Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Ishmaelites and Edomites

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are sometimes referred to as the “Abrahamic Faiths,” since Abraham was the forefather of the Jews and Christians through Isaac and the Muslims through Ishmael. It is interesting to note that Judaism has similar terms for Christians and Muslims: Arabs are referred to in Talmudic sources as Ishmaelites and Christians as Edomites, the descendants of Edom, who was Esau

Ishmael and his sons settled in what is now called the Arabian peninsula. The specific designation of “Ishmaelites” is mentioned a few times in the Bible, most noticeably in Genesis 37, for their involvement in the sale of Joseph. Later texts, such as the Midrash Rabbah, mention the Ishmaelites and refer to them in connection to Arabia. 

The association of Ishmael and Muslims is a foundation point of Islam. However, whereas many might assume this doctrine came into being at the time of Mohammad, it long pre-dates the rise of Islam among the people of Arabia. It should be noted that not all Arabs are Muslims, nor are all Muslims Arabs, but, given the interchange of Arabic and Islamic cultures, all Muslims are now often referred to in Jewish writing as Ishmael . 

The development of the reference to Christians as Edom is a little less obvious. Edom is another name for Esau, as it is written: Esau said to Jacob, ‘Feed me, I beg you, with that same red pottage, for I am famished;’ therefore was his name called Edom (red)” (Genesis 25:30). Numerous nations descended from Esau, but the Edomites were those who settled around Mount Seir in the area south of the Dead Sea, which is the area specifically designated to Esau by God. 

In the Talmudic period, Edom became associated with Rome, perhaps because Herod the Great, the Rome-appointed vassal king of Judea, was an Idumean (Edomite). Rome eventually became the center of Christianity. The Christian world developed into what is now referred to as Western Society, and so Western Christian society is referred to in Jewish sources as Edom. 

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