Who is Ishmael in the Bible?
Ishmael son of Abraham, the first son by the Egyptian Hagar (Genesis 16:3), the common father of the Abrahamic religions, and is revered as a prophet by Muslims. He died at the age of 137, according to the Genesis narrative (Genesis 25:17). Ishmael and his mother were sent to the desert after the birth of Isaac, Abraham’s other son by Sarah. After becoming a minor character in Judaism and Christianity, Ishmael continued to play a vital role in the Islamic narrative, which says that he settled in Mecca.
Usually, within families, the arrival of second-born switches up the dynamic in an irrevocable way—especially for the firstborn. Naturally, the second-born accumulates much of the attention from its caregivers and the firstborn can find themselves pushed to the side or find themselves to be no longer the center of attention.
This toppling from this formal glory can cause the firstborn to cultivate feelings of inadequacy and in some cases, the firstborn can be made to feel as if they are invisible, and no one would know this better than a firstborn who pretty much became invisible after the birth of their sibling. Of course, I’m talking about the often-forgotten son of Abraham, Ishmael.
The Meaning of the Name Ishmael
Even the name Ishmael has some noteworthy origins—having existed in various ancient Semitic cultures—as well as maintaining Babylonian roots.
In these times it would be known as ‘Yishma’el’, meaning ‘God has hearkened’ or in the case of the later Ishmael means, ‘God will hear’, all of which suggests that even though his questionable conceivement and later banishment, God was with Ishmael for he was in essence, faultless.
Animosity Between Sarah and Ishmael
Readers of the bible will know that Ishmael was an underdog from the very beginning. Not only was he illegitimately conceived by a conspiring Sarah, who wanted a child so badly that she gave her husband permission to sleep with her handmaiden Hagar, but he was subsequently shunned by Sarah when he was born.
Whilst the bible makes little account of the relationship between Ishmael and Sarah, we do know that she is responsible for him being cast out into the desert, after she perceived that he was mocking the newly born Isaac, his stepbrother and the second born of Abraham.
We see her animosity towards Ishmael demonstrated quite explicitly, where she insists upon Abraham to ‘Get rid of that slave woman and her son for that woman’s son would never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.’—Genesis 21:10.
Sarah shows no hesitation in disowning Ishmael once she has a natural-born son of her own. And through this, we can see that Ishmael becomes a victim of a grudge that he was not responsible for. Not only is he pushed to decide when his younger brother is born, but he is also taken to the extreme of total abandonment and banishment by the will of Sarah.
This is one of the only times we see Sarah even recognize Ishmael in the bible. She doesn’t even bring herself to refer to him by name, but simply addresses him as her slave woman’s son. She refuses to take responsibility for him being born and much less identifies him as her son like she originally intended.
Instead, she denounces him. Denies him of anything that he is owed as the son of Abraham and deems Isaac the second-born his superior in every way.
This also suggests that given the lack of interaction between Sarah and Ishmael, there was never a relationship between the two and that despite wanting a child so badly that she allowed Abraham to impregnate Hagar, she regretted it afterwards and acted acrimoniously to all parties involved, as if it was their fault.
It appears clear that Sarah had refused to adopt Ishmael as her own as she promised but instead charged Hagar with his upbringing and washed her hands of the endeavour entirely.
Many see Sarah’s treatment of Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, as contemptible. The bible describes her as ‘mistreating Hagar’ once she has been impregnated by Abraham, telling us, “Then Sarah mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.” (Genesis 16:6)
While Sarah tries to justify her actions by suggesting Hagar had become haughty, now that she was carrying Abraham’s child, Hagar’s attempts to flee also suggest that the treatment she received was unfair.
Sarah proves to be incapable of managing her own emotions in this part of the story, where she proves to respond to the situation that she created with jealousy, pride and resentment, so much so that she drives a pregnant woman to take her chances alone in the desert.
Sarah can only blame herself for these circumstances; after all, no one asked Hagar to sleep with Abraham but Sarah herself, and Sarah’s resentment of the woman and the child growing within her came about because of Sarah’s impatience to speed up the covenant made between God and Abraham.
In this, some see the very existence of Ishmael as a punishment for Sarah—an eternal reminder that she had tried to play God in her schemes to have a child.
Sarah Influence in the Birth of Ishmael — Mistreats Hagar
In Genesis 16, we even see her proclaim to know her God’s plan and she certainly feels scorned by them, leading her to take matters into her own hands saying to Abraham,
“The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” — Genesis 16:1
The dread, anger and ill-feeling that she experiences in this idea, is because she meddles with God’s plan and his covenant with Abraham, and so, Ishmael becomes a manifestation of that—a reminder of her folly and arrogance.
But to others, Ishmael is more than just a symbol for Sarah’s wrongs against God. Both he and his mother are important in our figures that they warrant a visit from one of God’s angels after Hagar has fled to the desert.
The Prophesy of the Birth and Life of Ishmael
The angel comforts her here — after Sarah mistreats her — and whilst he counsels her to return to Sarah, he also adds that he will see to it that her descendants are increased and would be so many that they would be too numerous to count.
“Go back to your mistress and submit to her. I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.” — Genesis 16:9-10
Despite being born illegitimately, Ishmael is suggested here to be the father of many nations—something later confirmed by God in the covenant with Abraham, and we learn here that the story of Ishmael is far from over, despite the shunning by Sarah.
We can also gather from the angel’s prophecy in Genesis 16, that Ishmael was likely always going to live a hard life in comparison to that of his brother Isaac. Ishmael from the very beginning was dealt a rough hand because Sarah despised him and what he represented, the result of a tryst between her husband and her handmaiden— even though this was entirely organized by her.
The angel who speaks to Hagar in the desert recognizes the hardships that Ishmael will face and provides a detailed prophecy for the boy saying,
“You are now pregnant, and you will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD, has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” — Genesis 16: 11-12
Here, the angel gives Ishmael his name—a significant feat—considering that he is the first character in the bible to be bestowed a name before he was born.
This would suggest that despite Sarah’s condemning of him, and despite the bible’s minimal mention of him thereafter, God did have a plan for him and all of his descendants.
As we see later on in various other stories of the bible, the biblical God and the angels do not give names to people who do not have an imperative role later on. Of course, it is believed that Ishmael’s importance is the belief that he becomes the progenitor of the Arabian people and the ancestor of Islam.
It could also be argued that God wanted this to be the case and intended for Ishmael and his descendants to flourish as they did, for he could have allowed Hagar to die in the wilderness when Ishmael was still in the womb, instead he sends an angel to council Hagar back into Sarah’s household to ensure both her survival and the survival of Ishmael.
We also see the angel refer to Ishmael as being wild, furthermore suggesting that Ishmael’s life would not be easy and potentially foreshadows the fact that he and Hagar would be booted out into the wilderness, where it would be considerably more challenging to raise him.
There’s also the mention that his hand would be against every man and that every man’s hand would be against him—once more foretelling the hardships that Ishmael would have in his life outside of Abraham’s house.
There is a declaration here by the angel that Ishmael would have difficulty forming relationships with people and that perhaps, he would have difficulty in establishing trust with people, which is hardly a surprise when you consider the mistreatment that he received.
Another idea here is that Ishmael would be at odds with his fellow man, perhaps even his brother Isaac, and there’s a foreshadowing here of the tensions between the two peoples that would follow after Ishmael and Isaac respectively.
Yet, despite this statement by the angel that Ishmael would live in hostility, he is not forsaken, for we learn in Genesis 17 that Ishmael is going to be blessed as God tells Abraham,
“And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation.” — Genesis 17:20
As the seed of Abraham, Ishmael was destined to inherit some form of greatness either way, and it is perhaps because of God’s promises to Abraham is why Ishmael is to be as fruitful and successful as he is.
However, God also makes it clear to Abraham that the covenant he makes is for Isaac and not Ishmael, possibly reflecting the reality that Ishmael was not God’s original intention, but instead a result of Sarah’s impatience.
In this idea, God had always planned for Isaac to be the one to inherit Abraham’s greatness, but the contingency that was Ishmael made the affair far more complicated than it needed to be. Still, God recognizes that this was never Ishmael’s fault, for he never asked to be born, and some might say God is therefore merciful in making Ishmael a great nation, nonetheless.
We also learn that as a son of Abraham, Ishmael is made of the covenant nonetheless, for Abraham has been circumcised in Genesis 17:23. We are told,
“On that very day, Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him.”
Ishmael is Cast Away by Sarah
But things take a turn for the worst in Genesis 21 once Isaac is born, and Ishmael is ultimately cast away by a bitter Sarah.
Now that she has her precious son, born of her organically and without the need for a surrogate, Sarah admonishes Ishmael after having seen him tease the baby Isaac. We are told,
‘The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”’ — Genesis 21:8-10
Some argue that Sarah’s reaction is justified after having seen Ishmael scoff at Isaac and the volume with which he was being celebrated. Some say Sarah acted from a position of maternal instinct and chose to defend her child from what she perceived as a threat in the form of the older Ishmael. Therefore, her banishment of him was not out of spite but out of protection for Isaac.
But others see Sarah’s banishment of Ishmael as more of a selfish need to remove all traces of her husband’s affair and to absolve herself of having orchestrated the endeavour altogether. No longer does she wish to be reminded of her arrogance in assuming God’s plan, and so with the acquiescence of her husband, Ishmael is sent away.
There’s also an idea here that this is less of banishment and more of a freeing. Hagar was a slave after all, but upon being told to leave Abraham’s house, she becomes a free woman. It’s also possible that Hagar and Ishmael did not see this as a punishment, as after the harsh treatment towards them, they wanted to leave and favour their chances out in the wild than in Abraham’s house.
God Aid Ishmael and Hagar in the Wilderness
The bible concludes Ishmael’s ark when he and his mother are in the wilderness of Beersheba, where the water they were given had run out and they were about to perish. But again, we see God favour Ishmael, for the bible tells us he hears Ishmael crying, and thus, sends an angel to help him. We are told,
‘God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”’ — Genesis 21:17-18
Some have noted that God’s kindness here is another demonstration of how he has not forsaken Ishmael, and though he had been brought into this world through an unbecoming set of circumstances, he was still a seed of Abraham and therefore would be blessed.
Some have also interpreted Ishmael’s crying as a form of prayer itself, showing us not only the mercy of God but the continued relationship between Ishmael and God that the bible never really talks about. Yet again, God promises here that he will turn Ishmael into a great nation, furthermore, establishing his allegiance with Ishmael and his wishes for him to do well.
The Great Nations from Ishmael — The Arabians
The great nation he speaks of—these descendants of Ishmael—were as affirmations thought to be the Arabians.
The bible makes no mention of Ishmael’s future endeavours beyond this point, however, but instead summarizes Ishmael’s fate in a very brief statement in Genesis 21 saying,
“God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.” — Genesis 21:20-21
Whilst animosity may have brewed thereafter between Ishmael and Isaac’s people, we do learn in Genesis 25 that Ishmael and Isaac came together in peace to bury Abraham after his death.
Beyond this, Ishmael’s endeavours as a great nation within the bible are grossly overlooked.
The Children of Ishmael
You may remember in Genesis 17 that God declares to Abraham that he would make Ishmael the father of 12 rulers and that he would be made into a great nation. It is understood that with this Egyptian wife of his, Ishmael would conceive twelve sons—perhaps these twelve rulers—who would each become tribal chiefs in the regions from Havilah to Shur, those being from Assyria to the border of Egypt.
Amongst these twelve sons, perhaps one of the most notable was Kedar—the father of the Qedarites, who was a northern Arabian tribe that controlled the area between the Persian Gulf and the Sinai Peninsula.
Going by tradition, Kedar was the ancestor of the Quraysh tribe—a tribe that inhabited the land of Mecca and also a tribe that contained the Hashemite clan—that which the prophet Muhammad of Islam was born to.
Amongst these sons were also born a daughter named Mahalath or Basemeth, and she would become the third wife of Esau.
Rabbinical commentators, meanwhile, in some Jewish beliefs, suggests that Hagar was the Pharaoh’s daughter, making Ishmael the Pharaoh’s grandson, and therefore, Egyptian royalty himself.
Through this, the Egyptian woman that Hagar found for Ishmael to marry would likely have been someone of high nobility and political influence, which could warrant how all of Ishmael’s sons became rulers in their respective regions.
Pre-Islamic Arabian poetry refers to Ishmael and his father Abraham. The poet Umaiya ibn Abī s-Salt takes note of Abraham’s separation anxiety once Ishmael is banished, and that he could not bear the idea that Ishmael would be surrounded by foes, perhaps a nod to the declaration by the angel in Genesis 16 that Ishmael’s hand would be against everyone, and everyone’s hand would be against him.
Another pre-Islamic figure in Zayd ibn Amr was noted to have refused adultery and preached of the importance of monotheism, believing that this was the right way and the original way according to the father of the Arabians himself, in Ishmael.
There also existed tribes of central west Arabia that called themselves ‘The people of Abraham and the offspring of Ishmael’, a phrase also used to establish reconciliation between other tribes in the area.
Views on Ishmael
In other Jewish beliefs, Ishmael is associated with a more wicked nature and was thought to have prayed to idols when he believed he was alone. Others give him an edge of promiscuity, such as the Samaritan Torah, which described Ishmael, not as a wild man but a fertile man.
This is echoed in certain Jewish traditions where Ishmael was thought to have taken two wives, with one being known as Aisha. The name Aisha would also become an Islamic tradition for the name of the prophet Muhammad’s wife, furthermore, establishing a sort of representation of the Muslim world through Ishmael.
Amongst Islamic beliefs, Ishmael is recognized as an important prophet and something of a patriarch of Islam itself, or an ancestor of several prominent Arabian tribes, and thus, many a great nation as the biblical God had foreseen.
He is also considered to be the ancestor of the prophet Muhammad, and in some cases, the prophet is a direct descendant.
In the Quran, we see Ishmael mentioned several times, usually alongside other patriarchs and prophets of ancient times. He is described here, amongst other prophets, as ‘the patiently enduring and righteous whom God caused to enter into his mercy.’
The Origin of Mecca, Kaaba, and the ZamZam Well
We also learned from this text that Ishmael stands alongside his father Abraham in Mecca, in an attempt to establish the Kaaba and make it a place of monotheistic pilgrimage. All that Abraham and Ishmael rebuilt it on the old foundations that were built by Adam.
Abraham also appears to be far more appreciative of Ishmael here, going on to thank God for granting him a son like Ishmael. It is by the Kaaba that Ishmael and his mother Hagar are thought to be buried, under an area demarcated by a semi-circular wall known as the Hijr Ismail wall.
Other Islamic beliefs paint more of a picture between the relationship of Ishmael and his father Abraham, and whilst the story links closely with that of the account in the Old Testament, we see that Sarah isn’t the cause for Ishmael and Hagar’s banishment. Instead, it is God who tells Abraham to take Hagar and Ishmael to the foundations of where the Kaaba would stand, and to leave them there.
When Hagar asked Abraham why he was leaving them there, Abraham walked away in silence and proceeded to ignore her. It was only when Hagar asked if this was God’s will do Abraham confirmed anything.
Hagar believed that if this was the case, then God would provide and did not appear to protest or dispute Abraham’s decision.
In the desert the baby Ishmael cried with a thirst for water, and so, Hagar placed him in the shade under a bush and went off in search of said water. But her search was futile. Like in the Old Testament, both baby and mother cried and it would appear that in this version as well, God hears their suffering and sends an angel to comfort them.
The angel instructs Hagar to lift Ishmael from the ground, and when she does, she finds that Ishmael had scratched the ground with his foot allowing for a spring of water to bubble up to the surface. Hagar quickly cultivated a well from the ground which would go on to form the ZamZam Well—a holy place in Islam, found 20m east of the Kaaba.
This area, this spring, would become well known to those that travelled through Arabia which Hagar would negotiate deals with for supplies in exchange for water. It is believed that from her humble trade, the stage for the city of mecca was set, for it would become a hub for travellers and traders where many would stay for the convenience of water, goods and sanctuary.
Today, to commemorate the blessing of the well that God had given Hagar and Ishmael, Muslims make trips between the Safa and Marwah hills—retracing the steps that Hagar would have taken in her search for water.
Abraham’s Influence on Ishmael’s Marriages
We are also told that Abraham returned to visit Ishmael throughout his life, unlike in the Old Testament where he appears to neglect Ishmael entirely in favour of Isaac.
According to some Islamic traditions, there exists one story where Abraham had come to visit Ishmael, only to find his son was not there. Instead, he found Ishmael’s wife but did not reveal that he was his father. Ishmael’s wife insisted upon him to stay and wait for Ishmael’s return, but Abraham decided to leave beforehand and despite his daughter-in-law’s protests, Abraham did not listen and instead gave her a message to give to his son. The message was simple, “Change your threshold.”
When Ishmael returned, his wife gave him the news that a man had come to visit him and that he gave the vague message ‘change your threshold.’ Ishmael knew immediately that it had been his father and understood the words to mean ‘divorce your wife and find a better one.’ Which Ishmael did.
Sometime after this happened, Abraham visited Ishmael again but once more his son was out. Here Abraham encountered Ishmael’s new wife and found her to be more faithful to God and more content with her husband. For some reason, Abraham yet again chose to leave before Ishmael had come home but asked his wife to give him the message “Keep your threshold.”
When Ishmael returned that night, his wife informed him that there had been a visitor and that he had told him to ‘keep his threshold.’ Ishmael told his wife of who that man was and that the message was his father’s approval of their marriage for she was a woman who was content in both him and God.
Art Credits: Wikipedia, The Leiden Collection.