Last week, Bill Nelson considered the traditional framing of the Genesis accounts of Ishmael, leaving us with some of the questions this raised for him. Today, he digs deeper and proposes a re-framing of that narrative, based on digging deeper into these texts. He concludes with a consideration of the implications this might have for Muslim-Christian dialogue.
Reading the Bible through a Middle Eastern lens helps us understand its cultural context. Tony Maalouf, a Lebanese Christian scholar, presents a counter-narrative about Ishmael in his book, Arabs in the Shadow of Israel. Regarding Ishmael being “a wild donkey of a man” (Genesis 16:12a), Maalouf points out that “a Westerner who calls someone a donkey intends it as an insult. This misunderstanding clouds how many view Ishmael’s descendants.”
The LORD used a wild donkey (onager) to picture Ishmael and his descendants’ freedom and respectability; Jacob similarly used animal imagery to bless his sons and foretell their future (see Genesis 49). For example, Jacob compared Judah to a fearsome lion, widely recognized as “king of the jungle” and “king of beasts.” God chose Judah to be the ancestor of Israel’s line of kings, including Jesus, “the lion of the tribe of Judah” (Rev. 5:5). Jacob also likened Benjamin to a ravenous wolf that divides its spoil. A wolf is no less voracious than a lion but usually kills far more than it can eat. Benjamin’s tribe’s small size and outsized success enabled them to share from abundance. Jacob’s animal word pictures imparted dignity, security, and strength to the future fathers of Israel’s twelve tribes. The LORD’s portrait of a wild donkey conveyed the same to Hagar and Ishmael.
Tensions between autonomous nomads and settled peoples provide context for understanding Genesis 16:12b, “his [Ishmael’s] hand upon [or against] everyone and everyone’s hand upon him.” Robert Hoyland, a scholar and historian specializing in the pre-modern Middle East, describes mutual contempt between the two. Arab poets decried the cowardliness of those who lived as subjects of a state. Similarly, sedentary peoples scorned “ignorant” nomads.
Dr. Maalouf notes that Jewish translators, past and present, translate Genesis 16:12c consistent with the KJV, “and he (Ishmael) shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren,” unlike several English translations which suggest Ishmael’s hostility. As tribal people, the Ishmaelites depended upon their relatives to protect and avenge or seek compensation when wronged. Hoyland explains: “The threat of retaliation would make any potential aggressor think twice, and there were numerous mechanisms—such as intermarriage, mediation, communal ceremonies and festivals, a strong code of hospitality, reciprocal gift-giving— that served to limit the use of force and encourage peaceful coexistence.”
Interpretative translations of Genesis 16:12 suggesting Ishmael’s supposed aggressive, contentious, and war-like nature are inconsistent with the biblical record. Scripture does not portray Ishmael and his offspring as wild, hostile, violent, and fiercely anti-social. Incidents of hostilities between Ishmael’s Arab descendants and Isaac’s Jewish offspring occur relatively infrequently. The Pentateuch makes no mention of conflict between Ishmael’s and Isaac’s families. Likewise, the latter and minor Hebrew prophets do not speak of Ishmaelites oppressing the Israelites or other nations. In contrast, they repeatedly pronounce judgment upon others within Abraham’s family for their callous treatment of God’s people. Israel experienced far more conflict with other peoples related to Abraham.
The current conflict in the Middle East does not reflect the pattern of biblical history. In the U.S., Jews are the most likely to have a close Muslim friend and view Muslims favorably.
God with Ishmael
Ishmael is raised under Abraham’s godly upbringing (Gen. 17:23-27; 18:19) until his abrupt dismissal (see Gen. 21:8-14). Genesis 21:9 Interpreters conclude that Ishmael either (1) mocks Isaac (e.g., NASB, NIV, NLT) or (2) merely plays with Isaac as if on equal footing (e.g., NAB, NRSV). In either case, Sarah feels threatened. She demands Ishmael’s removal from their household. God tells Ishmael’s anguished father to expel him, as Sarah insists, promising to “make him into a great nation” (Gen. 21:13-14).
The Lord richly blesses Ishmael per His promises to Abraham and Hagar. Abraham had previously prayed, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” (Gen.17:18). The Lord, who then replied to Abraham’s plea saying, “I have heard you” (Gen. 17:20), hears “God Hears’ ” thirsty death cries in the desert (Gen. 21:17).
The Lord remains “with the boy as he grows” to become a skilled archer (Gen. 21:20). Ishmael is the only person outside the covenant line about whom it is said, “the Lord was with him.” Hagar secures a wife for Ishmael (Gen. 21:21), and the Lord blesses him with twelve sons who become tribal chieftains (Gen. 25:13-16).
Later, Ishmael joins his half-brother Isaac to bury their father (Gen. 25:9). The use of the phrase, “breathed his last … gathered to his people” in Ishmael’s obituary, which also appears in the preceding account of Abraham’s death (Gen. 25:7-8), suggests Ishmael’s importance Gen. 25:17).
God Blesses Ishmael’s Family
Ishmael’s Arabian descendants dwell in freedom and increase in might and number. While nations fall and empires crumble, the Ishmaelites escape the yoke of foreign domination by fleeing to the inner desert’s remote parts. They acquire a vast amount of wealth through livestock and spice trade.
Biblical prophets suggest the prominence of Ishmael’s second-born son, Kedar. Ezekiel associates Kedar’s princes with Arabia (Ezek. 27:21). Isaiah speaks about the mighty power of the tribe of Kedar, its glory, and its gifted archers (Isa. 21:16-17).
Arabs before the LORD
Isaiah also presents Kedar as representative of desert-dwellers who worship the LORD (Isa. 42:11). Isaiah foresees the brightness of the LORD’s dawning light attracting Jewish diaspora and a great multitude from many nations to Mount Zion (Isa. 60:1-5). Isaiah then highlights the tribes of Kedar and Nebaioth, Ishmael’s two oldest sons, who join three Arabian tribes Abraham fathered through Keturah. Together, Abraham’s Arab offspring joyfully praise the Lord and proclaim the Good News of Messiah’s deliverance (Isa. 60:5-7). They bring Him their wealth of frankincense, gold, and animal stock (Isa. 60:6-7).
Several centuries later, God’s glorious light draws Arabian worshippers directly to the Messiah, partially fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy (Mt. 2:1-12 cf. Isa. 60:5-7). The Magi’s worship of the Christ-child only appears in the Gospel of Matthew, which was written to the Jews to show Jesus as the Messiah promised by the Old Testament prophets. Matthew’s reference to the wise men’s homeland as “from the east” clarifies their Arabian origins (Mt. 2:1). Previously Jeremiah identified the tribe of Kedar, descended from Ishmael’s second-born son, as “children of the east” (Jer. 49:28). Likewise, the Jewish, second century, B.C. apocryphal book of Jubilees located the Ishmaelites and their Arabian cousins through Keturah dwelling together “in all the land which is towards the East facing the desert” (Jubilees 20:12-13).
A heavenly illumination guides the Arabian wise men to a single home in Bethlehem. There, they joyfully offer the Christ child their uniquely Arabian gifts in costly worship.
Following Jesus’s ascension, Arabians join Jews, the Jewish diaspora, and God-fearers from many nations in Jerusalem at Pentecost. Some, filled with the Spirit, proclaim God’s mighty deeds in Arabic (Acts 2:11).
Arab Christians in the Middle East, who number between 10 and 15 million, are proud of their continuous presence in the region since that Day of Pentecost nearly 2,000 years ago. They live peacefully amid the hostility and conflict they frequently encounter as a minority community. They persevere through social, economic, religious, and political tensions.
The sons of Ishmael will enjoy significant representation among the throngs of worshippers from every nation, language, tribe, and people, standing before the throne of Jesus (Rev. 7:9-11). They will bring Him their wealth in the New Jerusalem, a city illuminated day and night by the Messiah’s glorious presence, fully fulfilling Isaiah’s prophesy.
Bearing the Gospel of Peace
Dr. Maalouf challenges us, “It is time to present Ishmael from a Christian perspective and to reclaim him as part of biblical legacy. This will help build a bridge for dialogue with those who claim Ishmael as their ancestor.”
Dr. Jon Culver, a missionary in Indonesia for thirty years, agrees. When the opportunity arises, Culver asks Muslims, “Did you know that the Taurat (Torah) contains some beautiful promises that God made to Hagar and Abraham (Siti Hajar and Nabi Ibrahim) concerning Ishmael? Would you like me to recite these promises for you?” Culver says that no Muslim has ever refused his offer.
Two days after the U.S. Capitol Building invasion in Washington DC [January 6, 2021], I expressed grief to the Johns Hopkins Muslim Student Association (MSA) leaders with how the rioters had co-opted Jesus’s name. I also suggested that we correct misunderstandings of Ishmael and emphasize God’s promises for him during our upcoming inter-faith gathering.
The first MSA leader to reply said, “I love your idea of addressing the topic from a race-conscious perspective. I was not aware of the controversial views some held regarding Ishmael. I appreciate your willingness and courage to address what I’m sure is an uncomfortable discussion. Thank you for being an incredibly thoughtful ally.”
We found common ground through sharing about how both the Qur’an and the Bible esteem Ishmael and Hager. We also lamented the Capitol insurrection. The MSA faculty advisor commented, “You’re walking in the same shoes I’ve walked in for the past twenty years” (referring to 9/11).
May we bear the gospel of peace within Abraham’s family.
Maalouf Tony. Arabs in the Shadow of Israel: The Unfolding of God’s Prophetic Plan for Ishmael’s Line, Kregel Publications, 2003 (Kindle Locations 656-658).
 Benjamin led Israel’s tribes (Jdg. 5:14) and, as the least of Israel’s tribes, were featured in the lead, celebrating God’s victory over their enemies (Ps. 68:27). Benjamin’s tribe was renowned for its left-handed warriors (Jdg. 3:15, 20:16; I Chron. 8:40).
 Hoyland, Robert G. Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the coming of Islam, Routledge, 2001, pgs. 95-97.
 The NIV translation of al-pene as “in hostility with” depends heavily on contextual considerations. Translations other than the KJV which do not suggest hostility include the NASB, “to the east of,” the NET, “away from,” the YLT, “before the face of,” the CSB “settle near,” and the NETS translation of the Septuagint, “live facing all.”
Hoyland, pg. 113.
 During the lawless and spiritually dark era when judges ruled Israel, the Ishmaelites joined coalition forces to oppress Israel for seven years (Judges chapters 6-8). A second isolated incident of deadly fighting over grazing lands occurred during the reign of King Saul (I Chron. 5:10, 19-22). The Ishmaelites also joined other nations to conspire against Israel at an unspecified time (Ps. 83:1-8).
For example, multiple prophets foretell the destruction of the Edomites who descended from Esau, Abraham’s grandson, for their cruel betrayal of their Israelite brothers (e.g., Obad. 1:10-14; Ezek. 35:1-5; Isa. 34, 43:2-5; Mal. 1:1-5).
 God commanded the Israelites to blot out the memory of Amalek (Abraham’s great-grandson) because of the Amalekites cruel treatment of the Jews (Dt. 25:19; 26:17-19). The Ammonites and Moabites who descended from Lot (Abraham’s nephew) were forbidden to enter the Jerusalem temple for mistreating the Israelites (Dt. 23:3-6).
 Gen. 17:20; 21:13, 17-18.
 Waltke, p. 346.
 Many of the names of Ishmael’s sons are Arabic, giving credence to the Arab tradition that Ishmael was their ancestor (Gen. 25:7-8).
 Philip Hitti, widely recognized as the leading scholar in Arab and Middle Eastern studies, states, “The Assyrians, though rightly called the Romans of the ancient world, could not have brought under even a nominal rule more than the oases and a few tribes in North Arabia.” P. K. Hitti, The Arabs: A Short History, rev. ed. (South Bend, Ind.: Regnery/Gateway, 1970); pgs. 56-70. Herodotus, the Greek historian, notes that the Persians were never able to conquer the Arabians (III.88).
 Ezek. 27:21 cf. Isa. 60:17; Jer. 49:28-29.
 Judges refers to Arabian tribes as “Ishmaelites” implying that this is a catchall term (Judges 8:24).
New Testament scholar Dr. Kenneth Bailey states, “Living on the West Bank in Israel / Palestine I observed that visitors arriving from Jordan were always referred to as having come ‘from the East’ which meant ‘the east side of the Jordan River.’ It is only natural to assume that Jewish Christians, living in the Holy Land in the first century thought and talked the same way. ‘The East’ for them would naturally refer to the Jordanian deserts that connect with the deserts of Arabia.” Bailey, Kenneth E., Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, InterVarsity Press, 2008, (pgs. 51-52).
 Rev. 21:22-26 cf. Isa. 60:5-7; 19
 J. Dudley Woodberry, Evelyne A. Reisacher, Joseph L. Cumming, Dean S. Gilliland and Charles E. Van Engen. Toward Respectful Understanding and Witness among Muslims: William Carey Library. Chapter 2, Kindle Edition.
Postscript: Peace Feasts are helping groups across the country grow witnessing relationships with Muslims. Peace Feasts are about heart-level dialogue: Muslims and Christians get together in small groups, share a meal, and discuss faith and life. Visit https://tiny.cc/peace-feast to learn more about how to organize Peace Feasts.
About the author:
God has privileged Bill Nelson to represent Him among students and scholars gathered from over 50 nations at Johns Hopkins University over the past 25 years. Bill is an ordained minister through the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA), having received his theological and ministry training at Dallas and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminaries. He and his wife Michele enjoy hiking in the mountains and other activities with friends and family, including their three grown children.
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