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A Subject of the Divine Promises: Ishmael
May 1, 2013

The family story of Ishmael is one of the ten family histories into which the book of Genesis is arranged. This history of Ishmael shows the fulfillment of the promises made by his parents regarding him, and how his mother Hagar had been assured that her descendants would be too many to count (Gen 16:10). The most noteworthy point is that Genesis is not interested in sociological observation or historical anecdote for its own sake but in theology, in the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham, Isaac, and Ishmael (Gordon 1994, 165).


Abraham is a figure mentioned in the Torah, Bible, and Qur’an whom Jewish, Christian and Muslim believers regard as the founding patriarch of the Israelites and Ishmaelites. In the Jewish tradition, God promised Abraham that through his offspring, all the nations of the world would come to be blessed (Genesis 12:3), interpreted in Christian tradition as a reference to Christ. Abraham’s generations are presented as part of the crowning explanation of how the world has been fashioned by the hand of God and how relationships of peoples were established by Him. Biblical narratives represent Abraham as a wealthy, powerful and supremely virtuous man. In the New Testament, Abraham is mentioned prominently as a man of faith and an obedient man of God (Hebrews 11). For Muslims, he is a prophet and the ancestor of the Prophet Muhammad through his son Ishmael. He is commonly termed “Khalil Ullah,” the friend of God. Those who maintained the pure monotheistic beliefs of Abraham after him were said to be Hanif, people who rejected idolatry and retained some of the tenets of the religion of Abraham. Well after God’s covenant relationship with Abraham had been established (Gen 13:14-18), he meets with a mysterious character, “… Melchizedek king of Salem …priest of God Most High” (Gen 14:18). Melchizedek blessed Abraham who paid him tithes. On his covenant pilgrimage, Abraham is aided and supported by someone outside of God’s newly formed covenant with him. Both figures benefit from each other and respect the Divine connection each has, even though different kinds of relationships with God are evident. Abraham believed in God and was accordingly called to be the father of many nations; Melchizedek was the king of Salem and a priest. Both individuals were God’s people and though different, one could bless the other, and the other paid worshipful respect with a tithe in response.

Because Abraham’s wife Sarah continued to be infertile, in accordance with custom she gave to Abraham her handmaid Hagar as his wife (Gen 16:3). Sarah found that Hagar was expecting a child, and unable to endure the reproach of barrenness, she dealt harshly with Hagar and forced her to flee (16:1-14). God heard Hagar’s sorrow and promised her that her descendants will be too numerous to count (17:20).


Hagar, according to the Abrahamic faiths, was a handmaiden of Sarah, wife of Abraham. Her story is reported in the Book of Genesis in Judeo-Christian tradition. In Islam, her story is mentioned in the Qur’an. Hagar was the daughter of the King of Maghreb, a descendant of the Islamic prophet Salih. Her father was killed by Pharaoh and she was captured and taken as slave. Later, because of her royal blood, she was made mistress of the female slaves and given access to all of Pharaoh’s wealth. Upon conversion to Abraham’s faith, the Pharaoh gave Hagar to Sarah.

After Sarah gave birth to Isaac, she told Abraham to cast out Hagar with her son Ishmael, and according to Judaic teachings, God commanded Abraham to obey his wife’s wishes and expel Hagar and Ishmael into the desert alone. Abraham was reluctant to send his son away, but God promised to make a great nation out of Ishmael because he was Abraham’s offspring. So early one morning, Abraham took bread and a container of water and sent Hagar and his son Ishmael away.

According to the Islamic tradition, Abraham brings Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca where angel Gabriel shows him the Ka‘ba. The objective of this journey is to “resettle” rather than “expel” Hagar. The journey begins in Syria, when Ishmael is still suckling. Finally, upon reaching the site of the Ka‘ba, Abraham leaves Hagar and son Ishmael under a tree and provides them with water. Hagar, learning that God had ordered Abraham to leave her in the desert, respects his decision. Muslims believe that God ordered Abraham to leave Hagar in order to test his obedience to God’s commands. However, soon Hagar runs out of water, and baby Ishmael is about to die of thirst. Hagar panics and climbs two nearby mountains repeatedly in search for water. After her seventh climb, Ishmael scratches the ground, and water gushes forth from a spring.


Both Jewish and Islamic traditions consider Ishmael as the ancestor of the Arab people. Judaism maintains that Isaac rather than Ishmael was the true heir of Abraham. Chapters 16-25 of the book of Genesis contain the stories of Ishmael which was partly mentioned above. The New Testament contains few references to Ishmael (Galatians 4).

The circumcision of Muslims has its roots in the tradition that Abraham and Ishmael were circumcised. Abraham and Ishmael are also said to have built the foundations of the Ka‘ba. Islamic traditions hold that the Ka‘ba was first built by the first man, Adam. Abraham and Ishmael rebuilt the Ka‘ba on its foundations. In addition, Ishmael was the actual son that Abraham was called on to sacrifice. To support this view Muslims believe that at the time Ishmael was his only son and the promise to Sarah of Isaac followed by Jacob excluded the possibility of a sacrifice of Isaac.

Sarah at first loved Ishmael, but when she herself had borne Isaac, she was not willing that Ishmael should be brought up together with Isaac. She persuaded Abraham to send Ishmael and his mother to some distant country. But Ishmael was very dear to Abraham. He initially refused to do as Sarah asked, but he finally gave in to his wife’s request when God told him that He would take care of Ishmael, since he was a descendant of Abraham.

Being a loving father and husband, Abraham did not want to send Hagar and Ishmael away (or leave them). However, he was a Prophet, and he knew that Divine message was much more important that anything else, even his own family. He had spent many lonely nights praying and asking for God to give him a child. God gave him Ishmael, the first child to be named by God, and now he was sending that child away. In addition, at least in the Islamic tradition, he was commanded to sacrifice the same child for His sake. I believe that as ordinary human beings, we cannot imagine his sorrow and sadness. He left Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, and then prayed:

“O our Lord! I have settled my offspring (Ishmael) in an uncultivable valley near Your Sacred House (Ka‘ba), so that, our Lord, they may establish the prayer; so make the hearts of people incline towards them, provide them with the produce of earth (by such means as trade), so that they may give thanks” (Abraham 14:37).

Ishmael’s wives

Hagar lived in the valley near the Ka‘ba until some people from the Arab tribe of Jurhum, or a family from Jurhum, passed by her and her child as they were passing by the Ka‘ba. They landed in the lower part of Mecca where they saw a bird that was known for flying around water circling over a particular spot. They said: “This bird must be flying around water, though we know that there is no water in this valley.” They sent one or two messengers who discovered the source of the water and returned to inform the others. When they all came towards the water, Ishmael’s mother Hagar was sitting near it. They asked her: “Do you allow us to stay with you?” She replied: “Yes, but you will have no right to possess the water.” They agreed. Ishmael’s mother was pleased with the whole situation, as she loved to enjoy the company of people. So, they settled there, and later on they sent for their families, who came and settled with them so that some families became permanent residents there. Ishmael grew up and learned Arabic from them and his virtues and manners made the rest of the tribe love and admire him as he grew up, and when he reached the age of puberty, they made him marry a woman from among them.

According to the book of Genesis (21:21), Ishmael lived in the wilderness of Paran, a mountain range in Mecca, and his mother made him wed someone from Egypt. His wife’s name is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. However, when we look at The Book of Jasher, a Hebrew midrash, which is named after the Sefer HaYashar mentioned in Joshua and 2 Samuel, we find that her name is Ribah (or Meribah) (Jas 25:15) (Parry 2005, 68). After Ishmael divorced Ribah, he wed someone else from the land of Canaan, and her name was Malchuth (Jas 25:18) (Parry 68). The reason for the divorce was because his first wife, Ribah was rude to Abraham when he came to visit Ishmael, she beat her children, and she cursed and reproached Ishmael. Abraham left a message for Ishmael to put her away. His second wife, Malchuth was a woman of Canaan who honored Abraham and was approved by him as a good wife. Although most of the Islamic sources do not mention the names of Ishmael’s wives, let us listen to their stories as recounted by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him:

“After Ishmael’s mother had died, Abraham came after Ishmael’s marriage in order to see his family that he had left before, but he did not find Ishmael there. When he asked Ishmael’s wife about him, she replied: ‘He has gone in search of our livelihood.’ Then he asked her about their way of living and their condition, and she replied: ‘We are living in misery; we are living in hardship and destitution,’ complaining to him. He said, ‘When your husband returns, convey my salutation to him and tell him to change the threshold of the gate (of his house).

When Ishmael came, he seemed to have felt something unusual, so he asked his wife: ‘Has anyone visited you?’ She replied: Yes, an old man of such-and-such description came and asked me about you, and I informed him, and he asked about our state of living, and I told him that we were living in a hardship and poverty.’ On that Ishmael said: ‘Did he advise you anything?’ She replied: ‘Yes, he told me to convey his salutation to you and to tell you to change the threshold of your gate.’ Ishmael said: ‘It was my father, and he has ordered me to divorce you. Go back to your family.’ So, Ishmael divorced her and married another woman.

Then Abraham stayed away from them for a period as long as God wished and called on them again, he did not find Ishmael. So he came to Ishmael’s wife and asked her about Ishmael. She said: ‘He has gone in search of our livelihood.’ Abraham asked her: ‘How are you getting on?’ asking her about their sustenance and living. She replied: ‘We are prosperous and well-off (we have everything in abundance).’ Then she thanked God.

Then Abraham said to Ishmael’s wife: ‘When your husband comes, give my regards to him and tell him that he should keep firm the threshold of his gate.’ When Ishmael came back, he asked his wife: ‘Did anyone call on you?’ She replied: Yes, a good-looking old man came to me,’ so she praised him and added: ‘He asked about you and I informed him, and he asked about our livelihood and I told him that we were in a good condition.’ Ishmael asked her: ‘Did he give you any piece of advice?’ She said: Yes, he told me to give his regards to you and ordered that you should keep firm the threshold of your gate.’ On that Ishmael said: ‘It was my father, and you are the threshold (of the gate). He has ordered me to keep you with me.” (Khan 1996, #583)

Ishmael’s children

According to the Bible, Ishmael had 12 sons who became twelve tribal chiefs. The twelve sons of Ishmael, were named Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah (Gen 25:12-16). The descendants of Ishmael are described as “Arabian” people. Some Biblical scholars also believe that the area outlined in Genesis as the final destination of Ishmael and his descendants (from Havilah to Assyria) refers to the Arabian Peninsula. The Ishmaelites were a confederation of tribes like early Israel.

Nebaioth: More information is known about Ishmael’s eldest son Nebaioth than any of the others. The name Nebaioth is said to mean “prophecies” or possibly fruitful (this is the reason why the list of names here have begun with the one signifying prophecy because a prophet, Prophet Muhammad, was going to come from among Ishmael’s descendants). Nabataeans, a pastoral tribe was named after him. Nabataeans conferred their names on the Arabian nations. These Nabataeans spoke and wrote an early form of Arabic and thus they were often referred to as “Arabs” by Greek and Roman historians.

Arabic inscription form Jebel Ghunaym, dating to the sixth century BC or significantly later, speak of a war between the people of Nebaioth and the people of Tema, another son of Ishmael (Knoppers 2003, 278). They must have disliked each other because they were not from the same mother. On the other hand, even though they were from different mothers, there was a marital relationship between the people of Nebaioth and Edomite groups who were also known as the descendants of Mishma, the son of Ishmael. In the Bible, the tribe of Nebaioth and Kedar were renowned for sheep raising (Isaiah 60:7). Isaiah says that Nabataeans first settled in the country southeast of Palestine, and wandered gradually in search of pasturage till they came to Kedar.

Nabataeans established bases in a number of seaports. While most of us think of the Nabataeans as people who transported goods in the desert by camel caravan, it has become increasingly evident that the Nabataeans were also a sea trading people. The Nabataeans built an impressive civilization based on merchant trade and their capital was originally the city of Petra, southern Jordan.

Kedar: The sons of Kedar became known as the Kedarites. They were the most powerful tribe of northern Arab tribes (Klein 2006, 72). The Kedarites were the main military power of the sons of Ishmael. They were known for their fighters and particularly their archers. Evidently, the Kedarites occupied a position of power and glory in the ancient near east. The Kedarites and the Nabataeans attacked the western borders of Assyria, kingdom of northern Mesopotamia that became the centre of one of the great empires of the ancient Middle East, but were defeated. The commercial routes in northern Arabia were under the dominion of the Kedarites, too. Because of that great power, Ezekiel 27:21 associates Arabia with all of the princes of Kedar, suggesting a confederation under their leadership.

Kedar means “blackness or sorrow.” The tribes of Kedar are said to have lived in villages, a mode of life also characteristic of all 12 twelve Ishmaelite tribes. Some of them lived alone (Jer 49:31) in tents which were black in color (Cohen 1962, 9:3).

Adbeel: The name Adbeel is said to mean “vapor,” and this signifies that Islam puts emphasis on works, and according to the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, working is equal to worshipping. The people of Adbeel also had great military power like the Kedarites. They were given the duty as the Assyrian king’s agent on the borders of Egypt (Cohen 1:45).

Mibsam: The name Mibsam which means “sweet odor” underlines the sensitivity of Islam. It is said that this tribe may be involved in the spice trade, too.

Mishma: The name Mishma means “hearing.” Islam is a religion which has a scripture, the Qur’an, and Qur’an means recitation. The revelations given to the Prophet Muhammad were by hearing. Some historians have wondered if the descendants of Mishma were the founders of the villages around Jebel Mishma. It is thought that these two tribes, Mibsam and Mishma may have intermarried with the Simeonites (I Chronicles 4:24-27) and disappeared from history as a separate entity.

Dumah: Dumah is mentioned in the Biblical records as a city in Canaan (Joshua 15:52). It is also associated with Edom and Seir in Isaiah 21:11. Dumah, which means “silence”, was in ancient times a very important and strategic junction on the major trade route between Syria, Babylon, Najd and the Hejaz. This area has water, and was a stopping place for caravan traders coming from Tayma, before proceeding on to Syria or Babylonia. This strategic location effectively made Dumah the entrance point to north Arabia.

Massa: Massa means “touch or produce.” Archeologists Winnett and Reed discovered some graffiti texts mentioning the tribe Massa, in connection with Dedan and Nebaioth. These texts refer to the war against Dedan, the war against Nebaioth and the war against Massa. Therefore, these tribes appear to have been close to each other at this time (Cohen 3:299).

Some expositors of the scripture have taken notice of the signification of those last three names (Mishma, Dumah, and Massa) which are put together (Gen 25:14), as containing good advice to us all, Mishma, Dumah, and Massa, that is, hear, keep silence, and bear; we can see them together in the same order in James 1:19, “Be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath.”

Hadad: Some historians speculate that this tribe may have become known as the Harar, or the Hararina people that lived near the mountains northwest of Palmyra (Cohen 2:507). It is also interesting to notice that there is a Hadad tribe in Arabia. Most of the Hadads are now Christians, and are located throughout Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine.

Tema: Tema is usually associated with the ancient oasis of Tayma, located northeast of the Hejaz district. Tiglath Pileser III, the king of Assyria, received tributes from Tayma, as well as from other Arabian oasis. A coalition was made up of Massa, the city of Tayma, the tribes of Saba, and Adbeel. Once defeated, these tribes had to send tribute of gold, silver, camels and spices of all kinds (Cohen 4:533). Isaiah 21:13-14 invites the people of Tayma to provide water and food for their fugitive countrymen, in an apparent allusion to Tiglath Pileser’s invasion of North Arabia. By the first century BC, the Nabataeans began to dominate Tayma and it slowly became a part of their trading empire.

Jetur: A tribe descended from Ishmael which was at war with the Israelites of Transjordan.

Naphish: The name Naphish means “one who refreshes himself.” The people of Jetur and Naphish were the enemies of the Reubenites, Gadites, and Manasseh (I Chr 5:19).

Kedemah: The name Kedemah means “eastward.”

Basemath or Mahalath: Besides these 12 sons, Ishmael had a daughter. According to Gen 28:9, her name is Mahalath, but Gen 36:3 says that her name is Basemath. Rebekah, the wife of Isaac, complained about the Hittite wives of Esau, and Isaac charged Esau, “You shall not marry one of the Canaanite women” (Gen 28:6). In order to please his father, Esau went to Ishmael and took Mahalath, daughter of Ishmael, and sister of Nebaioth. We could say that Esau looked for happiness among the descendants of Ishmael because he knew that like his father Isaac, Ishmael was also the subject of the Divine promises.

It is interesting that as considered true heir of Abraham, Isaac had just two sons, yet Ishmael had 12 sons and one daughter. After many years passed, Abraham came to visit Ishmael, checked up on his family and their well being, and showed that he never forgot Ishmael because he knew who Ishmael was. Ishmael was the first son of Abraham, and the first child named by God and regarded as the fulfillment of a Divine promise.


  • Cohen, S. “Nebaioth.” 1962. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
  • Khan, Muhammad Muhsin. 1996. The English Translation of Sahih Al Bukhari with the Arabic Text, Al Saadawi Publications.
  • Klein, Ralph W. 2006. I Chronicles. ed. Thomas Kruger. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
  • Knoppers, Gary N. 2003. I Chronicles 1-9: The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday.
  • Parry, J. H. 2005. The Book of Jasher. New York: Cosimo, Inc.
  • Unal, Ali. 2006. The Qur’an with Annotated Interpretation in Modern English. New Jersey: Tughra Books.
  • Wenham, Gordon J. 1994. Genesis 16-50: Word Biblical Commentary. ed. David A. Hubbard and Glenn W. Barker. Dallas: Word Books.