Ismael (ISHMAEL—Heb. YSHM`AL; Sept. ‘Ismael; Vulg. Ismahel, in I Par., i, 28, 29, 31), the son of Abraham and Agar, the Egyptian. His history is contained in parts of Gen., xvi-xxv, wherein three strata of Hebrew tradition (J, E, P) are usually distinguished by contemporary scholars (see Abraham). The name “Ismael”, which occurs also in early Babylonian and in Minan, was given to the child before its birth (Gen., xvi, 11), and means: “may God hear”. As Sarai, Abram’s wife, was barren, she gave him, in accordance with the custom of the time, her handmaid, Agar, as concubine, in order to obtain children through her. Agar’s conception of a child soon led to her flight into the wilderness, where the angel of Yahweh appeared to her, bade her to return to her mistress, and fixed the name and character of her future son. After her return to Bersabee, she brought forth Ismael to Abram, who was then eighty-six years old (xvi). Ismael was very dear to the aged patriarch, as is shown by his entreaty of God in Ismael’s behalf, when the Almighty promised him a son through Sara. In answer to this earnest entreaty, God disclosed to Abraham the glorious future which awaited Ismael: “As for Ismael, I have also heard thee. Behold, I will bless him, and increase, and multiply him exceedingly: he shall beget twelve chiefs, and I will make him a great nation.” Ismael was not the destined heir of the covenant; yet, as he belonged to Abraham‘s family, he was submitted to the rite of circumcision when the patriarch circumcised all the male members of his household. He was then a lad of thirteen (xvii). Abraham‘s tender love towards Ismael manifested itself on another occasion. He resented Sara‘s complaint to him, when, on the great festival given at the weaning of Isaac, she requested Agar’s and Ismael’s summary dismissal because she “had seen the son of Agar the Egyptian playing with [or mocking] Isaac her son”. Ismael was Abraham‘s own “son”, and indeed his first-born. At this juncture, God directed Abraham to accede to Sara‘s request, comforting him with the repeated assurance of future national greatness for Ismael. Whereupon the patriarch dismissed Agar and Ismael with a modicum of provision for their journey. As their scanty provision of water was soon exhausted, Ismael would have certainly perished in the wilderness, had not God shown to Agar a well of water which enabled her to revive the dying lad.
According to God‘s repeated promise of future greatness for Agar’s son, Ismael grew up, lived in the wilderness of Paran, became famous as an archer, and married an Egyptian wife (xxi, 8-21). He became the father of twelve chiefs, whose names and general quarters are given in Gen., xxv, 12-16. Only one daughter of Ismael is mentioned in Holy Writ, where she is spoken of as one of Esau‘s wives (cf. Gen., xxviii, 9; xxxvi, 3). The last incident known of Ismael’s career is connected with Abraham‘s burial, in which he appears associated with Isaac (xxv, 9). Ismael died at the age of one hundred and thirty-seven, “and was gathered unto his people” (xxv, 17).
In his Epistle to the Galatians (iv, 21 sqq.) St. Paul expounds allegorically the narrative of Ismael and Isaac, urging upon his readers the duty of not giving up their Christian freedom from the bondage of the Law. Of course, in so arguing, the Apostle of the Gentiles did not intend to detract in any way from the historical character of the narrative in Genesis. With regard to the various difficulties, literary and historical, suggested by a close study of the Biblical account of Ismael’s life, suffice it to say that each and all will never cause a careful and unbiased scholar to regard that account otherwise than as portraying an ancient historical character, will never induce him to treat otherwise than as hypercritical every attempt, by whomsoever made, to resolve Ismael into a conjectural personality of the founder of a group of Arabic tribes. And this view of the matter will appear most certain to any one who compares the Biblical narrative with the legends concerning Ismael which are embodied in the Talmud, the Targum, and the other rabbinical works; while the latter are plainly the result of puerile imagination, the former is decidedly the description of an ancient historical figure.
FRANCIS E. GIGOT