It is popular lore among the Bedouin that they are the descendents of Ishmael, son of Abraham and Hagar.1 Jewish biblical accounts of the Ishmaelite tribes cast them as nomadic people of the desert. According to Encyclopedia Judaica:
The Ishmaelites are described as Bedouin who live in the desert, raise camels (see especially the inclusion of Obil the Ishmaelite, who was "over the camels," among David's officers, I Chron. 27:30)…[and] engaged in caravan trade (Gen. 37:25).2
The Ishmaelite line begins with Abraham and Hagar. The Bible teaches “Ten years after Abram [later renamed Abraham] had settled in the land of Canaan, Abram’s wife Sarai [later renamed Sarah] took her slave Hagar the Egyptian and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. He came to Hagar and she became pregnant; and when she saw that she had become pregnant, her mistress became for her an object of scorn.” (Genesis 16:3-4)
Sarai afflicted Hagar so badly that she fled from the abuse, escaping into the wilderness of the Negev.
[There,] an angel of God found her at a spring of water in the wilderness on the road to Shur. [The angel] said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai: Whence have you come and where are you going?”
Hagar answered, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.”
The angel of God said to her, “Return to your mistress [Sarai] and submit to her ill-treatment.”
The angel of God went on to say to her, “I will greatly multiply your descendants; they shall be too numerous to count.” And the angel of God continued: “Look — You are pregnant and shall bear a son; call him Ishmael, for God has heard your affliction. He shall be a wild ass of a man; his hand shall be against all and the hand of all shall be against him; he shall dwell in the face of all his kin.”3
So Hagar called God who had been speaking to her, “You are El Ro’i” – meaning by this “Even here I have seen the back of the One who looks upon me!” That is why that well– the one located between Kadesh and Bered – is called Be’er-lachai-ro’i. (Genesis 16:7-14)
Hagar then returned to Sarai and Abram and gave birth to Ishmael. Sarai/Sarah’s enmity toward Hagar and Ishmael continued. Abraham heeded his wife’s demand to cast Hagar and Ishmael out of their camp into the wilderness of Beersheba. God assuaged Abraham’s grief about doing so and promised to provide them divine protection so they would not die in the desert. It was then foretold that the descendents of both of Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael, would co-exist as two great nations.
And God said to Abraham, “Do not be grieved over the boy [Ishmael] or your slave [Hagar]. Do whatever Sarah tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be called yours. Yet I will also make a nation out of the children of the slave’s son [Hagar’s son Ishmael], for he, too, is your offspring.” (Genesis 21:12-13)
Just when Hagar thought she and Ishmael were going to die of thirst in the Negev desert, “God then opened her eyes, and she saw a well” (Genesis 21:19) and they survived. Despite the grave wrongs done to him and his mother, Ishmael reconciled with his brother Isaac when they reunited to bury their father Abraham.
Ishmael bore 12 sons: Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Duma, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedmah.
These then are Ishmael’s sons, and these are their names, by their villages and encampments – twelve princes by their tribes. And these are the years of Ishmael’s life: 137; he then expired and died and was gathered to his people. They occupied the area from Havilah [believed to be in the Arabian peninsula] to Shur [which is believed to be in the Sinai peninsula], which is near Egypt on the way to Ashur. He settled in the presence of all his kin. (Genesis 25:12-18)
Regardless of whether these biblical stories are perceived as historic accounts of the foundational beginnings of the Jewish and Bedouin people or simply modern allegories, these parables provide us with hope and inspiration that long-term coexistence between Jews and non-Jews in the Negev is possible.
3 Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss offered commentary suggesting that this description of Ishmael’s attributes was intended as positive metaphors implying that he would be strong and virile. They also interpreted “he shall dwell” as “Ishmael will be the father of a people neighboring Israel.”