Many know of the Bible story about Abraham and Isaac when God tested Abraham’s faith in God versus his love for his son, yet Abraham also had another son named Ishmael. Let’s first introduce Abraham’s background and significance in the Bible before learning more about his sons.
Who was Abraham in the Bible?
God had a plan for Abraham to place him and his descendants in the realm of Canaan (also known as the Promised Land and Holy Land). Located at the intersection of Asia, Africa, and Europe, this region was fitting for God’s chosen people, who were to be an exemplar for the nations of the world (Deuteronomy 4:5-8).
Upon arrival in the promised land, God assured Abraham that He would provide the region to his descendants (Genesis 12:7). “And the LORD said to Abram,… ‘Lift your eyes now and look from the place where you are—northward, southward, eastward, and westward; for all the land which you see I give to you and your descendants forever’ ” (Genesis 13:14-15).
God continued: “And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered” (Genesis 13:16). Significantly, God later changed Abram’s name to Abraham (Genesis 17:5). His earlier name meant “high (exalted) father.” God renamed him “father of a multitude,” saying, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you” (Genesis 13:6).
The United Church of God mentions, “At the time these prophecies must have seemed ironic to Abraham, for his wife Sarah was barren. Her infertility was to be very significant in the development of the modern Middle East.
God promised Abraham in Genesis 15:4 that he would have an heir: “one who will come from your own body.” Impatient, Sarah told Abraham to take her Egyptian handmaid Hagar and to produce a child by her. This took place “after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan” (Genesis 16:1-3).”
Abraham’s First Son: Ishmael
“So he went into Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress became despised in her eyes” (Genesis 16:4). Fearing the wrath of Sarah, Hagar fled the land after conceiving the first son of Abraham.
However, a heavenly word was delivered to Hagar, instructing her to return. It comforted her that her son would have many children and descendants, although they will live in aversion with the other families and nations. Genesis 16:10-12 states: The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.” The angel of the LORD also said to her: “You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”
In reference to the prophecy of Ishmael, The Middle East in Bible Prophecy states:
The divinely prophetic words spoken to Hagar are still of great significance today. The prophecy that Ishmael “will be a wild donkey of a man” is not meant as an insult. The wild donkey was the aristocrat of the wild beasts of the desert, the preferred prey of hunters. The prophecy is a reference to how Ishmael’s descendants would emulate the lifestyle of the wild donkey, leading a free and noble existence in the desert.
“His hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him” similarly refers to this independent lifestyle. Ishmael’s descendants have always resisted foreign domination.
Abraham’s Second Son: Isaac
Fourteen years after the birth of Ishmael, God graced Abraham with a second son, a step-brother to Ishmael conceived with his wife Sarah. God instructed Abraham to name their son Isaac (meaning “laughter” for the skeptical response of Abraham when informed he and Sarah would have a son at their old age as well as the happiness that he would bring to his parents, Genesis 17:17-19; Genesis 18:10-15; Genesis 21:5-6). Isaac, in turn, fathered Jacob, also named Israel, the father of the Israelites. Ishmael’s and Isaac’s descendants are therefore cousins.
After the birth of Isaac, Sarah further resented the presence of Hagar and Ishmael and had them sent away. Genesis 21:8-13 states, The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the slave into a nation also because he is your offspring.”
Bible Verses about Abraham and His Sons
- So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife. Genesis 16:3 ESV
- Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram. Genesis 16:16 ESV
- Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Genesis 21:5 ESV
- So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” Genesis 21:10 ESV
- But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the boy and because of your slave woman. Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your offspring be named. Genesis 21:12 ESV
- He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” Genesis 22:2 ESV
- By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, Hebrews 11:17 ESV
- Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? James 2:21 ESV
Photo Credit: A painting of Abraham's departure by József Molnár