Naturally, the story of Ishmael in the Bible is of great interest to Muslims. So this particular issue comes up ever so often and the contradiction perceived from some less careful translations.
Genesis 16:16 Abraham was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael. Genesis 21 in excerpts: 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. and the text continues: 8 The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. 9 But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, 10 and she said to Abraham, "Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac." 11 The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. 12 But God said to him, "Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. 13 I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring." 14 Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the desert of Beersheba. 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes.
Typically, Isaac would be around 2-3 years old when he is weaned, which makes Ishmael about 16-17 years of age when he is expelled from Abraham's home.
Now, in this translation (NIV) everything seems fine, but some English Bibles (e.g. the RSV) translate verse 14 as:
14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes.
In this translation it seems to say: Abraham put Ishmael on Hagars shoulders which gives the impression that Ishmael is still a young child in contradiction to the fact that we have seen Ishmael is at least 14 probably 16-17 years old and definitely past the age where his mother can carry him.
One Muslim pointed this out as a contradiction and so I asked a Hebrew scholar to shed some light on this passage.
The Hebrew of Gen 21:14 is ambiguous. How it's interpreted is as much a question of punctuation as anything else.
The age of Ishmael is inferred from the stated ages of Abraham at various points in the overall story. 12:4 says he was 75 when he left Haran and went to Canaan; 16:3 says he slept with Hagar to produce Ishmael when he had been in Canaan for 10 years. That would make him 85, closer to 86 by the time Ishmael was born. And finally, 21:4 says Abraham was 100 when Isaac was born. So Ishmael was at least 14 when Sarah fired Hagar.
Verse 14, bereft of all punctuation, says in a direct translation from the Hebrew, "Abraham got up in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave to Hagar placing on her shoulder and the child and sent her out and she went and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba." "The child" is prefixed with the Hebrew direct-object marker.
The question: there are three verbs in the immediate vicinity, "he took," "he gave," and "placing." Which one is "the child" the direct object of? The translations your friend looked at assume it is the direct object of "placing." The problem with this is, normal Hebrew word order would put it right after the verb, "placing the child on her shoulder." Instead it reads "placing on her shoulder and the child." That little "and" makes me doubt that it says he placed Ishmael on her shoulder.
It seems more likely to me that it's the direct object of the other two verbs. Abraham took bread and a skin of water (placing these on her shoulder) and the child and gave them to Hagar. The NIV's paraphrase makes this reasonably clear, and it looks to me as though they have probability on their side.
It is still possible, of course, that despite the word order it says he placed the boy on her shoulder. That reading is possible. But there's a deeper issue here that underlies many such translations. There are those who assume that Genesis is not a single work, that it is the result of several traditions and individual stories being gathered together and "redacted" into this final form. The assumption is that the dates given for Abraham are from this later redactor; that the story of Hagar's exile originally had Ishmael still a baby; that the redactor didn't catch the inconsistency and put two conflicting comments into his narrative, one indicating a timeline that has Ishmael in his teens, and one indicating that Ishmael was still a baby carried on his mother's shoulders. This is at least part of the motivation behind many of the versions and commentators who translate this "he placed the child on her shoulders."
I don't buy it. There are too many assumptions and too little real evidence. The structure of the sentence is such that "the child" can just as easily be seen as the third in a series of things that Abraham gave to Hagar, with the side remark (using a Hebrew participle rather than a finite verb) that he placed the bread and water on her shoulders.
I don't see a problem with her "casting" him under a bush to get him out of the heat of the day. I can easily picture her dragging him into the shade, or him falling down when she lets go of his hand, or several other scenarios. But carrying him on her shoulders is another matter. I'm a pretty big guy, 6 feet tall, about 200 pounds, fairly strong, and I have trouble doing this with my 13-year-old petite daughter. I can't envision a woman, probably much smaller than I am, carrying a full-size teenager into the desert on her back. However, I can see her dragging him a few feet across the sand to get him into the shade of a bush when the water runs out.
Hope this helps,
(And later a professor of Hebrew studies gave some more details and insights. Bear with the technical, but that is what you have to do when fine details are discussed.)
Dave Washburn gave a good answer. Here are a few more thoughts:
(1) In verse 14, the word "and" in this case introduces a resumptive addition, because it has no preceeding noun phrase with which it can connect the phrase "the lad." If the text were to indicate that Abraham put the lad on hagar's shoulder, one would expect the text to read "putting "it [the bread and water] and the lad" on her shoulder." However, the objective pronoun "it" is not there. To the best of my knowledge, "and" is never used to form a compound noun phrase with an elided noun (one that is missing). Therefore, the "and" is resumptive, picking up on a previous thought and adding more to it.
(2) The Hebrew text has a disjunctive accent on the word "her shoulder" that marks a syntactic division between the phrase "her shoulder" and the phrase "and the lad." This supports (1) above.
(3) Even if Ishmael had been a little child, it is unnatural for a woman to carry a child on her shoulder--on her back or hip, yes; but on her shoulder, no.
(4) The word "cast" of verse 15 need not be interpreted that Hagar picked up the lad and threw him like a rock. That too is unnatural. A mother would never do that to a child. When the lad became faint, she helped him to walk as far as her strength would allow; and when she could go no further, she let him fall under the shade of a tree. The word "cast" is consistent with that understanding. It is true that the Hebrew word translated here as "cast" often conveys energetic action, but the following are some references where violent, energetic action is not necessarily implied:
2 Samuel 20:12 But Amasa wallowed in his blood in the middle of the highway. And when the man saw that all the people stood still, he moved Amasa from the highway to the field and threw a garment over him, when he saw that everyone who came upon him halted. 1 Kings 19:19 So he departed from there, and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he was with the twelfth. Then Elijah passed by him and threw his mantle on him. 2 Kings 4:41 So he said, "Then bring some flour." And he put it into the pot, and said, "Serve it to the people, that they may eat." And there was nothing harmful in the pot. 2 Kings 13:21 So it was, as they were burying a man, that suddenly they spied a band of raiders; and they put the man in the tomb of Elisha; and when the man was let down and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived and stood on his feet. 2 Chronicles 24:10 Then all the leaders and all the people rejoiced, brought their contributions, and put them into the chest until all had given. Job 15:33 He will shake off his unripe grape like a vine, And cast off his blossom like an olive tree. Psalm 55:22 Cast your burden on the LORD, And He shall sustain you; He shall never permit the righteous to be moved. Ezekiel 43:24 'When you offer them before the LORD, the priests shall throw salt on them, and they will offer them up as a burnt offering to the LORD.
(5) Only hostile readers insist on interpreting a text in a self contradictory manner. However, it is proper to assume that a text is self-consistent and lacks contradictions. If a text can be interpreted in that way, it is honest to accept that interpretation. That is one of the fundamental laws of hermeneutics. Only when a text cannot be interpreted in a self-consistent and non-contradictory way is it proper to accuse it of error.
The New King James Version translates these verses as follows:
So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water; and putting it on her shoulder, he gave it and the boy to Hagar, and sent her away. Then she departed and wandered in the Wilderness of Beersheba. And the water in the skin was used up, and she placed the boy under one of the shrubs. (Genesis 21:14-15)
The order of the Hebrew words has been altered for clarity, but the translation is consistent with the grammar and syntax of the Hebrew. It correctly conveys the meaning of the text.
I hope this helps,
James D. Price
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