The Sons of Ishmael
Ishmael was the son of Abraham and Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant. His name, which in Hebrew means “God heard,” memorializes the Almighty’s concern for Sarah’s harsh treatment of Hagar (Gen. 16:6, 11).
God predicted that Ishmael’s character would be like a “wild man” whose “hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him” (Gen. 16:12).
When Ishmael was thirteen, God reaffirmed His covenant with Abraham and bypassed Ishmael in favor of Sarah’s yet unborn son. Ishmael now stands outside the Abrahamic Covenant, not part of the chosen lineage. Yet God promised Ishmael fruitfulness as the father of twelve princes and a great nation (Gen. 17:18–21).
During a feast held because of young Isaac, Ishmael publicly mocked his younger brother. This action led Sarah to demand that Abraham send both Hagar and her son away to the southern desert regions. Later Ishmael married an Egyptian; returned to join Isaac to bury their father, Abraham; and died at age 137 (Gen. 21:8–21; 25:9, 17).
God’s promise to him was fulfilled when Ishmael produced the “twelve princes” listed in Genesis 25:12–16. Just as Abraham’s grandson Jacob would produce twelve tribes, this son of Abraham also produced twelve tribes. But God’s promise of the land of Canaan went to Isaac’s heirs, not to Ishmael’s (Gen. 26:3–4).
The Ishmaelites lived like Bedouins in the region of the Arabian Desert south and east of the land of Canaan (Gen. 25:18), corresponding to the modern areas of Sinai, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria, and western Iraq. Eight of the twelve names appear in later Scriptures, and six are found on ancient inscriptions from the Assyrian and Babylonian Empires. As is often the case in the ancient world, the proper names of the sons were applied to the geographical territories they occupied.
God’s words were also fulfilled in the Ishmaelites’ troublesome relationships. The phrase that describes Ishmael’s living “in the presence of all his brethren” should be translated “in defiance to all his brothers” (Gen. 16:12; 25:18). The following examples reveal such hostility.
Ishmaelites purchased Joseph from his brothers and took him to Egypt where they sold him into slavery (Gen. 37:25–36; 39:1). Ishmaelites were associated with the Midianites in attacking the children of Israel during the time of Gideon (Jud. 8:24). The psalmist lamented the conspiracies the Ishmaelites raised against Israel (Ps. 83:2–8). Finally, the eastern tribes of Israel waged war against the Ishmaelites, who in turn suffered defeat (1 Chr. 5:19–22).
Because the Ishmaelites presented a continual threat to Israel, God threatened to judge them for their sinful ways. Both Isaiah (21:11–17) and Jeremiah (49:28–33) predicted God’s judgment on certain Ishmaelite tribes—Tema, Dumah, and Kedar. The Assyrians and Babylonians carried out God’s sentence. Other tribes of Ishmaelites continued to live throughout vast Arabia.
The Arabs have looked to Ishmael as one of their ancestors. The Qur’an even substitutes Ishmael for Isaac as God’s chosen son (Surah 19:54). In Muslim tradition, the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, claimed direct descent from Ishmael. Hostility continues today as Arabs resist the presence of Jewish people in the Middle East and around the world.
The prophets wrote the final chapter about the Ishmaelites as they looked ahead to the coming of God’s Messiah and His Kingdom on Earth. Messiah will rule the world from Jerusalem and the restored Jewish kingdom. Then Israel, along with all nations, including the descendants of Ishmael, will worship God at His Temple in Jerusalem:
Sing unto the LORD a new song, and his praise from the end of the earth, . . . the villages that Kedar doth inhabit . . . Let them give glory unto the LORD. The forces of the nations shall come unto thee. All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered together unto thee, the rams of Nebaioth shall minister unto thee; they shall come up with acceptance on mine altar, and I will glorify the house of my glory (Isa. 42:10–12; 60:5, 7).