More about Ishmaelites

I had a conversation yesterday with a colleague. We were talking about God’s prophecy and promise to Hagar about Ishmael. After I had explained what the promise was meant to convey he said, “But what about the ongoing conflict the Arabs have with Israel?” His comment demonstrates the misunderstanding that persists about the promise to Ishmael and how that misunderstanding perpetuates a demeaning perception of Arabs.

To read modern historical events into the ancient promise to Hagar is to go way beyond the intent of the passage. Let’s explore the passages that talk about the Ishmaelites.

The term Ishmaelite appears to refer to two categories of people in the Old Testament. First, it refers to the descendants of Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar. These sons of Ishmael were twelve in number and each grew into a tribe according to Genesis 25:12-18. Second, it is a general classification referring to those who lived to the east of Israel: Ishmaelites, Amalekites, Midianites, and more.

First, we see the term referring specifically to the descendants of Ishmael in Genesis 25:12-18:

12 These are the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s slave-girl, bore to Abraham. 13 These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, 14 Mishma, Dumah, Massa, 15 Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. 16 These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages and by their encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes. 17 (This is the length of the life of Ishmael, one hundred thirty-seven years; he breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people.) 18 They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria; he settled down alongside of all his people.

Verse 18 tells us that they resided in the area that stretched from modern day Yemen (Havilah) to the Sinai Peninsula (Shur).

The term Ishmaelite is used in to refer specifically to those in the line of Ishmael in these passages:

  • 2 Samuel 17:25, 1 Chronicles 2:17. The Ishmaelite Jether and Abigail who was the aunt of Joab were the parents of Amasa, who headed the armies replacing Joab by appointment of Absalom.
  • 1 Chronicles 27:30. The Ishmaelite Obil was the one responsible for looking after the camels.

Besides referring to the actual descendants of Ishmael, the term Ishmaelite also seems to have had a broader application. This first time we see this broader kind of usage is in Genesis 37:25-28. In this passage the term Ishmaelite is used synonymously with Midianite.

Then they sat down to eat; and looking up they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, with their camels carrying gum, balm, and resin, on their way to carry it down to Egypt. 26 Then Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? 27 Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers agreed. 28 When some Midianite traders passed by, they drew Joseph up, lifting him out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. And they took Joseph to Egypt.

So, this causes us to question what did the term Ishmaelite actually refer to?

We also see this broader application of the word Ishmaelite in Judges 7 and 8. In Judges 7:12 we read: “The Midianites and the Amalekites and all the people of the east lay along the valley as thick as locusts; and their camels were without number, countless as the sand on the seashore.” In Judges 8:24 the term Ishmaelite seems to include the Midianites, the Amalekites, and the people of the east as all these were killed and they all were referred to as Ishmaelites because they were wearing gold earrings.

From this usage in Genesis 37 and Judges 7 and 8 it may be inferred that the term Ishmaelite referred specifically to the descendants of Ishmael as well as to many of those living to the east of the Jordan River.

What is important to note is this: The actual descendants of Ishmael were not considered a significant enemy of the children of Israel. One place the descendants of Ishmael are clearly listed among the enemies of Israel is in Psalms 83:

5 They conspire with one accord; against you they make a covenant— 6 the tents of Edom and the Ishmaelites, Moab and the Hagrites, 7 Gebal and Ammon and Amalek, Philistia with the inhabitants of Tyre; 8 Assyria also has joined them; they are the strong arm of the children of Lot.

Yet, even with this inclusion in Psalm 83, the children of Ishmael are noticeably absent from the numerous lists of the enemies of Israel and the associated narratives depicting their enemies’ hostility. The Scriptures do not portray the descendants of Ishmael as having any significant, long-standing conflict with the children of Israel. This notable absence causes me to wonder why God’s promise to Hagar in Genesis 16 has been understood in our modern era as indicating that the Ishmaelites should be characterized as having a significant level of hostility toward others, especially toward those who are living in modern day Israel. Also, the Arabs who live in the countries surrounding Israel (such as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt) are not descendants from Ishmael. So, the assumption that they are is just not historically informed.

In conclusion, my colleague’s comment was just one more indication of how prevalent this negative view of modern day Arabs is. It is based on a misreading of the Hebrew text, and it encourages an unnecessarily demeaning and pejorative view of modern day Arabs. All of us who love Jesus really need to rethink our position on this and do what we can to see this negative view of Arabs removed from our midst.

Prayerfully following our Lord,
Pat K

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