Ishmael’s Desert Tribes – Part 3

By Elysia McColley

Read “Who Is Ishmael? – Part 1”

Read “Ishmael, The Wild Donkey – Part 2”

Ishmael's Desert TribesWe’ve been looking at Ishmael, one of the most controversial and misunderstood characters in the entire Bible. Being able to talk about Ishmael, from a truly biblical perspective, with your Muslim friends can be a great way to get them interested in the Bible and learning more about what it says. Mention that Ishmael’s birth was proclaimed by Jesus before the incarnation, and they will almost certainly want to know more. Here, let’s take a close look at Ishmael’s descendants and the role that they played in the Old Testament.

In Genesis 17:20, God promised that Ishmael would be the father of 12 rulers. In Genesis 25, we see that he had 12 sons, each of whom became the leader of a desert tribe.

These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, listed in the order of their birth: Nebaioth the firstborn of Ishmael, Qedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. Genesis 25:13-15

Some scholars have suggested that Nebaoith could have been the ancestor of the ancient Nabateans, the people that built the rock city of Petra, but there is little evidence to support this claim. Without written sources, we can’’t really know much about these desert tribes, apart from some sparse archaeological finds. Fortunately, we do have some written documentation about these tribes, found in the Old Testament. And believe it or not, the Old Testament is overwhelmingly positive about them.

Proverbs 30:1 and 31:1 speak of the kings Agur and Lemuel. The original Hebrew uses the word “massa” in the opening phrases. Some have interpreted this to mean “oracle,” but syntactically and stylistically, a better interpretation renders “massa” as the proper name of an Ishmaelite kingdom, the one descended from Massa. As late as the 10th Century BCE, wisdom literature from the Ishmaelites was used in the Hebrew scriptures, signifying significant harmony between the two nations.1

Qedar is referenced many times by the Biblical prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel; cuneiform texts suggest that Qedar was the greatest of the Transjordan tribes. They were a force to be reckoned with as late as the Roman period, and it has been suggested that the Nabateans were descendants of the Qedarites.2 The Qedarites may have actually been part of the Midianite confederation.3 Consider here what significant figure in the Old Testament was also a Midianite: Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, along with his wife, Zipporah. Jethro and Zipporah may very well have been Ishmaelites.

The prophet Isaiah also spoke of the Ishmaelite kingdoms – particularly Qedar and Nebaoith – in describing the glorious ingathering of nations before the throne of God.
All the flocks of Qedar will be gathered to you;
the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you;
they shall come up with acceptance on My altar,
and I will beautify My beautiful house. Isaiah 60:7

The Old Testament spans thousands of years, so we can’t categorically say that the Ishmaelites and Israelites were always friends with each other. There probably were some hostilities, but for the most part, Israel’s enemies were nations like Philistia, Egypt, and the Hittite Empire. Those were not Ishmaelite nations. The presence of the Ishmaelite tribes alongside the Israelites, and the positive way in which the Old Testament speaks of them, forces a re-evaluation of Ishmael’s role in history and the biblical metanarrative. What we will see later is that Jesus Himself probably had some ancestry among the Ishmaelites.

1. Tony Maalouf, Arabs in the Shadow of Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2003), 138.
2. Tony Maalouf, Arabs in the Shadow of Israel (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2003), 153.
3. William Dumbrell, “Midian: A Land or a League?” Vestus Testamentum 25 (1975) 323-337.

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