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Genesis 16:12 has many variations on where Ishmael's descendants will live:

  • KJV: he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren

  • ESV: he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen

  • CSB: he will settle near all his relatives

  • NET: He will live away from his brothers

  • NWT: he will dwell opposite all his brothers

  • NASB95: And he will live to the east of all his brothers

  • NASB20: And he will live in defiance of all his brothers

  • NIV: he will live in hostility toward all his brothers

  • NLT: he will live in open hostility against all his relatives

Some of them are quite contradictory.

What is the difficulty with translating this verse?

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  • and he is a wild-ass man, his hand against every one, and every one's hand against him -- and before the face of all his brethren he dwelleth.' [Young's Literal] He dwells in their face. (Or, 'gets in their face' as we say.)
    – Nigel J
    Commented May 2, 2023 at 4:16
  • Good question, well-posed. +1. Thanks for helping out.
    – Dottard
    Commented May 2, 2023 at 11:27

1 Answer 1

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The difficulty in translating Gen 16:12 are the two words:

  • וְעַל = and against, or, and over against, or, and upon, or, and above, and alongside, or, and before, etc.
  • פְּנֵ֥י = face, meaning either, "face to face", or, the face of a man, or, more generally in the presence of, or, eastern side, etc.

Thus, this phrase may be legitimately rendered as any of the following:

  • before the face of (most literal rendering)
  • on the eastern border of
  • opposed to the side of
  • politically and militarily opposed to but near-by

This is why the modern versions show such a variety of translation. Very few give the literal meaning of the words, "before the face of" (meaning "next to"), but choose to translate interpretively, for example,

  • NIV: in hostility toward
  • NLT: in open hostility against
  • ESV: in over against
  • BSB: in hostility toward
  • NKJV: in the presence of
  • NASB: in defiance of
  • LSB: in the face of
  • CSB: settle near
  • HCSB: at odds with
  • ASV: over against
  • YLT: before the face of

Note the paucity of literal renderings and the predominance of interpretive renderings. By definition, an interpretation is a guestimate of the intended meaning and most can only be described as guesses.

For what it is worth, I would translate this as "before the face of" but with an overtone of "east".

Historically, this prophecy has been entirely accurate. The descendants of the Ishmaelites have lift to the east of Israel and approximately shared a common boarder. There may be a hint of antagonism in the choice of words here but that is not the primary meaning.

This is confirmed by the related prophecy in Gen 25:18 -

Ishmael’s descendants settled from Havilah to Shur, which is near the border of Egypt as you go toward Asshur. And they lived in hostility toward all their brothers.

The Pulpit commentary arrives at a similar conclusion:

And he shall dwell in the presence of - literally, before the face of, L e. to the east of (Rosenmüller, Gesenius, Tuch, Knobel, Delitzsch); or, "everywhere before the eyes of" (Kalisch, Wordsworth); or, independently of (Calvin, Keil, Lunge, Murphy) - all his brethren. The Arabs of today are "just as they were described by the spirit of prophecy nearly 4000 years ago" (Porter's 'Giant Cities of Bashan,' pp. 28, 31, 324). Genesis 16:12

Ellicott is similar:

He shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.—That is, he shall maintain his independence, and his descendants shall continue to exist as a free race in the presence of the other Abrahamic nations. Many commentators, however, consider that the more exact rendering is, he shall dwell to the east of all his brethren. This is certainly the meaning of the word in Genesis 25:6, but does not suit equally well there in Genesis 25:18.

Matthew Poole's Commentary has a similar idea:

And he shall dwell in the borders of the other sons and kindred of Abram and Isaac, who though they shall be vexed and annoyed with his neighbourhood, yet shall not be able to make him quit his habitation. See Genesis 25:18.

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