Brief philological analysis on the term “Wild Ass” in Genesis 16:12
Many christians see Muslims, Arabs, and what is happening in the east as a direct fulfilment to Genesis 16 11-12 by deeming all prophet Ishmael (ص) (Ar. إسماعيل ʾIsmāʿīl) descendants i.e. Prophet Muhammad (ص) , 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(ص) 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?
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 פֶּ֣רֶא אָדָ֔ם 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 בָּרָאbar’
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).
- “ISHMAEL: A PEACE MAKER: GENESIS 16:10 –12” (.pdf) THOMAS F. McDANIEL Ph.D., Professor Emeritus
- Arabic-English Lexicon by Edward William Lane (London: Willams & Norgate 1863)
- .Net Bible Study Tool
- A New English Translation of the Septuagint. 01 Genesis
Jazak Allah kheir for this wonderful article. We have Rabbi rabbi Reuven Firestone addressing this passage as well.