By Elysia McColley
In this series about Ishmael and his descendants, one thing that we looked at was how the pre-incarnate Christ appeared to Ishmael and his mother on two separate occasions. Here, I want to look at the ministry of Jesus and how He healed those who were likely descendants of Ishmael.
In Luke 4:27, Jesus said, “And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed–only Naaman the Syrian.” In other words, miracles do not come to people because of their nationality. Being an Israelite, descended from Abraham via his son Isaac and grandson Jacob (aka Israel), does not guarantee grace. What Jesus is saying here is that during the ministry of Elisha in the Old Testament, many Israelites who needed healing did not receive it. The one who did was not an Israelite; he was a Syrian. In looking at the ministry of Jesus, let’s begin with the understanding that He did not minister to people because of their nationality. He ministered to them because of their faith.
In the first century, there was a series of 10 cities, known as the Decapolis, that the Romans administered. They included Damascus, Philadelphia (present-day Amman), Gadara (modern-day Umm Qais), Hippos, Scythopolis (present-day Bet She’an), Raphana, Dion, Pella, Gerasa (modern-day Jerash), and Qanatha (modern-day Qanawat). Only one city in the Decapolis, Scythopolis, was in Judea; the rest of the cities were on the eastern side of the Jordan River, in what is now Syria and Jordan. This territory is the land where Ishmael and many of his descendants lived; though nomadism and military conquest had likely diluted the Ishmaelite ethnicity, many people there probably had lineage connected to Ishmael. While much of Jesus’ ministry took place in Judea, west of the Jordan River, a substantial amount took place in the Decapolis, likely among the descendants of Ishmael.
One person that Jesus encountered in the Decapolis was the demoniac, who was known as Legion for the number of demons inside of him. This man, who may himself have been descended from Ishmael, lived in Gerasa, the ruins of which you can still visit today in Jordan (there is some debate about whether he lived in Gadara or Gerasa, but both cities were east of the Jordan River). After being cleansed, the man wanted to follow Jesus, but Jesus told him to tell his friends, many of whom likely were Ishmaelites, what the Lord had done for him. The man spread the news about Jesus throughout the Decapolis.
When Jesus spoke the words about Naaman the Syrian, he was actually not in Syria or any other part of the Decapolis. He was in Nazareth, his hometown. He had stood up in the synagogue and read from a passage in Isaiah that announced His Messianic mission. The immediate response of the people who heard, His own townspeople and quite likely some of His relatives, was to reject Him. He was not surprised that they were rejecting Him, because they had rejected God many times in the past, particularly during the time of Elisha.
Throughout the Bible, we see that God did uniquely bless the Israelites because He had chosen that particular nation. However, the ministry of Jesus reminds us that He did not only bless the Israelites; He blessed the Ishmaelites, and many other nations, as well.
Again, I want to stress that God is not impressed with anyone’s nationality. He is impressed by faith, because without faith, it is impossible to please God. The faith of an Ishmaelite, a Syrian, or someone of any other nationality is just as valuable as the faith of a Jew.