Resolving Bible contradictions: The age of Ishmael


I was recently reading through the introduction to the New American Bible, a Catholic Bible translation which, whilst not denying inspiration of the Bible, does affirm Biblical Criticism.  I came across an alleged contradiction I had not seen before.  This was as follows:

"Though Scholars have noted inconsistencies (compare Ishmael's age in Gn 16:16 and 21:5, 14)..."

The Bible verses mentioned are as follows:
Genesis 16:16, "Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael."
Genesis 21:5, "Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him."
Genesis 21:14, "Early the next morning Abraham got some bread and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar.  Then, placing the child on her back, he sent her away..."
The NAB footnote reads:
"Placing the child on her back: a reading based on an emendation of the traditional Hebrew text.  In the traditional Hebrew text, Abraham put the bread and waterski on Hagar's back, while her son apparently walked beside her.  In this way the traditional Hebrew text harmonies the data of the Priestly source, in which Ishmael would have been at least fourteen years old when Isaac was born; compare 16:16 with 21:5, cf. 17:25.  But in the present Eulogist (?) story, Ishmael is obviously a little boy, not much older than Isaac; cf. vv. 15, 18."


The argument the commentator/s are trying to make is that in Genesis 21:14, Ishmael was considered small enough to be carried on Hagar's back, but the chronology indicates he must have been 13 years old.  This, at first perusal to atheists, Christians and Muslims, would appear to be a contradiction.


It is apparent from the footnote that the commentator/s affirm the JEDP theory of the Pentateuch (the view that four different authors put the first five books of the Bible together over a period of time, with subsequent editors adding their oral traditions, etc. into the original composition.  These are known as the Jawish, Elohist, Deuteronomist and Priestly authors).

Saint Augustine, the Early Church Father was known to have said, "If I do find anything in those books (Scripture) that seems contrary to truth, I decide either that the text is corrupt, or that the translator did not follow what was really said, or that I have failed to understand it."

In light of this, it would appear the Biblical critical position would argue that the text has been corrupted in this point from the Hebrew original, due to translator errors.

That could be true, but this need not necessarily be dismissed straight away as a copyist error, or a potential contradiction.  Perhaps it is that, as St Augustine proposes, we have failed to understand it.

Here are some other explanations:
  1. These sorts of "improbabilities force on the reader the conviction that the figures are not intended to reflect the actual ages of the historical patriarchs but are schematic and to be considered in relation to those of the ante- and postdiluvian patriarchs.  That these were known to be schematic only is indicated by the freedom with which they were altered in early times as is clear from a comparison of the Hebrew, Samaritan and LXX [Greek] texts." "According to the schematic presentation of ages Ishmael was now over 14 years old, 16:16 and 21:5... He was certainly older than Isaac and apparently capable of mischief, v.9). Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, circa 1950 AD
  2. There were practical reasons for the placement of "the boy.  The boy, too, he placed on her shoulder - for Sarah implanted the evil eye into Ishmael, and a fever took hold of him, and he was unable to walk on his feet." Rashi (Jewish Commentator), Genesis, circa 1100 AD
    1. The Evil Eye mentioned by Rashi may be pointing to a belief in Malocchio.  I can't say for certain.  But I think that it could be quite a simple, plausible and logical explanation to say that Ishmael may have needed to be carried due to an illness he was experiencing, which prevented him walking.  This could certainly be supported by the following verses in light of the fact that he was left under a tree and was able to cry to the Lord.
  3. A third possible explanation could be that she had to carry the boy on the shoulder as part of some ceremonial exit that we no longer understand or that is no longer known to us.
  4. A fourth possible explanation is that in this time period, because people lived longer, they also aged much slower.  Perhaps it was that Ishmael was the size of a young child at the age of 13.  
    1. This seems to be the view of Haydock's commentary on verse 8 of Chapter 21; "Ver. 8. Weaned. St. Jerome says when he was five years old, though some said twelve. The age of men being prolonged, their infancy continued longer. One of the Machabees suckled her child three years, 2 Machabees vii. 27. (2 Paralipomenon xxxi. 16.) (Calmed)"


Whichever explanation is correct, the conclusion is this: through thinking about the possibilities rationally, one could realistically find a solution to this problem without having to admit an error within the Biblical text, or without having to embrace the JEDP source hypothesis in this instance.

Obviously, this sort of logic can be applied to all apparent contradictions with sufficient time, access to the right material, knowledge of scripture verses and their relationship and interpretation, prayer and reflection.  I'll continue to post on these sorts of things as review them from time to time.

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