Editor’s note: This piece comes from an upcoming book by Gary Yates and David Croteau, Urban Legends of the Old Testament, a sequel to Urban Legends of the New Testament.
The Legendary Teaching on Ishmael and His Descendants
Abraham’s lack of faith and patience that led to the birth of Ishmael through Hagar is the cause of the perpetual conflict between Arabs (the descendants of Ishmael) and Jews (the descendants of Isaac) in the Middle East today. The Bible informs us that the conflict between Ishmael and Isaac would be never ending. Arabs, as the descendants of Ishmael, have inherited his rebellious (“like a wild donkey”) and violent qualities (Gen 16:12), and the existence of radical Islam and violent jihadism is proof that “the spirit of Ishmael” still exists among Arab peoples today.
Countering the Legendary Teaching
The portrayal of Ishmael as a “wild donkey” conveys a positive message that even resembles the portrayal of the twelve tribes of Israel in Genesis 49. The Bible never prophesies a perpetual conflict between the sons of Isaac and Ishmael, and Ishmael’s descendants even have a vital role in the working out of salvation history and a share in the covenantal blessings given to Abraham and extended through Isaac.
Birth Announcement and Hope for an Oppressed Woman
The declaration that Ishmael would be “like a wild donkey” in Gen 16:12 appears in the context of a birth announcement designed to offer hope and encouragement to a beleaguered slave. Tony Maalouf explains, “Having been the recipient of a special revelation from the ‘God who sees’ everything and cares for everyone, it would become much easier for Hagar to accept her circumstances.” The angelic announcement concerning Ishmael in Gen 16:10–12 was a positive message concerning the future of Hagar’s son.
Readers today understandably read “like a wild donkey” as an insult. Referring to someone in this way in our culture would likely lead to an angry confrontation. Comparing someone to a donkey might seem to convey the qualities of stupidity, stubbornness, or contentiousness. As part of this comforting announcement to Hagar, however, the image likely is a promise that Ishmael and his descendants would enjoy the freedom and independence of living as roving nomads, in spite of the difficulties that such a lifestyle would also entail.
The term wild donkey (pere’) appears only ten times in the Hebrew Bible. It is not always clear whether the connotations associated with the wild donkey are positive or negative. The prevailing ideas associated with this animal appear to be “freedom, isolation, and wilderness habitat.” Gordon Wenham states that the wild donkey is a figure for “an individualistic lifestyle untrammeled by social convention.” The wild donkey lives in barren areas (Job 24:5; Isa 32:14; Jer 14:6; Hos 8:9). In Job 39:5–8, the wild donkey lives in the wilderness and laughs at the noise of the city and, unlike his domesticated counterpart, never has to endure the abusive commands of a taskmaster.
The second statement about Ishmael in Gen 16:12 does refer to hostilities that would exist between Ishmael (and his descendants) and surrounding peoples. The Hebrew reads: “hand-to-hand with everyone and everyone hand-to-hand with him” and is somewhat ambiguous in meaning because of the lack of a verb. Nevertheless, in twenty-seven of the thirty-three instances in which the noun hand (yad) is followed by the preposition be (“in, on, upon, against”) that has a person, people, or inhabited area for its object, the sense is adversarial and denotes conflict (e.g., Exod 7:4; Josh 2:19; 1 Kgs 11:26–27). The NET Bible even reads, “He will be hostile to everyone, and everyone will be hostile to him.” A people at perpetual odds would seem to be disagreeable and violent, but this statement needs to be read in light of the surrounding context. We have two other important uses of “hand” in this context that inform our understanding here. In Gen 16:6, Abram says to his disgruntled wife Sarai concerning Hagar: “your slave is in your hands” (be + yad) and that she could do with Hagar as she wished. Sarai then mistreats Hagar so that she flees from Abram’s household. In verse 9, the angel of the Lord instructs Hagar to return to Sarai and to submit “to her authority” (tahat + yad; lit. “under her hand”).
The statement in verse 12 about Ishmael’s “hand” being against everyone should then be understood at least in part as a promise of the reversal of Hagar’s powerlessness in verse 9. Ishmael would not be subjugated to others in the way that Hagar was to Sarai, and he would have the strength to stand up to others when wronged. Maalouf explains, “Constant roaming of the bedouin tribes in the desert, with no established legal system and clear civil law code, put them in a state of conflict with each other, and set others against them for fear of their raids, since nomads dislike the settled life.” The point is that Ishmael would be able to contend for himself in these disagreements and confrontations.
The final statement concerning Ishmael in verse 12 that he would “settle near (‘al pene) all his relatives” is also open to interpretation. Because ‘al pene does have an adversarial sense in other passages (e.g., Job 1:11; 6:28), some English translations (NIV, NRSV, NLT) view this statement as also referring to perpetual conflict between Ishmael and his neighbors The NIV reads that Ishmael “will live in hostility toward all his brothers.” The preposition ‘al pene more often has a spatial nuance and likely refers in Genesis 16 to how Ishmael would live away from other peoples because of his Bedouin lifestyle. The fact that ‘al pene has this spatial meaning in Gen 25:18 with reference to Ishmael’s descendants suggests the same meaning is intended here. This last description of Ishmael says nothing about violence or hostility.
The announcement that Ishmael would be like a wild donkey parallels the depiction of a number of the tribes of Israel in Jacob’s blessing of his sons in Genesis 49. Judah is like “a young lion” (v. 9), Issachar “a strong donkey” (v. 14), Dan “a viper” (v. 17), Naphtali “a doe set free” (v. 21), and Benjamin “a wolf” (v. 27). The portrayals of Judah and Benjamin as a lion and wolf are violent in nature and would seem to depict these tribes as violent—predators tearing apart their prey (vv. 9, 27). Judah would subjugate his enemies so that the nations would give obedience to him (vv. 8, 10), and this promise ultimately points to the dominion of the house of David and the future Messiah. Under attack from archers, Joseph’s bow would be strong and agile (v. 23). Military strength would be essential for Israel’s survival and security as a nation in the violent world of the ancient Near East. These portrayals, however, do not infer that Israel was a vicious, warmongering people, and we should avoid drawing similar conclusions about Ishmael and his descendants on the basis of Gen 16:12. We would not suggest from Genesis 49 that the “spirit of Judah” or “spirit of Benjamin” is responsible for the present-day conflicts in the Middle East.
Isaac and Ishmael in Perpetual Conflict?
Christopher Heard notes that, contrary to popular opinion, the Old Testament never prophesies perpetual animosity between the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac. The two brothers are never in conflict as adults and join to bury their father in Gen 25:9. Isaac subsequently lives near Ishmael, suggesting cordial relations between the two. Joseph’s brothers sell Joseph into slavery to a caravan of Ishmaelite traders who take him to Egypt (Gen 37:25–29), but Joseph’s own brothers are the ones who act in hatred. Only two passages in the Old Testament refer to Ishmaelites committing acts of violence against Israel. Ishmaelites carry out raids against Israel during the time of Gideon (Judg 8:24), and Ishmaelites and Hagrites are mentioned as enemies that conspire against Israel in Ps 83:6. Heard writes, “Although Christians commonly claim that Isaac’s and Ishmael’s descendants have fought constantly since Isaac’s birth, it is hard to sustain that claim with biblical evidence.”
God’s Blessing of Ishmael and His Descendants
Ishmael is not the promised child through whom God’s covenant promises to Abraham would be fulfilled, but this fact does not minimize God’s blessing of Ishmael or negate his redemptive concern for Ishmael’s descendants. The circumcision of Ishmael in Gen 17:23 demonstrates that he was included in the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. The name Ishmael (“God hears”) is testimony to how God had been attentive to the cries of Hagar when she was alone in the wilderness after Sarai sent her away when Hagar was with child (Gen 16:11). The promise that Ishmael would have many descendants (Gen 16:10) parallels the promises to Abraham that he would have numerous offspring (Gen 15:5; 17:20; 22:17).
The blessing of Ishmael would in fact help to bring fulfillment of specific covenant promises to Abraham—that he would be the father of many nations (Gen 17:4–5) and that all nations would be blessed through Abraham (Gen 12:3; 18:18; 22:18). Isaiah 60:6–8 specifically mentions the inclusion and participation of Ishmael’s descendants (Midian, Kedar, Nebaioth; compare Gen 25:13; 28:9; 37:28) in the future kingdom when the nations stream to Zion to worship the Lord. Ishmael’s descendants will bring their wealth as tribute to the Lord and their flocks and herds for sacrifices to the Lord.
Other specific literary features in Genesis point to favorable and sympathetic readings of the characters Hagar and Ishmael. The birth announcement from the angel concerning Ishmael is the first of such annunciations in Scripture, and similar annunciations in the Old Testament anticipate the birth of a special or promised child (including Isaac, Samson, and Samuel). Hagar’s experience when God intervenes to deliver Ishmael from death in Genesis 21 parallels Abraham’s as he prepares to offer Isaac in Genesis 22. Both Hagar and Abraham take a journey to a desolate place, and both hear an angel from heaven announcing God’s intervention on behalf of their sons (Gen 21:17; 22:11–12).
The depiction of Ishmael in Genesis also invites comparison with Joseph in that both are expelled from their home because of their master’s wife. Sarah expels Ishmael because she observes him “laughing” (mocking?) (tsahaq) at the feast for Isaac’s weaning (Gen 21:8–10), and Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph of attempting to rape her and thus “mocking” (tsahaq) his master’s house (Gen 39:14–17). In spite of their unfair treatment, both young men prosper because God is “with” them (Gen 21:20; 39:2, 21). These favorable comparisons with other individuals who are part of the covenant people of God suggest that we should also view Hagar and Ishmael as positive characters, not as the ancestors of Israel’s perpetual enemies.
Christians have often used wrong interpretations or simplistic readings of Scripture to justify prejudice or hatred toward specific groups of people. Identifying the mark of Cain in Genesis 4:15 as the curse of black skin or equating Native Americans with the Canaanites to justify their extermination are two prominent examples of such readings. Attributing the conflict in the Middle East to “the spirit of Ishmael” or the lack of evangelical compassion toward Arab refugees in our current environment reflects a similar misreading of the Bible. The genealogical relationship between Ishmael and present-day Arabs is complex to begin with, and the statement that Ishmael would be “like a wild donkey” in Gen 16:12 does not characterize Arab peoples as violent. Ishmael plays a strategic role in the working out of God’s plan to bless all nations through Abraham (Gen 12:3), and the descendants of Ishmael will be among the people of God “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). Loving the descendants of Ishmael is a reflection of the heart and character of God himself.
Maalouf, Tony. Arabs in the Shadow of Israel: The Unfolding of God’s Prophetic Plan for Ishmael’s Line. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2003. Helpful treatment from an Arab Christian of the role of Ishmael and Arab peoples in the working out of God’s kingdom purposes.
Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 1–15 and 16–50. Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017). Scholarly evangelical commentary with two volumes on Genesis, here presented as one volume.
Heard, Christopher. “On the Road to Paran: Toward a Christian Perspective on Hagar and Ishmael.” Interpretation 68 (2014): 270–85. Argues for a more charitable Christian reading of the figure of Ishmael.
Rishmawy, Derek. “I Am Not Abraham’s Mistake.” Patheos, Christ and Pop Culture (blog). February 27, 2013. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture/2013/02/i–am–not–abrahams–mistake/. Argues that popular evangelical theology about Arabs often contradicts biblical teaching.
 Tony Maalouf, Arabs in the Shadow of Israel: The Unfolding of God’s Prophetic Plan for Ishmael’s Line (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2003), 65.
 R. Christopher Heard, Dynamics of Dislection: Ambiguities in Genesis 12–36 and Ethnic Boundaries in Post-exilic Judah, Semeia Studies 39 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2001), 69.
 Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16–50, Word Biblical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 11.
 Heard, Dynamics of Dislection, 69–70.
 Maalouf, Arabs in the Shadow of Israel, 72.
 Heard, Dynamics of Dislection, 72.
 A strong case can be made for an alternate reading of Gen 49:22 that translates the verse as depicting Joseph as the “son of a donkey” (ben porat) in a manner that recalls the depiction of Ishmael “like a wild donkey” (pere’ ’adam) (rather than “a fruitful vine”). The noun son (ben) is never used with a plant elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible but does appear with animals (Gen 18:7; Ps 29:6). See S. Gevirts, “Of Patriarchs and Puns: Joseph at the Fountain, Jacob at the Ford,” Hebrew Union College Annual 46 (1975): 35–49.
 Christopher Heard, “On the Road to Paran: Toward a Christian Perspective on Hagar and Ishmael,” Interpretation 68 (2014): 276–77.
 Heard, “On the Road to Paran,” 279.
 For fuller development of the Hagar-Abraham parallels, see S. Nikaido, “Hagar and Ishmael as Literary Figures: An Intertextual Study,” Vetus Testamentum 51 (2001): 221–29.
 Nikaido, “Hagar and Ishmael,” 232–41.