can forget the one key thing that-if we could fix it-would solve a zillion other issues along the way.

Specifically, it's hard to imagine a single development that would produce more global benefit than a genuine, lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But similarly, it's hard to imagine something less likely to happen.

A serious rapprochement between Israel and the Palestinians would do at least these two things:

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It would resolve the fieriest of the flashpoints in the Middle East. That would allow both Israel and the Palestinians to spend their resources on building their respective societies next to each other rather than constantly defending themselves against each other.

If the fire in that most flammable of all crisis points could in fact be doused, what excuse would remain for those with lesser arguments? A pattern might be set for quieting the factionalism that tears not just at the Middle East but also at northern Africa, southeastern Europe, and all of southern Asia. If there's a domino effect for war, might there not be one for peace as well?

Dream on, you say. And I agree that such a scenario is all but certain not to occur. Ironically, the reason it won't happen now is exactly the same issue that triggered this great divide in the first place: Someone who should have trusted God's promises instead doubted them.

Get out your Bible and open it to the middle chapters of Genesis. Read again the story of God's incredible promises to Abraham, the patriarchal father still revered by both the Jewish and the Islamic people. "You will have a son," God told this aged man and his barren wife, "and through that son I will bless not just you but the entire world." But it was too much for Abraham to believe, even given his reputation as "father of the faithful." So he tried a short cut, and it's hard today to know which consequence is sadder: the story of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 16 and 17, or the story of the 21st-century Palestinians in almost every morning's newspaper.

Muhammad traced his ancestry to Ishmael and laid out the story of the descendants of Ishmael and the descendants of Isaac remaining in opposition throughout history. In that scenario, every tension, every prejudice, every construction of a fence, and every suicide bombing in our own times could have its genesis in Abraham's stubborn unbelief. Abraham is not alone: Islamic people have built their own substitute belief system, and Jewish people have rejected the glories of the promised Messiah. Even we evangelical Christians regularly build our own short cuts when we get impatient for God to follow through on what He says He will do.

It's easy to point an accusing and condescending finger at Muslims. Indeed, to the extent that their terrible misunderstanding of Abraham's God leads many to the vicious practices of modern Islam, they should indeed be seen as frighteningly remote from any claim on God's promises.

Much more puzzling to me is the assumption not just by Jewish people, but by evangelical Christians on behalf of Jewish friends, that the state of Israel is somehow still deserving of the blessings indicated as the fruit of some very conditional promises. Have the Jewish people held up their part of God's bargain? Have they therefore a claim on certain parts of Middle Eastern geography?

Yet if it seems presumptuous for devout Muslims or devout Jews to press their claims on God's promises, isn't it even more arrogant for Christians who supposedly know the true essence of the gospel to argue that God is somehow in our debt? When I hear Christians suggest that there is something in either the faithful origins of our country or in our obedience as a people since then that now obligates God to bless us, I can't help thinking how similar our unbelief is to that of the Muslim and Jewish religions. The latest reports from George Barna suggest how little we believe in the first place, and how pitifully we practice even the little bit that we believe.

Which brings me back to my dismal hopes for Israel and the Palestinians. If even those of us who have been blessed with the fullness of Christ's gospel can't seem to get it right, how can we possibly hope for better things for our Muslim and Jewish friends?

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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