Ishmael was the eldest son of Abraham born of Hagar, the Egyptian handmaid of Abraham’s wife Sarah. Carefully reading the scriptures, one might say Sarah orchestrated Ishmael’s birth. Sarah, knowing she was past childbearing age and sensing her husband’s concern because of God’s promise that he would be the father of a great nation, persuaded Abraham to take her handmaid Hagar who bore his son Ishmael (Genesis 16).

This was fourteen years before Isaac’s birth (Genesis 21:5). After being given the Abrahamic covenant, Abraham had Ishmael circumcised (Genesis 17:25), after which the Lord renewed in more detail the promise which he had made to Abraham respecting Ishmael (Genesis 20). So up until this time, it appears that Abraham had considered Ishmael the heir to the promise, and to have felt great affection for him (Genesis 17, 18).

The next event, scripturally recorded, concerning Ishmael occurs during Isaac’s weaning, (probably according to Eastern custom) when he two years old (Genesis 21:8, sq.). This was a happy occasion; Abraham gave a feast, no doubt to express his joy. But for Ishmael, Isaac’s older half-brother, this was not an occasion of joy; he probably felt the younger child was taking his place in the household, so he mocked Isaac. This angered Sarah saw it and said to Abraham, «Cast out this bondswoman and her son; for the son of this bondswoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac.» Sarah apparently wanted to make certain that Isaac was Abraham’s heir, which coincides with Abraham sending away other children that other wives bore him after Sarah’s death.

Grieved by Sarah’s demand, Abraham only yielded when influenced by divine admonition. «And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away; and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. And she went, and set her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bowshot; for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat over against him, and lifted up her voice and wept» (Genesis 21:6-16). Then the Lord appeared to Hagar, opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water, and thus saved the boy’s life. Again the cheering promise concerning her son was renewed to her, «I will make him a great nation» (Genesis 18).

Ishmael grew and lived in the wilderness, becoming a great archer. Perhaps his mother would have wished to return to Egypt, but this being prevented, and his mother took him a wife out of Egypt (Genesis 21:21). It is not clear whether Ishmael had more than one wife, but he had twelve sons and one daughter (Genesis 25:13-15; 28:9).

Both brothers, Ishmael and Isaac, were present at the burial of Abraham (Genesis 25:9). Esau married his daughter Mahaloth (Genesis 28:9). Biblically recorded is the death of Ishmael: «And these are the years of the life of Ishmael, a hundred and thirty and seven years; and he gave up the ghost and died, and was gathered unto his people. And they dwelt from Havilah unto Shur, that is before Egypt, as thou goest toward Assyria: and he died in the presence of all his brethren» (Genesis 25:17, 18).

According to the aggadah, Ishmael dishonored women, worshipped idols, and tried to kill his younger brother (Gen.R. 53. 11; Tosef.Sot. 6. 6). He was said to be the ancestor of the Ishmaelites and, be extension, all the Arab peoples.

In the Quran Ishmael is called Isma’il. A.G.H.


Unger, Merrill F., Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Chicago, Moody Press, 1966, pp. 538-539
Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 478