Here we find the shortest book in Genesis. It is undoubtedly intentional that the shortest books are Books Five and Seven because Book Six is so long and about Abram/Abraham. With a full ten books, we might expect number seven to have a place of special significance. Surprisingly, Book Seven is about the twelve tribes of Ishmael and Book Ten is about the twelve tribes of Israel.
Even in this short passage there is structure. It begins with a title: “These are the generations of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s servant, bore to Abraham” (Gen 25:12). The narrative section begins and ends with the following frame: “These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of their birth…These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages and by their encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes” (Gen 25:13, 16). The passage, like Book Five, has no poetry, which is fitting since Book Six has three poetic portions. And the epilogue includes the death statement and the comments about where they settled and how they settled over against his kinsmen (Gen 25:17-18).
The title alludes to the previous book in the way it identifies Ishmael: “Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s servant, bore to Abraham” (Gen 25:12). It could have just as easily been entitled “These are the generations of Ishmael” and left out the rest. After all, the readers have just heard the story. [Except that the poetry of Book Six before the epilogue of part one identifies Isaac as the “only son” of Abraham (Gen 22:16). This was before Abraham married Keturah (cf. Gen 25:1).] But the reason for the extended title is to remind us of the climax of the last book and the promises made concerning Ishmael.
Ishmael receives very favorable treatment in Genesis. God made promises concerning him at the center of Book Six (remember the center of the chiasm is these two parts on the covenant: Gen 15-16, 17-18:15). The promise made to Hagar concerning Ishmael: “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude” (Gen 16:10). The promise made to Abraham concerning Ishmael: “I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation” (Gen 17:20). Ishmael is not the heir to the covenant promises, but because of the prayers of Hagar and Abraham and simply by being close to the covenant he will be blessed. And we find the fulfillment beginning in this passage as Ishmael has twelve princes.
We see Ishmael’s blessings in Genesis by virtue of his descendants occupying the seventh book, we see Ishmael’s blessings in Genesis because these promises were fulfilled, and we see Ishmael’s blessings in the curious death statement: “These are the years of the life of Ishmael: 137 years. He breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people” (Gen 25:17). This last comment has only been made before this concerning Abraham: “Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people” (Gen 25:8). (The next verse mentions that Isaac and Ishmael, Abraham’s sons, buried him.) “Gathered to his people” is an idiom for going to the place where the dead go (Hebrew, Sheol; Greek, Hades) but put in a tribal way. In any case, the fact that Ishmael lived 137 years is a blessing.
The epilogue ends with the ominous, “He settled over against all his kinsmen” (Gen 25:18). This brings to mind the prophecy: “He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen” (Gen 16:12).
Fast forwarding to the present, the good news has gone out to the descendants of Ishmael and the God who hears will dwell within His people of every tribe and nation. All the blessings in the heavenly places are for those united to Christ. Many of those whose hands were against the people of God are now numbered among the people of God. It tells us much about God that Genesis spends so much time talking about nations that are not the chosen nation. He cares for and blesses all peoples during this life and that setting of blessing is the context within which we evangelize the nations. And it is said, “All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you; the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall come up with acceptance on my altar, and I will beautify my beautiful house” (Isa 60:7). Kedar was the second and Nebaioth the firstborn of Ishmael. God’s people are of every tribe and nation.