Confused about “with” in Hebrew

Some missiologists have claimed that Ge. 16:12 should be translated as “Ishmael is with everyone” but this demonstrates a serious misunderstanding regarding the usage of the prepositions ב and עם in Hebrew. While it is true that “with” can be a proper translation of the preposition ב, it is never valid to translate it with the sense that missiologists are suggesting should be conveyed in this passage. This relational understanding of “with” is not conveyed by the preposition  ב. If the author had wanted to convey this relational aspect of “with” he would have used the term עם instead. No popular translation agrees with this rendering of this verse because it requires one ascribe a meaning to the preposition ב that is invalid. Like many other choices being made in Muslim Idiom translations today, the driving force behind these translation changes is not based on new scholarship regarding our understanding of the biblical texts; the motivation for these translation changes is motivated by a desire to contextualize the text in accord with Islamic beliefs, unfortunately, even when these changes fundamentally alter the meaning of the text itself.

 

Background:

One of the most common grammatical mistakes among modern Hebrew speakers is confusing the prepositions עם and ב when trying to express the idea of “with.” In biblical Hebrew (and grammatically correct) Modern Hebrew these terms are not interchangeable. עם is used to express the relational aspects of “with” i.e. “I am walking with my wife” or the “The plate is with the cup on the table” but the prefix ב expresses the idea of “in” in phrases like “fruit with its seed in it,” “in a house or town,” or “at a place” or the idea of “with” when used with an understanding of “by means of” i.e. “to shoot an arrow with a bow” or “to cut a tree with an ax.”  In general, if you cannot substitute the phrase “by means of” for the preposition “with” in a translation, then it is likely an incorrect translation of the preposition ב.

As an example, the correct way to express “I wrote with a pencil” is “כתבתי בעפרון” but a common grammatical mistake would be to try and express this as “כתבתי עם עפרון”. Correctly translated the latter expresses the idea that “I wrote [something] and Iparon* who was there with me was also writing [something].” In Modern Hebrew there is often confusion over how these prepositions are distinguished from each other because Hebrew is not the first language of many modern Hebrew speakers. Modern Hebrew speakers often began speaking a first language other than Hebrew and other languages frequently have a semantic understanding of “with” that encompasses both meanings using a single word. The Biblical Hebrew writers, who were not influenced by these foreign languages, did not make this modern grammatical mistake.

*Note: Iparon is the transliteration of עפרון and “pencil” is the translation of עפרון. Proper names are typically transliterated, as it was in the translation I provided, and not translated.

 

While the NET bible notes and the NIDOTTE do not directly address the grammar of the preposition, their notes do provide some insights into the contextual issues that lay behind the translation of “against.”

NET bible notes:

36 sn A wild donkey of a man. The prophecy is not an insult. The wild donkey lived a solitary existence in the desert away from society. Ishmael would be free-roaming, strong, and like a bedouin; he would enjoy the freedom his mother sought.

37 tn Heb “His hand will be against everyone.” The “hand” by metonymy represents strength. His free-roaming life style would put him in conflict with those who follow social conventions. There would not be open warfare, only friction because of his antagonism to their way of life.

38 tn Heb “And the hand of everyone will be against him.”

NIDOTTE, vol 2, pg. 403:

“The metaphorical use of yad(hand) covers a wide range of the concept of “power.” In this respect there is no essential difference whether the word is related to God or humankind.”

Here is the phrase from Ge. 16:12 “ידו בכל ויד כל בו” very literally translated it is “his hand [is] in/against all and the hand of all [is] in/against him”

Here is how this phrase is translated in several different English versions:

his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him (Gen 16:12 ESV)

He will be hostile to everyone, and everyone will be hostile to him (Gen 16:12 NET)

his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him (Gen 16:12 NIV)

His hand will be against everyone, And everyone’s hand will be against him (Gen 16:12 NASB)

with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him (Gen 16:12 NRSV)

His hand shall be against every man, And every man’s hand against him (Gen 16:12 NKJV)