“Don’t Study Hebrew. Study Arabic!” Signs of Peace Part 1: Humanity

english - arabic dictionary

The dictionary my father brought with him from Iraq to America.

The only time my father, who is a Muslim, ever complained about me going to seminary and studying to be a pastor was when it came to language.

My father always blamed his sons for never taking the initiative to learn Arabic while we were growing up. Never mind the fact that he failed to even speak it around us. The only Arabic I ever heard were the cuss words he used when he got upset, and the unique sounds of Ulm Kalthum, the legend of Arab music, drifting loudly from his office tape recorder.

So it got a little uncomfortable the summer I began the most grueling requirement of my pastoral studies – Biblical languages – and my father called to ask what class I was taking.

“Hebrew,” I told him.

“Hebrew?” he responded, “Don’t study Hebrew. Study Arabic!”

“But I have to study Hebrew.”

“Why?”

“Because, the Old Testament was written in Hebrew.”

After a long pause he ended the argument with, “Well… they’ve translated it into English. Study Arabic.”

I have to give my father credit for trying.  He has never once criticized me for being a Christian. In fact, he has been very supportive of my being a pastor.  Faith has never divided our family.

However, faith has caused some tension in other relationships, specifically in church. Like the (more than one) time I got the email forward from someone in my church that went something like this:

A Cowboy, an Indian and an Arab were sitting around a table. The Cowboy was kicked back in his chair with his hat pulled down over his eyes. The Indian looked at the Arab and said, “My people used to be very great in number, but now they are very few in number. This is so very sad.” Then the Arab said, “My people used to be small in number, but now we are very great in number. Why do you think this is?” Then the Cowboy sat up, tilted his hat back, looked at them both and said, “That’s because we ain’t played Cowboys and Arabs yet.”  

It shocked me the first time. Not so much anymore. So many times in the last fifteen years, between current events and bad theology, I’ve heard pastors, professors and other Christians say things like, “I never thought to pray for Muslims as human beings.”

***

In that first semester of Biblical Hebrew, one of the first words I learned was common between the two Semitic languages of Hebrew and Arabic: ADAM (phonetically pronounced ah-dahm). It’s where the Torah and the Quran get the name in the Adam & Eve story. But first it means humanity, and it’s the word used in the first chapter of the Genesis story which tells us, “God created humanity in his image.”

ADAM is the language of our creation.  And as the Genesis story continues, God looked at what he had created, blessed it, and called it very good.

***

I never thought to pray for them as human beings.

I get it… there are people and groups who, in the name of religion, do some really unholy things. A lot are in the Middle East or come from there. But if I’m called to be a peacemaker, looking at all humanity as the very visual representation of God might be a better place for me to start as a follower of Christ.

One of my favorite stories about this comes from Passover and the Talmud. At one point in the Passover meal, ten drops of wine are dropped on a white plate to remember the ten plagues the Egyptians suffered. The Talmud says that during the Exodus, as the Egyptians were drowning, the angels started to sing for joy. But God reprimanded them and said, “The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you’re singing songs?”

***

The great thing about Christ in Scripture is that he treated everyone – whether it was the pharisee, the tax collector, the prostitute, the Samaritan or even Judas – as a human being. As Rich Mullins sang: The whores all seem to love him/ And the drunks propose a toast/ And they say “Surely God is with us.”

And why not? He died for all of them… but he also created all of them. But I’m getting ahead in the series.

Until then, the question remains: What are we praying for when we pray for peace?

Let’s start with ADAM.  It doesn’t matter if you live in Boston or Baghdad, Dallas or Damascus, Guatemala City or Gaza City… seeing even our enemies as human beings must come first.

But that isn’t enough.

To be continued.

Until then… ShalomSalaamPeace be with you.