By Elysia McColley
So far in this series about Ishmael, we have looked at two prominent Old Testament figures – Job and Jethro – who were not Israelites and may have actually been Ishmaelites, or descendants of Abraham through his oldest son, Ishmael. There are several other Old Testament figures who may have been Ishmaelites, such as Agar and Lemuel, two kings who contributed to the book of Proverbs. Here, I want to look at someone who was possibly the most significant Ishmaelite in the Bible because of her role in the lineage of Jesus: Ruth.
According to Ruth 1:4, Ruth was a Moabite woman who married an Israelite that came to live in Moab. Moab is across the Jordan River from Israel, in an area of Jordan that is now known as Karak. Surprisingly enough, today, Karak is the center of Jordan’s Christian population. Many of the families in Karak have been Christian since before Islam spread to the region.
Geographically, Moab/Karak corresponds with what we know was Ishmaelite territory. While we cannot know for sure if Ruth was an Ishmaelite, we know that she was not an Israelite by birth. Further, we can be reasonably sure that she had at least some Ishmaelite heritage, based on where she lived.
You are probably familiar with the story of Ruth. Elimelek, Naomi, and their two sons moved from their home in Bethlehem to Moab because of a famine. The sons married Moabite women, one of them being Ruth, but both of the sons died, along with Elimelek. Left with only her daughters-in-law, Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem. Only Ruth accompanied her; the other one, Orpah, remained behind.
The famine in Bethlehem had come to an end, and when Ruth and Naomi arrived, the barley harvest was beginning. They went to the home of one of Elimelek’s relatives, Boaz, so as to work in the fields and have food for themselves. Boaz was intrigued by Ruth, and through a series of events, came to marry her. They had a son named Obed, who was the father of Jesse and grandfather of King David. King David was the progenitor of Jesus Christ, who was the fulfillment of the promise that God made to Abraham in Genesis 12:3.
All this to say that Jesus was actually not a full-blooded Israelite. The most dominant line in His ancestry was definitely through Isaac, Abraham’s child of promise, but a close look at His genealogy reveals that other nations were represented, also. In Matthew’s genealogy, recorded in the opening verses of the gospel, there are four women listed, in addition to Mary: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. None of these four women was an Israelite.
Tamar was a Canaanite who married Judah, one of Jacob’s 12 sons. Rahab was also a Canaanite, a prostitute who risked her life to help the Israelite spies escape the walled city of Jericho. Ruth was a Moabite, and Bathsheba was a Hittite. In other words, just looking at the genealogy of Jesus reveals that the gospel is for all nations, not just for Israel. It is for the children of Ishmael, along with other nations that we often disregard in reading the Old Testament: Canaan, Hattusa (pertaining to the Hittite Empire), Moab, and plenty of others.
As a matter of fact, Abram himself was called out from Ur of the Chaldees, an area in what is now known as Iraq. Abram was Iraqi, and his children shared that ancestry! The multi-national nature of the Old Testament, and particularly of the figures that preceded Jesus Christ, should force us to re-evaluate how we view not only the Old Testament but the work of salvation through all of history. Salvation is for Ishmael as much as it is for Isaac.
This truth should open our eyes to how much God loves the children of Ishmael, be they Muslim, Christian, or of any other religion. How we communicate with them, particularly when communicating the message of the gospel, should be a reflection of the love that God wants them to know.