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). This is the first time God named an unborn child. 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 changed his name to Abraham and Sarai to Sarah. And the Lord 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).
In Genesis 37:28; 39:1, we learn that the traders who bought Joseph, Jacob’s son, were called both Ishmaelites and Midianites. Ishmael and Midian were half-brothers (Genesis 25:2). The names are often interchanged in Scripture because of their close kinship and because they both inhabited the same region, where they intermarried and mingled. The Ishmaelites wore gold earrings (Judges 8:24) as identifying marks.
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, the Psalmist 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).
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.
In His service,