Ishmael: His Hand Against Every Man
When Abram was seventy-five years old, God promised him that through his “seed” the nations of the earth would be blessed. But as yet, the patriarch had no offspring. A 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 travelled toward her homeland, she was visited by the “Messenger of Jehovah,” himself a divine being (Genesis 16:7, 13). The Messenger informed Hagar that she would bear a son and his name would be Ishmael (“God hears”).
Prophecies Regarding Ishmael
Within this general context, a number of remarkable prophecies were made regarding Ishmael and his descendants. Some consideration of these matters should be of interest to Bible students in these days of political conflict.
It was foretold that lshmael 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” (Genesis 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” (17:20).
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 (Genesis 25:12ff) — exactly as prophesied (17:20).
These people inhabited the territory between Havilah (probably in NW Arabia) and Shur (near the Egyptian border), and were one of the several peoples who were the ancestors of the Arabians (cf Genesis 10:7, 25-30; 25:1-4, 13-16).
Today, Arab-dominated territories are much more extensive even 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/Freedman thought that the figure hints of a “forlorn and friendless” existence (505; cf. Genesis 21:20). Baur/Harrison suggested that the wild ass was a creature proverbially 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 special 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” (Genesis 16:12).
Moses wrote that the Ishmaelite “abode over against all his brethren” (Genesis 25:18; cf. 16:12b). 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 upon the Ishmaelites’ various kinsmen (188).
History has amply illustrated the warlike temperament of the Arabian people. Thomas Newton, who traced the bloody history of the Arabs with precision, said these people
“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 none 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 vanquished so much of the Mediterranean world, failed to subjugate the fierce Arabs.
Later, the emperor Trajan attempted to conquer these peoples, and though he was not without isolated victories, his objective 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 a state of shambles. Both Judaism and “Christianity” were corrupt, and idolatry was rampant.
It was into this world that a child was born who would change the face of the earth forever. 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.
The “Prophet’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)
Muslim terrorist attacks like that of September 11, 2001 are not an expression of aberrant radicalism; it is Islam in its purest form.
And it is but a further commentary on “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 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), Vol. II.
- 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 (Grand Rapids: Baker), Vol. VI.
- Newton, Thomas (1831), Dissertations on the Prophecies (London: Blake, Bell-Yard, Temple-Bar).
- Speiser, E.A. (1978), Anchor Bible – Genesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday).