The promises concerning Ishmael in Genesis 16 which at first might seem negative and odd to the Western mind are to be understood in the light of the angel’s command to Hagar: “return to your mistress and submit to her” (Gen 16:9). God’s plan to bless Ishmael required him to be educated and prepared by his father Abraham. Ishmael was to live under the shadow of Abraham’s tent.
The command to “return to your mistress and submit to her” is followed by the promises, which in turn would give strength to fulfill such a difficult command. The naming of Ishmael brought strength and comfort to Hagar as well as the assurance of God’s presence.
The phrase, “He shall be a wild donkey of a man” (Gen 16:12, NIV) requires the reader to look more closely at the biblical context to better understand the expression, for the phrase does not sound very positive for the 21st-century reader. In Job 39:5 (NIV) it says, “Who let the wild donkey go free? Who untied his ropes? I gave him the wasteland as his home, the salt flats as his habitat. He laughs at the commotion in the town; he does not hear a driver’s shout. He ranges the hills for his pasture and searches for any green thing.” One could say that the wild donkey was the king of the desert in biblical times. Genesis 16:12 describes Ishmael’s future destiny: he would enjoy a free-roaming, Bedouin- like existence. The freedom his mother sought would also be his one day (Wenham 2002:10). “In contrast with the oppression which she had endured and still would endure, she received the promise that her son would endure no such oppression” (Keil 2002:1:141).
The phrase, “His hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him” (Gen 16:12b, NKJV) is connected with the first prediction and indicates that in the context of defending his freedom, Ishmael would be fierce. “The syntactical structure of this verse with no connective particle between the first two clauses governed by the Hebrew verb “to be” implies that the second is a direct implication of the first.” The first prophecy guarantees his freedom; the second is the “qualifier” of the first one (Maalouf 2003:71): it as the price Ishmael would pay for his freedom. “His hand” and “every man’s hand against him” should also be understood in light of Abraham’s expression and Sarah’s action: “So Abram said to Sarai, ‘Indeed your maid is in your hand; do to her as you please’” (Gen 16:6, NKJV).
The above promises, however, revolve around the main promise: “I will multiply your descendants exceedingly” (Gen 16:10; see also 17:20). This promise was first given to Abraham, but now it is given Hagar and her son Ishmael. It is also reminiscent of the command given to Adam and Noah. But here, along with the command is the guarantee that God will himself fulfill it.