ISHMAEL THE ARAB 1866-1729 BC   by Robert Brow   (

Postscript on Later Arab History

Writing only 36 years ago a best selling historian wrote that "Owing to a lack of documented writings before the Romans developed the papyrus plant in Egypt, early Arab history was largely confined to legends, proverbs and poems which were handed down by word of mouth and not committed to paper for hundreds of years after the events to which they referred" (Anthony Nutting, The Arabs: A Narrative History from Mohammed to the Present, New York: Mentor 1965, p.14).

Using dozens of texts from the first book of the Jewish Bible we have pictured Ishmael as the ancestor of the Arabs. Genesis was written in its present form at least a thousand years before Egypt became a Roman province. And it certainly does not look like a book of legends. We have noted a totally self-consistent framework of dates, and the very careful genealogies of five groups of Arab tribes whose origins are closely connected with Ishmael and his twelve sons.

Whereas the Jewish descendants of Isaac tended to be exclusive and closely tied to the land of Canaan, the Arab vision was to include any who would join them. In addition to the twelve tribes descended from Ishmael's sons (Genesis 17:20), other tribes connected more or less closely with Abraham joined themselves by marriage (36:2-3) to the Arab brotherhood. We have pictured this beginning to happen through Ishmael's personal vision, but it took a long time to come to fruition, and there were setbacks..

Ishmael died in 1729 B.C. (This date could be moved 200 years up or down according to the historical framework we decide to use). From that date fourteen centuries went by before the Greek and Roman empires came on the scene. We will now document during those centuries the constant contacts between the Jewish children of Isaac and the Arab children of Ishmael. After the death of Ishmael (1866-1729) the Old Testament focuses on the history of the Jewish people descended from Abraham's grandson Jacob. But the numerous texts that refer to tribes related to Ishmael prove that the Israelites were in constant contact with their Arab neighbors.

30 years after the death of Ishmael Esau came to meet Jacob as he returned from serving Laban among the Arameans of Haran. He came with 400 men from the area of Seir. Evidently by then this Edomite tribe was powerful enough to field an army of 400 men. (Genesis 32:6, 33:1) There was a reconciliation between the two brothers (Genesis 33:4), and then Esau returned to his tribal area south of the Dead Sea (see Genesis 36:6-8)..

Another thirty years later Isaac (1852-1672) died, and both brothers Esau and Jacob were there to bury him in the cave of Macpelah, where Sarah and Abraham were buried in the town now called Hebron (Genesis 23:19, 25:7-10, 35:28-29). This shows that 60 years after the death of Ishmael there were peaceful and brotherly contacts between the Arab and Jewish cousins.

In Genesis 36 we have a very careful genealogical list written by Jewish scribes of the various clans of the tribe of Edom. From Esau's son Eliphaz came the families of Teman, Omar, Zepho, Gatam, and Kenaz. A second son Reuel had Nahath, Zerah, Shammah, and Mizzah. There is also a list of the first dynasty of eight Arab "kings who reigned in the land of Edom, before any king reigned over the Israelites" (36:31-39). This must have been recorded at a time when the genealogies of the Arab cousins was still of great importance for the Jewish line of Jacob.

67 years after the death of Ishmael, Isaac's son Joseph was sold to Midianite traders by his brothers (Genesis 37:28), and they sold him as a slave in Egypt. The interesting thing is that already by this time the Midianites could also be called Ishmaelites. This shows that, not only were they engaged in extensive trade, but this tribe was already viewed as part of the Ishmaelite Arab brotherhood (Genesis 37:27-28). In our day it is acceptable for the Welsh to be called British, but they could never be called English. Similarly there is no problem with Midianites, or any other tribe being called Bene-Ishmael (children of Ishmael). But as we will see later in this chapter the leadership of the Arab brotherhood tended to be united under the lineage of a pure Ishmaelite leadership.

Moses had spent forty years with the tribe of Midian (descended from Abraham's concubine Keturah, Genesis 25:1-2) and he stayed with Reuel (friend of God) the priest of Midian. The priest had seven daughters and Moses married Zipporah. Moses' son, Gershom, was therefore half Arab (Exodus 2:15-22).

Three hundred years after the death of Ishmael there was the Jewish Exodus from Egypt (Other dates are given by various scholars, but 1447 BC. fits the framework we have used for this book). For the next 40 years they wandered through Arab territory on their way through the Sinai desert and up the Jordan valley. The Arab tribes they encountered are clearly identified and located in their areas : Amalekites (Exodus 14:25, 24:20), Edomites (Numbers 20:14-18, 21:24) Moab (Exodus 21:10, 22:1), Ammonites (Exodus 21:24, Deuteronomy 2:19-21, 23:3-6), Midian (Exodus 25:1-15). As we have seen in previous chapters, these Arab tribes are all descended directly from Abraham, or his nephew Lot.

Joshua was the general who succeeded Moses and he died about 1367 BC. In his last speech he spoke in the name of :the Lord, the God of Israel. "I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac, and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt" (Joshua 24:2-4). Here the Jewish Lord God of Abraham allocates the land of Canaan to the children of Isaac, but he also puts the area across the Jordan valley into Arab hands (see Deuteronomy 2:19, Joshua 12:2-3).

During the period of the Judges (say about 1350 to 1050 BC) Moab, with the help of the tribes of Ammon and Amalek took the City of Palms (Jericho), and subjugated Israel for 18 years (Judges 3:12-14). Some time later a coalition of Midianites, Amalekites (descended from Esau, Genesis 36:12), and Easterners (descended from Keturah , Genesis 25:6) overran the Israelites (Judges 6:1-6). They were later defeated by Gideon, and as in the story of Joseph these tribes are viewed as part of the Ishmaelite Arab brotherhood (Judges 8:22-24). Similarly the tribe of Ammon "crushed and oppressed the Israelites" for another period of 18 years (Judges 10:7-9). But under the leadership of Jephtah they were driven back and subdued (Judges 11:4-6, 32-33).

Saul became the first king of Israel. He defeated five Arab tribes, Moab, Ammon, Edom,and Amalek, and Zobah (an Aramean tribe, 1 Samuel 14:47-48). This indicates that the Arameans (Syrians) had by this time joined the Arab brotherhood. David, the second king of Israel,also defeated the Moabites and Arameans (Syrians) and placed garrisons there to collect tribute (2 Samuel 8:2-6). A few years later David defeated a different grouping of Arameans and Ammonites (2 Samuel 10:6-19).

In the previous chapter we suggested that Ishmael may have established contacts with the family of Abraham's brother Haran who had settled among the Arameans (Syrians, descended from Shem, Genesis 10:23). Both Isaac married Rebekah and Jacob married Leah and Rachel from that tribal grouping. We do not know when the people of Syria began calling themselves Arabs, but they were certainly never part of the Jewish people,. Throughout the Old Testament historical period there are references to contacts, wars, and alliances with them (e.g. 2 Samuel 8:6, 11:25, 15:8, 1 Kings 10:29, 22:1, 2 Kings 5:1, 6:8, 8:28, Syria is mentioned 40 times in these books). Obviously these battles were written by Jews from their national point of view. But they show that these Arab tribes are still named and grouped in the same way as they were at the end of Ishmael's life 700 years before.

A sister of the Jewish King David was Abigail and she was married to Jether the Ishmaelite (1 Chronicles 2:13-17). And after King David had handed over the regency to Solomon (1 Chronicles 23:1), one of David's servants was Obil the Ishmaelite, who was in charge of the camels (1 Chronicles 27:30). Obviously the Ishmaelites of the desert were viewed as the most qualified to be in charge of the royal camels, but the text also points to the fact of contacts and even intermarriage between Israelites and Arabs.

When David became king over Israel and Judah he forced the Moabites (descended from Lot) to pay him tribute (2 Samuel 8:2). He also put garrisons to control Edom (descended from Esau, 2 Samuel 8:14), and carried off silver and gold from Edom and Moab, the Ammonites (both descended from Lot, Genesis 19:37-38) and the Amalekites (descended from Esau, Genesis 36:12, see 1 Chronicles 18:11). Though Arabs might well imagine that some of the victories are exaggerated, the texts certainly prove that these Arab tribes still retained their identity seven hundred years after the death of Ishmael.

Perhaps as a result of these victories King David and his son Solomon were able to build a fleet of ships in Edomite territory at Eloth (present day Elath) on the Gulf of Aqaba (1 Kings 9:26). Building a navy two hundred miles away in Edomite territory would only be possible when there was military control or a firm peace agreement. The ships enabled them to sail down the Red Sea to Ophir (present day Yemen, occupied by Arabs descended from Yoktan, Genesis 10:25-26). In addition to sandalwood and spices, they brought back four hundred talents of gold (30,000 lbs = 13,600 kg, with a present day value $1.5 billion, 1 Kings 9:26-28, 10:11, 2 Chronicles 8:17, 9:10).

As a result of this impressive trading expedition the Queen of Sheba (One of the thriteen Arab tribes descended from Yoktan (Genesis 10:25-29) came to visit King Solomon. That was a journey of 1,200 miles passing through areas occupied by many Arab tribes. She came "with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones; and when she came to Solomon, she told him all that was on her mind" (1 Kings 10:2). She may have been keen to discuss the safe passage needed for her caravans to travel through Jewish territory. But the fact that "she came to test him with hard questions" (1 Kings 10:1) perhaps suggested that she was also interested in questions related to faith in the God of Abraham.

A hundred years after the time of Solomon King Jehoshaphat of Jerusalem tried to duplicate Solomon's naval expedition to obtain gold from the area now called the Yemen. He "made ships of the Tarshish type to go to Ophir for gold; but they did not go, for the ships were wrecked at Ezion-geber" (1 Kings 22:48). What is interesting is that Jehoshaphat was able to do this at time when "there was no king in Edom; a deputy was king (1 Kings 22:47). But such ship building expeditions in Arab territory would always be precarious. And this was always precarious. One of the psalms speaks of plans to destroy Israel by a grouping of Arab tribes including Edomites, Ishmaelites, Moabites, Ammonites, and Amalekites (Psalm 83:3-7).

Though many wars between Jews and Arabs are described in the Bible from the Jewish point of view, it is also clear that there were wars between the tribes in the Arab brotherhood. Ezekiel refers to the Ammonites (descended from Lot, Genesis 19:38), who were going to be attacked by the people of the East (tribes descended from Keturah, Abraham's concubine, Genesis 25:1-5, Ezekiel 25:1-4).

Isaiah prophesied about a thousand years after the death of Ishmael, but he refers to four Arab tribes with which he is obviously very familiar. Dumah, the Dedanites, Tema, and Kedar (Isaiah 21:11-17, see 42:11).

Jeremiah announced some reasons for the imminent wrath that would fall upon the tribe of Moab (descended from Lot). Contrary to the Abrahamic faith of Ishmael, they had appointed priests who led them into idolatry to worship the god Chemosh (Jeremiah 48:11). As a result "Judgment has come upon the tableland, upon Holon, and Jahzah, and Mephaat, and Dibon, and Nebo (the mountain from where Moses viewed the promised land, Deuteronomy 34:1), Beth-diblathaim, and Kiriathaim, and Beth-gamul, and Beth-meon, and Kerioth, and Bozrah" (Jeremiah 48:21-24, see Moabite territory in Numbers 21:13-20). It may not be possible to identify the locations of these towns, but they were obviously well known to the Jewish prophet Jeremiah on the other side of the Jordan valley. It is also significant that although Moab was to be destroyed (Jeremiah 48:39, 42) the chapter ends with "Yet I will restore the fortunes of Moab in the latter days, says the Lord" (Jeremiah 48:47).

Jeremiah had a similar complaint against Ammon (descended from Lot) who had appointed idolatrous priests to serve the god Milcom. They would also be decimated, but again the Lord says "But afterward I will restore the fortunes of the Ammonites" (Jeremiah 49:3, 6). It is significant that this Jewish prophet has no doubt that after a thousand years of constant wars against them the God of Abraham is still interested in these two Arab tribes.

The prophet Ezekiel prophesied just before the fall of Jerusalem in 587. He wrote a lament over the imminent destruction of the Phoenician city of Tyre. He lists five Arab tribes who had traded with that city on the Mediterranean. "Dedan (descended from Keturah, Genesis 25:3) traded with you in saddlecloths for riding. Arabia and all the princes of Kedar (Ishmael's sons, Genesis 25:13) were your favored dealers in lambs, rams, and goats; in these they did business with you. The merchants of Sheba (present day Yemen, see 1 Kings 10:1-2) and Raamah (also in the Yemen) traded with you; they exchanged for your wares the best of all kinds of spices, and all precious stones and gold." (Ezekiel 27:20-22).

It is only in the last book of the Jewish prophets that the descendants of Esau are viewed as under God's final judgment (Malachi 1:2-5, but see Jeremiah 49:7-22, Lamentations 4:22, Ezekiel 25:12-13, Joel 3:19, Amos 1:11-12, 2:1-3, ). But we should put alongside this the equally severe judgments on Israel (in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos 2:4-8). We also note Jesus' prophecy that the Jewish religious establishment of Jerusalem would be ended in that generation, as happened in AD 70 (Matthew 23:36, 24:1-9). But when Paul the Jewish rabbi spoke of God's severe judgment on his own people, he also predicts their eventual restoration (Romans 10:12, 24,-25). In their history Israel and the Arabs have both experienced times of terrible judgment, but from God's point of view that is never the end of the story.

Finally we go on another hundred years to the time when Ezra and Nehemiah were restoring Jerusalem after the exile. A group of Arab tribes are mentioned as opposing the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. They were led by "Samballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arab" (Nehemiah 2:19, 4:7, 6:1, see 13:23). This is further evidence to prove that throughout the Jewish Bible and fourteen centuries after the death of Ishmael the original grouping of Arab tribes was still known among the Jewish people.

As among present day Europeans, there were often squabbles over territorial boundaries, and there could be vicious wars. But the constant throughout Old Testament history was a continual hostility between the Arabs outside the land of Canaan and the Jewish inhabitants of the land which was called Canaan till the invasion under Joshua. And the frequent periods of hostility continue to this day.

In previous chapters we have noted that communication between Israel and her Arab neighbors was possible because they had the common language which Abraham and his sons learned in Canaan. Modern scholars call this language West Semitic, but according to the biblical terminology this was a Hamitic language (Genesis 10:6, 15) which had displaced the previous Sumerian (Shemitic) language that Abraham had spoken in Ur (Genesis 10:21-24, 11:10-32, see the Introduction to this book). This meant that both Jews and Arabs were originally Sumerian by race, but they spoke the language of Canaan, which was a dialect of the Aramaic language that was understood all over the Arab lands.

From the beginning of the Christian era there is no need to repeat the huge amount of historical information that is available about the Arab people. Though Jesus was a Jew, and his followers were called Christians, the faith which he taught was the faith of Abraham. He was opposed by the Pharisee legalists on the one hand and Sadduccee priestly class on the other (Matthew 9:14, 16:1, 6-12, 23:1-32, ). And we have suggested that the original Abrahamic faith of Ishmael had no time for legalistic rules of behavior, or for priests offering sacrifice in elaborate temples. The Sadduccees did not believe in the resurrection of the body, whereas this became an essential part of Arab theology. And like Jesus, Ishmael continued his father Abraham's very personal relationship to God as Father and friend. That had always made the idea of making an idol of God totally abhorrent.

That is why it is not surprising that the life and teachings of Jesus were very appealing to the Arab people.. Whereas the Christian churches were viciously persecuted in the Roman empire till the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in AD 312, there was a mushrooming of churches growing to the east during the first four centuries of the Christian era. There were hundreds of churches established in all the Arab tribes we have listed. Among the bishops at the Synod of Antioch in 364 Theotinus is listed as Bishop of the Arabs (John Foster, Church History, AD 29-500, 1972, p.109). By the time of Muhammad in the seventh century there were still five churches in the area of Bahrein located at Hatta, Darin, Masmahia, Tylus Island (Bahrein) and Hegha (Mary Heolund, Atlas of the Early Church World, 1958. p. 36). But without an Arabic Bible it was impossible for ordinary people to distinguish Christian teaching from Islam, and it seems probable that the vast majority of Arab Christians at that time became Muslim.

When Muhammad became a prophet, and wrote the Qur'an, he certainly could not have distinguished his message from what we have called the faith of Abraham. He believed in one God, required circumcision for male children and converts, and had no time for priests and temples. He was totally opposed to idolatry. As we have seen, there were Arab tribes such as the Ammonites and Moabites, who fell into the hands of priests who taught them pagan idolatrous practices. This had occured in Mecca before Muhammad was able to cleanse the Kaaba from idols and heathen images on its walls. But most of his work was restoring the genuine faith of Abraham and Ishmael among the Arab people. And politically he was able to reunite the many feuding Arab tribes and form them into one brotherhood. That is the vision we have suggested goes back to Ishmael the founder of the Arab people.

What remains for Arabs, Jews, and Christians as we enter the next millenium is to fulfill the third part of the original promise to Abraham. God is interested in each nation having a land, and each nation prospering and multiplying, but the real concern of His heart is that all nations should be blessed by the faith of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3).