Ishmael: His Hand Against Every Man

The remarkable biblical prophecies concerning Ishmael, are explored, especially the historical emergence of his descendants and their warlike characteristics.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

When Abram was seventy-five years old, God promised him that through his seed, the nations of the earth would be blessed. But at this time, the patriarch had no offspring. Another decade rolled by, and still, no child blessed the home of Abram and Sarai.

Finally, Sarai suggested that a child be produced by a union between Abram and Hagar, Sarai’s Egyptian handmaid, for such was an accepted custom in those days, as reflected in the Code of Hammurabi (146).

When Hagar conceived, she flaunted her proud condition before the barren Sarai. Infuriated, Abram’s wife drove the slave out of the camp.

As Hagar traveled toward her homeland, she was visited by the “Messenger of Jehovah,” himself a divine being (Gen. 16:7, 13). The Messenger informed Hagar that she would bear a son, and his name would be Ishmael (“God hears”).

Prophecies Regarding Ishmael

Several remarkable prophecies were made regarding Ishmael and his descendants within this general context. Some consideration of these matters should be of interest to Bible students in these days of political conflict.

It was foretold that Ishmael would be “a wild ass among men; his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him. And he shall dwell over against all his brethren” (Gen. 16:12).

Later, it was said of Ishmael that God would “multiply him exceedingly” and that he would be the father of “twelve princes” and a “great nation would proceed from him” (Gen. 17:20).

Prophecies Fulfilled

These prophecies have been stunningly fulfilled. Note the following historical facts.

Ishmael grew up, married an Egyptian woman, and begat twelve sons who became princes over their respective tribes (Gen. 25:12 ff) — precisely as prophesied (Gen. 17:20).

These people inhabited the territory between Havilah (probably in northwest Arabia) and Shur (near the Egyptian border) and were one of the several peoples who were the ancestors of the Arabians (cf Gen. 10:7, 25-30; 25:1-4, 13-16).

Today, Arab-dominated territories are much more extensive than in Bible times.

Ishmael, A Wild Ass

Ishmael was characterized as a “wild ass.” What is the significance of that expression?

Several ideas have been suggested. Hamilton contends that the habitat of the wild ass is in the waste places (cf. Job 39:5-8). Hence, the idea is that of a life of nomadic existence (454).

Anderson and Freedman thought that the figure hints at a “forlorn and friendless” existence (505; cf. Gen. 21:20). Baur and Harrison suggested that the wild ass was a creature notably skilled at escape — only a hunter of “obvious prowess” could capture him (Bromiley, 905).

All of these descriptives are traits of the Bedouin tribes of the Arabian peninsula.

His Hand Against Every Man

Of particular interest, though, is the foreboding indication that the descendants of Ishmael would be a fierce people — “his hand against every man, every man’s hand against him” (Gen. 16:12).

Moses wrote that the Ishmaelite “abode over against all his brethren” (Gen. 25:18; cf. 16:12). Many scholars believe that this language reflects a hostile disposition (cf. NIV).

William Beck’s, An American Translation, renders the phrase: “They fought with all their relatives.” E.A. Speiser argued that the language depicts the attacks characteristically made on the Ishmaelites’ various relatives (188).

History has amply illustrated the warlike temperament of the Arabian people. Thomas Newton traced the bloody history of the Arabs with precision. He stated that historically, these tribes:

“live in a state of continual war with the rest of the world ... they have been such enemies of mankind, it is no wonder that mankind have been enemies to them again” (23).

Many nations have fought against these rugged people, but no one has been able to subdue them completely.

Herodotus, the Greek historian, notes that the Persians were never able to conquer the Arabians (III.88). Strabo, the geographer, said that when Alexander the Great overturned the Persian empire, of the surrounding peoples who sued for peace, only the Arabs resisted. Alexander’s preparation to engage them in battle was terminated by his premature death.

When the Romans swept from the west to the east, they were never able to reduce the Arab peoples to a province. Pompey, the Roman general who conquered so much of the Mediterranean world, failed to subjugate these fierce warriors.

Later, the emperor Trajan attempted to conquer them, and though he was not without isolated victories, he ultimately failed. Meanwhile, these bedouin continued their ravages in various Roman provinces.

Mohammed’s Success With Ishmael’s Descendants

The religious scene in the Middle East in the late sixth century A.D. was in shambles. Both Judaism and “Christianity” were corrupt, and idolatry was rampant.

It was into this world that a child who would change the face of the earth forever was born. His name was Mohammed.

Mohammed, claiming to be an Apostle and Prophet from God, was gradually able to take these semi-barbarous sons of the desert, whose lawlessness was exceeded only by their daring, and whip them into a fighting force fueled by religious zealotry.

The movement has impacted civilization for almost fifteen centuries.

Mohammed’s initial “success” was less than remarkable. He won only fourteen converts in the first three years of his efforts. He enticed more ridicule than respect. When his movement achieved enough momentum to attract persecution, the complexion of Islam changed radically. His flight from Mecca to Medina in A.D. 622 was pivotal.

Mohammed’s system involved an aggressive “bloody-sword” ideology. No longer content to persuade by words, “the sword” became “the key of heaven and hell,” and whoever died in battle received pardon from all sin and entered into the joys of a sensual Paradise (see McClintock, 6.407).

Mohammed’s heavy hand, and those of his violent successors, were felt in nation after nation. Even today, in countries where Islam is the prevailing political force, persecution against non-Muslims is fierce (see Duin).

War and violence often seen in the news are not expressions of aberrant radicalism. It is Islam in its purest form. And it is but a further commentary on the descendants of Ishmael, “his hand against every man”!

  • Anderson, F. I. & Freedman, D.N. 1980. Anchor Bible — Hosea. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
  • Bromiley, G. W. 1982. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia — Revised. Vol. II. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  • Duin, Julia. 2001. “Christians face dismal plight in Islamic nations,” Washington Times, November 6.
  • Hamilton, Victor. 1990. Genesis 1-17. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  • McClintock, John & Strong, James. 1969. Cyclopedia of Theological Literature. Vol. VI. Grand Rapids: Baker.
  • Newton, Thomas. 1831. Dissertations on the Prophecies. London: Blake, Bell-Yard, Temple-Bar.
  • Speiser, E.A. (1978), Anchor Bible – Genesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday).