#37. What is the origin of Ishmael’s name: Yahweh has heard Hagar OR God has heard the boy? (Gen 16:11 vs Gen 21:17)


Many of the biblical scribes and/or the stories they wrote down display an avid interest in the etymologies of names. An etymology attempts to find the original meaning of a name by referencing what the root of that name means, or was thought to mean. There are many etymologies given in the Bible, from patriarchal names to place names. What we are interested in is where the biblical record gives us 2 different etymologies on the same name. This is often evidence of 2 different traditions, each one attempting to explain the origin and meaning of a name through a particular event or story—thus the present case with the name Ishmael.

The root of the name “Ishmael” is derived from the Hebrew verb shāma‘ “to hear,” and the suffix “el.” So the name Ishmael means “God has heard.” But what exactly does God hear? It seems that this very question was answered differently and it depended on which version of the story we were listening to. It might actually be the case that ancient storytellers created or shaped stories in such a way as to explain the origin of the name. In this case, we have two different stories (#34-36), each one providing a unique etymology for the name Ishmael.

The version belonging to the Yahwist tradition claims that Yahweh heard Hagar: “Behold, you’re pregnant and will give birth to a son, and you shall call his name Ishmael, for Yahweh has heard your sufferings” (Gen 16:11). However, the version belonging to the Elohist tradition relates that the origin of Ishmael’s name was on account that God heard the boy Ishmael as he lie crying on the verge of death. It is quite possible that the later Priestly writer also implied a unique etymology—namely that God heard Abraham (Gen 17:20).

We will see many other examples of divergent etymologies, and frankly this is a typical feature in almost all ancient literature—variant ways in which stories account for, or tried to account for, the meaning of a name.

7 thoughts on “#37. What is the origin of Ishmael’s name: Yahweh has heard Hagar OR God has heard the boy? (Gen 16:11 vs Gen 21:17)

  1. What David Wehrle said. Yeah, go David. I appreciate your comments and I believe deep down, everyone here also does and concurs, though they might not admit it right out. :D

  2. Greetings, Friends! This is a very interesting discussion, indeed. As a student of higher criticism, Hebrew, Greek, etc., I am intrigued. Perhaps some of you can help me with my biggest issue with these approaches – they force a scientific hermeneutic upon a literature written by and for people who did not read or write in a Western scientific way. For example, Mr. DiMattei suggests that the explanation of Moses name in Exodus 2:10 is “too fanciful.” I assume he means too fanciful to be good/accurate etymology. And, I could not agree more. It is difficult to believe that the name Moses derived naturally over time from the verb “mashah.” The problem with this approach is that the author of Exodus never claims to be doing good etymology. In fact, (s)he claims that this is a name chosen for Moses by the pharoah’s daughter – who while likely somewhat literate, can hardly be accused of being a linguist. Could it not be that she liked the sound of “Moses,” and that she chose this name because – for her – it reminded her that she drew this child out of the Nile/water?

    While I named my children Gabriel, Elliot, and Nathaniel because I like the linguistic implications/etymologies and meaning of these names and their Hebrew background, we certainly see many modern examples of names chosen for their “sound” and the personal way they remind a parent of something important to the parent themselves or point to the hope they have for the child. Consider, for example, D’Brickashaw Ferguson. His parents claim to have named him after Father Ralph de Bricassart, a character in the novel The Thorn Birds. I learned this from an article in the New York Times – Crouse, Karen (April 17, 2006), “D’Brickashaw Ferguson: The Family Guy”, New York Times. Now, should I suppose that the author is mistaken, or futhermore, that the parents themselves are mistaken? Should I assert that these are all make false and inconsistent claims about the naming of Mr. Ferguson? Should I impose a scientific-linguistic hermeneutic upon the “myth” of Mr. Ferguson’s naming? I don’t think that is necessary at all. Mr. Ferguson’s parents were fond of the character de Bricassart, and had hopes for their new son that somehow were derived from that character. They did not name their son de Bricassart, but something that – in their minds – derived from that name – D’Brickashaw.

    What is my point? Well, I don’t think that we are dealing with contradiction when the Bible shares with us the many and varied meanings that ANE peoples described by the text assigned to the names of their contemporaries, patriarchs, etc. You are asking the text and – more significantly – the people behind and described by the text to follow the linguistic/scientific understandings of the 21st century if you are to believe them. More normative to ANE cultures is a narrative approach that is quite flexible in assigning meaning to names and celebrates not etymology, but wordplay with phonetically similar sounding syllables, words and names. Why is it contradictory if the text claims in one place that the name “Ishmael” means God heard Hagar, and in another place it is assigned a meaning of God heard the boy himself. This is not contradictory at all in ANE literature or culture. This is brilliant literature… and a brilliant God. The boy’s name – as you explain -is “God has heard.” What has God heard? Well, as the text points out rather consistently, God hears all those who call out to him in their distress. What is more, God acts consistently out of God’s loving and merciful nature toward those whom he has heard.

    1. David,

      Welcome, and thanks for your contribution. I’d say that I am not imposing some “scientific hermeneutic” on these texts, and quite contrary, I am, as you otherwise note, using a “narrative approach that is quite flexible in assigning meaning to names and celebrates not etymology, but wordplay with phonetically similar sounding syllables.” See my discussion of adam/adama and ish/ishah in #1 for example.

      Scholars usually note, and note correctly, that Moses is an Egyptian word not a Hebrew one. Whether this was known to the biblical authors that wrote stories about Moses is one thing, but it is clear that at least one biblical scribe tried to rationalize the meaning (etymology) of Moses’ name by referencing a Hebrew root. As noted, this was nothing more than fanciful narrative ingenuity.

      In the case of the name Ishmael, the etymology is correct, and it would be ridiculous to suppose that ancient Hebrews did not construct names and place names (e.g., the city Ai which means “ruins” because it was a heap of ruins; or Hormah, “destruction”) upon Hebrew roots. The root of the name “Ishmael” is derived, etymologically not by chance, from the Hebrew verb shāma‘ “to hear,” and the suffix el, “god”—thus god hears. In all three textual traditions that the Bible as we have it today preserves (Yahwist, Elohist, Priestly), the name Ishmael is used with this etymology consciously known by its authors. In fact, and in general, we might say that names conveyed meanings in antiquity. What was flexible however, what each of these three scribes felt free to play with was the direct object of the etymology: “God hears” whom? What this contradiction identifies then—and granted this is a minor contradiction—is how variant once separate oral traditions told the story of how Ishmael was named: Yahweh heard Hagar (J); God heard the boy crying (E); God heard Abraham (P). Finally, many ancient cultures and the literature they produced, Israelites included here, preserved variant etymologies and stories that explained these etymologies in often fanciful ways. Read Herodotus’ Histories, or Livy’s Histories, etc. So I don’t think we’re in too much of a disagreement here.

      Additionally, contradictions #51-54 note dual etymologies and stories for the names of some of Jacob’s sons. I’ve reproduced some of that post here.

      The name Reuben—which literally translates “Look, a son”—is so named according to one tradition because “Yahweh saw, looked at” (ra’a be-) Leah’s sufferings, and according to another tradition because Jacob “will love me” (ye’ehabani).

      Likewise, the meaning and origin of Issachar’s name according to J is “for I have hired you” (sakor sekartika), which is a direct reference to the mandrake story; and according to E’s textual tradition it is “God has granted me my reward” (sekari), which is derived from Leah’s reward for having provided her husband with a concubine.

      Zebulun’s double etymology is given as “my man will bring me presents” (yizbeleni) from J, and “God has given me a precious gift” (zebadani zebed) from E.

      Finally, there is Joseph’s duplicate etymology: J’s “may Yahweh add” (yosep) and E’s “God has removed” (’asap). To give the reader some idea about what is going on with the Hebrew in these etymologies, in the case of Joseph’s etymology, J has traced the name back to the root ysp, meaning “add,” and thus we get “may Yahweh add” (yosep) as an explanation of the name Yosep. E, on the other hand, traces the name back to the root ’sp, meaning “to take away,” and thus God “has removed” (’asap) becomes the explanation for Yosep.

      Such fanciful stories were created to explain the meaning of an ancestral patriarch’s name. In all probability, or at least my fanciful contribution, the name Yoseph derives from yšb, “resident,” as a resident in a foreign land—a prominent theme of the Elohist’s Joseph. Furthermore, we again notice the Elohist’s emphasis on divine revelation since all of this tradition’s etymologies are traced to an action by God.

  3. arch – I’m aware of the Egyptian meaning of the name and the story of Sargon. I was more commenting on the paronomasia with the Hebrew word for drawing out or assembling. The biblical writer apparently thought there was enough similarity to connect Moses’ name with that concept. The fact that the name is the form of the active participle rather than the passive one, however, may suggest that Moses was doing the drawing out and not having the action of being drawn out done to him.

    1. In the context of discussing the fanciful ways in which the biblical scribes imaginatively assigned etymologies, they certainly attempted to do so with the Egyptian mosé ‘born.’ “And she called his name Moses (mosheh) and said ‘For I drew (mashah) him from the waters” (Ex 2:10). As Hymenaeus correctly notes, the etymology is a bit too fanciful since Moses’ name “to draw out” is etymologically explained by the verb’s passive “drew out.” In support of your hypothesis for an active-verb etymology, “he drew the people out of Egypt?”, look at Is 63:11, where this is exactly what the author does, referring to Moses as “the drawer of his people.”

  4. H.A. – regardless of the biblical explanation, “Mose” was an Egyptian name, as in Tutmose, and simply means, “baby” (Tutmose, you may recall, was a boy king). The entire Moses story, much like Noah’s flood fable and many others, was plagiarized from earlier Mesopotamian legends, then reworked to fit Jewish customs and times.

    Sargon, the great Akkadian king who defeated the last of the Mesopotamian Sumerians and battled his way from Northern Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean and down the Levant nearly to Egypt, opening a Mesopotamian trade route to the sea, was allegedly the son of a temple maiden, placed in a basket made of woven reeds, sealed with bitumen (a tar-like substance) and floated down the Euphrates, where he was found and raised by a gardener.

    pax vobiscum,

  5. I find these fascinating and they really seem to point to the legendary nature of these characters. A couple of my favorites are Moses and Esau/Seir. Was Moses so named because he was drawn of the water or because he drew the people out of Egypt? Was Esau so named because Rebekah gave birth to a hairy, redheaded freak or because of the copper-rich soil and wooded appearance of the land inhabited by his supposed descendants? Even when an etymology is not supplied by the authors, I often try to look at the meanings of the proper names and see if I can figure one out.

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