Ishmael - Abraham's First Son

Father of the Arab Nations

Ishmael and Hagar in the desert
'Hagar and Ishmael' by Jean-Charles Cazin.

Print Collector / Contributor / Getty Images

Ishmael, Abraham's first son, was born of Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant, at the prompting of Sarah herself. Ishmael was a child of favor, then, but like many of us, his life took an unexpected turn.

Key Verses

  • And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. (Genesis 17:20, NIV)
  • Ishmael lived a hundred and thirty-seven years. He breathed his last and died, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 25:17)

God had promised to make a great nation of Abraham (Genesis 12:2), declaring that his own son would be his heir: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” (Genesis 15:4, NIV) 

When Sarah, the wife of Abraham, found herself barren, she encouraged her husband to sleep with her maidservant, Hagar, to produce an heir. This was a pagan custom of the tribes around them, but it was not God's way. Abraham was 86 years old, 11 years after his arrival in Canaan, when Ishmael was born of that union.

In Hebrew, the name Ishmael means "God hears." Abraham gave him the name because he and Sarah received the child as the son of God’s promise and also because God heard Hagar's prayers. But 13 years later, Sarah gave birth, through a miracle of God, to Isaac. Suddenly, through no fault of his own, Ishmael was no longer the heir.

During the time Sarah had been barren, Hagar flaunted her child, behaving rudely toward her mistress. When Isaac was weaned, Ishmael, who was about 16 years old, mocked his half-brother. Angered, Sarah dealt harshly with Hagar. She was determined that Ishmael would not be heir with her son Isaac. Sarah told Abraham to cast Hagar and the boy out, which he did.

God, however, did not abandon Hagar and her child. The two were stranded in the desert of Beersheba, dying from thirst. But an angel of the Lord came to Hagar, showed her a well, and they were saved.

Hagar later found an Egyptian wife for Ishmael and he fathered twelve sons, just as Isaac's son Jacob would. Two generations later, God used the descendants of Ishmael to save the Jewish nation. Isaac's grandsons sold their brother Joseph into slavery to Ishmaelite traders. They took Joseph to Egypt where they sold him again. Joseph eventually rose to become second in command of the entire country and saved his father and brothers during a great famine.

Ishmael's Accomplishments

Ishmael grew to become a skilled hunter and expert archer. As promised, the Lord made Ishmael fruitful. He fathered twelve princes who formed the nomadic Arab nations.

Ishmael helped Isaac bury his father Abraham and lived to be 137 years old.

Ishmael's Strengths

Ishmael did his part to help fulfill God's promise to prosper him. He realized the importance of family and had twelve sons. Their warrior tribes eventually inhabited most of the countries in the Middle East.

Life Lessons

Our circumstances in life can change quickly, and sometimes for the worse. That is when we should draw near to God and seek his wisdom and strength. We may be tempted to become bitter when bad things happen, but that never helps. Only by following direction from God can we get through those valley experiences.

The short story of Ishmael teaches another valuable lesson. It is counterproductive to make human attempts to implement the promises of God. In Ishmael’s case, it lead to anarchy in the desert: "He [Ishmael] will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” (Genesis 16:12)

Hometown

Ishmael's hometown was Mamre, near Hebron, in Canaan.

References to Ishmael in the Bible

Mentions of Ishmael can be found in Genesis 16, 17, 21, 25; 1 Chronicles 1; Romans 9:7-9; and Galatians 4:21-31.

Occupation

Ishmael became a hunter, archer, and warrior.

Family Tree

Father - Abraham
Mother - Hagar, servant of Sarah
Half-brother - Isaac
Sons - Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedemah.
Daughters - Mahalath, Basemath.