Ishmael on the Border

Rabbinic Portrayals of the First Arab

By Carol Bakhos

Subjects: Jewish Religious Studies
Series: SUNY series in Judaica: Hermeneutics, Mysticism, and Religion
Paperback : 9780791467602, 216 pages, June 2007
Hardcover : 9780791467596, 216 pages, July 2006

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Table of contents

Preface and Acknowledgments 
1. Ishmael and Esau: Marginalized Men of the Bible

Ishmael in the Bible
Esau in the Bible

2. Ishmael in Tannaitic and Amoraic Literature 

The Tannaitic Sources
The Amoraic Sources

3. The Rabbis and Their Others

The Pairing of Ishmael and Esau in Rabbinic Literature
Esau as Real Other
Ishmael, the Ishmaelites, and the Children of Keturah
The Arab Descendants of Ishmael
Abraham’s Descendants and Israel’s Divine Election
The Role of Christianity in the Depiction of the Other

4. Ishmael in Later Midrashim 

The Treatment of Ishmael in Pirke Rabbi Eliezer
Abraham’s Visits to Ishmael in Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer
Abraham’s Visits to Ishmael in Arabic Sources
Revisiting the Visits
The Ishmaelites in Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer


Explores rabbinic views of Ishmael, the biblical figure seen as the first Arab.


Ishmael on the Border is an in-depth study of the rabbinic treatment of Abraham's firstborn son, Ishmael. This book examines Ishmael's conflicted portrayal over a thousand-year period and traces the shifts and nuances in his representation within the Jewish tradition before and after the emergence of Islam.

In classical rabbinic texts, Ishmael is depicted in a variety of ways. By examining the biblical account of Ishmael's life, Carol Bakhos points to the tension between his membership in and expulsion from Abraham's household—on the one hand he is circumcised with Abraham, yet on the other, because of divine favor, his brother supplants him as primogenitor. The rabbis address his liminal status in a variety of ways. Like Esau, he is often depicted in antipodal terms. He is Israel's "Other." Yet, Bakhos notes, the emergence of Islam and the changing ethnic, religious, and political landscape of the Near East in the seventh century affected later, medieval rabbinic depictions of Ishmael, whereby he becomes the symbol of Islam and the eponymous prototype of Arabs. With this inquiry into the rabbinic portrayal of Ishmael, the book confronts the interfacing of history and hermeneutics and the ways in which the rabbis inhabited a world of intertwined political, social, and theological forces.

Carol Bakhos is Professor of Late Antique Judaism at the University of California at Los Angeles and is the editor of Ancient Judaism in its Hellenistic Context.


"This book is an excellent, readable, and much-needed resuscitation of the reputation of Ishmael. Bakhos’s masterful control of the rabbinic and collateral traditions combined with her keen eye for relevant detail make this book an informative pleasure to read. It is also an important contribution to presenting a more nuanced view of the polemic between Jews and Muslims over this major biblical figure." — Gordon D. Newby, author of History of the Jews of Arabia: From Ancient Times to Their Eclipse under Islam