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ISHMAEL (ĭsh'mā-ĕl, Heb. yishmā‘ēl, God hears, Gr. Ismaēl). 1. The son of Abraham by Hagar, the Egyptian maid of his wife Sarah. Sarah was barren (Gen.16.1); and in accordance with the custom of the age she gave to Abraham her handmaid Hagar as his concubine, hoping that he might obtain a family by her. Abraham was then eighty-six years old and had been in Canaan for ten years (Gen.16.3). When Hagar saw that she had conceived, she began to despise her mistress, so that Sarah complained bitterly to Abraham, who told her that since Hagar was her slave, she could do anything she wanted with her. Sarah made things so difficult for Hagar that she fled, and somewhere on the road to Egypt the angel of the Lord met her and told her to return to her mistress and submit herself to her. He encouraged her with a promise of many descendants. Ishmael was circumcised when he was thirteen (Gen.17.25). Abraham loved him, and even after God had promised him a son by Sarah, he fervently exclaimed, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” (Gen.17.18).

At the weaning of Isaac, the customary feast was held; and Sarah saw Ishmael, now a boy of sixteen, mocking Isaac. Jealous, and probably fearing future trouble if the boys were brought up together, Sarah urged Abraham to get rid of Ishmael and his slave mother, but he was unwilling until he was encouraged to do so by God. Sent away with bread and a bottle of water, Ishmael and his mother wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba. When he became faint for thirst and was on the verge of death, she put him in the shade of a shrub and sat nearby, “for she thought, ‘I cannot watch the boy die’” (Gen.21.16). For the second time in Hagar’s life, the angel of the Lord appeared to her. He directed her to some water and renewed his former promise of Ishmael’s future greatness (Gen.21.19-Gen.21.20). Ishmael grew up and became famous as an archer in the wilderness of Paran. His mother gave him in marriage to an Egyptian wife. When Abraham died, Ishmael returned from exile to help Isaac bury their father (Gen.25.9). He became the father of twelve sons and a daughter, whom Esau took for his wife. He died at the age of 137 (Gen.25.17). In Gal.4.21-Gal.4.31 Paul uses the lives of Ishmael and Isaac allegorically. Hagar represents the old covenant, and Sarah, the new; the rivalry between Ishmael and Isaac foreshadows the conflict in the early church between those who would cling to the ordinances of the law, which must pass away, and those who realize that through the grace of Christ there is freedom from the law.

2. A descendant of Jonathan (1Chr.8.38; 1Chr.9.44).

3. The father of Zebadiah, a ruler in the house of Judah in the reign of Jehoshaphat (2Chr.19.11).

4. The son of Jehohanan. He helped Jehoiada to restore Jehoash to the throne of Judah (2Chr.23.1).

5. The son of Nethaniah, a member of the royal house of David. After the capture of Palestine, Nebuchadnezzar left behind as governor of Judah a Jew called Gedaliah, who promised to protect all those Jews who would put themselves under his care. Among those who came was Ishmael, who, instigated by the king of the Ammonites, intended to assassinate the governor. Gedaliah was warned of Ishmael’s treachery by some loyal captains but paid no attention to the warning. About two months after the destruction of Jerusalem, Gedaliah and others with him were murdered at a banquet held in honor of Ishmael, who then attempted to flee to the Ammonite country with some captives he had with him, including the king’s daughters. His pursuers overtook him at Gibeon. His captives were recovered, but Ishmael and a few of his men succeeded in escaping to the king of Ammon (2Kgs.25.25; Jer.40.7-Jer.41.18).——SB

ISHMAEL ĭsh’ mĭ əl (יִשְׁמָעֵ֔אל, God hears). Son of Abraham and Hagar, mentioned mainly in Genesis 16; 17; 21.


The name is patterned on a common Sem. theophoric formation in which the deity is the subject of a sentence, in this case El (God), and the other element the predicate, in this case the verb “to hear.” The time and mode of the sentence are determined by the circumstances leading to the naming, particularly the circumstances surrounding the person’s birth. Thus “Ishmael” may mean “God will hear,” “God hears,” “God heard,” “May God hear.” In this case it means “God heard” (Gen 16:11), viz., the affliction of Hagar. There is no reason to doubt this meaning, as the circumstance surrounding birth was a perfectly normal way to arrive at a name for a child (AIs, 43). Cf. Genesis 21:17 where God heard the voice of Ishmael.

The birth of Ishmael.

In some parts of the ancient Near E it was obligatory for a wife who was barren to provide her husband with a slave woman who would bear children for her. The children were to be under the control of the wife, not the slave. A case from Nuzu is discussed by Speiser, Genesis, 120. Childless Sarah obtained a son by Hagar, and Ishmael was legally the child of Sarah. This does not explain Sarah’s treatment of Hagar, in spite of the fact that some trs. (ANET) of the Nuzu document in question (Harvard Sem. Series, 67) add the clause “Kelimninu may not send the offspring away.” This tr. is based on a misreading of the tablet and recently is tr. by Speiser “Kelimninu will obtain offspring (by the slave).” The closest parallel is still to be found in Hammurabi’s Code, ə 146. Although this is a specialized case involving the rights of a priestess, the principle seems to be established that a productive slave woman may not assert herself against the unproductive wife. If she does so, she would be reduced to slave status. As Hagar violated this principle, Sarah was within her right to “deal harshly” with her (Gen 16:6).

Life of Ishmael.

Ishmael was born when Abraham was eighty-six years old (16:16) while he was dwelling near Hebron (13:18). His mother was an Egyp. but she had been confronted by God in a time of her need (16:7-13). When Ishmael was thirteen (17:1), God made His covenant with Abraham, according to which all the members of Abraham’s household were to be circumcised. Ishmael was included. When it was announced to Abraham that Sarah would bear a son, his response, “Oh that Ishmael might live in thy sight,” suggests that Ishmael fell short of Abraham’s expectation (17:18). Several years later, after Isaac had been born and weaned, Ishmael and his mother were expelled from the family to wander in the desert around Beersheba. At one point they were near death from thirst when God “heard the boy” and provided water. With the help of God Ishmael lived the rest of his life in the desert, esp. in the wilderness of Paran. It was here that he became proficient in the use of the bow; and the relative proximity to Egypt, as well as his mother’s background, explains his marriage to an Egyp. That he did not altogether break contact with the main Patriarchal family is shown by his presence at the burial of Abraham (25:9) and the fact that Esau married Ishmael’s daughter Mahalath (28:9). Ishmael lived 137 years and “was gathered to his kindred.”

Divine statements concerning Ishmael.

Abraham and Sarah’s treatment of Ishmael.

Abraham treated Ishmael as the son whom God had promised. Even when God revealed that Sarah was to have a son, Abraham did not understand why that was necessary rather than having Ishmael as heir (17:18). Even after Isaac’s birth Abraham acted kindly toward Ishmael and was grieved at Sarah’s desire to repudiate him. On the other hand, Sarah saw Ishmael as a threat to Isaac’s position in the family and found opportunity to have him expelled (ch. 21). This request to cast out the handmaid and her son seems to be against all principle of ancient law. The children of handmaids could be demoted if there was adequate reason, but hardly cast out. The fact that Abraham was against such a treatment and followed only on God’s command suggests that the action taken was not in accordance with contemporary patterns. The question also must be asked whether there was something that Ishmael did that was a threat to Isaac or whether it was his existence which constituted such a threat. This is bound up with the meaning of meṩahēq in Genesis 21:9, whether it represents Ishmael as mocking Isaac or playing with Isaac. It is questionable whether the word ever means in the OT “to mock, deride.” There is no passage which clearly means this and the etymology suggests otherwise; viz., Piel in the causative sense. Samson caused the Philistines to laugh wayyeṩaḥēq (Judg 16:25). Thus Sarah objected to Ishmael as a competitor of Isaac, not for some specific action he had done.

Purpose of the Ishmael sequence in Genesis.

The author of Genesis includes the Ishmael account primarily to bring about a contrast between Isaac and Ishmael, not so much as persons but as illustrations of God’s working. The point is that God, in fulfilling His promises to Abraham, was in no way bound to the natural and the ordinary, i.e., the flesh. He allowed the operation of these in the birth of Ishmael but He superseded them in the birth of Isaac. Although God’s preference for Isaac, as son of the wife, was in accord with custom, the rejection of Hagar and Ishmael served to make the contrast bolder, and thus ultimately to remind Israel that all was of grace.


Paul’s use of the Ishmael sequence.

Although he does not mention Ishmael by name, Paul is obviously developing his teaching in Galatians 4 on the basis of the Genesis passages. Ishmael was born “according to the flesh” and “persecuted him that was born according to the Spirit” (Gal 4:29). The fact that the next v. is a quotation from Genesis 21:10 suggests that Paul has that context before his mind, and that it is from that context that he derives the remark about Ishmael persecuting Isaac. However, the Genesis context does not suggest any such persecution. Lightfoot presents two explanations: (1) Paul was influenced by, although without endorsing, rabbinical traditions of Ishmael’s opposition to Isaac which were read into the Genesis account; (2) Paul read back into the individuals that enmity which characterized their descendants. From this, Paul concluded that the Galatians, who are free in Christ, should cast out the ones seeking to bring them into bondage. Of these facts drawn from the OT, Paul says that they are allēgoroumena, an expression which is open to different interpretations. Does he mean that the passage in Genesis is to be understood as an allegory, or that it is to be applied allegorically?

Other individuals bearing the name.

The only other significant person named Ishmael was one of the royal family of Judah when Gedaliah was appointed governor of Judah by Nebuchadrezzar. In Jeremiah, 40; 41 is the account of his murder of Gedaliah and his taking hostages, among whom was Jeremiah. Four other separate Ishmaels are mentioned (1 Chron 8:38; 2 Chron 19:11; 23:1; and Ezra 10:22).


KD (1874); Lightfoot, Epistle to the Galatians (1875); J. Montgomery, Arabia and the Bible (1934); G von Rad, Genesis (1961); E. A. Speiser, Genesis (1964).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(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" (Ge 16:2).

1. Birth:

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 (Ge 16:7-16).

2. Circumcision:

At the age of 13 years the boy was circumcised (Ge 17:25) in accordance with the Divine command received by Abraham: "Every male among you shall be circumcised" (Ge 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 (Ge 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!" (Ge 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 Ge 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.

3. Banishment:

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" (Ge 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" (Ga 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 Ge 21:8 ff 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 (Ge 21:21).

4. His Children:

When Abraham died, his exiled son returned to assist his brother to bury their father (Ge 25:9). In the same chapter we find the names of Ishmael’s 12 sons (25:12 ff) and a brief report of his death at the age of 137 years (25:17). According to Ge 28:9 he also had a daughter, Mahalath, whom Esau took for his wife; in Ge 36:3 her name is given as Basemath.

5. Descendants:

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" (Ge 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 (Ga 4:21-28).

(2) The son of Nethaniah (Jer 40:8-41:18; compare 2Ki 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 (Jer 40:13). Ishmael the son of Nethaniah, the son of Elishama "of the seed royal" (2Ki 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 (Jer 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 (Jer 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 (1Ch 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, 2Ch 19:8) matters" (2Ch 19:11).

(5) The son of Jehohanan, and a "captain of hundreds," who lived at the time of Jehoiada and Joash (2Ch 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" (Ezr 10:22).


(1) the King James Version "Ismael" (Judith 2:23), the son of Abraham by Hagar.

(2) 1 Esdras 9:22 (King James Version, the Revised Version (British and American) "Ismael"), corresponding to Ishmael in Ezr 10:22. See preceding article.