“These are the years of the life of Ishmael, one hundred and thirty-seven years; and he breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people. They settled from Havilah to Shur which is east of Egypt as one goes toward Assyria; he settled in defiance of all his relatives.” Gen. 25:17-18
Scripture treats Ishmael with every bit as much respect as Abraham or Isaac regarding this eulogy; that he lived a long life, and was “gathered to his people”. This verse likely get passed over often, as we have a difficult time conceptualizing just who Ishmael was gathered to. If we are Jewish, does this mean Ishmael is now part of Olam Ha-Ba (The World To Come) and he is assigned a portion with the children of Abraham’s? If we are Christian, does Ishmael ascend to Heaven, or possibly await resurrection on the last day?
It is unlikely this merely means physical death, as that is what is meant by the part “he breathed his last and died”. If the belief is that there is no physical consciousness after death, what good would would it be to be reunited to anyone?
The scriptural contrast, it would appear, is to be “cut off from his people”. In Genesis 17:14 where the Covenant of Circumcision is given, we note the Hebrew play on words – if the flesh of the foreskin is not cut off, that person shall be cut off. This cutting off appears to be punishment for breaking this Covenant. In Exodus 31:14 the threat of being cut off is in regards to not observing the Sabbath. In Levitical law in general it appears to be the result of not keeping certain commandments.
As for where the Ishmaelites settled, this area between Havilah and Shur was the Arabian desert, between Egypt and the posterity of Isaac. It would appear there are some translation issues with verse 18; instead of “he settled in defiance of all his relatives” it should likely be rendered “fell in the presence of his brethren“, meaning most likely, his portion of land, according to what was foretold in Genesis 16:12 to Hagar, that he would live to the East of his brothers. Alternately it could mean “he fell in the presence of his brethren“, that is, Ishmael died in the presence of his brothers, as the King James translation reads.
What we do not really see is evidence of fighting or hostility at this point, as some translations take liberties with based on Genesis 16:12 “His hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him“. The only word in verse 18 that would begin to allow this is the Hebrew “naphal” which is a primitive root with wide application, which generally means to “fall” or possibly “apportion” (divide by lot).
We must resist the temptation to demonize Ishmael simply due to being half-Egyptian and not being born of Sarah. Instead consider reading these verses to refer to Ishmael’s physical death and spiritual portion (being gathered to his relatives), then the portion of his descendants on earth (near his relatives).