Brief philological analysis on the term “Wild Ass” in Genesis 16:12
Many christians in the west see Muslims, Arabs, and what is happening in the middle east as a direct fulfilment to Genesis 16 11-12 by deeming all prophet Ishmael peace be upon him (Ar. إسماعيل ʾIsmāʿīl) descendants i.e. Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him , the Arabs and Muslims in one derogatory category “wild ass of men”.
As a result they develop a racist view and built-in hatred towards Arabs and muslims for centuries since the spread of Islam, through the middle ages until modern day phenomenon known as Islamophobic prevalent in ‘christian’ nations these days. Moreover fundamentalist and evangelical christians seem to love to ridicule muslims and prophet Muhammad based on the understanding from this passage in the Hebrew Bible,.
We try to briefly examine, was prophet Ishmael peace be upon him really a ‘Wild Ass’ Man (Astaghfirullah) or Is it a deliberate character assassination due to the enmities which arose in prophet Abraham’s extended family contributed to the translation of Gen 16: 12?
Bereishit Genesis 16:11-12
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לָהּ֙ מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְהוָ֔ה הִנָּ֥ךְ הָרָ֖ה וְיֹלַ֣דְתְּ בֵּ֑ןוְקָרָ֤את שְׁמוֹ֙ יִשְׁמָעֵ֔אל כִּֽי־שָׁמַ֥ע יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־עָנְיֵֽךְ
And the angel of the LORD said unto her: ‘Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son; and thou shalt call his name Ishmael, because the LORD hath heard thy affliction
וְה֤וּא יִהְיֶה֙ פֶּ֣רֶאאָדָ֔ם יָד֣וֹ בַכֹּ֔ל וְיַ֥ד כֹּ֖ל בּ֑וֹוְעַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־אֶחָ֖יו יִשְׁכֹּֽן
And he shall be a wild ass of a man (pere’āḏām): his hand shall be with every man, and every man’s hand with him; and he shall dwell in the face of all his brethren.’
If we look for the direct arabic cognate for the hebrew פֶּ֣רֶא pere in arabic it is فَرَاء fara’
LANE Arabic-English Lexicon give the following entry for فَرَاء
افراء. (M, K.) Hence the saying, كل الصيد فى جوف الفرا [Every kind of game is in the belly (or might enter into the belly) of the wild ass];
This archaic saying which has been recorded in the hadith of prophet Muhammad indicates the nuance of the term “wild ass” it denotes superiority as what the saying mean is every animal is inferior to the wild ass, as though the wild ass were a carnivore able to devour whatever it chooses.
However there are several roots in Hebrew that begin with the two consonants פ and ר (P and R) and interestingly those are connected with the concept of fertility and fruits of nature. Obviously such concepts in Hebrew like in other languages are also used figuratively: the Hebrew פֶּ֣רֶא pere can also be from the same root with the word פָּרָא para meaning “fruit”.
This option is very much possible since the hebrew text did not use vocalisation from the beginning and diacritical markings was introduced later.
The usage of word פָּרָא mis found in Hosea 13:15 , we read:
…כִּ֣י ה֔וּא בֵּ֥ן אַחִ֖ים יַפְרִ֑יא יָב֣וֹא קָדִים֩ ר֨וּחַ יְהוָ֜המִמִּדְבָּ֣ר
Though He will be the most fruitful (yaphri) of all his brothers, the east wind–a blast from the LORD–will arise in the desert.
Here in the above passage יַפְרִ֑יא yaphri , the stem could be פרא (p-r -‘) as well as פרה (p-r -h)
Something fruitful makes much more sense if instead of “wild ass human being” it may simply be another way of stating what appears unambiguously in Genesis 17:20,
וּֽלְיִשְׁמָעֵאל֮ שְׁמַעְתִּיךָ֒ הִנֵּ֣ה ׀ בֵּרַ֣כְתִּי אֹתֹ֗ו וְהִפְרֵיתִ֥י אֹתֹ֛ו וְהִרְבֵּיתִ֥י אֹתֹ֖ו בִּמְאֹ֣ד מְאֹ֑ד שְׁנֵים־עָשָׂ֤ר נְשִׂיאִם֙ יֹולִ֔יד וּנְתַתִּ֖יו לְגֹ֥וי גָּדֹֽול׃
And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful (wehiphreithi) and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation
Having thus dealt with those possible hebrew roots Genesis 16:12 should read:
And he shall be a fruitful man: his hand shall be with every man, and every man’s hand with him; and he shall dwell in the face of all his brethren.’
Some Christian/jews translation render בַכֹּ֔ל bekol to
“against every man” this is dishonest because nothing in the original text indicate as such , בַ is simply “with”
SEPTUAGINT TRANSLATION OF GENESIS 16:12
Interesting to observe that Septuagint version for the term “wild ass of a man” is ἔσται ἄγροικος ἄνθρωπος estai agroikos anthrōpos
12 οὗτος ἔσται ἄγροικος ἄνθρωπος αἱ χεῖρες αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ πάντας, καὶ αἱ χεῖρες πάντων ἐπ᾿ αὐτόν, καὶ κατὰ πρόσωπον πάντων τῶν ἀδελφῶν αὐτοῦ κατοικήσει.
Septuagint specialist Robert J. V. Hiebert, Ph.D. renders the greek phrase ἔσται ἄγροικος ἄνθρωπος estai agroikos anthrōpos , as “he shall be a rustic man ” this means a countrymen living in the rural areas or wilderness 
This translation reflects a slightly different reading from the Hebrew פּרא to possibly hebrew variant of בָּרָא bar’
BAR: (AN OPEN) FIELD
ORIGINAL WORD: בָּרָא
PART OF SPEECH: NOUN MASCULINE
PHONETIC SPELLING: (BAR)
SHORT DEFINITION: FIELD
Here the word field possibly refer to Vorlage reading ברא means “country”.
Interestingly enough Greek text suggest that it is the land which is wild rather than the man i.e. Ishmael.
If the Vorlage of the Septuagint had ברא, instead of the Masoretes פּרא, , two Arabic cognates are of great interest.
The first is بَرّ (barra) Which means
“devoted and righteous [towards his father or parents, and towards God and all kind of good and affectionate and gentle in behaviour, towards his kindred; and kind, or good, in his dealings with strangers” (Lane Lexicon).
So the angel’s announcement to Hagar that her son would become البر (the righteous) may well have assured her that her son would show her due filial piety and manifest godly devotion. Such a prediction would have been a welcomed promise.
This makes more perfect sense than the angel would announce to her that her son would become a “wild ass” who would continually fight with his brothers such as the predominant christian and jewish translations.
Second Arabic cognate برأ (bara’) which means
“free, secure, safe, free from disease, distress or debt” (Lane Lexicon),
This could provide further insight into what may well have been a double entendre in the original tradition. For the slave woman to be promised that her son would be free would have been great news, helping her make her own bondage bearable.
The angel’s word to Hagar that Ishmael would be פּרא may not have been understood by Hagar as meaning “an onager man” or “wild ass human being.”
Brief philological analysis of the Hebrew texts of Genesis 16:12 using possible Hebrew roots and definitions, most of which have survived as cognates in classical Arabic. These include:
ברא “forest, wilderness, country”
בר “filial piety, kind to strangers, devotion to God”
ברא “free, secure, safe”
פּרא “to bear fruit, to have progeny”
Now it becomes a little easier to understand just what the angel said to Hagar and what it was that the narrator actually said about Ishmael. Far from being negative, derogatory, or racist, the words about Ishmael and the Ishmaelites in Genesis were laudatory and compatible with the divine promise to Abraham that, through his progeny, “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3).
Another Critical Analysis of Genesis 16:12
“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?