ISHMAEL THE ARAB 1866-1729 BC   by Robert Brow   (

Chapter 4 1815 BC Sarah died

When we were thrown out from our home (21:10-14), Hagar and I moved to the south-west. As we walked, I felt exhilarated and full of courage. I was fifteen years old, and the whole world was mine to conquer. It was a relief to know I no longer had to mind my Sumerian p's and q's and the fussy manners Sarah delighted in.

By the second day we were wandering in an interminable wilderness (21:14) We had finished the skin of water, and Hagar was desperately looking for a spring where the angel had spoken to her sixteen years before (16:7-9). I had thought I could manage the walk to Egypt, but without a camel to ride, and water to drink, the desert is merciless. Nor did I know that desert Arabs are always covered to their ankles with a -dishdasha- (long loose garment) to protect them from sunburn. They also wear the headdress needed to avoid sunstroke.

My head was swirling with fever, and I collapsed in the sand. Hagar pulled me under the only bit of shade she could see (21:15). She couldn't bear to watch me die, so she sat and cried fifty yards away (21:16). I had never prayed the way Abraham did, as if he was talking boldly to God as a friend (2 Chronicles 20:7, as did Moses, Exodus 33:11). But I certainly cried out to God then (21:17). Suddenly Hagar came running back to me. "God has just reassured me you will indeed become a great nation" (21:18). It sounded good, but right then it was water I needed. A minute later Hagar looked up and saw a well. It had been built above the spring she had been trying to find. . She filled the skin with the saltish water, poured it all over me to cool me down and I sipped it till I revived.

When I regained my strength Hagar took out some gold coins and put the pouch back under her clothes. She said Abraham had been very generous to us, and we had all we would need for the next year. We walked into a small town (later called Beersheba, 26:33), and Hagar began bargaining for what she wanted. The first thing was a loose cotton gown and headdress for me. That was what I wore the rest of my life.

The next items were a bow and a quiver of the best arrows. Dates were better for the journey than the pita bread we had been eating. She also beat down a dealer for two camels. And she bought salt, and skins of water to hang over our saddles. Finally she splurged on an outfit fit for a sheikh's mother to wear, but she hid this under her clothes. Better be dressed as a slave till we had warriors to defend us.

I expected Hagar would want us to go west into Egypt to greet her own family. But we went back to spend the night by the spring where the angel had spoken to her sixteen years before. Earlier that morning it was there I had collapsed from sunstroke. But now things felt very different. The next day, we turned our camels in the direction of the sun as it came up on the horizon.

We skirted what had been the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and went straight on towards the great desert (the word Arab means a desert dweller). Somehow Hagar seemed to know where the next oasis or spring of water would be. She would look around carefully and sniff the air, and sure enough we would arrive at vegetation which indicated water just below the ground. I took months to learn that skill. But it is quite simple really: many animals do it as naturally as breathing.

Every time we stopped I worked with my bow and arrows (21:20). I would throw a goat's stomach full of sand as far as I could, and practiced hitting it with an unpointed arrow from a standing position. That was easy enough, but Hagar wanted me to do that riding my camel at full speed.

I soon became the leader of a raiding group. I loved to review them on parade as I had seen my father do. For our flag I chose the crescent moon. And Hagar had a gold crescent made to hang on the neck of the camel for each new recruit (see Judges 8:24-26). I still remember our first raid. We rode two days across the desert, and as we approached an oasis a group of men on camels came out to attack us shouting and brandishing their scimitars. They couldn't get anywhere near us. A few arrows downed two of their leaders (see Isaiah 21:15), and they quickly surrendered their gold and best camels.

When I told the story to Hagar, I mentioned a beautiful girl I had thought of taking as my wife. But Hagar was an Egyptian (16:1-2), and she quickly arranged a marriage for me with a woman of her own country and language (21:21). Our first son was Nebaioth (25:13, 28:9, ancestor of the later Nabateans with their capital in Petra, fifty miles south of the Dead Sea).

God had promised Abraham that I would bring forth twelve princes (17:20), and sure enough after Nebaioth the other eleven soon came in rapid succession. Here is my quiver of twelve arrows (see Psalm 127:3-5):  Nebaioth (25:13, 28:9, 36:3, 1 Chronicles 1:29, Isaiah 60:7) Kedar (25:13, 1 Chronicles 1:29, Psalm 120:5, Song of Solomon 1:5, Isaiah 21:16,17, 42:11, 60:7, Jeremiah 2:10, 49:28-29, Ezekiel 27:21) Abdeel (25:24, 1 Chronicles 1:29) Mibsam (25:14, 1 Chronicles 1:29. It is interesting that among the sons of Simeon the names Mibsam and Mishma occur (1 Chronicles 4:25-26). The tribe of Simeon was in the extreme south of the country, and may have had Arab connections by marriage.) Mishma (25:14, 1 Chronicles 1:30) Dumah (25:14, Isaiah 21:11,12, modern Arabic Dumat-al-Gandal, 1 Chronicles 1:30) Massa (25:14, 1 Chronicles 1:30, Proverbs 31:1 is better translated "Lemuel King of Massa") Hadad (Hadar in 25:15, 1 Chronicles 1:30)
Tema (25:15, 1 Chronicles 1:30, Job 6:19, Isaiah 21:14, Jer 25:23) Jetur (25:15, 1 Chronicles 1:31, 5:19) Naphish (25:15, 1 Chronicles 1:31, 5:19) Kedemah (25:15, 1 Chronicles 1:31.

The listing of the twelve sons of Ishmael among the genealogies in the much later book of Chronicles (1 Chronicles 1:29-31, as well as the as the sons of Keturah (1 Chronicles 1:32-33), and the various clans of Edomites descended from Esau (1 Chronicles 1:35-54), proves that the Jews at that time still viewed the Arabs as blood relatives also descended from Abraham).

While my sons were beginning to take their position as Arab sheikhs, Sarah kept my step-brother Isaac back at home among the Canaanites till she died. I already had numerous grandchildren, but her Esau and Jacob, her first grandchildren, would not be born for another twenty three years.

I arrived too late for Sarah's funeral. By then Abraham had moved his encampment back from among the Philistines to Kiriath-Arba (later called Hebron). I discovered that he had bought a family burial place for us (23:4) for four hundred shekels of silver (23:15). It was sold to him by the Canaanite children of Heth (10:15, 23:20, not to be confused with the Hittites of Asia Minor).

That burial place was very important to my father. It was like a down payment for the land which he expected Isaac's descendants to occupy four hundred years later (13:14-16, 15:13-15, 49:29-30, 50:5, 13, 25, Exodus 13:19). It was to be the place of his own burial next to his wife Sarah (25:7-10, see 35:29). He suggested it had plenty of room for our branch of the family also to be buried there.

I told him that I was an Arab, and I had been excluded from his genealogical line which would descend through Isaac (17:8, 19, 21:10). I would be buried under a pile of stones somewhere in the sands of the desert. He pleaded with me "But isn't this the land that God promised?" (Genesis 13:14-15) I had to remind him that the narrow strip of Canaanite land he lived in would the inheritance of Isaac and his descendants, not mine.

I could see my father was hurt and very angry. I had learned from him that the best thing to do before there is a fatal quarrel is to shut up and wait till the storm quietens. We sat together in silence for half an hour. Then he got up and hugged me, and that seemed to go on for another half hour. Then he dried his tears and said, "Ishmael, you are my firstborn son, and I had always loved you until I had to send you away. I have felt guilty about that every day for these past sixty years. What is the inheritance that God has given to you?"

I explained my mother Hagar had told me it would have to be an area vast enough for our offspring who would be so multiplied "that they cannot be counted for multitude" (16:10). God himself had told Abraham that he would be "the ancestor of a multitude of nations" (17:4). One nation would be connected with the genealogical line from Isaac. But God had also told him I would be father of twelve princes (17:20), and they were already born and beginning to take their place as Arab sheikhs.

He looked puzzled. "Why didn't you tell me about your sons?" I told him I had sent messages about the birth of each one, but Sarah must have intercepted them because Isaac wasn't even married yet. "Why didn't you come home and give me the news?" I reminded him how he had disowned me (21:10-14) and Sarah certainly didn't want me around..

What is this territory that you have inherited? This was where the geography lessons I had received from Sarai came in handy. "In the past sixty years I have explored the areas to the east and north and south of the Jordan valley. We have cousins descended from Aram around Haran (10:22, 11:27-32, later part of Syria). There are remnants of our family that remain in the area you came from between the Euphrates and the Tigris (now called Iraq). There are the children of Lot east of the Dead Sea; others of us live to the south in Egypt and along the south of the Great sea (North Africa); and there is the area I now call Arabia, which extends a thousand miles to the south east between the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea (later named Arabia).

He hugged me again, and said "Now at last you have come back to me, and I can see you have understood what God had in mind. I will tell Isaac to explain to his descendants that their ancestral home is this side of the Jordan Valley from Beersheba to the bottom of the white mountains" (now called Lebanon). You can have the rest, and if you dig long enough you will find the treasure God has hidden for you under the sand."

A note on the promised land

Abraham was told to go to a land that God would indicate to him (Genesis 12:1) It is defined as "north and south, east and west" but only as far as Abraham could see from a place just north of Jerusalem (Genesis 13:14-15). Moses was later promised more or less the same land as seen from the top of Mount Nebo across the Jordan valley (Deuteronomy 32:48-49; 34:1-3). It is usually called the area from Dan to Beersheba, from the source of the Jordan on the south slope of Lebanon to the Negeb.

In the ancient quarrel between Arabs and the Jews it is interesting that only the very small strip of land from Dan to Beersheba is claimed by the Jewish children of Israel. This fact is obscured by the first Bible translators who assumed that the Hebrew word parath or "river" must always be translated as the Euphrates. It was the Greeks who gave the river Euphrates its name. Herodotus named it "the river that makes glad" (from the Greek, euphraino). But that does not prove that the word parath in the Hebrew Bible always refers to the Euphrates which was a very distant five hundred miles to the north.

The word parath occurs in fourteen passages of the Old Testament, and in half of these passages it would make much better sense to translate it as "the river Jordan." This would be on the assumption that parath meant any river, and it was viewed as great or overflowing in comparison with the smaller wadis of the land. In the following verses let us try translating "Jordan" instead of "Euphrates." God said to Abraham "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt (probably the very large wadi fifty miles south of Beersheba) to the great river, the river Jordan" (Genesis 15:18). This seems a believable area for what Jews later took to be their land, and it exactly fits the various tribes which are mentioned in the next verse. But if in this verse we translate parath as "the Euphrates" we have to include Damascus and another two hundred miles of Mesopotamia to the north.

At the beginning of Deuteronomy Moses reminds the people that they were to go in and occupy Canaanite territory from Lebanon to the Jordan (Deuteronomy 1:7). To suggest they were to take the area up to the Euphrates is inconceivable. Similarly Moses outlines the promised land as "from the wilderness (the Negeb) to Lebanon and from the Jordan to the Mediterranean" (Deuteronomy 11:24). Joshua is told to cross the Jordan and occupy the same territory (Joshua 1:4). There would be no point in crossing the Jordan to mount a campaign five hundred miles north towards the Euphrates.

David is described as defeating the Syrian king of Zobah at the river Jordan (2 Samuel 8:3-6; 1 Chronicles 18:3). There is no historical evidence to suggest that David ever took an army up the Euphrates. When the Chronicler mentions Reubenite territory "this side of the Jordan" it makes far more geographic sense then trying to stretch the boundary of that tribe up to the Euphrates (1 Chronicles 5:9).

By the time of Pharaoh Necho's defeat at Carchemish it seems that the word parath was understood as referring to the Euphrates and not the river Jordan (2 Kings 23:19; 2 Chronicles 35:20; Jeremiah 46:2, 6, 10; 51:63). But in the story of the linen girdle it makes better sense for Jeremiah to have hidden the garment by the river Jordan, since there is no account of him leaving the area of Jerusalem to travel all the way to the Euphrates (Jeremiah 13:4, 5, 6, 7)

This digression was needed to explain how the Jewish claim to territory has always stretched from Dan to Beersheba in a rough rectangle bounded by Mediterranean on the west, Mount Lebanon to the north, the Jordan valley, and the Negeb as far as the big Wadi on the way to Egypt. It is also defined as "from Lake Huleh (the Sea of Reeds) to the Mediterranean (the Sea of the Philistines), across the Negeb (the desert), and up the river" (Exodus 23:31; here the NRSV inexcusably translates ha nahar as the Euphrates).

In all other cases the Jewish promised land in Canaan is again and again very sharply limited (Numbers 32:29-30; 34:1-12; Deuteronomy 32:49; 34:1-4; Joshua 3:10-11; 13:1-7). It therefore seems certain that Jewish territory was understood to be bounded on the east by the Jordan valley. When Reubenites and Gadites asked for territory beyond the Jordan, Moses granted their request but expressly pointed out that it was not part of the land given by God (Numbers 32:1-7). If we translate -parath- correctly as the Jordan, instead of the Euphrates, there is no suggestion anywhere that the Euphrates was ever viewed as a border for Israel.

(This geographical note is taken from the article "Arabs and the Bible" on this web site)

Chapter   5 .....