Who was Ishmael in the Bible?
Ishmael was the eldest son of Abraham, by his wife’s slave, Hagar. He grew up expecting to be the next leader of his father’s tribe.
But this was not to happen. His father’s chief wife, Sarah, unexpectedly gave birth to a son when Ishmael was about fourteen years old – in tribal society this meant that he was already a man.
A large family with many generations
There was an uneasy truce between Hagar and Sarah, mothers of two rival sons of Abraham.
What happened at the tribal feast?
When it was time to wean Sarah’s baby there was a great tribal feast. Ishmael was playing with his baby brother, and something happened. We don’t know what it was, but it enraged Sarah. She demanded that Ishmael and his mother Hagar be cast out of the tribe.
Since she had always been the main wife, she wanted to be certain that her son would be the heir of Abraham – not Ishmael.
Abraham loved Ishmael, but he gave in to Sarah. The next morning he sent Hagar and Ishmael out into the unforgiving desert.
They were alone and abandoned. Hagar had been born in Egypt so she headed south in the general direction of Egypt, a desperate but futile hope. There was no chance at all they would make it.
Before very long their small supply of water was exhausted, and the pair began to die of thirst.
Acacia tree in the desert, photograph by F. Jenkins
Ishmael succumbed first – he may have insisted that his mother drink what little water there was. Hagar dragged him under the shade of a bush, then moved away, so that she would not have to watch his death agony.
But Ishmael was not a boy to give in easily. He prayed, as did his mother, and God heard them. An angel appeared and told Hagar where to find water – and the pair were saved.
What is the message of Ishmael’s story?
Don’t give up, even when things look hopeless. You never know what God has in store for you.
For the full story of Hagar and Ishmael, see BIBLE WOMEN: HAGAR
The Bible text
Ishmael the archer, James Tissot
‘So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said “Do not let me look on the death of the child.”
And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.
And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar, and said to her “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy. Come, lift him up, for I will make a great nation of him.”
Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.’