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In Genesis 17:20 God promises Abraham (NIV):

And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation.

The promise of the first half of the verse has strong echoes of God's blessing to Abram in Genesis 12:2. The fruitfulness and great numbers echo 17:2 and the promise to make him into a great nation echoes 12:2 and is repeated to Jacob in 46:3. As well, the statement that he will be a father of twelve rulers surely calls to mind Israel.

(Possibly too I see an allusion in Genesis 21 where Ishmael is sent away from Abraham and wanders in the desert wilderness before receiving a bride from Egypt - almost a reverse Exodus?)

Why does Ishmael so closely Israel with respect to the promises traditionally associated with Israel and also with respect to the number twelve? What is the text implying with the comparison?

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  • There is a vague similarity with Esau : his earthly blessing and his progeny of fourteen 'dukes'. – Nigel J Jan 30 '20 at 5:26
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This question will probably not have a direct answer from scripture, and we can only speculate based upon the knowledge we do have of Ishmael.

We can deduce that Ishmael was beloved of Abraham. (Gen. 17:18) We can deduce that Ishmael loved his father (Gen. Gen. 25:9). We can deduce that Ishmael knew who YHVH was through the obedience to the command to be circumcised (Gen. 17:25-26), and because of he most probably knew YHVH visited Abraham. We know that his mother Hagar knew who YHVH was (Gen. 16:11-15).

We also have the statement from scripture that Ishmael was "gathered unto his people" when he died (Gen 25:17). This is the same statement as for when Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and others at their death. Gathered unto his people met being taken into Abraham's bosom (Luke 16:22).

It is an opinion only, but I believe that YHVH was honoring Abraham, and providing for Ishmael in much of the same method because Ishmael was the first born who would normally have inherited. But, as Sarah stuck her hand in and messed with God's plan because she assumed that God needed help to carry out His plan - much as many today assume - that it was not Ishmael's fault, nor God's fault that Ishmael was not of the seed of promise.

So, possibly, God blessed Ishmael with much of the worldly promise that Isaac was blessed with. I am open though to other thoughts.

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