Arabs, Edomites and Jews - Getting on With Your Relatives
by David Steinberg
Home page http://www.houseofdavid.ca/
1. What the Torah Says
In Genesis chapters 25-28 we read of the birth and development of 2 full brothers – Jacob and Esau. Earlier, in Genesis chapters 16 and 21 we read of 2 half-brothers Isaac, Jacob’s father, and Ishmael both of whom were the sons of Abraham.
There are a number of similarities in the two stories and some differences. The Torah tells us that each pair of brothers were sons of Patriarchs, in each case the younger became the bearer of Israelite-Jewish tradition, and in each case the mother of the favoured son was instrumental in the younger son displacing the elder. There are, of course, some differences such as Jacob and Esau being twins while Isaac and Ishmael had different mothers who were of different status i.e. Hagar was the Egyptian handmaid of Sarah. Sarah was from the same family as Abraham. However, the similarities between the Isaac-Ishmael and Jacob-Esau stories are striking.
2. The Midrashic Tradition
The Jewish homiletic midrashic tradition does not have much good to say about either elder brother. Ishmael is given less coverage and perhaps less harsh treatment: he is the dross compared to Isaac who is the gold; he practices idolatry; violates maidens; sheds blood; shoots arrows intending to kill Isaac; and, is cruel. However, he becomes a genuine penitent in later life. In post-biblical Jewish tradition, as in biblical tradition, Ishmael is the ancestor of the Arabs. In Targum Onkolos yishma‘elim is translated ‘arava’e i.e. Arabs.
The Midrash is much harsher regarding Esau. Concerning Gen. 25:22, where Jacob and Esau, as yet unborn, struggle in the womb, the Midrash states that whenever Rebecca passed a heathen place of worship Esau tried to be born. Jacob did the same whenever she passed a synagogue or beth midrash. Esau’s ruddy hair was taken to indicate that he would be a murderer. The statement that Jacob dwelt in tents was taken as an indication of his love for studying Torah while Esau being a man of the field was considered an allusion to his open immorality. Finally, the day Abraham died, midrashic tradition states that Esau: cohabited with a betrothed maiden; murdered; denied God; denied the resurrection of the dead; and, spurned his birthright.
are 2 clear reasons why Esau is treated so much more harshly in the midrash
than is Ishmael. Firstly, while the Jews’
relationships with the Ishmaelites were rather distant and usually not hostile,
hostility was the norm between Judeans and Edomites from the time of the Exodus
until the forced conversion of the Edomites, by then called Idumeans, to
Judaism in 125 BCE. Secondly, after the
absorption of the Idumeans into the body of the Jewish people,
3. Israelite-Jewish Relations with the Edomites
chapter 36 verse 8, it is stated that Esau is the ancestor of
Control over the lucrative trade routes from
Mesopotamia, S and
Access to the
desire to control
Remember, O LORD,
against the Edomites the day of
O daughter of
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”
subsequent mass exile of Judeans to
The best treatment of Jewish relations with the Idumaeans and Arabs during the Second Temple Period is that of Kasher.
The Idumeans were hostile to the Maccabean Revolt. In 112 BCE Hyrcanus, a Maccabean king, conquered Idumea and, in the words of Josephus -
“Hyrcanus took also Dora and Marissa, cities of Idumea, and subdued all the Idumeans; and permitted them to stay in that country, if they would circumcise their genitals, and make use of the laws of the Jews; and they were so desirous of living in the country of their forefathers, that they submitted to the use of circumcision, and of the rest of the Jewish ways of living; at which time therefore this befell them, that they were hereafter no other than Jews.” Antiquities of the Jews - Book XIII chap. 9
the Great, the Jewish king who rebuilt the temple, creating the splendid
edifice described by Josephus and the Talmud, was a descendant of Idumean
converts. Perhaps, the suffering he
caused the Jews, could be seen as poetic justice. Idumean contingents were noted for their
courage in defending
the earliest times, Israelite relations with the Arabs have been extensive but
mainly limited to commerce and not generally acrimonious. Typical is the first recorded interaction
when Ishmaelites traders purchased Joseph from his brothers (Gen.
37:25-28). These Ishmaelites were
playing an unwitting part in God’s grand design to send the Israelites to
the 5th century BCE rebuilder of
Most of the boundaries of the Maccabean state were with the Iturean and Nabatean Arab kingdoms. Points of Physical contiguity:
Nabatean Arab kingdom formed the southern and eastern borders of Perea (i.e.
Jewish areas east of the
Iturean Arab kingdom, based on the Beqa’ Valley (south-east
is possible that Jewish trading colonies existed in
6. Theological Idiom – Toward the Future
Judaism and Islam being very similar religious systems (see Goitein), face very similar intellectual and practical problems in confronting western culture. Many of these problems are quite different from those faced by Christianity. There may be much to gain by opening a dialogue between Jewish and Muslim religious thinkers. Of course, any such dialogue requires that each group study the other’s religion and literature, as they did at the height of the Arab-Jewish symbiosis.
I’d like to end with a hope for the future –
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”
Blau, Joseph L., The story of Jewish philosophy, Random House [1966, c1962]
Ephal, J, The Ancient Arabs, Magnes Brill 1982
Frank, Daniel H. and Leaman, Oliver (eds.), History of Jewish philosophy, Routledge, 1997.
Goitein, S D, Jews and Arabs: Their Contact Through the Ages, Schoken 1955, 1964
Goldstein, B. R, Maimonides, article Encyclopedia Judaica vol. 11 cols. 754-782, Keter 1972
Hyman, A, Philosophy, Jewish, article in Encyclopedia Judaica vol. 13 cols. 421-465, Keter 1972 see also article Platonism article in Encyclopedia Judaica vol. 13 cols. 628-630, Keter 1972
Kasher, Aryeh, Jews, Idumaeans and Ancient Arabs, J CB
Mohr (Paul Siebeck)
Pagis, D., article Poetry – Medieval Hebrew Secular Poetry in Encyclopedia Judaica vol. 13 cols. 681-690, Keter 1972
Joseph R., Conversion to Judaism: from the Biblical period to the present,
Viorst, Milton In the Shadow of the Prophet: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam, Anchor Doubleday 1998
 In Islamic tradition, Abraham was one of the 5 major prophets who preceded Muhammad.
GASHMU, an “Arab,” one of the chief opponents of Nehemiah, who, together with
Sanballat and Tobiah, opposed the rebuilding of the walls of
“Some scholars claim that Geshem is to be identified with a “king” of the same name mentioned in a Lihyanite Arabian votive inscription on a silver bowl … belonging to the fifth century B.C.E. This inscription reads in translation: “What Quaynu son of Geshem, King of Kedar, brought (as offering) to (the goddess) Han'Illat.” On this basis, it has been suggested that Geshem King of Kedar is identical with Nehemiah's enemy, but the data for this identification are inconclusive.” From Encyclopedia Judaica Electronic Edition
 Aharoni, Y and Avi-Yonah, M, The Macmillan Bible Atlas, third edition revised by A F Rainey and Z Safrai, MacMillan 1993 map 217
 The Macmillan Bible Atlas map 213