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.