ish'-ma-el (yishma`e'l, "God heareth," or "God may," "shall hear"; Ismael):
(1) The son of Abraham by Hagar, the Egyptian slave of his wife Sarah. The circumstances connected with his birth reveal what seems to us to be a very strange practice. It was customary among ancient peoples to correct the natural defect of barrenness by substituting a slave woman. In our narrative, this is shown to be authorized and brought about by the legitimate wife with the understanding that the offspring of such a union should be regarded as her own:
"It may be that I shall obtain children by her," literally, "that I shall be builded by her" (Genesis 16:2).
The hopes of Sarah were realized, for Hagar gave birth to a son, and yet the outcome was not fully pleasing to Abraham's wife; there was one serious drawback. As soon as Hagar "saw that she had conceived," her behavior toward her mistress underwent a radical change; she was "despised in her eyes." But for the intervention of the angel of Yahweh, the boy might have been born in Egypt. For, being dealt with hardly (or humbled) by Sarah, the handmaid fled toward that country. On her way she was told by the angel to return to her mistress and submit herself "under her hands." She obeyed, and the child who was to be as "a wild ass among men" was born when his father was 86 years old (Genesis 16:7-16).
At the age of 13 years the boy was circumcised (Genesis 17:25) in accordance with the Divine command received by Abraham:
"Every male among you shall be circumcised" (Genesis 17:10). Thus young Ishmael was made a party to the covenant into which God had entered with the lad's father. The fact that both Abraham and his son were circumcised the same day (Genesis 17:26) undoubtedly adds to the importance of Ishmael's partaking of the holy rite. He was certainly made to understand how much his father loved him and how deeply he was concerned about his spiritual welfare. We may even assume that there was a time when Abraham looked upon Ishmael as the promised seed. His error was made clear to him when God promised him the birth of a son by Sarah. At first this seemed to be incredible, Abraham being 100 years of age and Sarah 90. And yet, how could he disbelieve the word of God? His cherished, though mistaken, belief about Ishmael, his doubts regarding the possibility of Sarah's motherhood, and the first faint glimmer of the real meaning of God's promise, all these thoughts found their expression in the fervid wish: "O that Ishmael might live before thee!" (Genesis 17:18). Gradually the truth dawned upon the patriarch that God s thoughts are not the thoughts of men, neither their ways His ways. But we have no reason to believe that this entire changing of the mental attitude of Abraham toward Ishmael reacted unfavorably on his future treatment of this son "born of the flesh" (compare Genesis 21:11). If there were troubles in store for the boy likened by the angel of Yahweh to a wild ass, it was, in the main, the youngster's own fault.
When Isaac was weaned, Ishmael was about 16 years of age. The weaning was made an occasion for great celebration. But it seems the pleasure of the day was marred by the objectionable behavior of Ishmael. "And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian .... mocking" (Genesis 21:9). Her jealous motherly love had quickened her sense of observation and her faculty of reading the character of children. We do not know exactly what the word used in the Hebrew for "mocking" really means. The Septuagint and the Vulgate (Jerome's Latin Bible, 390-405 A.D.) render the passage:
"When Sarah saw the son of Hagar .... playing with Isaac," and Paul followed a later tradition when he says: "He that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit" (Galatians 4:29). Lightfoot (in his notes to the Epistle to the Galatians) says: "At all events the word seems to mean mocking, jeering." At any rate, the fact remains that Sarah objected to the bringing up of the son of promise together with the "mocker," and so both mother and son were banished from the tents of Abraham.
Now there came a most critical time in the life of young Ishmael. Only some bread and a bottle of water were "put on the shoulder" of Hagar by Abraham when he expelled her with her son. Aimlessly, as it seems, the two walked about in the wilderness of Beersheba. The water was soon spent, and with it went all hope and energy. The boy, being faint with thirst and tired out by his constant walking in the fierce heat of the sun, seemed to be dying. So his mother put him rapidly down in the shade of some plant. (We do not share the opinion of some writers that the narrative of Genesis 21:8 represented Ishmael as a little boy whom his mother had carried about and finally flung in the shade of some shrub. Even if this passage is taken from a different source, it is certainly not in conflict with the rest as to the age of Ishmael.) After this last act of motherly love--what else could she do to help the boy?--she retired to a place at some distance and resignedly expected the death of her son and perhaps her own.
For the 2nd time in her life, she had a marvelous experience. "God heard the voice of the lad" and comforted the unhappy mother most wonderfully. Through His angel He renewed His former promise regarding her son, and then He showed her a well of water. The lad's life was saved and, growing up, he became in time an archer. He lived in the wilderness of Paran and was married by his mother to an Egyptian wife (Genesis 21:21).
4. His Children:
When Abraham died, his exiled son returned to assist his brother to bury their father (Genesis 25:9). In the same chapter we find the names of Ishmael's 12 sons (25:12) and a brief report of his death at the age of 137 years (25:17). According to Genesis 28:9 he also had a daughter, Mahalath, whom Esau took for his wife; in Genesis 36:3 her name is given as Basemath.
The character of Ishmael and his descendants (Arabian nomads or Bedouins) is very accurately and vividly depicted by the angel of Yahweh:
"He shall be as a wild ass among men; his hand shall be against every man, and every man's hand against him" (Genesis 16:12). These nomads are, indeed, roaming the wilds of the desert, jealous of their independence, quarrelsome and adventurous. We may well think of their progenitor as of a proud, undaunted and rugged son of the desert, the very counterpart of the poor boy lying half dead from fatigue and exposure under the shrub in the wilderness of Beersheba.
6. In the New Testament:
The person and the history of Ishmael, the son of Abraham, "born after the flesh," is of special interest to the student of the New Testament because Paul uses him, in the Epistle to the Galatians, as a type of those Jews who cling to the paternal religion in such a manner as to be unable to discern the transient character of the Old Testament institutions, and especially those of the Mosaic law. By doing so they could not be made to see the true meaning of the law, and instead of embracing the grace of God as the only means of fulfilling the law, they most bitterly fought the central doctrine of Christianity and even persecuted its advocates. Like Ishmael, they were born of Hagar, the handmaid or slave woman; like him, they were Abraham's sons only "after the flesh," and their ultimate fate is foreshadowed in the casting out of Hagar and her son. They could not expect to maintain the connection with the true Israel, and even in case they should acclaim Christ their Messiah they were not to be the leaders of the church or the expounders of its teachings (Galatians 4:21-28).
(2) The son of Nethaniah (Jeremiah 40:8-41:18; compare 2 Kings 25:23-25). It is a dreary story of jealousy and treachery which Jeremiah has recorded in chapters 40, 41 of his book. After the destruction of Jerusalem and the deportation of the better class of Jewish citizens, it was necessary to provide for some sort of a government in the depopulated country. Public order had to be restored and maintained; the crops of the fields were endangered and had to be taken care of. It was thus only common political prudence that dictated to the king of Babylon the setting up of a governor for the remnant of Judah. He chose Gedaliah, the son of Ahikam, for the difficult position. The new officer selected for his place of residence the city of Mizpah, where he was soon joined by Jeremiah. All the captains of the Jewish country forces came to Mizpah with their men and put themselves under Gedaliah's orders (Jeremiah 40:13). Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, the son of Elishama "of the seed royal" (2 Kings 25:25) was among their number--all of which must have been rather gratifying to the new governor. But he was destined to be cruelly disappointed. A traitor was among the captains that had gathered around him. Yet the governor might have prevented his dastardly scheme. Johnnan, the son of Kareah, and other loyal captains warned him of the treachery of Ishmael, telling him he was induced by Baalis, the Ammonite king, to assassinate the governor. But the governor's faith in Ishmael was not to be shaken; he even looked upon Johanan's report as false and calumnious (Jeremiah 40:16).
About 2 months after the destruction of Jerusalem, Ishmael was ready to strike the mortal blow. With 10 men he came to Mizpah, and there, at a banquet given in his honor, he killed Gedaliah and all the Jews and Chaldeans that were with him. He succeeded in keeping the matter secret, for, 2 days after the horrible deed, he persuaded a party of 80 pious Jews to enter the city and killed all but 10 of them, throwing their bodies into a pit. These men were coming from the ruins of the Temple with the offerings which they had intended to leave at Jerusalem. Now they had found out, to their great distraction, that the city was laid waste and the Temple destroyed. So they passed by Mizpah, their beards shaven, their clothes rent, and with cuts about their persons (Jeremiah 41:5). We may, indeed, ask indignantly, Why this new atrocity? The answer may be found in the fact that Ishmael did not kill all of the men. He spared 10 of them because they promised him some hidden treasures. This shows his motive. He was a desperate man and just then carrying out a desperate undertaking. He killed those peaceful citizens because of their money, and money he needed to realize his plans. They were those of a traitor to his country, inasmuch as he intended to deport the inhabitants of Mizpah to the land of his high confederate, the king of the Ammonites. Among the captives were Jeremiah and the daughters of the Jewish king. But his efforts came to naught. When Johnnan and the other captains were told of Ishmael's unheard-of actions, they immediately pursued the desperate adventurer and overtook him by the "great waters that are in Gibeon." Unfortunately, they failed to capture Ishmael; for he managed to escape with eight men to the Ammonites.
See, further, GEDALIAH.
(3) A descendant of Benjamin and the son of Azel (1 Chronicles 8:38; compare 9:44).
(4) The father of Zebadiah who was "the ruler of the house of Judah, in all the king's (Jehoshaphat, 2 Chronicles 19:8) matters" (2 Chronicles 19:11).
(5) The son of Jehohanan, and a "captain of hundreds," who lived at the time of Jehoiada and Joash (2 Chronicles 23:1).
(6) One of the sons of Pashhur the priest. He was one of those men who had married foreign women and were compelled to "put away their wives" (Ezra 10:22).