Vindicating Ishmael

The name “Mavia” does not strike a chord with many of us. Yet it is the name of a once-famous fourth-century woman who, as the Saracen queen, defeated the Arian Roman emperor Valens. The emperor was notorious for persecuting Christians who adhered to the Nicene Creed.

Mavia, having dealt deadly blows to the Roman armies in Phoenicia and Palestine, refused to stop the war until the emperor agreed to install of Moses, a pious Saracen desert monk, as bishop over her own people. Moses, who considered the Romans guilty of “barbarous savagery” against the saints refused the ordination and went to the Saracens and “led many to the knowledge of the truth, through his apostolic doctrines” accompanied by miracles.

It refreshes us to read stories of bravery that brighten dark periods of church history. Yet what makes this account more intriguing is that while historians called the Saracen Ishmaelites “barbarians,” biblical and extra biblical accounts abound in examples of God’s grace at work among them.

Sadly the name Ishmael does not flash bright pictures in the minds of most people today. Biased readings of the Bible’s Ishmael narratives have reinforced prejudice in that regard.

Only a careful examination of such texts can surface elements that help the church better fulfill the gospel mandate among Arabs and the larger Muslim bloc, associated in some form with Ishmael.

Bedouin with Camel - Ricardo Liberato, Creative Commons
Bedouin with Camel – Ricardo Liberato, Creative Commons

God’s Intervention with Sarah
A close look at Sarah’s circumstances makes the reader of Genesis 16 sympathize with the patriarchal couple. Sarah’s divinely caused barrenness (Gen. 16:1–2) left her and Abraham wrestling with the choice to resort to cultural alternatives for securing a child (v. 2).

Sarah’s old age (v. 16; 17:17), and possibly dead womb, may have compelled her to give Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate wife (16:3). Though a controversial cultural practice, four of Israel’s twelve tribes were born through maidservants (30:6, 17–18). Interestingly the God who closed Sarah’s womb blessed Hagar directly with pregnancy.

Hagar boasted in her new role as mother of Abraham’s firstborn (16:4). And Hagar’s elevated status automatically diminished the social distance separating her from her mistress. This weighed heavily on Sarah. Finally she burst into anger, blaming Abraham for his role in the matter (v. 5). Unfortunately, Abraham handed Hagar over to her mistress, and Sarah “afflicted” Hagar, causing her to flee to the wilderness (v. 6).

God’s Intervention with Hagar
The Angel of Yahweh “found” the fugitive Hagar by a well in the wilderness and directed her to return to Abraham’s house (vv. 7–9), because Ishmael was to be nurtured under Abraham’s care and teaching (18:19). Yet the Lord compensated Hagar by making her the recipient of great promises (16:10–12).

God promised to multiply Hagar’s seed exceedingly (v. 10), making her the only woman recipient of such a promise in the Bible.

God then added particular statements related to her baby (vv. 11–12); that He would listen to her and her descendants in their un-favored social status.

Abraham’s firstborn was predicted to be “a wild donkey of a man” (v. 12). Many have mistaken this prediction as a negative description. But we must harmonize its correct meaning in the context of God’s comfort and listening.

Names of animals are not, by themselves, insults. Five of Jacob’s children bore such descriptions (Gen.49). That the “wild donkey” is envied as a freely roaming animal in the desert is clarified in Bedouin literature and in the Bible (cf. Job 39:5–8; Jer. 2:24; Hos. 8:9). Thus the prediction describes the nomadism that characterized Ishmael and his line in history.

Yet, Ishmael’s love of freedom would result in perpetual struggle (Gen. 16:12). Constant roaming of Bedouin tribes, having no established legal system, would put them in a state of conflict with each other and against outsiders. Thus an enslaved and helpless Hagar, fleeing from the harsh subjection of her mistress, receives the promise of a son who will be free and strong as a nomad in the desert. Such free living has resulted throughout history in the survival until today of nomadic Arabs related to Abraham.

The third oracle in the Hagar narrative is also often misunderstood. The text says that Hagar’s son “shall dwell al-pené all his brethren” (v. 12). Contextual evidence favors a geographical rendering of the expression al-pené against negative renderings (such as “in hostility towards” cf. the NIV and NRSV). Ishmael shall dwell “in the presence of all his brethren.” (The KJV is preferable here.) This oracle plays on the motif of “presence.” Having been pushed away from “the presence” of Sarah (v. 8),

Hagar finds her condition is reversed in the promise of a son who will always be inside the Abrahamic circle and will dwell “in the presence” of all his brethren.

The prediction was that Ishmael would not inherit Abraham’s estate reserved for Isaac (17:19), yet he would continue under the Abrahamic blessings as a circumcised child of Abraham and inherit land from God (vv.20–23).

The proximity serves a double purpose. First, it would be a challenge before Isaac’s descendants, reminding them that faith and not mere blood relationship is the way to enjoy the Abrahamic promised blessings.

Second and most importantly, the proximity would present a potential within the line of Ishmael for conversion through the testimony of Israel (Jer. 12:16).

God’s Plan for Ishmael’s Offspring
This latter purpose—Ishmael’s conversion through the testimony of “his brother”—is more in tune with the heart of God who is eager to bless His children. In fact biblical figures related to Ishmael surface on and off in Scripture as believers in the God of Abraham. Job, Agur, Lemuel, and probably “the magi” are just a few examples of His grace working among Ishmael’s children in biblical history (Job 1:3; Prov. 30–31; Matt. 2).

Thousands of Arabs who lived and died for Christ in early church history were recipients of God’s grace. Still today, thousands are coming to the Savior in the Arab and Muslim world.

The same texts that present evidence for restoration of a Jewish remnant (Isa. 60:1–5) predict the restoration of a larger remnant among the Arabian children of Abraham (vv. 6–7).

The desert has the inherent propensity to yield two extremes. It can produce the toughest elements, but it may also yield spiritual giants. In a post-9/11 world preoccupied mostly with “the tough,” the church must not forget that there are saints in the making, living “in the presence” of people to whom God entrusted the sanctifying message of the gospel.

To read more on the subject of Ishmael in the Bible read Dr. Tony Maalouf’s book Arabs in the Shadow of Israel: The Unfolding of God’s Prophetic Plan for Ishmael’s Line

About Tony Maalouf

Dr. Tony Maalouf was a professor of World Christianity at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and served as an adjunct or visiting professor at numerous other institutions across the globe. He sadly passed away in 2020 after a long struggle with brain cancer. His areas of interest in teaching included Arabs in biblical history and Muslim/Christian relations. Dr. Maalouf wrote extensively on Ishmael, including a book titled "Arabs in the Shadow of Israel" about God's plan for the line of Ishmael. We deeply grieve his loss.