Saturday, January 10, 2009

Ishmael

by John D Ramsey
Nigel Tufnel: The numbers all go to eleven. Look, right across the board, eleven, eleven, eleven and...

Marty DiBergi: Oh, I see. And most amps go up to ten?

Nigel Tufnel: Exactly.

Marty DiBergi: Does that mean it's louder? Is it any louder?

Nigel Tufnel: Well, it's one louder, isn't it? It's not ten. You see, most blokes, you know, will be playing at ten. You're on ten here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up, you're on ten on your guitar. Where can you go from there? Where?

Marty DiBergi: I don't know.

Nigel Tufnel: Nowhere. Exactly. What we do is, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do?

Marty DiBergi: Put it up to eleven.

Nigel Tufnel: Eleven. Exactly. One louder.

Marty DiBergi: Why don't you just make ten louder and make ten be the top number and make that a little louder?

Nigel Tufnel: [pause] These go to eleven.



From “This is Spinal Tap

I have always wondered why people would read an Amplified Bible. I suppose Nigel Tufnel could explain it to me. Nevertheless, should we not rather spend effort learning precisely what God has said rather than trying to improve it by hyperbole? By knowing exactly what God has said, we can then reflect upon what it means.

I was reading in my NIV the other night, and I spotted a distortion added by the translators and I wondered, how can readers know what the Bible says, when translators frequently inject what they want Scripture to say instead of merely translating what it plainly says. Their attempt to amplify the meaning can cause loss of information or distortion just as audio amplification causes clipping or distortion. Virtually every English translation of the Bible contains some paraphrase. Distortion and clipping is bad enough with mainline translations of the Bible without willingly submitting our minds to the lossy compression of a paraphrase.

There is a difference between paraphrase and commentary. Commentary evaluates what Scripture says and offers the commentator’s insight and opinion regarding its meaning. A paraphrase, on the other hand, often distorts or obfuscates what Scripture says in favor of the translator’s bias. A commentary is transparent, while a paraphrase is opaque. For instance, when reading a commentary on Scripture, I can look at the words of Scripture and then decide whether I agree with the commentator. A paraphrase, however, provides new ideas in place of the original. A paraphrase of Scripture is like karaoke. The song is never quite the same again.

It does not matter what I want Scripture to say, it only matters what Scripture actually says. When translators replace translation with commentary, their product is something other than Scripture. If I had realized how cantankerous I would become in my old age, I would have applied myself to learning Greek and Hebrew when I was young. Nevertheless, I am not helpless, but I am sometimes frustrated while trying to determine what Scripture says. I battle my language deficiency in the following ways:
  • I check the index of Strong’s numbers and evaluate how words are translated elsewhere in other passages.
  • I read other passages where the word or phrase appears.
  • I read Scripture in two or more translations regularly (NIV, NASB, YLT, KJV, etc). In some cases, I check my copy of The Jerusalem Bible (1966). I read Scripture from The Apostolic Bible Polyglot frequently. I have also checked a PDF copy of 1709 Lambert Bos Vetus Testamentum.
  • I seldom consult a commentary because I am most interested in what God is saying through His word, and much less interested in reading what men are saying about it.
  • When I do approach a commentary I evaluate whether the author believes the Scripture he is commenting upon, or whether he is trying to force the Scripture to align with his beliefs. If a theologian can identify himself as Reformed, Dispensational, Messianic, Charismatic, or any other label, then he will distort Scripture according to his predilection. I strive to drop the labels and the biases they support and let Scripture speak for itself.
  • I sometimes wrestle with the smallest detail until I am convinced what translation is most accurate. Some friends laugh at me, but I even check the math in Scripture.
Below are four quotes labeled A through D; they illustrate how translators sometimes defy the language to insert commentary.

  1. And Abraham rose up in the morning, and took bread loaves and a leather bag of water; and he them gave to Hagar, and he placed the male child upon her shoulders, and he sent her away.

  2. So Abraham rose early in the morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar, putting them on her shoulder, and gave her the boy, and sent her away.

  3. 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.

  4. Rising up early the next morning Abraham took some bread and a skin of water and, giving them to Hagar, he put the child on her shoulder and sent her away.
Notice that two translations, B and C, say that Abraham put bread and water on Hagar’s shoulder while the other two translations A and D say that Abraham put the child on Hagar’s shoulder. This may seem like a trivial detail, yet the meaning of the story pivots upon this point. Some translators approach this passage favoring their assumptions about this record over the language in the text. What the reader looses is the opportunity to discover what radio personality Paul Harvey might call, “the rest of the story.”

The translator’s pattern is mundane; they assume that the child in question is Ishmael though the passage never names the child. Assuming that the child is Ishmael, Abraham could not have put him on Hagar’s shoulder because at this time, he was not a child, he was a young man. Ishmael was thirteen when Abraham and Ishmael were circumcised. Isaac was born a year later, and Hagar and her child were sent away after Isaac was weaned (13 + 1 + 2). Ishmael was probably a 16-year old assuming that Isaac was weaned around age two. If Ishmael was 16 when Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away, then the translators have to put something else on Hagar’s shoulder.

Genesis 21 does not mention Ishmael by name; moreover, Galatians 3 recounts Hagar’s banishment naming Abraham, Isaac, and Hagar. Galatians 3 refers to Hagar’s child as the son of a slave woman.

Below is the next reference to the child in Genesis 21 according to our four translations:

  1. But the water ceased coming out of the leather bag, and she tossed the male child underneath one fir tree. And going forth she sat down before him, far off as a bow shot. For she said, now way shall I see the death of my child. And she sat before him and the child wept.

  2. When the water in the skin was used up, she left the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him, about a bowshot away, for she said, “Do not let me see the boy die.” And she sat opposite him, and lifted up her voice and wept.

  3. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down nearby, about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there nearby, she began to sob.

  4. When the skin of water was finished she abandoned the child under a bush. Then she went and sat down at a distance, about a bowshot away, saying to herself, “I cannot see the child die.” So she sat at a distance; and the child wailed and wept.
In this comparison, translations disagree regarding who was crying. A and D say the child was crying, while B and C say that Hagar was crying. Who was really crying? The next verse in all translations reveals that in abundant clarity.

  1. But God listened to the voice of the child from the place where he was. And an angel of God called Hagar from out of the heaven, and said to her, “What is it, Hagar? Fear not! For God has heeded the voice of your child from out of the place where he is.”

  2. God heard the lad crying; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter with you, Hagar? Do not fear, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is.”

  3. God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.”

  4. But God heard the boy wailing, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, “What is wrong, Hagar?” he asked. “Do not be afraid, for God has heard the boy’s cry where he lies.
From this verse, it is obvious that the child was crying. Whether Hagar was crying or not, God heard the child crying. Try to imagine a 16-year old boy lying helplessly under a bush or tree crying while his mother is sitting about 100 yards away. We can see that translations B and C misreported who in the account was crying. We can suspect that they also misreported what object Abraham placed on Hagar’s shoulder. These four translations also differ regarding the angel’s instruction to Hagar.

  1. “Rise up and take the child, and hold it in your hand! For I will make it into a great nation.”

  2. “Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”

  3. “Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

  4. “Come, pick up the boy and hold him safe, for I will make him into a great nation.”
Versions B and C picture Hagar holding the boy’s hand rather than holding the boy. Again, these were the translations that pictured Hagar crying rather than the boy crying. These were the translations that had Abraham placing bread and water on Hagar’s shoulder rather than placing the boy on Hagar’s shoulder. Translations B and C are trying to force the record to fit what they know about Ishmael.

What do we know about Ishmael? Was he really sent away from Isaac? Scripture does not mention Ishmael from the time that he was circumcised at age 13 until the death of Abraham when Ishmael would have been 86 years old. What does Scripture tell us of Ishmael at this account? It says,

Then his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre, the field which Abraham purchased from the sons of Heth; there Abraham was buried with Sarah his wife.

Genesis 25:9 (NASB)

Genesis 25 has a bit more to say about Ishmael, but the last direct reference to Ishmael in Scripture comes in Genesis 28. It reads,

So Esau saw that the daughters of Canaan displeased his father Isaac; and Esau went to Ishmael, and married, besides the wives that he had, Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael, Abraham's son, the sister of Nebaioth.

Genesis 28:8-9 (NASB)

From these two brief references, we see a familial relationship between Isaac and Ishmael. Together, Isaac and Ishmael buried Abraham in the cave where Abraham had buried Sarah, his wife. Later, Esau attempted to repair his relationship with his father Isaac by marrying his cousin, Mahalath, the daughter of Ishmael.

Ishmael and Isaac were not Abraham’s only sons. After Sarah died, Abraham married Keturah and fathered five sons: Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. Yet these the seven named sons of Abraham were not the extent of his progeny.

Now Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac; but to the sons of his concubines, Abraham gave gifts while he was still living, and sent them away from his son Isaac eastward, to the land of the east.

Genesis 25:5 (NASB)

Are the sons of Abraham’s concubines the sons of Keturah? Not likely, Keturah was not Abraham’s concubine; she was his wife. Abraham sent the sons of his concubines to the land of the east, presumably in Chaldea, from whence Abraham came, but Midian, the son of Keturah, settled in Sinai.

Likewise, Hagar was not Abraham’s concubine, she also was his wife. Hagar was Sarah’s slave, but according to Genesis 16:3, Hagar was Abraham’s wife. Nevertheless, Abraham did send Hagar away with her son. Yet at Abraham’s death, who remained with him? Isaac and Ishmael together buried their father.

So if Ishmael remained with Abraham, who then was sent away with Hagar? The account in Genesis 21 records a young boy, a baby or a toddler being sent away with Hagar. The boy was carried on Hagar’s shoulder, she discarded him beneath a tree or bush, the boy cried, and Hagar picked him up and held him. Translators’ attempts to force Ishmael into Genesis 21 are betrayed by the textual evidence! The answer to this dilemma is not rocket science; rather, it is biology. Abraham had one son with Sarah, five with Keturah, and perhaps many other sons with multiple concubines. If Abraham had two sons with his wife, Hagar, it would be unremarkable, perhaps natural.

In fact, a year before Sarah gave birth to Isaac, she was taken into the tents of Abimelech, the Philistine king. This account is recorded in Genesis 20. We do not know how long Sarah was with Abimelech, but it was long enough to notice that Abimelech’s harem was infertile during this time. God protected Sarah, by afflicting Abimelech with an illness, too. What was Abraham doing while Sarah was away?

When Sarah gave birth to Isaac, she was not jealous of Ishmael, she was jealous of Hagar’s son who was nearly the same age as Isaac. Sarah knew that these two boys would be rivals. On the other hand, Ishmael was already a young man by the time Isaac was born. Sarah had commissioned Ishmael. Ishmael was her son by a surrogate, and there is no evidence that Ishmael ever departed until after Abraham’s death.

Now these are the records of the generations of Ishmael, Abraham's son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah's maid, bore to Abraham; and these are the names of the sons of Ishmael, by their names, in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael, and Kedar and Adbeel and Mibsamand Mishma and Dumah and Massa, Hadad and Tema, Jetur, Naphish and Kedemah.

These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages, and by their camps; twelve princes according to their tribes.

These are the years of the life of Ishmael, one hundred and thirty-seven years; and he breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people.

They settled from Havilah to Shur which is east of Egypt as one goes toward Assyria; he settled in defiance of all his relatives.

Genenis 25:12-28 (NASB)

What relatives did Ishmael settle in defiance of? The literal translation means to the east of or in the face of. In Genesis 37, we see Ishmaelites traveling with a caravan of Midianites. Midian was a son of Keturah. In Numbers 31, we see that the entire race of Midianites was exterminated because of the sin of Baal Peor. Yet in Judges 6-8, we see Gideon’s victory over the Midianites. Yet, in Judges 8, the Midianites over whom Gideon prevailed were actually Ishmaelites. The simplest explanation is that Ishmael presumptuously settled near Midian, the son of Keturah. When Phinehas destroyed Midian, the Ishmaelites assumed the identity of Midianites because they lived in the land of Midian.

Regardless of the history of nations, Ishmael’s personal relationship with Isaac remained familial for all his days.

A good friend of mine sent me an email last year asking for my comments on an Evangelical leader’s analysis that the animosity between the nation of Israel and her Arab neighbors was unavoidable because Ishmael was a natural enemy of Israel. This religious pedaled a political hatred toward Arabs as an Evangelical imperative. I told my friend that the Evangelical leader needed to read his Bible more carefully. The natural animosity he presumptively assigned to Ishmael was actually between Jacob (Israel) and Esau (Edom). After Jacob stole Esau’s blessing, Isaac cursed Esau, but also told him,

But when you grow restless,
you will throw his yoke
from off your neck.

Genesis 27:40 (NIV)

King Herod was an Edomite, not a Jew; consequently, Esau’s rebellion against the house of Jacob culminated at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Since Christ died to reconcile all men to himself, I do not hold a grudge against Edom, either.

The Ishmaelites were sometimes enemies of Israel, yet they were not like the Edom, Moab, and Ammon. While God pronounced judgment on the nations of Ishmael, a remnant is saved. In fact, Isaiah 60 mentions the nations of Ishmael, Kedar and Nebaioth, among those who bring tribute and worship to the glorified Zion.

Those of us who believe in Jesus Christ have become the seed of Abraham by faith. “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Galatians 3:29 (NIV) If we are, therefore, children of Abraham, what should be our attitude toward Ishmael? As children of Abraham, our prayer should be the same as his. When God told Abraham that Sarah would conceive and bear a son, Abraham, as a loving father pleaded,

  1. “Ishmael, this one, let him live before you!”

  2. “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!”

  3. “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”

  4. “Oh, let Ishmael live in your presence!”
God’s response to Abraham was, depending on your translation,
  1. “Yes . . .”

  2. “No . . .”

  3. “Yes . . .”

  4. “No . . .”
In this case, translations A and D, which usually agree, disagree; and translations B and C which usually agree, disagree. Yet, God’s answer is not difficult to ascertain. God told Abraham that yes, he would bless Ishmael but he would  establish his covenant with Isaac,  he said,

As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him, and will make him fruitful and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.

Genesis 17:20 (NASB)

Genesis 18:18 tells us that through Abraham, all the nations of the world will be blessed. The heart of our father Abraham has never ceased from his prayer; moreover, the blessing God promised through Isaac extends to his older brother Ishmael. Likewise, when we pray for the nations we should implore God, saying, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!”

Translations used are labeled as:
  1. Apostolic Bible Polyglot
  2. New American Standard Bible
  3. New International Version
  4. The Jerusalem Bible (1966)
(The Apostolic Bible Polyglot identifies Ishmael in Genesis 21:11; however, the 1709 Lambert Bos Vetus Testamentum from which the Apostolic Bible Polyglot is compiled, does not.)

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