Monday, June 07, 2021

Anonymous Asks (148)

“Did Ishmael become a great nation?”

The question is in reference to a promise God made to Abraham in Genesis 17 to bless the son he had with his wife’s Egyptian servant, Hagar: “As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation.”

It’s a compound promise with a few clear stipulations to it. Surely it’s worth a few minutes of our time to check and see if God made good on it, right?

Only eight chapters later, we are given Ishmael’s genealogy. Just like Jacob, precisely twelve sons of Ishmael are named, beginning with Nebaioth, the firstborn, who presumably received the traditional double portion of his father’s estate. Twelve sons can produce a lot of offspring in short order, as evidenced by the example of Israel’s twelve tribes, which numbered in the millions only a few hundred years later. And Ishmael’s twelve sons had a full generation head start on Jacob’s.

So what happened to Ishmael’s progeny? Well, as with all ancient historical matters, there is considerable dispute, but nobody reputable who argues God did not multiply Ishmael greatly.

The Biblical Account

First, a very brief Bible history of the sons of Ishmael: of the twelve, by far the most prominent was Kedar [Qēḏār], whose children became the nomadic warriors spoken of in Psalm 120. Isaiah makes mention of the “glory of Kedar” and seems to regard them as basically synonymous with or a subset of the Arabians. He prophesies of depleted ranks among the Kedarites during the time of the Babylonian conquest of the area, but notes their humiliation and servitude to Babylon will not be a permanent state of affairs. During the millennial reign of Christ, he speaks of an Israel in which “All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you; the rams of Nebaioth [Ishmael’s firstborn] shall minister to you; they shall come up with acceptance on my altar.” This strongly indicates that the sons of Ishmael have existed and will continue to exist as a recognizable national entity thousands of years after their father passed into history. Other references in Jeremiah and Ezekiel confirm the Kedarites were a prominent nation.

As for the other sons, the book of Job speaks of the “caravans of Tema”, Ishmael’s ninth son, suggesting they possessed great wealth, though 1 Chronicles records that the Transjordan Israelite tribes were successful in driving the descendants of Ishmael out of Gilead. As with all nations, they were not necessarily successful or prominent at all times.

The Secular Story

On the secular side, there are Western scholars who argue that Ishmael was an important religious figure and the ancestor for “some of the Arabs in Western Arabia”, while other sources suggest that with the near-genocide of non-Ishmaelite Arabs under Moses, by the time of Muhammad, all remaining Arabs were descended from Ishmael. If these latter sources are correct, we are talking about some 389 million people as of 2015, a number considerably greater than the current population of the U.S. On the other hand, if we consider only a small portion of the Western Arabian Arabs — for example, those dwelling west of the Red Sea — the number drops to a trifling 138 million, roughly the population of Russia.

These are today’s numbers, and they do not take into account the many millions of Ishmael’s descendants who lived and died between then and now, whose existence and prominence are evidence of God’s hand in history.

So either way, God more than delivered on his promise to Abraham, wouldn’t you say?

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