Ishmaelites or Midianites?

Genesis 37:
25   As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a
     caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels
     were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their
     way to take them down to Egypt.
26   Judah said to his brothers, "What will we gain if we kill our
     brother and cover up his blood?
27   Come, let's sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our
     hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and
     blood." His brothers agreed.
28   So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled
     Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels
     of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.
29   When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was
     not there, he tore his clothes.
30   He went back to his brothers and said, "The boy isn't there!
     Where can I turn now?"
31   Then they got Joseph's robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped
     the robe in the blood.
32   They took the ornamented robe back to their father and said,
     "We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son's
33   He recognized it and said, "It is my son's robe! Some
     ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been
     torn to pieces."
34   Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for
     his son many days.
35   All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he
     refused to be comforted. "No," he said, "in mourning will I
     go down to the grave to my son." So his father wept for
36   Meanwhile, the Midianites sold Joseph in Egypt to
     Potiphar, one of Pharaoh's officials, the captain of the

Genesis 39:
1    Now Joseph had been taken down to Egypt. Potiphar, an
     Egyptian who was one of Pharaoh's officials, the captain 
     of the guard, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had 
     taken him there.

This is sometimes brought up as a contradiction by atheists or Muslims who seek to attack the Bible. Were they either the Midianites or the Ishmaelites? Clearly here is some error?

Let me quote from the footnotes of the NIV Study Bible:

37:25 Ishmaelites. Also called Midianites (v. 28; see Judges 8:22,24,26) and Medanites (see NIV text note on v. 36). These various tribal groups were interrelated, since Midian and Medan, like Ishmael, were also sons of Abraham (25:2).

The text note on 37:36 is: Samaritan Pentateuch, Septuagint, Vulgate and Syriac have "Midianite" in vv. 28,36. The Masoretic Text reads "Medanites".

In Genesis 25:1-3, we read that after the death of his wife Sarah, "Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah. Jokshan was the father of Sheba, and Dedan; ..."

Just as the tribes of Israel regularly intermarried, and were interrelated in many ways, going to war together etc, so it is natural to assume that the members of the tribes from the other sons of Abraham would intermarry, and be very much interrelated, in particular, in Joseph's day, who was the great grandson of Abraham, i.e. only 3 generations away from Abraham, when these tribes were not very large yet. In particular, verse 28 seems to show the clearest that the two words are basically used as synonyms. For several examples how similar situations are reality in our times, see below.

In fact, we observe the same close relationship even several hundred years later in the time of Gideon, as reported in the book of Judges, about the war between Israelites, led by Gideon, and these people.

Judges 6:
2    Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites 
     prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves 
     and strongholds.

Judges 7:
8    ... Now the camp of Midian lay below him [Gideon] in the valley.
9    During that night the LORD said to Gideon, "Get up, go down
     against the camp, because I am going to give it into your
10   If you are afraid to attack, go down to the camp with your
     servant Purah
11   and listen to what they are saying. Afterward, you will be
     encouraged to attack the camp." So he and Purah his servant
     went down to the outposts of the camp.
12   The Midianites, the Amalekites and all the other eastern
     peoples had settled in the valley, thick as locusts. Their
     camels could no more be counted than the sand on the

  [and after the battle is over and the booty distributed]

Judges 8:
22   The Israelites said to Gideon, "Rule over us--you, your son
     and your grandson--because you have saved us out of the hand
     of Midian."
23   But Gideon told them, "I will not rule over you, nor will my
     son rule over you. The LORD will rule over you."
24   And he said, "I do have one request, that each of you give me
     an earring from your share of the plunder." (It was the
     custom of the Ishmaelites to wear gold earrings.)
25   They answered, "We'll be glad to give them." So they spread
     out a garment, and each man threw a ring from his plunder
     onto it.
26   The weight of the gold rings he asked for came to seventeen
     hundred shekels, not counting the ornaments, the pendants
     and the purple garments worn by the kings of Midian or the
     chains that were on their camels' necks.

From these passages, we can come to an understanding in the following way.

In Judges 7:12, we see that the army that came against Israel consisted of "the Midianites, the Amalekites and all the other eastern peoples" (who had joined together to fight against Israel) and in Judges 8:24, the same people are summarily refered to as "the Ishmaelites" might have become a generic term for these kind of tribal peoples in that region.

Maybe the reason was that many of these tribes were descendants of the sons of Abraham by Hagar and Keturah and since Ishmael was the oldest of these, his name became the representative for all of them. From the above battle situation it seems that the specific tribe of the Midianites was the most powerful (6:2) and is often named first, or even the only one named specifically, and as such representing the army of the enemy. Probably, in Genesis then, the people were indeed Midianites, but they are sometimes called by their more specific name "Midianites" and sometimes by the broader term "Ishmaelites", like a Bavarian might be called Bavarian or German or a European. It happens to me very often in the USA, that when I am telling I am from Southern Germany, the immediate response is "Oh from Bavaria". But no, Bavaria is Southeast, but I am from the Southwest. But somehow, the Bavarians have come to be the prime representatives of Germany to Americans.

The above interpretation that the Ishmaelites might be a broader term, follows the Expositor's Bible Commentary. But given that this is an issue of "colloquial expressions and usage" from a time more than 3,000 years ago, not all Biblical scholars agree and another interpretation is this:

After bringing the opinion of the EBC to his attention, the reply was:

Also, God says that Ishmael "will be a wild donkey of a man" (Gen 16:12) indicating his restless and "undomesticated" nature, and that he will not lead a life as settled as most other nations.

Whichever interpretation of the few available data might be the more correct one, it is clear that the Midianites and Ishmaelites were intimately related and situations like this exist in today's world just as 3,000-3,500 years ago and there is no reason why this should be seen as a contradiction.

This issue had come up on the Muslim-Christian Dialog mailing list and got the following response from a participant:

I can give some examples from my own background. For example, just a few hundred years ago, Ottoman Turks would call all Western Europeans "Franks" regardless of whether they were actually French, or Austrian, or English. Not just the common people, but also a famous Ottoman historian of 17th century calls all of Western Europe "Land of the Franks". Similarly, even now Assyrian Christians are sometimes called Armenians by some people even though their language is different. They lived in the same general area and both are Orthodox Christians. For a long time after the Turks conquered Asia Minor, they were still calling the land by the name "Land of the Romans[Greeks]". Only after Turks have settled sufficiently and became the majority, it was started to be called Turkey (even by Europeans).

Balkan provinces of the Ottoman Empire were simply called Roumelia (Roman[Greek] Domain) after 14th century even though the local population were mostly Slavic and not Greek , but simply related to Greeks by their Orthodox Christian religion. Also, some Europeans would call all Muslims simply "Turks" couple hundred years ago.

Ishmaelite/Midianite issue could be something similar (I am guessing here). Maybe there were significant intermarrying among these people, or maybe they were living close to each other general area and had similar cultures at the time Genesis was written. In any event, this was not an issue in the Abraham-Ishmael puzzle that I was trying to solve.

Farrell Till's response:

   Was this famous Ottoman historian of the 17th century verbally 
   inspired by an omniscient, omnipotent deity when he called all 
   of Western Europe the "land of the Franks"?

Dear Farrell,

First of the discussion that I was presenting was about Abraham's journeys and try to see the evidence that Muslims would present about Ishmael's descendant being in Mecca, or about Abraham and Ishmael building the Kaaba. In the discussion, I was careful enough not to presuppose that the Bible is dictated by God (in fact I am not even Christian, or Jewish). I was simply taking the Bible as a historical document see what clues does it have (if any) with regards to Ishmael and Abraham in Mecca. You have picked a point about the Ishmaelites being called Midianites, which was not even remotely connected to the issue. In any case, there could still be some explanations (I am NOT saying that the Bible is 100% corect, but the issue at hand might have some explanation nevertheless).

I think you are applying nationality quite rigidly. You are saying that Ishmaelites cannot be Midianites. Maybe they were descendants of Ishmael living in the region of Midian at the time Genesis was written. Please consider the foillowing examples:

For example, there are people of Greek origin living in Turkey. They mostly retain Greek names or surnames, are bilingual, and are Turkish citizens, but their heritage clearly goes back to Byzantines. In everyday life they speak Turkish. A lot of them simply call themselves Turks, or Turkish Greeks (I know this may sound really bizarre to you). If an outsider calls them Greeks is it wrong ? One can say that cultural heritage is the main part of your ethnicity, and on that basis he has a point. On the other hand someone can say that they are Turkish because they are citizens of Turkey and speak Turkish (a lot of them do even in their own houses, Greek is simply a language that they learn at their schools and use in church services). So by his definition of nationality they are Turkish. Which one is right and who is to decide?

If a Frenchman immigrates to Canada, is it wrong if I call him French sometimes and Canadian at other times ? If so, why ? Is the "French Canadian" term an error? He is French by heritage, but Canadian by citizenship (assuming he left French citizenship). I think it's fine to call him either way, I do not necessarily see a discrepancy.

As you remember, all through 1992-1995, we heard about the war of "Bosnian factions" as reported in the media. As you know pretty well, in this description "Bosnian" referred simply to the fact that the factions lived in the same geographic area, Bosnia. But if you asked the people there, mostly the Muslims and not many people from Serbs or Croats would call themselves Bosnian. So the term was a little ambiguous. If your understanding of "Bosnian" as simply Muslim, then obviously there is no Bosnian Serb. But the outsiders still had a point of calling the ethnic groups there as Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Serbs, etc. Serb by heritage but Bosnian in the sense that he is living in the area that was called as Bosnia for a long time. Was 99% of the media wrong when they were talking about the "Bosnian factions"? Respectable media organizations were referring to one of the ethnicities as Serbs (for example) and also implicitly calling "one of the Bosnian factions" even within the same news report!

I did not make research into whether some Ismaelites lived in the area called Midian, I will look into it. Maybe the land where some of the descendants of Ishmael were living was simply taken over by Midianites (as happened in Asia Minor, Greek/Turkish issue), or simply there were some Ishmaelites living in Midian for another reason. Is it wrong then to call them Ishmaelites sometimes (referring to their heritage), but Midianites (possibly referring to where they were living). If so why do we have the term "French Canadian" ? On what basis dou reject that French cannot be Canadians? Your example about Hispanics and Blacks, could be changed to Hispanics and Americans, then you can obviously we have Hispanic Americans, unless by "American" you force the meaning "the white Europeans" who founded the country originally.

Similarly you could be forcing the definition of a Midianite as strictly descendent of Midian (who lived perhaps more than a hundred years before Joseph), when maybe such a definition was not necessarily correct at the time Joseph was sold into slavery..

One last example (this one resembles the Ishmaelite/Midianite at hand). In Ottoman period, the trade was handled mostly by non-Muslim minorities. So, if a ship whose captain is a Greek Ottoman comes to Venice sometime in 16th century, to leave some shipments, and an Italian person says that the captain was Greek, is he wrong ? If later he said "the Ottomans are leaving the harbor in 3 days" is he wrong? Remember that the original description of Ottoman was someone from the family or tribe of Osman, the first Sultan. Now that Greek captain was not from the Ottoman dynasty, but he could be still called either Greek or Ottoman or both by the SAME person, and there is no error, simply because the definition of "Ottoman" changed from 13th century to 16th century. Of course Midianites did not establish a huge empire but there is still a possibility that there could be Ishmaelites living in Midian, involved in trade?

This topic is getting out of control but surely I am not responsible for it. I hope this clarifies a little bit.

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