Last month I embarked on a nine-day journey in the Middle East with a group of journalists. We went at the invitation of the host country’s Board of Tourism. And while I was there I interviewed a former seminary classmate, Bob Piper*, and his wife, Christine*, about living in a place where it’s illegal to proselytize.
Bob told me that when he entered seminary, he planned to minister as a senior pastor in the United States. But his first missions class along with a series of lectures by Don Richardson, author of Peace Child, led Bob to make a personal course correction. Desiring “to go to a place that needs to be reached,” Bob chose the Middle East. He wrote his thesis on economic aid and the convert in Islamic societies, and he switched his degree emphasis to cross-cultural studies. At the same time the book Arabs in the Shadow of Israel: The Unfolding of God’s Prophetic Plan for Ishmael’s Line by Dallas Seminary graduate, Dr. Tony Maalouf, greatly influenced Bob’s thinking about God’s heart for Arab peoples.
Today Bob and his family live in a country that’s more than 90 percent Muslim. In his English-teaching position, he builds relationships with nationals, and Christine cares for their two children, works as a freelance writer, and teaches aerobics. When it comes to reaching those among whom Bob lives, Bob notes, “We hear stories of great movements of God. And to be honest, we don’t see that happening here.” Still, while not in huge numbers, the Pipers do see God moving. Christine tells of a woman, Seta*, she met at a coffee shop who knew Christine was a Christ-follower. Another woman had given Seta an Arabic Bible, which Seta read on her own.
One evening Seta approached Christine and said, “I had a dream—I need to share it with you.” Seta saw herself in a room surrounded by old, weeping wise men who asked her, “Do you know what happened to Jesus?” When Seta asked if Christine could tell her about Jesus, she hesitated. But with her husband’s encouragement, Christine went back to Seta and told how she could have a personal relationship with the Lord. Days later as Seta re-read the Koran, she saw how women were regarded, and asked herself, “How can I follow someone who says this?” Soon after that Seta believed in Jesus Christ.
Since returning home, I’ve taken Bob’s recommendation and borrowed a copy of Dr. Maalouf’s book. In it the author explores what the Old Testament has to say about Ishmael's line, and it’s forcing me to reconsider some long-held erroneous ideas about Abraham's firstborn.
You’ll recall how Hagar, Sarah's Egyptian maid, fled toward Egypt after Sarah abused her, and God appeared and spoke words of comfort to her. Hagar named the Lord “El-roi,” the God who sees. The oracle God gave about her son, Ishmael, (the oracle that evokes this statement from Hagar about God) includes the prediction that Ishmael will be a wild donkey of a man.
Now, I've always taken that as an insult. But that's because I live in America in 2008, and to be called a donkey is a total slam. Yet rewinding to Moses’s mindset when he documented the story helps me see the words as solace to an abused woman. Whereas God sends Hagar back to submit herself to Sarah in slavery, El-roi promises that the slavewoman’s son’s descendants will be numerous and free—the idea behind the word "wild." A wild donkey at that time was a prized animal. Kings rode them. Even centuries later, Solomon rode a donkey on his coronation day and a thousand years after that Jesus rode one up to Jerusalem as the crowds yelled “Hosannah.” Horses in all their elegance didn’t come on the scene in that part of the world until long after Ishmael was born. So while I was reading “wild stubborn donkey” I should have envisioned something closer to “free white stallion.”
As it turns out, God loves Arabs and not just in the generic God-loves-all-people sense—wonderful as that is. Indeed, He apparently had a special plan with promises for Abraham’s firstborn and his descendants. There’s some evidence that Job was one of Ishmael’s progeny, as was Lemuel, who wrote the excellent-woman poetry in Proverbs 31. And the magi who came from the East to worship the newborn king—they were probably Arabian, as well. In fact it’s possible that they knew Isaiah’s prophesy about a star (Isa. 60:1-6):
“Arise! Shine! For your light arrives! The splendor of the Lord shines on you! For, look, darkness covers the earth and deep darkness covers the nations, but the Lord shines on you; his splendor appears over you. Nations come to your light, kings to your bright light. Look all around you! They all gather and come to you –your sons come from far away and your daughters are escorted by guardians. Then you will look and smile, you will be excited and your heart will swell with pride. For the riches of distant lands will belong to you and the wealth of nations will come to you. Camel caravans will cover your roads, young camels from Midian and Ephah. All the merchants of Sheba will come, bringing gold and incense and singing praises to the Lord."
If Maalouf is right, when the magi saw this light, they recognized at least the initial fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy and followed. And if so, verse four tells us that those gathered included…daughters. This year I plan to find some modest clothes for Arabic Barbie and stick her in the crèche. Wise women still seek Him.
*Names have been changed.