Descendants of Ishmael

This is the account of the family line of Abraham’s son Ishmael, whom Sarah’s slave, Hagar the Egyptian, bore to Abraham. These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, listed in the order of their birth: Nebaioth the firstborn of Ishmael, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedemah. These were the sons of Ishmael, and these are the names of the twelve tribal rulers according to their settlements and camps. Ishmael lived a hundred and thirty-seven years. He breathed his last and died, and he was gathered to his people. His descendants settled in the area from Havilah to Shur, near the eastern border of Egypt, as you go toward Ashur. And they lived in hostility toward all the tribes related to them.”—Genesis 25:12-18 (NIV)

This is a fascinating section of Scripture. It illustrates the importance of studying not just the Word of God, but each word of God. It also includes some backtracking to illuminate God’s intricate way of fulfilling His Word.  

It’s tempting to read over the twelve names listed above. They are unfamiliar and seemingly irrelevant. But with God, nothing is irrelevant; and when His Spirit prompted them to be recorded, we should seek the reason why. Ishmael’s sons are only listed here and in 1 Chronicles (28-30), but their descendants occupy a distinct place in history and present day.

So, let’s backtrack to Genesis chapter 17. God said to Abraham, “As for Ishmael . . . I will bless him, and will make him fruitful and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation” (Genesis 17:20 NASB). God remained true to His Word. The twelve tribes of Ishmael grew and extended throughout the Middle East and are mentioned later in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Some of the tribes were conquered or absorbed into the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. Unlike Israel, they did not recover their heritage and dissolved into history around the 2nd century AD. It is widely recognized that many Arabs come from the line of Ishmael.
Now, let’s go further back to Genesis 16:12 (NIV) where God prophesies 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.” Charles Ryrie suggests that while this may be a compliment (after all a donkey was a valuable asset), it still denotes Ishmael as disagreeable and ornery. It stands to bear considering the hostility that still exists between his descendants and Israel. 

This hostility is why Genesis 25:18 is so intriguing. In some translations it reads “he died in the presence of all his brethren” (KJV, YLT); yet in others it reads that they “settled” or “lived” in hostility toward all the tribes related to them (NASB, ESV, NKJV). This is not an error in Scripture. We need to study the words “died” and “settled” to discover that they are the same word, naphal, meaning to fall or fall prostrate.

Looking forward, God’s Word is fulfilled with Israel, not Ishmael, as the line from which Jesus came. And we pray for the peace of Jerusalem knowing one day all will fall prostrate to Jesus. 

DIG: On your own, do a study of the descendants of Ishmael. You may run into several rabbit trails, which is a great way to study the Word of God.

DISCOVER: As you study, what distinct differences can you find between the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve tribes of Ishmael?

DO: Take some time each week to pray for the peace of Jerusalem and for God’s merciful gift of salvation to come to those who do not know Jesus. 

About the Author

Lisa Supp

Lisa Supp lives in Utah and has served within the CCFL Web and Prayer Ministry since 2011. She also volunteers as an editor on the CCFL Prayer Wall and is a writer on the Communications Team. Retired from teaching, Lisa and her husband Ron volunteer at their local Calvary Chapel and share a passion for Scripture, apologetics, and education.