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Yairah Amit





Ishmael, King of the Arabs





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Yairah Amit





Ishmael, King of the Arabs








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Ishmael, King of the Arabs

Throughout the Bible, Ishmaelite is a collective term for nomads living in the wilderness, east of Canaan. Why is their eponymous ancestor Ishmael, Abraham’s exiled son, presented as living in the wilderness region near Egypt, west of Canaan? The answer can be found in the political realities of Persian period Yehud.


Ishmael, King of the Arabs

Arab on camel, Vasily Vereshchagin, 1869 - 1870. Wikiart

Ishmael’s Prominence in the Abraham Cycle

Abram is first introduced as part of Terah’s family unit (Genesis 11:27–32) and his story ends with his sons Isaac and Ishmael burying him (Gen. 25:7–11). Ishmael’s genealogy follows immediately after (25:12–18).[1]

Outside the Abraham cycle, the Torah mentions Ishmael only in the context of Esau’s marriage to Ishmael’s daughter (28:9, 36:3). Within this cycle, however, Ishmael and his mother Hagar play an important role:

  • Almost two full chapters (16 and 21) are dedicated to them.
  • The story of Ishmael’s birth (Ch. 16) appears in the center of Abraham’s cycle.
  • The story of his birth is incorporated in surroundings that heightens his importance: after the Covenant between the Parts (Ch. 15) and before the story of the circumcision (Ch. 17).
  • Ishmael’s place in Chapter 17, as the bearer of Abrahamic fertility blessing and the future of a great nation (12:2, 13:16, 15:5, 17:2–6), also attests to his unique place.
  • The expulsion of Ishmael that precedes the Binding of Isaac – termed by some, the Binding of Ishmael, in which Ishmael is nearly reborn and enjoys permanent divine providence (21:20) – also points to his distinct place.[2]
  • Over thirteen years passed (17:25) from Ishmael’s birth until Isaac’s birth (21:1–3), thus, it is reasonable to assume, that the bond between the father and his only son, born after so many childless years, was strong.

Following the cruel expulsion, Ishmael and his mother are forced to leave Abraham’s safe home, and from then on Ishmael is doomed to a life of wandering.

A Covenant with Isaac Alone

As a preamble to God’s command to Abraham regarding circumcision, God tells him that he and his seed will inherit the land of Canaan:

בראשית יז:ז וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת בְּרִיתִי בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶךָ וּבֵין זַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ לְדֹרֹתָם לִבְרִית עוֹלָם לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לֵאלֹהִים וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ. יז:ח וְנָתַתִּי לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ אֵת אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֶיךָ אֵת כָּל אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן לַאֲחֻזַּת עוֹלָם וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים...
Gen 17:7 I will maintain My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come. 17:8 I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding. I will be their God.

Abraham interprets this, at first, as a reference to Ishmael, but God shortly disabuses him of this notion, and says that the covenant will continue through his seed from Sarah, to which Abraham responds:

בראשית יז:יח וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים לוּ יִשְׁמָעֵאל יִחְיֶה לְפָנֶיךָ.
Gen 17:18 And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!”

Although Abraham hopes to convince God to make the covenant with Ishmael, God deflects this attempt:

יז:יט וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים אֲבָל שָׂרָה אִשְׁתְּךָ יֹלֶדֶת לְךָ בֵּן וְקָרָאתָ אֶת שְׁמוֹ יִצְחָק וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת בְּרִיתִי אִתּוֹ לִבְרִית עוֹלָם לְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו. יז:כ וּלְיִשְׁמָעֵאל שְׁמַעְתִּיךָ הִנֵּה בֵּרַכְתִּי אֹתוֹ וְהִפְרֵיתִי אֹתוֹ וְהִרְבֵּיתִי אֹתוֹ בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר נְשִׂיאִם יוֹלִיד וּנְתַתִּיו לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל. יז:כא וְאֶת בְּרִיתִי אָקִים אֶת יִצְחָק אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵד לְךָ שָׂרָה לַמּוֹעֵד הַזֶּה בַּשָּׁנָה הָאַחֶרֶת
17:19 God said: “Nevertheless, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac; and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come. 17:20 As for Ishmael, I have heeded you. I hereby bless him. I will make him fertile and exceedingly numerous. He shall be the father of twelve chieftains, and I will make of him a great nation. 17:21 But My covenant I will maintain with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.”

Consequently, there was no alternative but to send Hagar and Ishmael away (Gen 21:12–13), and later, Keturah’s children as well (Gen 25:5–6), yet the two families do not appear to have been sent in the same direction.

Who Will Go Eastward and Who Westward?

Hagar and Ishmael were sent to the southwest deserts, located between Israel and Egypt:

בראשית כא:יד …וַתֵּלֶךְ וַתֵּתַע בְּמִדְבַּר בְּאֵר שָׁבַע... כא:כא וַיֵּשֶׁב בְּמִדְבַּר פָּארָן וַתִּקַּח לוֹ אִמּוֹ אִשָּׁה מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
Gen 21:14 … And she wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba.… 21:21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Ishmael’s affinity to the southwest can be seen in the references to the toponyms Beer-sheba (21:14) and Paran (21:21), the latter of which is a general name for the area of the Sinai Peninsula extending to the Egyptian border. He is further tied to the southwest by the recurrent references to Egypt, not only as his wife’s place of origin, but as his mother’s too; Hagar’s Egyptian origin is repeated four times (Gen.16:1, 3; 21:9; 25:12), and it is she who chooses the Egyptian wife.

Keturah’s sons, in contrast, were sent eastward (25:6b).

בראשית כה:ה וַיִּתֵּן אַבְרָהָם אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר לוֹ לְיִצְחָק. כה:ו וְלִבְנֵי הַפִּילַגְשִׁים אֲשֶׁר לְאַבְרָהָם נָתַן אַבְרָהָם מַתָּנֹת וַיְשַׁלְּחֵם מֵעַל יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ בְּעוֹדֶנּוּ חַי קֵדְמָה אֶל אֶרֶץ קֶדֶם.
Gen 25:5 Abraham willed all that he owned to Isaac. 25:6 but to Abraham’s sons by concubines Abraham gave gifts while he was still living, and he sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the land of the East.

Keturah’s sons are depicted as the eastern nomads, while Ishmael and his sons are southwestern nomads.[3] While the east and the southeast works for the sons of Keturah, the genealogical list that depicts the line of Ishmael (25:12-17) mentions groups of nomads that wandered mainly in the Syrian Desert, meaning in the east too. (In fact, the twelfth son is actually called קֵדְמָה, “easterner.”). Thus, Ishmael, the father of the western nomads is connected to eastern nomads. And yet, this genealogical unit ends with another assertion that Ishmael and Hagar lived southwest of Israel:

בראשית כה:יח וַיִּשְׁכְּנוּ מֵחֲוִילָה עַד שׁוּר אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי מִצְרַיִם בֹּאֲכָה אַשּׁוּרָה.
Gen 25:18 They dwelt from Havilah, by Shur, which is close to Egypt, all the way to Ashur.[4]

Why do we have two conflicting pictures of Ishmael’s territory?

One solution, supported by many critical scholars, is that the inconsistency is the result of late Priestly editing, artificially interweaving an independent list of twelve tribes in the Syrian desert into the Ishmael account to show how God’s blessing of Ishmael in Genesis 17:20 came true. On the other hand, this suggestion ignores an important piece of evidence about the difference between the use of the name Ishmael in the Abraham cycle and the use of the term “Ishmaelites.”

Who Were the Ishmaelites?

The gentilic “Ishmaelite” appears 8 times in the Bible. Four of these references are in the Joseph story, describing how they bought him as a slave and sold him to Egypt (Gen 37:25, 27, 28; 39:1). The depiction of Ishmaelites in this story is telling:

בראשית לז:כה וַיִּשְׂאוּ עֵינֵיהֶם וַיִּרְאוּ וְהִנֵּה אֹרְחַת יִשְׁמְעֵאלִים בָּאָה מִגִּלְעָד וּגְמַלֵּיהֶם נֹשְׂאִים נְכֹאת וּצְרִי וָלֹט הוֹלְכִים לְהוֹרִיד מִצְרָיְמָה.
Gen 37:25 Looking up, they (the brothers) saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, their camels bearing gum, balm, and ladanum to be taken to Egypt.

From this we learn that Ishmaelites are camel-riding caravan tradesmen, who travel from the northeast through Israel, heading southwest to Egypt.[5] The impression one gets from the text is that their homebase is further northeast than the Gilead, in the Syrian desert, but that they travel long distances for trade with Egypt, since it was an important financial center.

That Ishmaelites are easterners is also clear from their mention in the story of Gideon in Judges, which begins with Midianite domination of Israel,

שופטים ו:ג וְהָיָה אִם זָרַע יִשְׂרָאֵל וְעָלָה מִדְיָן וַעֲמָלֵק וּבְנֵי קֶדֶם וְעָלוּ עָלָיו.
Judg 6:3 After the Israelites had done their sowing, Midian, Amalek, and the eastern tribes would come up and raid them.

After Gideon finally defeats the Midianites, and the booty is shared among the Israelites, Gideon says to the people:

שופטים כה:כד …אֶשְׁאֲלָה מִכֶּם שְׁאֵלָה וּתְנוּ לִי אִישׁ נֶזֶם שְׁלָלוֹ כִּי נִזְמֵי זָהָב לָהֶם כִּי יִשְׁמְעֵאלִים הֵם.
Judg 8:24 “I have a request to make of you: Each of you give me the earring he received as booty.” They had golden earrings, for they were Ishmaelites.

According to this, Midianites and other easterners are “Ishmaelites” implying that this is a catchall term for different Arabian tribes. The reference to Ishmaelites in Psalm 83:7, together with Edomites, Moabites and Hagarites, also implies an eastern provenance:

תהלים מג:ו כִּי נוֹעֲצוּ לֵב יַחְדָּו עָלֶיךָ בְּרִית יִכְרֹתוּ. מג:ז אָהֳלֵי אֱדוֹם וְיִשְׁמְעֵאלִים מוֹאָב וְהַגְרִים.
Ps 43:6 Unanimous in their counsel they have made an alliance against You. 43:7 the clans of Edom and the Ishmaelites, Moab and the Hagrites.[6]

Ishmael Versus Ishmaelites

To deal with the eastern/western problem, we must first differentiate between Ishmael’s literary character in the Abraham cycle, and the Ishmaelites throughout the Bible.[7] While the gentilic name Ishmaelites is one of the collective names of Arab tribes, the personal name Ishmael is a character in the Abraham story.

The name, with its use of the Hebrew root ש.מ.ע, well suited the literary needs of the author in Genesis, who depicted God as the one who heard Hagar’s affliction (16:11), Abraham’s distress (17:20) and Ishmael’s voice (21:17).

But if Ishmaelites are easterners, from the deserts of Syria and the northern Arabian Peninsula, why does the Abraham cycle present their ostensible eponymous ancestor Ishmael as living to the southwest of Judah until Egypt? The answer can be found in the historical reality that characterizes the 6th and 5th centuries B.C.E., when much of the Abraham cycle was composed, or at least redacted.

The Western Arabs and Persians

The collapse of the kingdoms of Judah, Ammon and Moab, and the exile and escape of their inhabitants, brought in their wake a decrease in the population in these areas and enabled the infiltration of nomads into both the southern part of Transjordan and the frontier near the eastern and southern part of the province Yehud. Moreover, the invasion of the nomads into Edom brought about the gradual settlement of Edomites in south Judah. The existence of eastern and southern nomads, whose number was ever-increasing in this period, constituted a threat to the inhabitants of Yehud until the appearance of Nehemiah.[8]

But another group of nomads was active in this period as well. The Greek historian Herodotus (ca. 485–415 B.C.E.), whose History describes the Persian invasion of Greece, highlights the important role played by the nomadic Arabs, who lived west of the Persian Empire. These wanderers were not only warriors who dominated the routes of desert commerce, but they also helped the Persians reach Egypt. He writes (III: 88):

Without the good will of the Arabians, the Persians could not have invaded Egypt.

Evidence of these wanderers is found not only in archeological findings; they are also mentioned in the prophets, mainly those who prophesized from the late 7th century to the 5th B.C.E., such as Jeremiah (25:23–24), Ezekiel (35), and others. In these prophesies, the nomads appear under the name of various groups like Ephah, Nebaioth, Kedar, the kings of Arabia and others.[9] Herodotus relates to the Arabs in the west as a political entity that has a country headed by a king and he repeats the collocation “the king of the Arabs.”

Ishmael, Father of the Western Nomads

It is only natural that the impoverished and weak population of Yehud that suffered from the infiltration of wanderers from the east and the south, respected the nomads from the west, who maintained a special relationship and enjoyed rights accorded by the Persians. Accordingly, the inhabitants of Yehud realized the importance of these wanderers and treated them well. The figure of Ishmael, the western nomad, was likely shaped in the spirit of “the king of the Arabs,” the leader of these nomads.[10]

Unlike the case of the eponymous ancestors of Moab and Ammon, who are mocked as children of incest, and Esau, father of Edom, who is mocked for his lack of wisdom and sophistication, which led him to sell the birthright, Ishmael is never portrayed as doing anything wrong. In fact, more than once, God promises to make Ishmael into a great nation (see Gen 16:10; 17:20, 21:18).

A Positive Ishmael

Moreover, I am convinced that the summary statements about Ishmael, which are often translated negatively, are actually positive in nature. In Genesis 16, Hagar is told:

בראשית טז:יב וְהוּא יִהְיֶה פֶּרֶא אָדָם יָדוֹ בַכֹּל וְיַד כֹּל בּוֹ וְעַל פְּנֵי כָל אֶחָיו יִשְׁכֹּן.
Gen 16:12 He shall be a wild ass of a man; his hand with everyone, and everyone's hand with him; he shall dwell over all his kinsmen.

This means that Ishmael would be free (cf. Job 39:5-7),[11] would engage in commercial ties with his surroundings, and would enjoy advantages in comparison with other nomads.[12]

In short, against the nomadic groups of Idumeans and others who settled southern Judah from the east, the biblical authors or redactors put forward Abraham’s son Ishmael, the father of the western nomads, as a counterbalance. Since these western nomads posed no territorial threat to Yehud, and were seen as allies to Yehud’s Persian overlords, it was beneficial to depict Ishmael, their father, in a favorable light.


November 20, 2019


Last Updated

June 18, 2024


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Prof. Yairah Amit is Professor (Emerita) of Hebrew Bible in Tel Aviv University's Department of Hebrew Bible. She is the author of The Book of Judges: The Art of Editing (1999), History and Ideology: An Introduction to Historiography in the Hebrew Bible (1999), Hidden Polemics in Biblical Narrative (2000), Reading Biblical Narratives: Literary Criticism and the Hebrew Bible (2001). Her exegetical work is to be found in her Hebrew commentary to the book of Judges (in the Mikra Leyisra’el series) and in the commentary to the book of Judges in the Jewish Study Bible (JPS: 2004). Prof. Amit emphasizes critical approaches and is especially interested in aspects of story, history, ideology and editing. Her most recent publication is: In Praise of Editing in the Hebrew Bible: Collected Essays in Retrospect (2012).