Who was Ishmael?
Ishmael was 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 Birth of Ishael
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 (Gen 16:7-16).
The Circumcision of Ishmael
At the age of 13 years the boy was circumcised (Gen 17:25) in accordance with the Divine command received by Abraham: "Every male among you shall be circumcised" (Gen 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 (Gen 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!" (Gen 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 Gen 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.
The Banishment of Ishmael
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" (Gen 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" (Gal 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 Gen 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 (Gen 21:21).
The Children of Ishmael
When Abraham died, his exiled son returned to assist his brother to bury their father (Gen 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 Gen 28:9 he also had a daughter, Mahalath, whom Esau took for his wife; in Gen 36:3 her name is given as Basemath.
The Descendants of Ishmael
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" (Gen 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.
IBSE, "Ishmael" (in the public domain) with minor edits.