ISHMAELITES (Heb. יִשְׁמְעֵאלִים), a group of nomadic tribes related according to the Bible to *Ishmael, son of Abraham and Hagar. In Genesis 25:13–15 and i Chronicles 1:29–31 there is a list of "the sons of Ishmael," which requires special consideration (see below). Apart from this list, the designation "Ishmaelite(s)" is found in Genesis 37:25–28; Judges 8:24; Psalms 83:3; i Chronicles 2:17 and 27:30. To date no mention of Ishmaelites as a designation of nomads has been found in other sources of the biblical period. The assumptions concerning the identification of the name Sumu(ʾ)ilu in the inscriptions of Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal, kings of Assyria, with Ishmael (J. Lewy, R. Campbell Thompson) are based on incorrect interpretations of these texts.
Knowledge of the area and the characteristics of the nomads called Ishmaelites can be derived, therefore, only from the biblical references to the Ishmaelites (apart from the list of the "sons of Ishmael"), as well as from what is related in Genesis about Ishmael. The "father" of these nomads is definitely connected with the desert regions between Ereẓ Israel and Egypt, and he is the son of Hagar, the Egyptian maidservant (Gen. 16:1, 3). Hagar's meeting with the angel of God who brought her tidings of Ishmael's forthcoming birth and his destined greatness is connected with the "spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the road to Shur," which is later called Beer-lahai-roi, and "is between Kadesh and Bered" (ibid., 16:7, 14). After having been expelled by Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael are saved by an angel of God in the wilderness of Beer-Sheba (21:14–19). When he grew up and became a bowman, Ishmael lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother got a wife for him from Egypt (21:21). The Ishmaelites' area of habitation is defined in Genesis 25:18: "from Havilah, by Shur, which is close to Egypt …" This area includes the region in which Saul defeated Amalek: "from Havilah as far as Shur, which is east of Egypt" (i Sam. 15:7). The exact location of the Havilah mentioned in these passages is unknown, but according to the description of Saul's battle with the Amalekites it can be established with certainty that this place is in southern Palestine.
The Ishmaelites are described as Bedouin who live in the desert, raise camels (see especially the inclusion of Obil the Ishmaelite, who was "over the camels," among David's officers, i Chron. 27:30), are desert robbers (cf. Gen. 16:12), and periodically overrun the permanent settlement and plunder it (Ps. 83:7; Judg. 8:24). In addition, the Ishmaelites engaged in caravan trade (Gen. 37:25). (For relations of kinship and intermarriage between the Ishmaelite groups, who were close to the borders of settled areas, and the permanent inhabitants cf. Gen. 28:9, 36:3; i Chron 2:17.)
At the time when the Midianites, Amalekites, and Bene Kedem had become a rare sight in the land of Israel a biblical writer explained to his contemporaries that these were a species of Ishmaelites (cf. Judg. 6:3, 33; 7:12; 8:10, 22, 26 with 8:24). The account of the sale of Joseph mentions an Ishmaelite caravan on its way from Gilead to Egypt (Gen. 37:25, 27; 39:1). The same account also calls these traders Midianites (37:28) or Medanites (37:36). The identification of the Midianites, Medanites, and Amalekites with the Ishmaelites, as well as the inclusion of the latter's areas of habitation with that of the Amalekites, support the assumption that during a specific period the Ishmaelites were the principal group of nomads on the borders of Palestine (cf. Gen. 16:12: "He shall dwell alongside of all his kinsmen"; 25:18: "they camped alongside of all his kinsmen"; and 21:18: "… for I will make a great nation of him"). It is also possible that groups that were not directly related to the Ishmaelites were sometimes called by their name (Midian and Medan are listed among the sons of Abraham and Keturah, Gen. 25:2; i Chron. 1:32; Amalek is listed among the descendants of Esau, i.e., Edom, Gen. 36: 12, 16; i Chron. 1:36). It appears that this period ended no later than around the middle of the tenth century b.c.e., from which time on there is no mention of the Ishmaelites in the historiographic and literary sources in the Bible.
Genesis 25:13–15 and I Chronicles 1:29–31 contain the list of "the sons of Ishmael," in which 12 groups are listed by name: Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, Kedmah (for the number of the 12 sons of Ishmael cf. also Gen. 17:20). Of these, Kedar, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Jetur, and Naphish are mentioned in other passages of the Bible. Assyrian and North-Arabian inscriptions mention Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Dumah, Massa, and Tema; while Greek sources from the second century b.c.e. on mention also the sons of Jetur. It should be noted that apart from the genealogical list, not one of these groups is mentioned in any source from the period preceding the tenth century b.c.e. In light of what is known about the peoples just mentioned, especially from Assyrian sources, it can be seen that they are not connected with the unified framework of the Ishmaelite tribes mentioned above: the scope of their wanderings is much greater than that of the Ishmaelites and covers an area from northern Sinai (Adbeel) to the edge of Wadi Sizhan (Duma) and the western border of Babylonia (Kedar, Nebaioth, and Massa). The collective name for these groups in all the sources is "Arabs" (Aribi, Arabu, Arbaia, etc.), and there is no doubt that this is the name by which they called themselves. On the other hand, the Assyrian sources make no mention of an ethnic framework called Ishmael; and there is no evidence that the nomads were called by this name.
According to this view the list of "the sons of Ishmael" is composed of nomadic peoples who dwelt on the borders of Palestine and in the wide desert area in North Arabia and the Syrian-Arabian desert from the eighth century b.c.e. on, and who were called the "Sons of Ishmael" although the ancient Ishmaelites by this time – as a result of the battles of Saul and David with the nomads on the borders of their kingdom and the appearance of new nomadic groups who forcefully pushed them away from the areas adjacent to Palestine – no longer inhabited this area.
Ed. Meyer, Die Israeliten und ihre Nachbarstaemme (1906), 322–8; F. Hommel, Ethnologie und Geographie des alten Orients (1926), 591–7; A. Musil, Arabia Deserta (1927), 477–93; J.A. Montgomery, Arabia and the Bible (1934), 45–46; Y. Liver, in: em, 3 (1958), 902–6; F.V. Winnett and W.L. Reed, Ancient Records from North Arabia (1970), 29–31, 90–91, 95, 99–102.