The twelve tribes of Ishmael, first born of Abraham  
Most of us are familiar with the ancient story of Abraham and his desire to have a son. In the Biblical account of his story, Abraham first has a son through his 'handmaiden' Hagar. This son is named Ishmael and is Abraham's first born son. When Abraham's second son is born, this son named Isaac, is declared the 'son of promise.' The Jews today claim decent from Abraham through this second son, Isaac. Few people today, however, know what happened to the descendants of Ishmael. It is often assumed that they simply became the Arabs of the Middle East, but to most of us, our knowledge of them stops there.

The Bible gives us the following record:
"But as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: behold I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation." Genesis 17:20

"Now these are the generations of Ishmael, Abraham's son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah's handmaid, bore unto Abraham: And these are the names of the sons of Ishmael, by their names, according to their generations: The firstborn of Ishmael, Nebajoth, and Kedar, and Adbeel, and Mibsam, and Mishma, and Dumah, and Massa, Hadad and Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedmah. These are the sons of Ishmael, and these are their names, by their towns and by their encampments; twelve princes according to their nations." Genesis 25:12-16

These sons eventually took wives, had children, and through these children, tribes were formed. These tribes made up the nations that dwelt from Havilah to Shur, and from Egypt to Assyria. The descendants of Ishmael, however, were not the sole tribes in the Arabian Desert. Other tribes emerged from other sources. Some of these became the people of South Arabia (Qahtanis) and others also wandered and settled in Arabia.

More information is known about the dependence of Ishmael's eldest son, Nabajoth than any of the others. In the Bible, Qedar and the tribe of Nebayot were renown for sheep raising. Isaiah 60:7. Their names are frequently found together in Assyrian records.

Nabajoth is specifically mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus, who identified the Nabataeans of his time with Ishmael's eldest son. He claimed that the Nabataeans lived through the whole country extending from the Euphrates to the Red Sea, and referred to this area as 'Nabatene,' or the area that the Nabataeans ranged in. Josephus goes on to say that it was the Nabataeans who conferred their names on the Arabian nations. (Jewish Antiquities I.22,1) Josephus lived and wrote during the time that the Nabataeans were in existence, and supposedly, he obtained his information directly from the Nabataeans themselves. These Nabataeans spoke and wrote an early form of Arabic and thus they were often referred to as 'Arabs' by Greek and Roman historians.

Ishmael’s second son, Kedar, also had his own sons. The sons of Kedar became known as the Kedarites. The Kedarites were the main military power of the sons of Ishmael. Isaiah speaks of Kedar's 'glory and her gifted archers.' (Isaiah 21:16-17) Ezekiel 27:21 associates Arabia with all of the princes of Kedar, suggesting a confederation under their leadership.

During history, the Kedarites were in constant conflict with the Assyrians. The Assyrians, Neo-Babylonians, Persians and even the Romans realized the importance of taking control of the commercial routes in northern Arabia that were under the dominion of the Kedarites (and later the Nabataeans).

Nehemiah's opponent, 'Geshem the Arab' has been identified as one of the kings of Kedar from the mid fifth century BC. (based on a number of North Arabian inscriptions).

The children of Abdeel, Ishmael’s 3rd born became a tribe bearing the same name of Adbeel and is often identified with the people of Idibi'ilu of the land of Arubu, who became subjects to Tiglath Pileser II (744 - 727 BC). This Idibi'ilu was given the duty as the Assyrian king's agent on the borders of Egypt. His tribe was said to have dwelt far away, towards the west. From this reference, some historians have thought that the tribe of Adbeel lived in the Sinai.

Ishmael’s 4th and 5th sons, Mibsam and Mishma, respectively, seem to have disappeared of the face of the Earth, or just lost their independent identities by intermingling with their cousins. Dumah, his 6th son is mentioned in the Biblical records as a city in Canaan (Joshua 15:52) It is also associated with Edom and Seir in Isaiah 21:11

Dumah is generally identified by historians with the Addyrian Adummatu people. Esarhaddon related how, in his attempt to subdue the Arabs, his father, Sennacherib struck against their capital, Adummatu, which he called the stronghold of the Arabs. Sennacherib captured their king, Haza'il, who is called, King of the Arabs. Kaza'il is also referred to in one inscription of Ashurbanipal as King of the Kedarites.

From a geographical standpoint, Adummatu is often associated with the medieval Arabic Dumat el-Jandal, which was in ancient times a very important and strategic junction on the major trade route between Syria, Babylon, Najd and the Hijaz area. Dumat el Jandal is at the southeastern end of Al Jawf, which is a desert basin, and often denotes the whole lower region of Wadi as Sirhan, the famous depression situated half way between Syria and Mesopotamia. This area has water, and was a stopping place for caravan traders coming from Tayma, before proceeding on to Syria or Babylonia.

This strategic location effectively made Dumah the entrance to north Arabia. This oasis was the center of rule for many north Arabian kings and queens, as related to us in Assyrian records.

The records of Tiglath Pileser III mention the inhabitants of Mas'a and of Tema, who paid him tribute. On the summit of Jebel Ghunaym, located about fourteen kilometers south of Tayma in Jordan, archeologists Winnett and Reed discovered some graffiti texts mentioning the tribe Massaa, Ishmael’s 7th, in connection with Dedan and Nebayot. These texts refer to the war against Dedan, the war against Nabayat and the war against Massaa. Therefore, these tribes appear to have been close to each other at this time. The tribe of Massaa is possibly connected with the Masanoi of North Arabia as mentioned by Ptolemy, Geography v18, 2.

Those holding to the theory that the Children of Israel crossed the Red Sea into Arabia proper, identify El Maser as the place where the Israelites murmured. (Exodus 17:7, Deut 6:16,9:22,33:8)

As for Ishmael’s 8th son, Hadad, some historians speculate that this tribe may have become known as the Harar, or the Hararina people that lived near the mountains northwest of Palmyra. It is also interesting to notice that there is a Hadad tribe in Arabia. Most of the Hadads are now Christians, and are located throughout the Levant. (Eg: Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine).

Ishmael’s number nine, Tema, is connected to the oasis city of Teyma which is usually associated with the ancient oasis of Tayma, located northeast of the Hijaz district, on the trade route between Yathrib (Medina) and Dumah. Between Tayma and Dumah is the famous Nafud desert. It is thought that the present city of Tayma at the southwestern end of the great Nafud desert is built on the remains of the ancient oasis bearing the same name.

Tiglath Pileser III received tributes from Tayma, as well as from other Arabian oasis. The Assyrian records recall how a collation headed by Samsi, queen of the Arabs was defeated. The coalition was made up of Massaa, the city of Tayma, the tribes of Saba, Hajappa, Badana, Hatti, and Idiba'il, which lay far to the west. Once defeated, these tribes had to send tribute of gold, silver, camels and spices of all kinds.

The Assyrian king, Sennacherib even named one of his gates in the great city of Nineveh as the Desert Gate, and records that "the gifts of the Sumu'anite and the Teymeite enter through it." From this we can recognize Teyma as being an important place.

Around 552 BC, the Babylonian king, Nabonidus (555-539 BC) the father of biblical Belshazzar (Daniel 7:1) made the city of Tayma his residence and spent ten of the sixteen years of his reign there.

During the Achaemenid period, the city probably became a seat of one of the Persian emperors.

However, by the first century BC, the Nabataeans began to dominate Tayma and it slowly became a part of their trading empire.

Isaiah 21:13-14 Invites the people of Tayma to provide water and food for their fugitive countrymen, in an apparent allusion to Tiglath Pileser's invasion of North Arabia in 738 BC.

Jeremiah 25:23 A prophecy against the oasis city

Job 6:19,20 Job laments at his fall from wealth, and comments that the troops of Tema and the armies of Sheba (Yemen) had hoped for plunder, but now Job had nothing.

We have no information on Ishmael’s remaining three sons, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah.


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