“And he settled.” The text uses the word “he” to point to Ishmael, not specifically to his descendants. God made promises about Ishmael that He had to honor (cp. Gen. 17:20; 21:18). In fact, that explains part of why this section on Ishmael is in the Bible. If God would fulfill His promises about the lesser son, Ishmael, then He certainly will fulfill His promises of the Messiah, the Promised Seed. The point of telling us where the descendants of Ishmael settled is more than just a geographical fact, it is to assure us that when Abraham sent his other children away from Isaac that they really did settle down away from him, and in that manner, Isaac’s line to the Promised Seed was separated from theirs.
“east of Egypt.” The Hebrew reads, “before Egypt,” and if the word “before” is used in a specific context it can indicate anything the person is “before” (in front of), but when used standing alone it means “east;” the biblical custom was that people were oriented to the east just as in our Western world we are oriented to the north, and all our maps are made with north at the top. So for the people to settle “before Egypt” meant that they settled east of Egypt.
“And he lived in hostility.” The Hebrew phrase is brief and no doubt purposely ambiguous. The Hebrew text can mean to settle down and live in a place, but it is also used of raiding and thus being hostile to others, and it was a matter of convenience that most intertribal raiding was done to the tribes that were close by. This phrase is an amphibologia (double entendre), and both meanings—living near and living in hostility to—are true and no doubt intended. Actually, this is a fulfillment of the prophecy about Ishmael in Genesis 16:12: “He will be a wild donkey of a man. His hand will be against every man and every man’s hand will be against him. He will live in hostility to all of his brothers.” Like this verse, the last phrase in Genesis 16:12 can also mean he will live alongside of his brothers, but the wording of 16:12 makes the hostility more apparent.
Given the two different meanings of Genesis 25:18, we can see why different versions went with different translations. Thus, “they pitched camp alongside their various kindred” (NAB); and “he settled near all his kinsmen” (CJB); are in contrast to, “he lived in opposition to all his brothers” (HCSB); “they lived in hostility toward all their brothers” (NIV). We felt that since this was a partial fulfillment of the prophecy of Genesis 16:12, and because it was a general practice to raid the tribes close by, translating in a way that pointed out the hostility between the tribes was more important than pointing out that the tribes lived close to each other.
[See figure of speech “amphibologia.”]