Ishmael (“God hears”) is the reputed ancestor of a wilderness-dwelling Arab tribe to the south-east of the land of Israel, the Ishmaelites.

In the biblical story, he is the son of Abraham (born when Abraham was 86) and Hagar, his Egyptian slave girl (Gen 16:4). He is half brother to Isaac, son of Abraham and his wife Sarah. Sarah despises both Hagar and Ishmael and two different accounts describe how Hagar flees to the desert. In Genesis 16, when she is pregnant, Sarah herself deals harshly with her; while in Genesis 21, after Ishmael is born, she persuades Abraham to send her away with her son. Abandoned in the desert, Ishmael is at the point of death until an angel of God rescues him by providing water (Gen 21:15-19).

Although Ishmael is rejected as Abraham’s heir, he still receives a blessing and a promise that he will be the father of a great nation (Gen 16:10). His descendants, the Ishmaelites, subsequently become the long term enemies of the Israelites (Ps 83:6).

Although he plays second fiddle to Isaac in the Bible, Ishmael has had a series of fascinating afterlives. Paul (Gal 4:22-31) argues that Christians are not the children of the slave woman Hagar but of the free woman, Sarah. In medieval imagery (for example, La Bible moralisée), Hagar and Ishmael symbolise Judaism – their rejection and dismissal by Abraham in the Bible are seen as anticipating the rejection of Judaism. With regard to medieval images of Ishmael, an illuminated manuscript called The Ergerton Genesis (mid-14th century) is of particular importance. It contains a very large number of images depicting the events in the life of Ishmael, including the two young boys, Isaac and Ishmael, “playing” (Gen 21:9), the marriage of Ishmael to his Egyptian wife (Gen 21:21) and the promise of a large number of descendants (Gen 16:10)……biblical scenes that are quite rare in the history of Ishmael’s iconography.

In 17th-century Dutch art, the dismissal of Hagar and Ishmael and their near death in the desert becomes an extremely popular subject due to the drama and pathos of the scene (for example, Jan Victors 1650).

Ishmael is described as living in the desert and an expert with the bow (Gen 21:20) and, for this reason, he has been quickly and easily appropriated in Islam as father of the Arabs and is identified as the son whom Abraham prepares to sacrifice, the event now taking place in Arabia. He is mentioned 12 times in the Qur’an and throughout the Hadith and appears frequently in Persian miniature art and in illuminated Islamic manuscripts as the son about to be sacrificed by Abraham.

Further reading

Blenkinsopp, Joseph. Pages 78-92 in Abraham: The Story of a Life. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, England: Eerdmans, 2015.