Coat of Many Colors

A Geek and the Bible

Ishmael’s Children and Descendants

Ishmael by James Tissot (Source: Wikimedia Commons)The story of Ishmael is the next to come to a close, in the middle of Genesis 25. But before he passes away at the ripe old age of 137, the bible tells us a bit more about his children. Ishmael’s family, like Abraham’s children with Keturah, don’t factor into the biblical story directly. Instead, they are the founders of twelve more tribes of Canaan that the post-exodus Hebrews will have to deal with upon their return.

These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, listed in the order of their birth: Nebaioth the firstborn of Ishmael, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedemah. These were the sons of Ishmael, and these are the names of the twelve tribal rulers according to their settlements and camps.
Genesis 25:13-16

I thought it would be fun, just like I did with Abraham’s kids, to look at what the bible says about each of these twelve tribes and how they impacted our story, in big and small ways. One omission from this list, is Ishmael’s daughter (Mahalath, otherwise known as Basemath), but that story is complicated enough that I’m going to save it for another time.

I know that genealogies bore some of you to tears, but I love them and the way little connections are sprinkled throughout the bible, if you care to look for them. They make me feel like it’s all part of one connected story, rather than   bumps along the road to Jerusalem. Every story is important, though some are more fun than others.

Twelve more tribes for Ishmael! Read on for more.

(This story is part of my ongoing series of looks at bible stories from beginning to end. You may enjoy reading others. The links on the right at coatofmanycolors.net will allow you to select stories based on biblical figure or chapter, or you can start at the beginning, though I feel I am improving as I go and am somewhat embarrassed about the earliest posts.)

Ishmael's Children

Ishmael’s Children (Click to Enlarge)

Nebaoith

Of Ishmael’s twelve sons, only five of them founded tribes which are directly mentioned again. Nebaoith is Ishmael’s first born, and possibly (but not conclusively) from a different mother than the other sons. The hint is that Ishmael’s daughter is twice referred to as “sister of Nebaoith” (in Genesis 28 and 36), rather than using a more generic term for the sons, but this may be just speculation. We only know of one wife for Ishmael: an Egyptian woman that Hagar finds for him in Genesis 21. Other wives or concubines wouldn’t have been out of the question however.

Despite prominently being called the “first born” in both places it is mentioned, the Tribe of Nebaoith is mentioned only once later: by Isaiah in 60:7. In the future, he predicts, “the rams of Nebaoith will serve you”. Not much to go on there, but it suggests some level of antagonism between the groups, though they didn’t war enough to warrant a more direct mention.

Kedar

Kedar is the most important of the Ishmaelite tribes, mentioned a total of eleven times. Kedar settled off of the east, probably in modern-day Jordan, and perhaps even further west at the edge of the Israelite world during the time of the prophets. God, through Jeremiah, says from the “coasts of Cyprus” to Kedar (in Jeremiah 2:10) as a metaphor for the whole of the Israeli world at the time, west to east, just like Americans might say from “New York to LA” to mean our whole country.

Kedar must have been a consistent thorn in the Israelite sides. Psalm 120 says that they “hate peace”:

Woe to me that I dwell in Meshek, that I live among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I lived among those who hate peace.
I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.
Psalm 120:5-7

And yet, the bible never explicitly depicts battles with the Kedar. Isaiah prophesies against them, but there’s no clear battles or narratives– at least with the Israelites. Instead, we have a picture of a tribe of “splendor” with formidable archers (Isaiah 21:16-17), they traded as far as Tyre in modern Lebanon (Ezekiel 27:21), and they had dark-colored tents (Song of Songs 1:5).

The one story of a battle in the bible against Kedar comes by way of Babylon, rather than the Israelites. Jeremiah reports that they were attacked and defeated by  Nebuchadnezzar, though how much of that is Israelite schadenfreude, it is difficult to say:

Their tents and their flocks will be taken; their shelters will be carried off with all their goods and camels.
People will shout to them,‘Terror on every side!’

Jeremiah 49:29

The Kedar, also spelled Qedar, are well-attested from extra-biblical sources. They were part of the Asyrrian Empire just shy of a thousand years after when Ishmael would have lived. Wikipedia has some good information on them.

Dumah

ishmael-children-map

Ishmael’s children settled in the area from Havilah to Shur according to Genesis 25:18. Locations are approximate. Errors in biblical geography are mine.

The tribe of Dumah might not have gone far or reached the same level of success as Kedar. Dumah was the name of a town which was given to the tribe of Judah by Joshua during the partition of Israel (Joshua 15:52). The NIV suggests that Dumah is al alternative name for Edom, though as the Edomite tribes were descended from Esau, I’m not sure the bible suggests as much.

By the time of Isaiah, the Dumah lived near Mount Seir (to the west of their original territory, on the Sinai peninsula) and he prophesied against them, though frankly I have no idea what he is trying to say:

A prophecy against Dumah: Someone calls to me from Seir, “Watchman, what is left of the night? Watchman, what is left of the night?” The watchman replies, “Morning is coming, but also the night. If you would ask, then ask; and come back yet again.”
Isaiah 21:11-12

Oh, Isaiah! You and your cryptic prophesies!

Jetur and Naphish

The tribes of Jetur and Naphish are mentioned only once, when they are defeated by an army composed of members of the Israelite tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh. Their land is seized, many are taken captive, and they are never heard from again in the bible:

They waged war against the Hagrites, Jetur, Naphish and Nodab. They were helped in fighting them, and God delivered the Hagrites and all their allies into their hands, because they cried out to him during the battle. […] They also took one hundred thousand people captive, and many others fell slain, because the battle was God’s. And they occupied the land until the exile.
1 Chronicles 5:19-22

Was this the end of Jetur and Naphish? The bible is silent.

Ishmael’s Remaining Sons

Other than those five, none of Ishmael’s other sons are directly named in the bible. Mibsam and Mishma come up again, but as descendants of Simeon rather than Ishmael. While those two individuals could have been named for the tribes, or in honor of Ishmael’s sons themselves, it is also possible they are just common names. One ethnographic theory would be that shifting Mibsam and Mishma from Ishmaelite tribes to Hebrew ones would reflect closer ties during the writing of the Chronicles than during the writing of Genesis. In any case, the exact reason for the duplication is lost to history.

Tema has a similar story: the Temanites, a tribe most famous for Eliphaz the Temanite from the Book of Job, could have been named after Tema, but it is more likely that they are descended from Esau’s grandson Teman. Could Teman have been named after Tema? That’s possible too, especially as Esau and Ishmael’s line inter-married, but again the bible is silent on the connection, if any.

Final Thoughts

Ishmael made off pretty well for a guy abandoned to die in the desert, though as described in the previous story, it seems he got over that. Like the death of Abraham, this story isn’t in chronological order. In the text, this story is before the birth of Jacob and Esau, but based on the ages given it’s likely that Ishmael died some time later– probably around the time Jacob was working off his second bride with Laban.

Up next will be either the first story of Jacob and Esau where the elder twin Esau sells his birthright for the first time, or perhaps I will jump ahead to talk about Ishmael’s daughter while she’s still fresh in my mind. Guess we’ll see!

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