Abraham _NOT_ the Father of Ishmael and the Arabs?

Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld y de la Torre, M.A. Ed.

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18 November 2000

This article will argue that the Book of Genesis possesses clues that reveal that Abraham is not in fact the father of Ishmael and the Arabs. After a presentation and analysis of these clues utilizing recent discoveries by Humanist scholars investigating the "pre-biblical history" of the Arabic peoples, a proposal is made as to why he was "fictiously" made the father of the Arabs.

Genesis tells us that Abraham's first son was Ishmael, born of  Sarah's "handmaiden", an Egyptian called Hagar (Ge 16:1-17), Ishmael's progeny being later enumerated (Ge 25:12-16). Apparently, after Sarah's death (Ge 23:1), Abraham marries again and has additional sons by another wife, Keturah, and they are portrayed as the progenitors of various Arabic tribes in proximity to the Land of Canaan (Ge 25:1-4).

According to current Humanist scholarship, all of the "Ishmaelite" Arabic names have been accounted for with the exception of Kedemah (Ge 25:15).


"Kedemah (or Qedmah) is the only 'son of Ishmael' not attested in any extrabiblical source..." ((p.515, Vol. 3, Ernst Axel Knauf, "Ishmaelites," David Noel Freedman, et al. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Doubleday. New York. 1992. ISBN 0-385-19361-0)

The first clue that we have that Abraham is not in fact the father of Ishmael, is the statement that he was 86 years old when Ishmael was born (Ge 16:16). He is aged 137 years at Sarah's death, when he apparently marries Keturah (cf. Ge 17:17; 23:1), which suggests he really isn't the father of "the progenitors" of the Arabic tribes.  

Was the narrator of Genesis aware that men aged 86-137 years were incapable of fathering children ? It would seem so, from Abraham's statement of disbelief that he will be a father (Ge 17:17). Of course, it is the intent of the narrator to convince his audience that with God, the impossible is possible, and that women aged 90 years and men aged 100 years can produce children (Ge 17:15-19; 21:1-7).

If  it is physically impossible for Abraham to be the father of Ishmael and the Arabs, then why this portrayal on the narrator's part ?  The answer partially lies in dating the book of Genesis. As the reader may well be aware, there are a wide range of scholarly opinions as to just when Genesis was composed, ranging from the days of Moses in the 15th century BCE, to Solomon's world in the 10th century, to Josiah's era of the 7th century, to the Exilic world of the 6th century, or a Post-exilic world anywhere from the 5th to 1st centuries BCE.

My research suggests that the "Primary History,"  (Genesis to 2 Kings) is a composition of the 6th century BCE, and composed in the Exile ca. 562 BCE.  The "Primary History" is a national history from the beginnings of the world to the year 562-560 BCE, the reign of the babylonian king Evil-Merodach (cf. 2 Kings 25:27). In historical compositions endings date beginnings, so at the very earliest, Genesis could not have been composed before ca. 562-560 BCE. When an author composes a work, he has to envision a beginning, a middle and an end. In antiquity, historians frequently used a literary device called a "ring composition." In a "ring composition," the beginning foreshadows the end, and the end alludes back to the beginning. The "Primary History" uses such a device, revealing it is the composition of one author. Genesis opens with Adam and Eve being expelled from an earthly paradise, the Garden of Eden, for violating God's command and 2Kings 25:27 ends with the nation of Israel expelled from their earthly paradise (likened to the Garden of Eden in some verses cf. Isa 51:3; Eze 36:35; Joel 2:3) for the same reason, violating God's command or Torah. 

Whitelam has made a cogent penetrating observation in a recent work, to the effect that all histories are "political statements." They offer rationalizations, excuses, and justifications, for the behavior or actions which arose in a nation's past in relation to other peoples. I  find myself in agreement with Whitelam on this important insight.


"The conceptualization and representation of the past is fraught with difficulty, not simply because of the ambiguities and paucity of  data  BUT BECAUSE THE CONSTRUCTION OF HISTORY, WRITTEN OR ORAL, PAST OR PRESENT, IS A POLITICAL ACT...The picture of Israel's past as presented in much of the Hebrew Bible is a fiction, a fabrication like most pictures of the past constructed by ancient (and, we might add, modern) societies. The oft-cited dictum that any construction of the past is informed by the present is as applicable to representations of the past which have come down to us from antiquity as it is to the works of modern historians. A primary question which has to be borne in mind is, 'What function does this particular representation of the past fulfil and what other possible representations of the past is it denying ? The politics of history in the presentation of Israel's past has not been a major issue because most biblical scholars have agreed on the basic parameters of the enterprise, traditionally investing a great deal of faith and trust in the historicty of biblical sources along with a trust in the objectivity of the modern scholar...No mention is made of the politics of history, of past or present accounts..." (pp.11, 23-26.  Keith W. Whitelam. The Invention of Ancient Israel, the Silencing of Palestinian History. Routledge. London & New York. 1996. ISBN 0-415-10759-8 pbk)

To understand why Abraham was "fictiously" being made the father of Ishmael and the Arabs, we must identify and understand the political situation which is in existence at the time Genesis was being composed. 2Kings 25:27 gives a date of 562-560 BCE, the Exilic period, for Genesis' composition. What is the political situation ?  The sons of Israel are NOT  in possession of their land, they are in Exile. The northern kingdom, called Israel, went into Exile ca. 721 BCE, carried off into captivity by the Assyrians, in 587 BCE Judah is portrayed as being carried off into Exile at Babylon.

Who, then, is in possession of the so-called "Promised Land" ? Assyrian annals reveal that various Arab tribes have been settled in the patrimony of the former northern kingdom of Israel. The book of Nehemiah reveals that Arabs are in possession of Judah to some degree, as Geshem the Arab opposes Nehemiah's efforts to rebuild Jerusalem's walls (Ne 2:19; 6:1-2). We know from non-biblical sources that Geshem controlled or had some influence over the area from the Dead Sea all the way to Egypt's border ( a silver bowl being found with his son's name, Qaynu, on it, dedicated to the Arab goddess Ilat at tell el Maskhutah in wadi Tumilat, Egypt).

Sargon II (BCE 721-705) mentions the Arab tribes he defeated and settled in Samaria (the former Northern Kingdom of Israel):

"Upon a trust (-inspiring oracle given by) my lord Ashur, I crushed the tribes of Tamud, Ibadidi, Marsimanu, and Haiapa, the Arabs who live, far away, in the desert (and) who know neither overseers nor official(s) and who had not (yet) brought their tribute to any king. I deported their survivors and settled (them) in Samaria." (p.196, "Sargon II: The Fall of Samaria," James B. Pritchard, Editor. The Ancient Near East, An Anthology of Texts and Pictures. Princeton University Press. 1958. pbk)

Knauf on Geshem:

"In the middle of the 5th century, a shaykh of Qedar, Gusam bin Sahr (the biblical Geshem) ruled over South Palestine, the Sinai to the borders of Egypt, Transjordan and Northwest Arabia, all areas under Persian control. This fact demonstrates clearly the rise in prominence of the Arabs among the ethnic and political groups of the Ancient Near East between the 7th and the 5th centuries BC...The sphere of influence of Geshem the Qedarite was actually contiguous with the region that later became the Nabatean empire." (p.519, Vol. 3, Ernst Axel Knauf, "Ishmaelites," David Noel Freedman, et al. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Doubleday. New York. 1992. ISBN 0-385-19361-0)

From other non-biblical sources, it has been determined that circumcision was not a unique custom, solely limited to Abraham and his progeny. Jeremiah mentions other nations that were circumcised : 

"Look, the days are coming, Yahweh declares, when I shall punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh: Egypt, Judah, Edom, the Ammonites, Moab, and all the men with shaven temples who live in the desert. For all those nations, and the whole House of Israel too, are uncircumcised at heart." (Jer 9:24-25. The New Jerusalem Bible. Doubleday. New York. 1990. ISBN 0-385-24833-4 pbk)

Hyatt on Circumcision:

"Circumcision was widely practiced in antiquity, and was by no means unique with the Hebrews. It was practiced by the Egyptians, and by most of the ancient Semites, except the Babylonians and the Assyrians. Of the peoples living adjacent to the ancient Hebrews only the Philistines did not practice it; they were contemptously referred to by Hebrews as 'the uncircumcised' (Judges 14:3; 15:18; I Samuel 14:6, 17:26...). It was observed by pre-Mohammedan Arabs, and is now generally practiced by Muslims, although it is not even mentioned in the Koran. The custom has been found among many tribes of Africa, Australia, and America...The origin of circumcision is lost in the mists of antiquity." (p.629, Vol. 1, J.P. Hyatt, "Circumcision," George A. Buttrick, et al, Editors. 
The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible. Abingdon Press. Nashville. 1962. ISBN 0-687-19270-6)

It is my understanding that because Genesis' narrator had portrayed circumcision as a "unique mark" of God's covenant with Abraham and his descendants (Ge 17:11), that he accordingly made Arabic nations whom he believed to practice the same rite, Abraham's descendants.

Now here's "the kicker," remembering Whitelam's dictum that all histories are political statements, I would argue that by making Abraham the father of the Arab nations, he was used to dispossess them of the "Promised Land".  Genesis is about denying political claims to the land-   the Canaanites, are depraved and unworthy, God "giving" their land to Israel (Ge 15:16); the Edomites should get out of Idumaea, which was occupied after 587 BCE, Esau despised his heritage and sold his birthright for a pottage of stew to Jacob, Moses' noting God has "assigned" Mount Seir, on the east side of the Arabah to Edom (Nu 24:18); Moab and Ammon are assigned Transjordan because their father Lot chose to settle in this area after fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah (Ge 13:8-11; 19:30-38); Ishmael's inheritance is the wilderness of Paran in the Sinai (Ge 21:21); while the sons of Keturah were sent away by Abraham with gifts to settle the wilderness wastes of Arabia, to the east of Canaan and Transjordan (Ge 25:6) .

In conclusion, it is my understanding that Abraham is not the father of Ishmael and the Arabs. It is a physical impossibility because of his advanced age. He was made their father because the author of Genesis evidently thought that as some tribes practiced circumcision, and as it was to his mind, "uniquely an Israelite rite," they must be related. Finally, Abraham and God are falsely portrayed as denying the Arabs (and kindred peoples, Ammonites, Moabites, and Edomites) any rights to the Promised Land, they should get out, and go back to their wilderness wastes, it is for Israel only to settle in.

Humanist scholars have determined that it was a commonplace of ancient historians to invent fictional dialogs for the historical characters appearing in their histories. Genesis' narrator is "inventing" from his mind what God should say to Abraham and what Abraham should say to his Arabic progeny, on behalf of his "chosen" people, Israel.  The bible is of a Genre we would call today "Historical Fiction." Only in this Genre do we have historical characters carrying on fictional dialogs at great length to make a moral message on the audience or reader. Certainly there are some recoverable historical events, but all the dialogs from God, Adam, Eve and the Serpent in Eden, to the end in 2 Kings, are all fiction. One would not come away from a play by Shakespeare on Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony (Caesar's dying words: "Et tu Brute ?" "You too Brutus ?") and believe that the dialogs were really the words of these historical characters now, would one ?

Grant on ancient historians' use of fictional speeches or dialogs:

"The writings of the Greek and Roman historians are full of speeches. They could not possibly have been delivered in the forms in which they were reported. For one thing, nobody had taken down full notes of them at the time, and there were no handouts describing their contents. Second, the language in which the historians reported them is very often their own, and not that of the speakers...what the historians put down, as an alleged record of such speeches, was a vital part of ancient historiography, because it reflected the backgrounds and explanations of events and the characters, motives, intentions, aims, expectations and reactions of the principal participants. The speeches, therefore, with which the works of the ancient historians are filled form a vital part of their historical picture...they are not history in the modern sense of the word, because they are unauthentic; if they ever took place at all, they were not delivered in those terms, or even with those contents. Thus, speeches form an enormous barrier between ancient ideas of historiography and our own conceptions of the same activity." (pp.44-45, "Speeches, Digressions and Cycles," Michael Grant. Greek and Roman Historians, Information and Misinformation. Routledge. London & New York. 1995. ISBN 0-415-11770-4 pbk)

Grant on viewing ancient histories from a modern perspective:

"Ancient and modern historiography are two quite different things...What we ought to be doing is approaching ancient historians as the writers of literature which they are...Our primary response to the texts of the ancient historians should be literary rather than historical since the nature of the texts themselves is literary. Only when literary analysis has been carried out can we begin to use these texts as evidence for history...historiography in antiquity is a literary genre...judged by literary criteria...To sum up, it is necessay to repeat, once again, that ancient history was understood not as history, according to our meaning of the word, but as literature...  Mommsen was not far wrong when he classified historians among artists rather than scholars, believing that it was artists that they had to be. 'A writer was not called a historian unless he had considerable pretensions to style. A historian had to entertain, and for that purpose he did not need truth as much as wit." (pp. 98-99, Grant)

Men are willing to live, fight, and die for myths, as witness the current bloodbath in modern Israel between Jews and Arabs. 2500 years ago, these peoples' ancestors contended with each other for control of the land, and they are at it again today. People are dying because of a myth that a God set aside a piece of land to be theirs solely. Maybe, one day, all will realize they need to put aside the myths that divide us from each other and live in brotherly harmony and peace.

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