Ishmael – The Archer of Paran
A Biblical Fiction Story
The Wilderness of Paran was a wild place. Bounded on three sides by mountains some 4000 feet high, its lime-stone table-land reached upward some 2000 to 2,500 feet. Consisting of rolling, gravelly plains it was graced with only a few springs of mostly impure water. The Wady el Arish – River of Egypt – also flowed through it, but it was dry most of the year. It was no wonder that, molded by this environment, Ishmael, Abram’s first-born son, whom Hagar had birthed at the whim of her long barren mistress, Sara, Abram’s wife, developed into the “wild man” predicted by the angel.
When finally, through an apparent miracle, Sara did bear Abram a son, in a fit of jealous rage against Ishmael, she demanded that Abram drive Hagar and her son into the desert (Genesis 16:15-16). “Ishmael shall not share the inheritance with my son, Isaac. Drive out Hagar and her son!” she announced. Abram reluctantly did so, banishing them, with some water and food, into the Wilderness of Paran. When the water ran out, Ishmael almost died of thirst. His rescue came when an angelic being directed Hagar a source of water.
On that harsh wilderness playground, Ishmael honed his archery skills, developing into an archer who could launch an arrow unerringly into his prey from a great distance. He was one who lived for the hunt. As a result, he and his mother never lacked for meat. What they did not consume, they traded to the frequent caravans that traversed the desert routes. Life for them was lonely, but endurable. However, Hagar eventually noticed that Ishmael no longer hunted as frequently as he once did. As she mulled the problem, she arrived at a solution.
“My son, you are a man now and a man needs a wife. You must marry. I shall arrange for you to take a wife from among the Egyptians, because they are my people.”
“But there are many tribes not far from here like those of my father, Abram. Their women know how to exist in the desert. The Egyptians do not. They would parish.”
“Have we perished? Am I not also a woman of Egypt? Who was it that brought you into manhood?”
Ishmael’s eyes lowered and he offered no response.
“I ask one more thing, Ishmael, my son. I have never told this before. After I conceived you, my mistress, Sarah, beat me so badly that I ran away into the desert. I was resting at a water spring and an angel found me. He asked me what I was doing there and I told him. He said for me to return to Sarah and obey her.
“This angel promised that the number of my descendants would be so great that no one will be able to count them. He also told me that I would bare a son. He said your name would be “Ishmael.” Then he said something I never understood until now.”
“What is that, Mother?”
Hagar took on a pensive look. “He said that you would be a wild man and your hand will be against every man and every man’s hand will be against you. And you will dwell in the presence of your brothers.”
Astonishment played on Ishmael’s features. There was a long silence before he spoke.
“Already, I am a wild man. And according to what you have told me, I also shall be a man without friends – a man who has only enemies!”
“What is her name, Mother?”
“Have you no tongue, girl? Speak! Tell your husband how you are called!”
“I am called Aseneth, daughter of Potipherah.” The girl spoke without fear.
“Her father, Potipherah, was a soldier in the armies of Egypt. He was killed in battle and her mother sold her in the slave market. I bought her as your wife.”
Ishmael seemed dubious. “She is beautiful and unafraid, but can she endure the wilderness? She appears so delicate.”
“Your mother has said that I am your wife, but I know that in truth, I am your slave. Though I did not choose to be here, I shall survive this place,” Aseneth haughtily replied.
“Have a care how you speak to your husband, girl.” Hagar made as if to slap Aseneth, but Ishmael prevented it.
“You shall not attempt to escape from us?”
“Where can I go? There is no place for me in Egypt. My father is dead. My mother sold me as a slave. There is no place for me, but here.”
Ishmael took Aseneth’s hands in his. “Then know that I, Ishmael, promise to treat you with only tenderness and love. I shall be your protector and provider.”
Aseneth’s features softened into a smile and Ishmael continued, “You shall call me your husband and I shall call you my wife. Hagar you shall call, “mother,” and she shall call you “daughter.” You shall treat her with love and she shall treat you the same.”
“Yes, I shall treat her so if she is a good wife to you, but if she is not, I shall beat her with a stick!”
“Then you shall not beat me at all, for I shall be a good wife to your son and a true daughter to you.”
Now it was Hagar’s features that softened. Moving to Aseneth, she embraced and kissed her.
“Come, my daughter, it is time for us to cook a meal.”
Hagar and Aseneth bonded into a true mother-daughter relationship. As the decades passed, Hagar had the joy of serving as the midwife for the birth of her first four grandsons. Yet, with the weight of her nomadic existence and the passing years pressing heavily on her, she finally responded to the summons of death. According to her wish, with great pomp and ceremony, she was buried by Ishmael in an Egyptian tomb. Having now given Ishmael twelve sons, Aseneth also was feeling the pressures of their wandering existence.
“My husband, when I first came to you, you promised to be a good husband to me. You have indeed loved me, as I have loved you. I have borne you twelve warrior sons.”
“Yes, you have given me many sons. They are superb horsemen and camel riders, who are now the lords of the desert. Because of them and their riders, we are paid tribute by all the caravans that pass through our lands. When those who travel see our black tents, they know who we are. Even the armies of pharaoh fear us.”
“Yes, my husband, you and our sons have made us rich beyond our dreams. Yet, we are growing old. I have grown tired of wandering. Can we not now remain settled in one place until we die?”
Before responding, Ishmael gazed at his wife with compassion. Then he said, “I shall speak to our sons about this which you ask.”
It was Nebajoth, Ishmael’s firstborn, who responded to his father’s question.
“Yes, Father, we have discussed it among ourselves. We have planned to each build a castle here in the desert. We shall construct them at a distance apart from each other. Thus, the entire desert shall be under our control. No one can pass through without paying tribute to us. You and mother may choose in whose castle you wish to live.”
“We first shall have our men dig until we have twelve wells of water,” added Kedar, the next oldest, “Then we each shall build our castle near one well. Once I have the water, I shall have my men gather many desert sheep into folds.”
“But what will they eat and drink?” his father asked, “Even in the desert, the sheep must wander far and wide to sustain themselves. Many of them die of starvation and thirst”.
“Once I have water, my castle will be like an oasis. Then I shall dig many wells and my men shall grow food for the sheep to eat.”
“When the angel spoke to my mother in the desert, she found a well of water there, but that was long ago,” Ishmael recalled, “I have not found many other wells since then, but I have heard that your Uncle Isaac dug wells for his flocks to drink. Each time he did so, others came and drove him away from his well and used them for themselves.”
“Uncle Isaac should have fought for what was his,” Kedemah, the youngest son, responded.
“That is true, but my brother is a peaceable man. He will not fight. He finally dug a well that remained his own.”
“I shall kill anyone who seeks to steal the wells I dig.” The threat was voiced by Massa, who most resembled his father in appearance and temperament. The others grunted their like resolve.
“Well, I suppose if one digs deep enough there will be water, but who can dig that deep?” Ishmael wondered aloud.
“My men will do so, or they will die!” Massa vowed.
“And, if the task is impossible, you still will kill your men for not what it is not possible to do?” asked Tema, his brother.
“My men will do so, or they will die!” Massa repeated.
“For not doing what no one else can do, even yourself?”
“I am their chief: they must do as I command!” Messa stated, “If I command them to dig until they find water, they must do so!”
Noticing Massa’s anger mounting, Nebajoth changed the topic.
“Our father and mother desire to remain in one place. They are tired of wandering in the desert!” he said to the others. “Since I am the oldest, they shall dwell with me in my camp. Do we all agree?” He received eleven affirmative answers.
Ishmael – The Archer of Paran
Zephan, Supreme Commander of the Egyptian military forces, was kneeling face to the pavement stones, before his furious King Pharaoh-rams.
“Lift your eyes, worthless one! On your knees! Look upon me!”
After the officer complied, leaning forward on his dais, Pharaoh-rams fixed Zephan with a probing glare. “Why do you not protect the caravans that pass through the desert? All who travel to and from Egypt suffer attacks by desert bandits! Our land grows poor because them!”
The commander’s features twitched in anguish; his voice quivered. “My great pharaoh, these are not mere bandits who attack our caravans. The wild man, Ishmael, and his twelve sons have gathered many desert tribes into a mighty desert confederation.”
“And what does this mean for Egypt?” the pharaoh asked.
Zephan’s voice now regained its natural deepness. “Ishmael is molding the tribes into an army, oh mighty pharaoh. The desert chiefs of the Wilderness of Paran acknowledge him as their supreme chief. They now call themselves, “The Ishmaelite Confederacy.” They consider all who pass through the desert as their enemies. It is reported that they look upon the desert as their own home-land nation. Only their own people may pass safely through the Wilderness of Paran. No other is safe from attack. They kill the men in the caravans and take all they have. If there are women with the caravans, they sell them as slaves or take them as their own.”
“Is it not your duty to protect the caravans? Why do you not send troops into the desert to kill these marauders and eliminate their black tents?” the pharaoh inquired, with a threat coloring his tone.
“I have sent many troops, sire, but Ishmael and his bands vanquish them all and then vanish into the desert. Even the Rephaim giants in the highlands of Bashan fear them, as do also the Amorites and other nations. I have received reports that the twelve sons of Ishmael no longer dwell in black tents, as do their followers, sire. Each is building a castle in a strategic location to make permanent their rule over the entire desert of Paran.”
Pharaoh-rams brow shot up in surprise. “Even the Rephaim, with their great height and strength, fear the confederacy of Ishmael?”
“Yes, my pharaoh, the Paphaim now refuse to leave their homes in the mountains for fear that Ishmael and his hoards will attack their families while they are gone. Though they will defend their mountains, it is reported that they do not think they can gain victory over Ishmael’s confederacy.”
Pharaoh-rams fists pounded the arms of his throne, his eyes narrow with disdain. “Then I swear upon the heads of my ancestors that I shall eliminate this scourge of the desert!”
With a terrible resolve, he added, “I, myself, shall lead the army into battle against Ishmael and his sons and their confederacy. When I capture these desert rats, I myself shall flay the skin from their bodies while they still live!”
Though construction of the castles was not yet completed, enough of the work had been done to make them livable. For more than three long years, the exhausted laborers that dragged in from wide distances of the desert, every boulder, every stone that could be found. Huge amounts of pebbles sifted from the desert sands and then loaded on drag-carts that were pulled by camels, horses and mules, also were to be utilized by the builders.
A deep, dry mote surrounded each edifice, and dotting the vast areas between the motes and the castles were sheepfolds, stalls for the working animals and the ones used as mounts. The black tents of The Ishmaelite Confederacy also occupied those areas. Recently dug wells also occupied the space. In addition to the motes, security for the castles also was provided by patrols armed with scimitars, spears and the weapons of archers.
Today had dawned no differently than previous days. After the cold of the night, the blistering heat of the sun dominated the desert, yet those within the castles still enjoyed the residual coolness of the walls.
It was one of Nebajoth’s outlooks who first blew the ram’s horn battle alarm and then shouted, “Battle alarm! Battle alarm! An army of riders approaches! Battle alarm!”
While Nebajoth and his riders armed themselves and mounted their steeds, the battle alarm was relayed to the other castles, whose warriors also prepared for combat. It did not take long before twelve companies of warriors converged into a unified army under the command of their respective princes, with Ishmael serving as their general. At his signal, the army began its march toward the approaching invaders.
Resplendent in his combat attire, mounted on his white battle stallion, King Pharaoh-rams waited next to Supreme Commander Zephan, also geared for battle. Already the desert sun was taking its toll upon their warriors; after succumbing to the heat, many had to be kicked to their feet again by their superiors. The king’s taste for battle now waning, he was having second thoughts. Across the sands, they could see the banners of The Ishmaelite Confederacy moving toward them.
“Our men and horses are not trained to fight in the desert, Zephan. Without our chariots and much water, we are at a disadvantage. The Ishmaelite Confederacy is trained for desert battles. They seem able to find water where no one else can.”
“True, sire, we did not take our chariots because they would serve no purpose here in the desert. Their wheels would sink into the sands and the horses would not be able to pull them over the dunes. We do have some water, for I commanded the army to carry water on camels.”
“But, is it enough for all of our troops and animals in such heat as this?”
Zephan appeared dubious. “It will depend on how long the battle lasts, sire.”
There was a long pause, after which Pharaoh-rams summoned a high-ranking officer, who approached and saluted.
“Carry a flag of truce and ride with me and the Supreme Commander toward the lines of the Ishmaelites.”
Both officers gawked at their king with alarm.
“You dogs! Do as I have commanded. Make a flag of truce!” the Pharaoh-rams again commanded.
White flag lifted high, the three slowly rode toward the confederacy lines. At the center of no man’s land, they reigned in and waited. The wait was a short one, for soon they saw an equivalent number of riders, two mounted on camels, the center rider on horseback. Approaching quickly, upon reaching the Egyptians, they also reigned in.
For a moment, both parties gazed silently at each other. The Ishmaelites each their features covered by white cloths reaching from just below the eyes to the necklines of their attire. The aura of mystery this lent them, made the king uneasy.
“I am Pharaoh-rams, king of Egypt. This is Supreme Commander Zephan of the Egyptian forces.”
“We know who you are,” responded the Ishmaelite horseman, “Why have you entered our land with your army? Do you not know that the desert belongs to us; that it is our homeland? We do not enter your land, yet you invade ours!” The speaker’s eyes were filled with dark portents.
“Are you he who is called Ishmael?” Zephan inquired.
“I am Ishmael, ruler of the desert tribes. He at my right hand is Nebajoth, my oldest son, who also commands a large company of my warriors. He at my left hand is, Adbeel, another of my sons. And he, too, commands a large company of warriors, as do all my sons, who are known among the desert dweller as the twelve princes of Ishmael. Each rules over part of this desert land. From their childhood, they have been trained as warriors as are all the men of The Ishmaelite Confederacy.
“I asked you why you invade our land, but you do not respond. Why is this?”
“You say that I invade your land, but the desert belongs to no man. All may travel through it. This is why we have come,” responded Pharaoh-rams, “You capture our caravans. You kill all the men and take all the goods. If there are women, you do with them as you please, even selling them as slaves. Egypt grows poor because of you.”
Ishmael scrutinized the king with a scornful glare. “Do not speak to me of those we sell as slaves, Pharaoh-rams. Though Hagar, my mother, was an Egyptian, the Egyptians sold her as a slave to Abram, my father. In my youth, he then sent us into this desert to die of thirst, for no wrong that we did. But I remain alive. The desert is now our homeland. We rule here!
“Like you, the caravans and traders that pass through here think the desert belongs to no one, but it is ours. Our castles are here, as are our families, and our herds and flocks. We have much water, for we have for dug many wells, and we will fight to the death for what is ours. Even the Rephaim fear us and remain in their mountains. Learn from them, Pharaoh-rams; return to Egypt while you still have life in you.
Ishmael’s tone grew ominous. “You have often sent assassins to kill me, but they have never returned to you, yet I have not sought to kill you. Know that had I done so, they would not have failed, as we shall not fail to win this battle, should you choose to fight us. You came to me under a flag of truce and you may depart from here without harm. Again, I say to you, return to Egypt while you still have life; if you do battle with us, you shall surely die by my hand!”
Despite the heat, Pharaoh-rams felt chills playing along his spine and a cold fist closing over his heart. He realized now that it had been a mistake to make an attempt to move against this desert warrior. How could he back off and still save face?
“Our talk has ended, Pharaoh-rams. Return to your troops. I shall wait with my warriors until you attack us or turn toward Egypt. Heed my warning: Return to Egypt and enter our land no more!”
The Egyptians backed their steeds several feet, and then swung around and returned to their troops. They conferred among themselves, after which, Zephan again approached the Ishmaelites under the flag of truce.
This time, he placed a clenched right fist over his heart in salute to Ishmael, who did not respond.
In a voice edged with tension, he stated, “My king has sent me to report that we have not come to do battle against you, sire. Our purpose is to request that you do not prevent the caravans from entering Egypt, for our people grow weak from hunger. As one sovereign to another, he asks that you do him this kindness. We shall not again enter the desert without your permission.”
With a patronizing smile, Ishmael responded, “Only the gods know the future. You are free to return to your land in peace.”
The ram’s horn battle trumpet. This time it was one Mibsam outlooks who blew the trumpet and, “Battle alarm! Battle alarm! Strange riders approach the castles. Battle alarm! Battle alarm!”
The alarm was taken up by the other castles. With a feverish scurry of activity, the Confederacy armed themselves and mounted their steeds. The mote bridges were lowered and they rode out to meet the strangers. Before the Ishmaelites could launce an attack, the intruders stopped their advancement and unfurled a white banner and three riders moved forward, stopped, and then waited.
“Hold!” Ishmael commanded, “They fly a flag of truce. Nebajoth and Tema, meet with them. Learn why they intrude into our land.”
Advancing slowly, the two princes complied. To Ishmael’s amazement, they and the foremost stranger dismounted and embraced each other. Nebajoth waved to for his father to advance and the two parties converged. Like him, the stranger wore a full, black beard. The diadem of a chief secured his head cloth. Though his garments were stained with the dust of his travels, it was evident they were designed from expensive cloth. And, judging from the burdens carried by the camels, the stranger possessed great wealth. Turning to Nebajoth in puzzlement, Ishmael noticed that his eyes shone with pleasure.
“Who is this stranger, my son?” he asked.
Nebajoth was about to respond, but the visitor spoke first. An inner pain seemed to haunt him.
“You last saw me as a babe in my mother’s arms, Ishmael. I am Isaac, your brother,” the visitor stated.
Ishmael stiffened, his eyes blinking with incredulity. Brow lowered in suspicion, he responded, “You say you are my brother, Isaac, but to me you are a stranger. Why have you come into my land?”
“I have come to say that Abraham, our father, has been gathered to his people. I now ask you to go with me to Mamre, that together we may bury him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron.”
Ishmael lowered his eyes. His sons and Isaac knew he was grieving. Moving forward, Isaac embraced him and Ishmael did not resist.
When he stopped sobbing, his brother released him and Ishmael said, “I thought my heart was filled with hated for our father, because he drove me into the desert. Now I learn it is filled with love for him.”
Isaac nodded. “When I came to understand what was done to you and Hagar, I knew it was unjust. As Abram’s eldest son, the birthright should have gone to you. Please do not blame our father for your exile; it was my mother, Sarah, who in her jealously against you, demanded it.
“When our father departed from Ur, he hoped to find Melchizedek, the king of Salem. He desired to learn from him where to find the god most high, who does not demand the sacrifice of children. Though he did not find Salem, he found his God, Yahweh.
“Our father said to me many times that Yahweh commanded him to heed the demands of my mother, Sarah. Yahweh promised him that He would make you the father of many nations. It is right that you love him, Ishmael, for he dearly loved you. It grieved him to send you and Hagar away.”
Ishmael again nodded. “Come, my brother, you and your men shall be taken to Nebajoth’s castle. You shall be fed at our table and then rest. Tomorrow morning we shall depart to bury our father.”
The burial procession that wended its way through the desert was a lengthy one. In addition to Isaac’s and Ishmael’s tribes, all the desert chiefs who had submitted to the Ishmaelite, as well as those who knew Abraham and Isaac were in attendance with their women mourners, whose duty it was to dolefully bewail the death of Abraham. At Mamre, the procession converged with the more tribes ruled by Isaac. At his command, the camels on which his mourners traveled joined with those of their Ishmaelite counterparts. Upon arriving at the burial cave, the women dismounted to assume their positions, Ishmael’s women in a single rank on one side, Isaac’s taking a similar stance on the other.
As the wrapped body was carried toward them, the women moaned softly. The moans became progressively louder, until they reached a crescendo of piercing, heartbreaking sobs that moved the other procession members to join in.
“Abraham is gone from us,” the women loudly wailed.
“Yes, Abraham is gone from us,” responded the others, including Ishmael and Isaac, “Why have you gone from us, our father?”
“Why have you left us, Father Abraham; when shall we again behold your face?” the women wailed.
“Abraham our father is now among the gods. When shall we see him again?” Ishmael mourned, in a hopeless tone.
“Our father rests on the bosom of Yahweh, the unseen God,” Isaac responded, “We shall see our father again when the promised one comes.”
His face a study in desolation, Ishmael turned to Isaac, “Though I cannot believe that a promised one shall come, my brother, I would that it were true; I would that it were true.”
“Why do you think it not true?” Isaac asked.
Ishmael grimaced. “Did not our father seek all through his wanderings for the city of his God?”
“That is so. I also was with him in those wandering. He sought for the city because he believed it was built by our God, Yahweh,” his brother offered.
“Did he ever find such a city?” Ishmael challenged.
“No, our father never found the city he sought,”
“Why did he not find it?” Ishmael inquired. This time, Isaac did not respond.
“And, you Isaac; do you believe such a city exists?”
When his brother continued his silence, Ishmael continued, “Our father did not find such a city because it does not exist. Why should the gods build cities on earth, my brother? They cannot live in them. It is men who build cities with walls to protect themselves against those who would kill and steal. Who can kill the gods, Isaac? Who can steal from them? So why do they need cities? All talk of a city whose builder and maker is Yahweh is a fantasy.”
“Ishmael, all else that our father taught to me is true, so this also must be true,” Isaac ventured, “Our father believed such a city exists; therefore, I also believe it.”
Ishmael laughed, “Believe what you will, Isaac. When you find this city, send a messenger to me and I shall visit it with you. Let us depart from here. I must return to my land. Our castles are lightly guarded.”
© Josprel (Joseph Perrello)
This appeared on Christian Article Bank (which is no longer active) in July 2006.