Are Ishmaelites and Midianites the same people in Genesis 37:25-28?

“And they sat down to eat bread: and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmeelites came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt. And Judah said unto his brethren, What profit is it if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood?Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmeelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother and our flesh. And his brethren were content. Then there passed by Midianites merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmeelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt.” Genesis 37:25–28

The short answer is YES, Joseph, the Israelites and Midianites are all kinsmen. Abraham had more sons than just Isaac (by Sarah) and Ishmael (by Hagar). He also had six sons by Keturah, his wife after the death of Sarah: Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah (Genesis 25:2). The Midianites were the descendants of Midian and therefore children of Abraham. They settled in “the land of the east” (Genesis 25:6). The land of Midian was officially on both sides of the Gulf of Aqaba, although the Midianites showed nomadic tendencies later in their history (Habakkuk 3:7).

When Moses fled the wrath of Pharaoh, he traveled to Midian (Exodus 2:15). There, Moses met and married his wife, Zipporah, and served his father-in-law, Jethro, as a shepherd for forty years. The fact that Jethro was “a priest of Midian” (Exodus 2:16) indicates that the Midianites, at least during Moses’ time, still retained the knowledge of the God of their father Abraham (cf. Jethro’s words and actions in Exodus 18). At the end of Moses’ time in Midian, God appeared to Moses—still in Midian—and commissioned him to lead the Israelites out of slavery (Exodus 3—4).

As the children of Israel traveled through the wilderness, they employed the services of a guide familiar with the desert—Moses’ Midianite brother-in-law, Hobab(Numbers 10:29). However, the relations between the Israelites and the Midianites began to sour when the Midianites joined forces with the Moabites in order to hire Balaam to curse Israel (Numbers 22). Later, when Israel fell into idolatry and sexual sin with the Moabite women (Numbers 25), we find that a prominent Midianite woman was also involved (Numbers 25:6). The Lord then told Moses to wage war against the Midianites:

“Vex the Midianites, and smite them: For they vex you with their wiles, wherewith they have beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of a prince of Midian, their sister, which was slain in the day of the plague for Peor's sake.” Numbers 25:17–19

The Israelites did eventually attack the Midianites, meting out retribution against their enemies (Numbers 31). Five kings of the Midianites were killed, as was Balaam (Numbers 31:8). This battle was one of the last things Moses accomplished as leader of the Israelites.

During the time of the judges, “the Midianites, Amalekites and other eastern peoplesinvaded the country” and plundered the land (Judges 6:3). For seven years,

“Midian so impoverished the Israelites that they cried out to the Lord for help” (verse 6). God answered their cries and raised up Gideon as a deliverer. With just 300 men, Gideon defeated the armies of the Midianites, although the foe was “thick as locusts. Their camels could no more be counted than the sand on the seashore” Judges 7:12. Of course, God was involved, and He was the One who granted the victory over the Midianites (verse 22).

Later references to the Midianites include allusions to God’s victory over them (Psalm 83:9; Isaiah 10:26). In a prophecy of Israel’s future glory in the Messianic kingdom, Isaiah writes, “The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the Lord.” Isaiah 60:6

The Ishmaelites were the descendants of Ishmael, the son of Abram by his wife’s handmaiden, Hagar (Genesis 16:1–12). The origin of the Ishmaelites was fraught with difficulty. When Sarai was unable to produce a child with Abram, she followed the common cultural practice and gave Hagar to him, and Hagar conceived his child. But Sarai later became jealous and mistreated Hagar, who fled from her mistress into the wilderness. There Hagar met the Angel of the Lord who pronounced the first of three prophecies concerning the child she was bearing. She would give birth to a son, and his descendants would multiply greatly. It was at this time that God told Hagar to name him Ishmael, which means “God hears” (Genesis 16:10–11).

In the wilderness the Angel of the Lord also predicted that Ishmael—and therefore the Ishmaelites—would be stubborn, untamable, and warlike:

“And the angel of the Lord said unto her, Behold, thou art with child and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the Lord hath heard thy affliction. And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.” Genesis 16:11-12. After hearing the angel’s words, Hagar returned to her mistress and eventually gave birth to Ishmael.

Later, God changed the names of Sarai and Abram to Sarah and Abraham and established a covenant with Abraham’s son Isaac. But Ishmael also had a promise from God: he would be blessed, too, and he would be the father of a great nation, beginning with twelve sons, the first of the Ishmaelites (Genesis 17:20). The names of the twelve are listed in Genesis 25:12–16; it is from the Ishmaelites that the Arab nations descended.

As Ishmael grew to adulthood, there was dissention between him and Isaac, so Hagar took her son and left the camp of Abraham. The Angel of God met them once again and predicted for the third time that Ishmael would father a great nation (Genesis 21:18). Later in Israel’s history, the Ishmaelites were also called Midianites(although not all Midianites were descendants of Ishmael), and they engaged in the buying and selling of slaves (Genesis 37:28; 39:1). The Ishmaelites were fond of gold, and gold earrings were part of their plunder. (Judges 8:24)

During the reign of King David, the Ishmaelites joined a confederacy against God and against His people, Israel (Psalm 83:5–6). Their goal was to “destroy them as a nation, / so that Israel’s name is remembered no more” (verse 4). Considering the current turmoil in the Middle East and the hatred often directed against Israel by her neighbors, the prophecies concerning the descendants of Ishmael continue to prove true.

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