Who were the Ishmaelites in the Bible?

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By BibleAsk Team


The Lineage of the Ishmaelites

The Ishmaelites were the descendants of Ishmael, the first son of Abram and the Egyptian wife (concubine) Hagar, who was Sarai’s handmaid (Genesis 16:1–12). Sarai was barren. Feeling impatient to God’s promise of a child that was given earlier (Genesis 15), Sarai asked Abram to have a child with her servant Hagar according to the customs of those days. When Hagar saw that she had conceived, her mistress became despised in her eyes. So, Sarai dealt harshly with her, and Hagar fled from her presence (verses 4-8). 

Then, the Angel of the Lord, who found Hagar by a spring of water in the wilderness, said to her, “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…” (Genesis 16:11-12). The name of the child, Ishmael, “God shall hear,” was to remind Hagar of His merciful act. So, Hagar went back to Abram and Sarai and gave birth to Ishmael.  

Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael (Genesis 16:15). When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and reaffirmed His promise to Abraham that He will make him the father of many nations through Sarah not Hagar (Genesis 17:1-19) according to His original covenant (Genesis 15). 

As for Ishmael, Abraham’s first child, the Lord also promised a blessing, “Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation” (Genesis 17:20).  God reassured Abraham that the special promises made to him through Sarah would not contravene those made to Ishmael’s mother at the well in the wilderness (Genesis 16:10).

When Ishmael was 14 years old, Isaac was born. Later, when Isaac was weaned, Sarah saw Ishmael mocking her son. So, she asked Abraham to dismiss Hagar and Ishmael. And God told Abraham to comply. But the Lord again sent His angel to comfort Hagar and affirm that Ishmael would father a great nation (Genesis 21:18). And God’s Word was fulfilled. The names of the 12 sons of Ishmael are given in Genesis 25:12–16. Like the 12 sons of Jacob, each of them became the father of a tribe (Genesis 25:13–16). 

Interactions with Other Biblical Figures

The Ishmaelites appear in various biblical narratives, often in the context of their interactions with other key figures. One notable encounter involves Joseph, the son of Jacob (Israel), who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. In Genesis 37:25-28, it is the Ishmaelites who purchase Joseph and take him to Egypt, setting in motion a chain of events that would lead to Joseph’s rise to power and the fulfillment of God’s plan.

In the time of King Saul, the Ishmaelite nomads, that lived east of Gilead, fought the Israelites (1 Chronicles 5:10, 19–22). But Israel defeated them and occupied their land. In Psalm 83:5-6, Asaph offered a passionate supplication to God for the deliverance of Israel and the continuance of the holy nation. For there was a conspiracy of nations that has united against Israel; perhaps the union of the Midianites (Ishmaelites), Moab, Ammon, and Edom in the time of Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 20).  

Spiritual Lessons from the Ishmaelite Story

The story of the Ishmaelites is not merely a historical account but also carries spiritual lessons. One prominent theme is God’s faithfulness to His promises. Although Ishmael was not the son of the covenant, God fulfilled His promise to Hagar by making Ishmael the father of a great nation.

Moreover, the inclusion of the Ishmaelites in the narrative emphasizes God’s redemptive plan for all of humanity. Their role in the story of Joseph, as agents in God’s providential plan, highlights the overarching theme of God’s sovereignty, even in the midst of human choices and actions.

Prophetic References

The biblical narrative contains prophetic references to the Ishmaelites. In Isaiah 60:6 (NKJV), for example, there is a poetic description of the nations that will contribute to the glory of Jerusalem: “The multitude of camels shall cover your land, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come; they shall bring gold and incense, and they shall proclaim the praises of the Lord.” This verse is often interpreted as including the Ishmaelites among the nations bringing tribute to God.

Additionally, Psalm 83:6-7 (NKJV) mentions various nations conspiring against Israel, including the Ishmaelites: “The tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites; Moab and the Hagrites; Gebal, Ammon, and Amalek; Philistia with the inhabitants of Tyre.”

Archeology

Babylonian inscriptions refer to the Ishmaelites as Sumu’ilu, a tribal confederation that took control of the incense trade route during the dominance of the Assyrian Empire. Also, in Assyrian inscriptions of Sennacherib, the Ishmaelites as Aramaean people living in Syrai, were referred to as the Hagarânu, from the name Hagar.

Conclusion

The Ishmaelites, as depicted in the Bible, emerge as a multifaceted group with deep historical roots and interactions with key biblical figures. Their lineage, economic activities, and cultural distinctiveness provide valuable insights into the dynamics of the ancient world. Beyond their historical relevance, the Ishmaelites’ story holds spiritual lessons, emphasizing God’s faithfulness to His promises.

In His service, 

BibleAsk Team 

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