Who was Ishmael in the Bible?Ishmael, Abraham's firstborn son by his wife's maidservant, Hagar, is considered a patriarch of Islam. Muslims claim that because he was Abraham's firstborn, God's covenant was fulfilled through Ishmael rather than through Isaac. They also believe that Ishmael was the son that God told Abraham to sacrifice, not Isaac. But what does the Bible say about Ishmael?
When God called Abraham He told him, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:1–3). At that point, Abraham's wife, Sarah, was barren. Ten years later the couple still had no children. Though God had reaffirmed His promise to Abraham in an elaborate covenant ceremony (Genesis 15), the couple tried to assist God's promise to fruition. Sarah suggested to Abraham that they build a family through her maidservant, Hagar (Genesis 16:2); Abraham agreed. This was a sort of surrogacy practiced at the time: the child would be considered Abraham and Sarah's. But things did not work out the way they expected. When Hagar saw that she was pregnant she "looked with contempt on her mistress" (Genesis 16:4). Sarah told Abraham, "May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!" (Genesis 16:5). Abraham told Sarah that Hagar was in her power to do with as she pleased. Sarah "dealt harshly with her, and [Hagar] fled from her" (Genesis 16:6).
God, ever faithful, saw Hagar out in the wilderness. The angel of the LORD spoke to her and promised that her offspring would be multiplied, "so that they cannot be numbered for multitude" (Genesis 16:10). He said, "Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has listened to your affliction. He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen" (Genesis 16:11–12). The name Ishmael means "God hears." At that time Hagar called God a "God of seeing" and called the place, "Beer-lahai-roi." This is where the name of God El Roi comes from. Hagar returned to Abraham and Sarah, as God had instructed her to do. She gave birth to her son, and he was named Ishmael as God had instructed.
About thirteen years after Ishmael's birth, God gave Abraham the sign of circumcision (Genesis 17). God reminded Abraham of His promise and told him that Sarah would bear a son and that kings would come from her children (Genesis 17:15–16). Abraham's love for Ishmael was evident when he "fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, 'Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?' And Abraham said to God, 'Oh that Ishmael might live before you!'" (Genesis 17:17–18). God's promise seemed too amazing, and Abraham genuinely cared for Ishmael. But God replied, "No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year" (Genesis 17:19–21). Though Isaac was to be the son through whom the Messiah, Jesus, was descended and through whom God would fulfill His covenant with Abraham, God did not neglect Ishmael.
Sarah conceived and Isaac was born when Abraham was 100 years old (Genesis 21:1–7). But when Isaac was weaned, likely around the age of three or four, Sarah saw Ishmael, likely about seventeen years old, mocking him. She told Abraham to cast Hagar and Ishmael out (Genesis 21:8–10). Abraham was very displeased with this, but God told him to do as Sarah had said (Genesis 21:11–12). Abraham got up early in the morning and gave Hagar and Ishmael provisions. Mother and son wandered the desert until their water and supplies ran out and they were close to death (Genesis 21:14–16). Hagar separated herself from Ishmael, not wanting to see him die, and wept. "And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven" (Genesis 21:17). He asked Hagar what troubled her and told her not to fear because God had heard. He told her that He would make Ishmael into a great nation. He also opened her eyes to a well of water. Ishmael and Hagar lived by God's provision. The narrative of Ishmael as an individual ends here: "And God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt" (Genesis 21:20–21).
The Bible doesn't say much else about Ishmael. He helped Isaac bury Abraham (Genesis 25:9). The Bible records Ishmael's descendants, and indeed his twelve sons became a great nation and "they lived in hostility toward all the tribes related to them" (NIV) (Genesis 25:12–18). Ishmael's descendants are mentioned a few more times in the Bible. For example, Esau married an Ishmaelite (Genesis 28:6–9) and Joseph is sold to Ishmaelite traders on their way to Egypt (Genesis 37:25). We also know that Ishmael was 137 years old when he died (Genesis 25:17).
While Ishmael is not the son of God's promise to Abraham, God's blessings prophesied over Ishmael were fulfilled. It would be inaccurate to say that Ishmael was the father of all Arabs, but many Arabs are probably descended from him. We see that his descendants are numerous (Genesis 16:10). We also see continued strife among those related to Ishmael and those related to Isaac (the Jews) as well as to Abraham's other sons even today (Genesis 16:12).
In Ishmael's story we see the grace, mercy, and patience of God. God kept His promise to bless Abraham's descendants through Sarah, but He still recognized Ishmael and Hagar and blessed them as well. Ishmael's life demonstrates God's faithfulness to His people. It also serves as a warning when we are tempted to "help" God's promises along. Too, it is a reminder of the difference between human self-effort and the miracles of God. In Galatians 4 Paul uses Hagar as a metaphorical example of slavery to the law and Sarah as a metaphorical example of freedom in Christ. Our salvation comes not from our own efforts, but from God's grace (Galatians 4:21–31; Ephesians 2:1&ndahs;10).
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