Arabians and Judeans: Jubilees, Molon, and Josephos on identifying the Ishmaelites (second century BCE on)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Arabians and Judeans: Jubilees, Molon, and Josephos on identifying the Ishmaelites (second century BCE on),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified June 7, 2023,

Ancient authors: Genesis 16 (for context); Anonymous (mid-second century BCE), Book of Jubilees 20 (link; link to Ethiopic and Latin); Apollonios Molon of Rhodes (first century BCE), Against Judeans, as summarized by Polyhistor and cited by Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 9.19 (link; link to Greek); Josephos (late-first century CE), Judean Antiquities 1.186-193, 213-221 (link).

Comments: While the Genesis account of Ishmael obviously presumes his descendents to be “Ishmaelites,” it is only in the Hellenistic period with the likes of the Book of Jubilees’ account of Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael that the Ishmaelites are expressly connected with Arabian peoples to the east. In a somewhat unusual development, the next author to make this connection about the origins of “Arabians” is the critic of Judeans, Apollonios Molon of Rhodes (as reported by Polyhistor and cited by Eusebius). Finally, Josephos largely follows the progression of Genesis in his account, but he too adds further details aimed at connecting Ishmael to Arabians, Itureans, Idumeans, and Nabateans of Josephos’ own time. Of course, in other sections of his works, Josephos goes into more ethnographic details about Itureans (link) and Edomites / Idumeans (link).

Overall, here, we get a Judean perspective on the origins of the Arabians with some ambivalence about the relationship between Judeans and Arabians in the form of emphasizing that Arabians are descended from an Egyptian slave, Hagar. It is important to remember that some of the Egyptian, Greek or Roman alternative stories of the departure (exodus) from Egypt emphasize that Hebrews or Judeans themselves were outcasts from among the Egyptians (link; link to Tacitus’ version). In the Hellenistic and Roman eras, Egyptians were often placed low in commonly shared ethnic hierarchies, and so to label someone an Egyptian or descendant of Egyptians could be an insult.

This post is part of the Biblical peoples redux series:

  • Descendents of Noah’s sons Shem, Japheth and Ham in Josephos and Pseudo-Philo (link)
  • Ishmaelites (Arabians) in Jubilees, Molon and Josephos (link)
  • Edomites (Idumeans) in Josephos (link)
  • Amalekites in Josephos and Philo (link)
  • Canaanites (Phoenicians) in Jubilees (link) and in Wisdom of Solomon (link)
  • Kushites (Ethiopians) in Artapanos, Josephos and others (link)
  • Midianites and Moabites (Arabians) in Philo and Josephos (link)
  • Chutheans or Samaritans in Josephos (link) and in biographies of Jesus / gospels (link)

Source of the translation: Genesis from Lexham Bible with adaptations. R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913) and H.S.J. Thackeray and R. Marcus, Josephus, volumes 1-7; LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1926-43), public domain (Thackeray passed away in 1930, Marcus passed away in 1956, and copyright not renewed), adapted by Harland.



[Birth of Ishmael narrative that is developed by others later to explain the origins of Arabians]

(16:1-15) Now Sarah, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar. So she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave. Perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarah said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarah his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. Abram slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When Hagar knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarah said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.” “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think is best.” Then Sarah mistreated Hagar, so Hagar ran away from Sarah.

The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert. This was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And the angel said, “Hagar, slave of Sarah, where have you come from, and where are you going?” “I’m running away from my mistress Sarah,” she answered. Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.” The angel of the Lord also said to her: “You are now pregnant / and you will give birth to a son. / You shall name him Ishmael / because the Lord has heard of your misery. / He will be a wild donkey of a man / his hand will be against everyone / and everyone’s hand against him, / and he will live in hostility / toward all his brothers.”

She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” because she said, “I have now seen the one who sees me.” That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi (“well of the living one who sees me”). It is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.


Jubilees (mid-second century BCE)

(20:1-13) In the forty-second jubilee [fifty-year period], in the first year of the seventh week, Abraham called Ishmael with his twelve sons, Isaac with his two sons, and the six sons of Keturah, as well as their sons. He also commanded them that they should observe the way of the Lord so that each one would work righteousness, love his neighbour, and act in this way amongst all men; that they should each relate to others in order to perform judgment and righteousness on the earth; that they should circumcise their sons according to the covenant which he had made with them, and not deviate to the right hand or the left of all the paths which the Lord had commanded us; and, that we should keep ourselves from all fornication and uncleanness. And if any woman or girl commits fornication amongst you, burn her with fire and do not let them commit fornication with her by way of their eyes or their heart. Do not let them take wives from the daughters of Canaan, because the seed of Canaan will be rooted out of the land. He also told them about the judgment of the giants and the judgment of the Sodomites just as they had been judged due to their wickedness. They died because of their fornication, impurity, and mutual corruption through fornication.

“Guard yourselves from all fornication and uncleanness, / and from all pollution of sin, / in case you make our name a curse and your whole life the sound of hissing, / and all your sons are destroyed by the sword. / You will be cursed like Sodom / and all your remnant like the sons of Gomorrah. / I exhort you, my sons, love the God of heaven / and hold on tightly to all his commandments. / And do not go after their idols and their impurities. / Do not make for yourselves molten or carved gods / because they are pointless / and there is no spirit in them. / They are work of human hands / and everyone who trusts in them, trusts in nothing. / Do not serve or worship them, / but serve the most high God, worship him continually, / and hope for his countenance always. / Work uprightness and righteousness before him / so that he may be pleased with you, grant you his mercy, / send rain upon you morning and evening, bless all your works which you have done on the earth, bless your bread and your water, / bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your land, / the herds of your cattle, and the flocks of your sheep. / You will also be a blessing on the earth, / and all peoples of the earth will desire you / and bless your sons in my name, / so that they may be blessed like I am.”

And Abram gave gifts to Ishmael, to Ishmael’s sons, and to the sons of Keturah, sending them away from Isaac his son. Abram gave everything to Isaac his son. Ishmael and his sons and the sons of Keturah and their sons went together and lived from Paran to the entrance into Babylon in all the land which is towards the east facing the desert. They mingled with each other, and their name was called Arabians and Ishmaelites.


Apollonios Molon of Rhodes, Against Judeans, as cited by Eusebius via Polyhistor (early first century BCE)

(9.19) Now Molon, the author of the collection Against Judeans (or: Against Jews), says that at the time of the flood the man who survived left Armenia with his sons, being driven out of his home by the people of the land. After crossing the intermediate country, he came into the mountain-district of Syria which was uninhabited. After three generations Abraham was born. His name is by interpretation “friend of the father.” Abraham became a wise man (sophos) and travelled through the desert. After taking on two wives – the one of his own country and descent group (syngenē) and the other an Egyptian slave (therapeina) – he had twelve sons by the Egyptian. She went off into Arabia and divided the land among them [the twelve sons]. They were the first who reigned over the inhabitants. Because of this circumstance, there are even in our own day twelve kings of the Arabians with the same names as the first. Now by his lawful wife, Abraham had one son, whose name in Greek is Gelōs (“Laughter”) [i.e. Isaac in Hebrew] Abraham died of old age, but Gelos [Isaac] and a wife of his own country had eleven sons, and a twelfth, Joseph, and Moses was in the third generation from him.

That is how much Polyhistor says. . . [omitted following passage about Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac].


Josephos, Judean Antiquities (90s CE)

(1.186-193) Abraham was living near the oak called Ogyges, a place in Canaan not far from the city of the Hebronites, when, distressed at his wife’s sterility, he begged God to grant him the birth of a male child. In response, God commanded him to be confident that, as in all else, he had been led out of Mesopotamia for his welfare, so children would come to him. By God’s command, Sarah brought to his bed one of her female slaves, an Egyptian named Hagar, so that he could have children by her. Becoming pregnant, this slave had the disrespect to abuse Sarah, assuming queenly airs as though the dominion were to pass to her unborn son. Abraham having then consigned her to Sarah for punishment, Hagar, who was unable to endure her humiliations, resolved to escape and called on God to take pity on her. But as she went on her way through the wilderness, an angel of God met her and commanded her to return to her master and mistress, assuring her that she would attain a happier result through self-control. Her present plight was only due to her arrogance and presumption towards her mistress. If she disobeyed God and pursued her way, she would perish. But if she returned home, she would become the mother of a son who would afterwards reign over that country. Being persuaded, she returned to her master and mistress, was forgiven, and not long afterwards gave birth to Ishmael, a name which may be rendered “Heard by God,” because God had listened to her petition. Abraham was already eighty-six years old when this son [Ishmael] was born to him.

Abraham had reached his ninety-ninth year when God appeared to him and announced that he should have a son by Sarah, commanding him to name him Isaac and revealing how great peoples (ethnē) and kings would spring from him, and how they would win possession through war of all Canaan from Sidon to Egypt. Furthermore, with the purpose of ensuring his descendants were be kept from mixing with other populations, God charged him to have them circumcised and to perform the rite on the eighth day after birth. I will explain the reason for our practice of circumcision elsewhere. Abraham then inquired concerning Ishmael whether he was to live, and God made known to him that he would live to an advanced age and become the father of great peoples. So Abraham rendered thanks to God for these blessings and was circumcised immediately, he and his entire household and his son Ishmael, who on that day was in his thirteenth year, his father’s age being ninety-nine. . . [omitted digression on the Sodomites issue].

(1.213-221) Not long after, Abraham – as God had told him ahead of time – had a son by Sarah, whom he called Isaac. This name means “laughter” (gelōs) and was given him by his father because Sarah had smiled when God said that she would give birth. Child-bearing at her advanced age was beyond her expectations because she was then ninety years old and Abraham was one hundred. Their child was born in the year after this. Eight days later they promptly circumcised him.

From that time forward the Judean (Jewish) practice has been to circumcise eight days after birth. The Arabians (Arabes) defer the ceremony to the thirteenth year, because Ishmael, the founder of their people (ethnos), born of Abraham’s concubine, was circumcised at that age. I propose in future to expound this whole subject in detail [Josephos keeps promising this].

When Ishmael was born by her slave Hagar, Sarah at first loved him with an affection no less than if he had been her own son, seeing that he was being trained as a successor to leadership. However, when she herself gave birth to Isaac, she held it wrong that her boy should be brought up with Ishmael, who was the elder child and might do him an injury after their father was dead. She therefore urged Abraham to send him and his mother away to settle elsewhere. However, Abraham at first refused to consent to Sarah’s plan, thinking nothing could be more brutal than to send off an infant child with a woman without the necessaries of life. But afterwards, seeing that Sarah’s demands were sanctioned by God as well, Abraham yielded. Committing Ishmael to his mother (the child was not yet of age to go alone), Abraham commanded her take a skin full of water and a loaf and go away, with necessity serving as her guide. Hagar went away. But as soon as her provisions failed her, she was in a dire situation because the water was almost gone. She laid the little child, dying, under a fir-tree and went further on so that she would not be there when he gave up his spirit.

However, she was met by an angel of God who told her of a spring nearby and commanded her look to the nurture of the young child, because great blessings awaited her through the preservation of Ishmael. These promises gave her new courage and, meeting some shepherds, she escaped her miseries with their help. When the child became a man, his mother found him a wife of that Egyptian descent group (genos) from which she herself had originally come. In all, twelve sons were born to Ishmael: Nabaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah (Idum) [likely here related to Idumeans], Massa (Masmes), Hadad (Chodam), Tema (Thaiman), Jetur [likely here related to Itureans], Naphish (Naphais), and Kademah (Kadmas). These descendants occupied the whole country extending from the Euphrates to the Erythraian sea and called it Nabatene [i.e. related to Nabateans]. It is these descendants who conferred their names on the Arabian people (ethnos) and its tribes (phylai) in honour of both their own excellence and the fame of Abraham.


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