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Proper Translation of Genesis 16:12

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King James Bible
And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.


“… he will be a fruitful man: his hand shall be with everyone, and every man’s hand shall be with him…”

Taken from :

Is Ishmael Really a “Wild Ass”?

A Critical Analysis of Genesis 16:12

 For Torah-literate Jews (and Christians, for that matter), the introduction to Islam takes place at a very early age. This introduction, which sets the stage for all future opinions, consists of the first reading of Genesis 16:12. This passage makes a statement about Ishmael, the son of Abraham, the brother of Isaac, and — according to Arab tradition — the co-founder (with his father, Abraham) of the religion of Islam. Genesis 16:12 makes the following statement about Ishmael:

“And he shall be a wild ass of a man; his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him…”

But is this really what it says? Let us look at the original Hebrew, which has no vowels, and reconsider this passage according to traditional Hebrew grammar:

If this unvoweled Hebrew were given to Israeli grammar school students, how would they interpret it? First of all, let us consider the word   . The Hebrew preposition    usually means “in” or “with”. Therefore, the most plausible interpretation of    is “his hand (shall be) with everyone”. Not “against everyone”!

For   , Langenscheidt’s dictionary gives the following possible meanings: “in, at, to, on, among, with, towards; according to, by, because of.” Can it ever mean “against”?

The answer is “yes”. In certain special cases it can indeed mean “against”. A perfectly representative example of a sentence in which    can mean “against” is found in Deuteronomy 19:15, where Moses says …

… which is interpreted “One witness shall not rise up against a man for any iniquity…”.

But the word …

… is defined by Langenscheidt’s Hebrew Dictionary as “to rise up against“, and the prefix    in the word …

… does no more than define who it is with whom we are “rising up against“.

The following is a representative list of instances in the yearly Torah-Haftorah cycle where the Hebrew prefix    is properly translated “against”:

Exodus 9:17, Exodus 14:25, Exodus 32:29, Lev 17:10, Lev 20:3,5,6; Lev 24:16,20; Lev 26:17, Nu 21:7, Deut 2:15, Deut 11:17, Deut 13:10 Deut 19:15, Deut 25:18, Deut 29:19, Judg 11:12, Ezek 38:21 (Haftorah Sukkos, intermediate Sabbath), Hosea 13:9 (Haftorah Vayetze), Zech 3:2 (Haftorah Bahaalothecha)

An analysis of these passages reveals that   , by itself, never means “against”. I shall leave it as an exercise to the interested reader to look these references up, and to persuade himself that the inseparable prefix    acquires this meaning only in a context where the “against-ness” is provided by another word or words in the verse.

The analogy to English is very good in this case. If we say that we are “with” someone, this almost invariably means that we are for him, not against him. For example, the common expression

“God be with you…”

…surely means “may God be for you” (not “may God be against you”!). But if we say:

“I shall fight with you…”

..then we have, in English, an example of the use of the word “with” to mean “against”, for, if we fight with someone, then we are against that person. But the sense of “against-ness” is provided by the word “fight”, not by the word “with”!

The parallel to Hebrew is quite exact. In each of the above-cited examples, the inseparable prefix,   , takes on the meaning “against” either because there’s some other word in the passage which provides that meaning, or else because the context makes that meaning clear.

This is not so in Genesis 16:12. There are no words in the verse which suggests “against-ness”, and, as we shall shortly see, the context not only fails to support that meaning, but, on the contrary, essentially rules it out.

Application of the same logic shows that the most plausible interpretation of

is: “and every man’s hand (shall be) with him”. Not “against him”!

Next, let us consider the word   . If we look back two verses, to Genesis 16:10, we see “And the angel of the Lord said … ‘I will greatly multiply thy seed, that it shall not be numbered for multitude.’ “. Viewed in this light, the word    takes on an entirely different significance. There is another Hebrew word constructed from the same consonants, but with different vowel points. This is the verb …

… which means “to bring forth, to bear fruit”. (Although this word is found in modern Hebrew dictionaries, it seems that the preferred form of the verb, these days, is

The last letter changes from aleph to hay, but the meaning is the same. I wonder why this latter form is preferred?)

Now, the participle form of    is

But in the Bible, the letter    (vav), is usually omitted from participles, so in un-voweled Hebrew we would expect to see   , representing the un-voweled form of

Anyone who wishes to dispute this grammatical principle, as it applies to Genesis 16:12, will be hard-pressed to make a case, because the very next verse, Genesis 16:13, features the word

…, the participle of the Qal form of the verb “to speak”. Note that the Hebrew letter vav is absent. It is pointless to doubt that vav is usually omitted in participles in the Torah.

Since G-d says here that He will “greatly multiply” [Ishmael’s] seed, so that it “shall not be numbered for multitude”, we must ask which is the most plausible interpretation of

Does it mean “a wild ass of a man”, or does it mean “a fruitful man”? In the context of the passage, it can have only one plausible interpretation:


“…a fruitful man…”


Our suspicions are further aroused when we consult the Brown, Driver and Briggs lexicon (BDB), to find out where in the Bible — if anywhere– the word

occurs in a setting in which it really does mean “wild ass” (exclusive of Gen 16:12): BDB gives the following:


Ho 8:9+, Je 14:6+, Jb 6:5, Jb 39:5, Is 32:14, Ps 104:11, Jb 11:12, Je 2:24, Jb 24:5


So the word occurs in Job, and in the Prophets. Note that there is no use of the word anywhere in the Torah! (Unless Genesis 16:12 is considered to be such a use). In general, then (admittedly depending upon the age of the book of Job), it can be said that the word …

…, meaning “wild ass”, does not appear in Hebrew literature until 1,000 years after the Torah was written.

What other contextual evidence is there which confirms that correct vowel points would cause the correct translation to be …

…, meaning “fruitful”? We have already seen that two verses above, in Genesis 16:10, God says to Hagar, “I will greatly multiply thy seed, that it shall not be numbered for multitude”. Is this not synonymous with “fruitful”? If we now look ahead slightly, to Genesis 17:6, we see God blessing Abraham with the following words:

Here we see the Hifil form of the same verb,

to inform us that God will make Abraham “fruitful”. Fruitful, not “ass-like”!! Again, a few verses down (Genesis 17:20), God addresses Ishmael in the same manner, promising to make him “fruitful” also, according to the words

This again is the Hifil form of the verb

… to reiterate the message of Genesis 16:10, where God told Hagar “I will greatly multiply thy seed, that it shall not be numbered for multitude”.

The equivalence of    and    is further evidenced in Hosea 13:15 (Haftorah Vayyetze), where we see the word …

…, which BDB identifies as the Hifil form of   , imperfect, 3rd person masculine, “as if from   (!)”

In summary, if we now employ the most plausible interpretation of the word   , and utilize the standard grammar of the preposition   , we arrive at the following interpretation of Genesis 16:12:

…which means that what our Bible really says about Ishmael is:


“… he will be a fruitful man: his hand shall be with everyone, and every man’s hand shall be with him…” (!!)


This is a markedly different interpretation than the one given by our Rabbis. At this time, claimed by Jews, Christians and Muslims to be the dawn of the Messianic Era, itsn’t it time we told the truth?



1 Comment


    So when you read Genesis 16:12, read it this way: “He shall be a fruitful man, his hand with every man and every man’s hand with him; and he shall dwell over against [in the face of, in the presence of] all his kinsmen.”


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