“ And the angel of the LORD said to her, [Hagar] ‘Behold, you are with child, and shall bear a son; you shall call his name Ishmael; because the LORD has given heed to your affliction.  He shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against every man and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen” (Genesis 16:11 and 12, RSV).
I have written a number of articles about the hatred of Muslims, and also of everything Arabic, which seems to be prevalent in ‘Western’ nations these days. Most people automatically think ‘Arab’ when then think of Muslims, it seems – though when pressed they’ll have to admit that Arabs probably constitute a minority of the Muslim population in the world. Jews and Christians of the conservative or ‘orthodox’ variety believe they have Biblical support for this antipathy toward Arabs and Muslims in the above quoted verse from Genesis. Doesn’t it specifically say that Ishmael will be a “wild ass” man (taken as a seemingly obvious term of derision), who will be constantly at warfare with everyone else? Supposedly it’s the ‘fate’ of Ishmaelites to forever be the enemies of the rest of the world; God has predestined it! Fundamentalist and Evangelical preachers seem to love to expound on this passage. I did a search on Yahoo under “Ishmael a wild ass man” and found that there are 100 pages of links; almost every one of them seemed to be something derogatory about Arabs and Muslims based on this text. (I of course did not look at every link on every page. I went through about the first 10 pages, and then just looked at random links on the rest of the pages). An “e-friend” recently told me that his pastor had just preached on this passage, which “proves” that the Arabic people (and therefore Muslims) will always be the enemies of Israel and all Israel’s ‘friends’ – if not all non Muslim people.
There was one site, though, which gave a very different viewpoint on this verse in Genesis, and that site was actually the first one in the Yahoo search list. It can be found here. According to the author of this article, there is really only one problem with all of the commentaries on this Bible verse: they’re all based on a mistranslation of the text! He (or she) defends the idea that the correct translation of verse 12 is: “… he will be a fruitful man: his hand shall be with everyone, and every man’s hand shall be with him...“(!! ) I have come to believe the author is correct; and since this understanding of the verse seems to be known by so few, I have decided to do my small part to spread it. [I would only take exception to his assertion that Muslim parents teach their children that all Christians and Jews should be killed. But he did point out that Muslim parents who teach such a thing do so in complete opposition to their own ‘Holy Book’, the Qur’an]. The article, though written in English, consistently uses the Hebrew characters for the verses in question, and his argument goes into detail about the Hebrew grammar – again using the Hebrew characters to make his points. I had one semester of Hebrew at a Bible School back in 1973, but I don’t even remember the names of the Hebrew letters now; much less am I able to pronounce the words or translate them. However I am still able to distinguish one word from another, and so was able to at least ‘get the drift’ of what the article says, so hopefully I can faithfully summarize that author’s arguments here.
The first thing that needs to be pointed out – and which you perhaps already knew – is that the original written texts of the Hebrew Bible contained no vowels. The written form of the text contained only consonants. When one read the text, he had to supply the appropriate vowel sounds according to context and ‘traditional’ pronunciation of the words. If English books were written with consonants only, and you came across the letters ‘RST’, how would you know whether to read it as ‘rest’, ‘rust’, or perhaps ‘reset’? Or how about ‘reseat’? Obviously, context would be the principle determining factor; but if you had a situation where more than one possibility could fit in the context, you would probably depend on how you had heard others read the sentence – if you had heard anyone else read it. If you’ve never heard anyone else read the passage, then you must determine for yourself which ‘reading’ best fits the context; and if you have certain preexisting prejudices, it may lead you to simply read it the way that best fits your prejudices. Of course, if you’ve heard someone else, who shares your preexisting prejudices, read it you’ll no doubt read it the way he did – perhaps without ever considering that another reading is possible.
And that’s where the problem comes in with this verse in Genesis 16. The vowels were not inserted into the written text until the 7th to 10th centuries A.D. (or C.E. if you prefer) in the edition of the Hebrew Bible known as the Masoretic text. By that time, there were many centuries of ‘tradition’ to dictate how the text should be read, and certain racial prejudices had strongly influenced that tradition. In this case, the word translated ‘wild ass’ consists of 3 Hebrew consonants: פּרה or פּרא (the first of the two seems to be the ‘modern’ way of writing the word, while the second is an ‘older’ form). The English transliterations of those two forms would be pr’ and prh. (Hebrew is read from right to left). When the vowels are added which make the word translated ‘wild ass’, the Hebrew word transliterates to pereh or pere’ in English letters, and that’s the traditional Jewish reading of the word in that verse. The problem is that this reading of the word sort of ‘slaps you in the face’ when you read it in the context. Abraham’s wife Sarah had become very jealous when she realized that Hagar was pregnant – though the Biblical text says that was because Hagar now looked at Sarah with contempt – and Hagar ran away to escape Sarah’s rage. But “the angel of the LORD” met Hagar and told her to return to Sarah and Abraham. In order to encourage her to do so, this angel told Hagar that God was going to bless her and her offspring greatly. Her descendants would be so many that they would be innumerable (which is always, in the Bible, a great blessing from God). Her child would be a boy, and she was to name him “God hears” (Ishmael), because God had indeed listened to Hagar’s sorrowful cries in her affliction. That’s another indication of the favor and blessing of God. Don’t you think “God hears” is a pretty ‘cool’ name for a person – and especially when it was the “angel of the LORD” himself who gave the child that name? So doesn’t it seem rather odd when the angel abruptly starts talking in a derogatory way about the child he has just named “God hears” and promised to bless greatly? Saying that “God hears” (Ishmael) would be a wild man (or ‘wild ass’ man) who would be constantly at odds with everyone else doesn’t sound too much like a blessing to me!
But the dilemma of this abrupt switch from ‘blessing’ to ‘cursing’ is solved when it is understood that those very same 3 Hebrew consonants – pr’ פּרה become an entirely different word when different vowels are inserted. The word becomes para’ when transliterated into English . The meaning of this word is ‘fruitful’. Even though the ‘consonant’ form is exactly the same as the word ‘wild ass’, it is listed in Strong’s concordance as a separate word because of the difference in vowels. This word ‘fruitful’ appears quite a bit more often in the Masoretic text than the word ‘wild ass’. In all other cases where the word is read ‘wild ass’, it clearly actually refers to a wild ass, not a “wild ass man”. The verse in Genesis 16 is the only instance (if it is correct) where ‘wild ass’ is used in an adjectival way describing a man.
The word ‘fruitful’ obviously fits very nicely in the context – it doesn’t ‘slap you in the face’. The angel had just promised Hagar an innumerable number of descendants, so it would be very appropriate to describe him as a ‘fruitful’ man. “Wild ass” simply doesn’t make any sense there.
It is also true that in a context in which Ishmael is to be blessed by God, and is himself a blessing to his mother Hagar, it’s very strange that the angel would abruptly say that this man who is blessed by God will be antagonistic to everyone, and vice versa. The word which is translated “against” (“his hand against every man, and every man’s hand against him”) is a single consonant which is added as a prefix to the word “everyone” (or “every man”). The article to which I linked says concerning this word: “For , [the Hebrew consonant for the word] Langenscheidt’s dictionary gives the following possible meanings: “in, at, to, on, among, with, towards; according to, by, because of.” In this context, “with” or “towards” would appear to be the most appropriate translations. The normal idea behind this word would be “for” or “on their side”, “helpful towards” etc. Can it ever mean “against”? Yes, it can, if the context is suitable. The same is true of the English word “with”, though. Normally it means ‘positive’ things. If I say, “I’m with you, man”, my meaning is obviously “I agree with you”, or “I’m accompanying you”, or “I’m on your side”. When Jesus said in his ‘Great Commission’ – as rendered in English – “I’m with you always, even unto the end of the age”, his meaning was obviously not “I’m against you”, but that he would accompany his disciples even though they wouldn’t be able to see him, and he would be ‘for’ them. However, if I say “I’ll fight with you until one of us is dead”, the meaning is very obviously that I’m against you, not ‘for’ you. The word ‘fight’ altered the meaning. Even with the word ‘fight’ inserted, though, the meaning would be ‘for’ or ‘on your side’ if I said something like “I’ll fight with you against your enemies until they’re defeated or we’re dead”. Context is everything, although the normal meaning of ‘with’ would be ‘for’ rather than ‘against’.
There is absolutely nothing in the context of the verse in Genesis 16 that would indicate it should have the negative meaning of ‘against’, rather than the more normal positive meaning of ‘with’. The only reason it would be read that way is because of preconceived prejudice against this ‘blessed’ man. After many centuries the Jewish people had come to think of themselves as God’s favorites, and the rest of the world was only ‘second class’ at best. There was a particular antipathy toward other branches of the Abrahamic family. The Jews (for the most part – there was always a faithful remnant who were not this way) came to believe they were not so much ‘set apart’ by God to be a blessing, but to be blessed. So they just ‘naturally’ took delight in reading this verse in a way which would indicate how much they despised Ishmael and his descendants. They should have known better, since the passage is obviously about God blessing Hagar and Ishmael; and the passage in Genesis 21 about Abraham sending Hagar and Ishmael away at the instigation of Sarah also shows only favor toward them on God’s part – as I’ve pointed out in my article “Why was Sarah so Angry with Hagar and Ishmael?”
Christians certainly ought to know better than to believe the Arabs, or Muslims in general, are ‘fated’ or ‘predestined’ to be always the enemies of God and His people (whether you call those people of God ‘Israel’ or ‘the Church’ or ‘Christians’). Christians claim to believe in Jesus as God’s anointed ‘Prophet, Priest, and King’, who is the ‘true seed of Abraham’ in whom the promises made to Abraham (that all nations would be blessed in him and his seed) were brought to fruition. The emphasis in Christianity is on “all men” and “the world”. “For God so loved the world…” “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me”. “The middle wall of partition” has been demolished in Christ. In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor freeman, male nor female; God (and his people) treat all equally. There is neither blessing nor cursing for anyone based on his genetic heritage. As Peter put it: “…Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to Him” (Acts 10:34 and 35) It would follow from this that in every nation any one who does not fear God and do what is right is not acceptable to God. There is no special favor for Jews (or Americans), and there is no special curse for Arabs, Turks, Iranians, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, etc. There is simply no partiality with God, and there should not be any for those who claim to be God’s people and followers of his anointed one.
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.”