Who was Ishmael in the Bible?


By BibleAsk Team

Ishmael is a figure in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament. His story is primarily found in the Book of Genesis, and his lineage plays a crucial role in shaping the history of the Israelites and the Arab people. Ishmael is the firstborn son of the patriarch Abraham and his maidservant Hagar. The narrative of Ishmael unfolds in Genesis, beginning in Chapter 16 and continuing through Chapter 25.

The Birth of Ishmael

The story of Ishmael begins with a predicament faced by Abraham and his wife Sarah. Despite God’s promise that they would have a son and become the father of many nations (Genesis 12:2), Sarah was barren. Frustrated by her inability to conceive, Sarah suggests that Abraham take her maidservant, Hagar, as a secondary wife to bear a child on her behalf.

In Genesis 16:3 (NKJV), we find Sarah’s proposal: “Then Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar her maid, the Egyptian, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan.”

As a result of this union, Hagar becomes pregnant, and tensions arise between her and Sarah. Hagar, perhaps emboldened by her status as a mother-to-be, begins to despise Sarah, leading to mistreatment and Hagar’s eventual escape into the wilderness.

God’s Promise

In Genesis 16:9-12 (NKJV), an angel of the Lord appears to Hagar in the wilderness and asks her to return to her mistress and submit to her hand (Genesis 16:9). And the angel makes a profound promise about Ishmael’s future:

“The Angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself under her hand.”Then the Angel of the Lord said to her, ‘I will multiply your descendants exceedingly, so that they shall not be counted for multitude. Behold, you are with child, and you shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has heard your affliction. He shall be a wild man; his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him. And he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren'” (verses 10-12).

This prophecy outlines Ishmael’s character and the nature of his descendants. The phrase “wild man” suggests a life of independence and conflict, foreshadowing the nomadic and often adversarial lifestyle of the Ishmaelites.

The Circumcision and Covenant

In Genesis 17, God reaffirms His covenant with Abraham and institutes the practice of circumcision as a sign of the covenant. In verses 23-27 (NKJV), Abraham circumcises his first son, emphasizing that the covenant extends to him as well:

“So Abraham took Ishmael his son, all who were born in his house and all who were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham’s house, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskins that very same day, as God had said to him. Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, and Ishmael his son was thirteen years old when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin.”

The act of circumcision becomes a crucial symbol of God’s covenant not only with Abraham and his descendants through Isaac but also with his first son and his progeny.


As time passes, Sarah gives birth to Isaac, the long-awaited son of the promise. Tensions escalate between Sarah and Hagar, and in Genesis 21:9-14 (NKJV), Sarah insists that Abraham cast out Hagar and her son:

“And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, scoffing. Therefore she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely with Isaac.'”

God affirms to Abraham that the covenant promise will be through Issac, the son of the promise) not Ishmael (Genesis 17:21). Though distressed, Abraham obeys God’s command believing that He will make a nation of Ishmael as well. In the wilderness, Hagar and her son face a desperate situation, but God intervenes, providing water and ensuring the son’s survival.


Ishmael’s story doesn’t end with his expulsion. In Genesis 21:17-21 (NKJV), we read of God’s care for Ishmael and the fulfillment of the earlier prophecy:

“Then God heard the voice of the lad. Then the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said to her, ‘What ails you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad and hold him with your hand, for I will make him a great nation.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water, and gave the lad a drink. So God was with the lad; and he grew and dwelt in the wilderness and became an archer. He dwelt in the Wilderness of Paran; and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.”

This passage highlights God’s faithfulness to His promise to Hagar regarding Ishmael’s descendants becoming a great nation. The mention of Ishmael becoming an archer suggests the self-reliant and nomadic lifestyle that characterizes the Ishmaelites.


The narrative of Ishmael continues in Genesis 25, where we read about his twelve sons:

“Now this is the genealogy of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s maidservant, bore to Abraham.  And these were the names of the sons of Ishmael, by their names, according to their generations: The firstborn of Ishmael, Nebajoth; then Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadar, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah” (verses 12-15).

The genealogy of Ishmael highlights the fulfillment of God’s promise to make him a great nation. Ishmael’s descendants, often referred to as the Ishmaelites or the Arab people, play a major role in the historical and cultural landscape of the Middle East.

In the New Testament

While Ishmael is primarily associated with the Old Testament, his name is mentioned in the New Testament as well. In Galatians 4:21-31 (NKJV), the Apostle Paul uses the story of Ishmael and Isaac as an allegory to explain the contrast between the law and grace:

“Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic. For these are [a]the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar— for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children— but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all” (verses 21:26).

Ishmael was the son of human effort to bring the covenant promises to fruition. He was a living testimony to Abraham’s lack of faith. But Isaac was the son of promise, the son of faith (Genesis 12:3; 13:14–16; 15:4; 17:3–6, 19–21). The record of his birth is one of remarkable divine interposition (Genesis 18:10; 21:1, 2; Hebrews 11:11, 12). Abraham believed God’s promises when their fulfillment seemed impossible. Isaac was pre-eminently the son of God’s promise and Abraham’s faith.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team 

We'd love your feedback, so leave a comment!

If you feel an answer is not 100% Bible based, then leave a comment, and we'll be sure to review it.
Our aim is to share the Word and be true to it.