Ishmael (Heb yišmāעēאl), the son of Abraham and Hagar, is mentioned primarily in the book of Genesis. His name means “God hears,” an etymology suggested by the words of the angel announcing his birth when Hagar flees to the wilderness from her mistress Sarai (later Sarah), Abraham's wife (Gen 16:11–12). Sarah's son Isaac receives the covenant, but Ishmael is blessed by God, who promises the boy will become a great nation (Gen 17:20). In fact, the divine promises regarding Hagar and Ishmael correspond in both scope and importance with those made to Abraham and Isaac (compare 16:10 and 17:20 with 12:2; 17:2, 4–6; 26:4).
Ishmael never speaks in the Bible. The main narrative in which he plays a role is Gen 21:8–21, where he is not mentioned by name. In a scene reminiscent of that in Genesis 16, Sarah has Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael to the wilderness, where an angel reveals God's plan for him and they survive through the sudden appearance of a well. God's presence remains with Ishmael, who settles in the wilderness and becomes an expert bowman (vv. 20–21). Ishmael is next mentioned in Gen 25:9 when he and his half-brother Isaac perform their filial duty and bury their father, Abraham. Ishmael's death is recorded eight verses later after a listing of his twelve sons.
The only other references to Ishmael in Genesis relate to the tradition that Isaac's son Esau married Ishmael's daughter, although her name is different in the two texts (28:9; 36:3). The only mention of Ishmael outside Genesis is found in 1 Chr 1:28–31, which lists his offspring. Although his name is not explicitly mentioned, there is a New Testament reference to Ishmael in Gal 4:22–31, where Paul presents an allegory in which Hagar and Sarah represent two different covenants.
The story in Genesis 21 has a number of unusual features that have attracted the attention of commentators. The reason why Sarah banishes Hagar and her son to the wilderness is not completely clear. According to v. 9 she saw Ishmael doing something, presumably to her just-weaned son, Isaac, who was about fourteen years younger than Ishmael. The issue is complicated by the fact that the words “with her son Isaac” are missing in the Hebrew text but present in the Greek and Latin versions. The Hebrew version, on the other hand, ends somewhat abruptly with the mention that she saw Ishmael “playing” (mĕṣaḥēq). It could be that this is a pun on Isaac's name (yiṣḥāq), which comes from the Hebrew root meaning “to play, laugh” (ṣḥq). Others, including early rabbinic sources, have suggested something more nefarious on Ishmael's part in light of the use of the same Hebrew word in Gen 26:8, where it clearly has a sexual meaning.
Another problem concerns Ishmael's age later in Genesis 21. Although he would be virtually an adult according to the internal biblical chronology, Hagar acts as if he is a helpless infant when they are in the wilderness. She places him under a bush, fears he will die, and brings water to him from the well (vv. 15–19). Throughout the account he is described as a “child,” using the Hebrew word normally reserved for a preadolescent (yeled). Many scholars believe this anomaly is best explained by appealing to separate sources that have been joined together by an editor. In this view, a tradition about Ishmael as a child in the wilderness, perhaps a doublet of the story found in Genesis 16, has been appended to one in which he is older and has done something to upset Sarah.
In a number of places in the Bible, individuals or groups are given the designation “Ishmaelite” (Gen 37:25–27; 39:1; Judg 8:24; Ps 83:6; 1 Chr 2:17; 27:30). In some cases this is a way of identifying a nomadic or bedouin lifestyle, and elsewhere it probably signals membership in one of the Arab tribes located east and south of ancient Israel. The latter usage relates to the list of Ishmael's sons that is given in Gen 25:13–15. Each of his offspring has the name of a well-known Arab tribe, and all but one are mentioned in other ancient Near Eastern sources that span from the second half of the eighth century B.C.E. to the third century B.C.E. In all likelihood, they formed a loose tribal confederation that controlled the spice route in northern Arabia and had its peak during the Assyrian Empire. This has a bearing on the dating and purpose of the Ishmael traditions as they have come down to us. Presenting the ancestor of the Arab tribes to their east and south as the half-brother of their own ancestor puts the Israelites in a familial relationship with those neighbors, thereby highlighting their common origins (cf. Gen 22:30–38; Deut 1:46—2:23).
It is frequently asserted that Muslims trace their roots to Ishmael, who has a prominent role in Islamic texts and traditions. In the Qur'an, he is a steadfast and righteous prophet (19:54; 21:85–6) who receives revelation from God (4:163). With Abraham he rebuilt the “house,” a reference to the Kaaba shrine in Mecca that remains the geographic focal point of Islam to the present day (2:125–129). Qur'an 37:99–111 contains an account of Abraham's near sacrifice of his son, who is Isaac in Genesis 22 but remains unnamed in the Islamic text. Early Muslim commentators tended to see Isaac as the son who was nearly sacrificed, but the view that eventually dominated identifies Ishmael as the intended victim. Regardless, nowhere in the Qur'an is it explicitly stated that Ishmael is the ancestor of Muslims or Arabs.
Extra-Qur'anic sources, however, do make that association and further develop the Islamic portrait of Ishmael. The “Stories of the Prophets,” from the first few centuries of Muslim history, provide information about Ishmael's early years and marriage to an Arab woman. They also contain an account of the events of Genesis 21, now set in Mecca, where Abraham brings Hagar and Ishmael to settle before returning to Sarah. The description of Hagar's frantic search for water became the basis for a central part of the Meccan pilgrimage ritual that is one of the five pillars of Islam. These extra-Qur'anic stories also make explicit the link between Ishmael and the Arabs by presenting him as the ancestor of Muhammad and, like Gen 25:13–15, the father of twelve sons whose names are associated with Arab tribes.
[See also Abraham; Genesis; Hagar; Isaac; Islam and the Bible; and Sarah.]
- Bakhos, Carol. “Abraham Visits Ishmael: A Revisit.” JSJ 38 (2007): 553–580.
- Dozeman, Thomas B. “The Wilderness and Salvation History in the Hagar Story.” JBL 117 (1998): 23–43.
- Firestone, Reuven. “Abraham's Son as the Intended Sacrifice (al-dhabīh, Qur'ān 37:99–113): Issues in Qur'ānic Exegesis.” JSS 34 (1989): 95–131.
- Nikaido, S. “Hagar and Ishmael as Literary Figures: An Intertextual Study.” VT 51 (2001): 219–242.