I am always amazed when I’m studying the Bible and discover verses that people think are contradictory. Sometimes I find verses that require “looking into” so I can understand them better, and other times, like today, I’m researching one question and stumble upon a Bible “contradiction.” Such is the case with this verse from Genesis 21.

And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba (emphasis added).

Genesis 21:14 (KJV)

After Isaac was born, a celebration was given for him. During the celebration, his brother Ishmael mocked him (cf. Genesis 21:9). Sarah is so annoyed by Ishmael that she tells Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac” (Genesis 21:10 NIV). Abraham is upset because he loves his son Ishmael. However, God tells Abraham, “”Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring” (Genesis 21:12-13 NIV). This is the context for Genesis 21:14.

The “contradiction” in Genesis 21:14 deals with Abraham putting Ishmael on Hagar’s shoulder when Ishmael isn’t a child. Ishmael is more likely 15-17 years old, as revealed from these verses.

Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, and his son Ishmael was thirteen;

Genesis 17:24-25 (NIV)

Since Abraham was 100 years old when he had Isaac, that would make Ishmael fourteen. The celebration in Genesis 21 is a weaning celebration and happens when a child can eat solid food and is past the dangerous years of early infancy. Since it typically took 2-3 years to wean a child, we can then presume Ishmael was 16-17 years old when he and Hagar were sent away.

The “problem” word in Genesis 21:14 is “child,” which, in Hebrew, is “yeled.” Yeled, however, doesn’t refer to age. Instead, it refers to the state of one having been born to. Therefore, Ishmael can be referred to as a child because he is Hagar’s child. Yeled can also be translated as “young man,” as seen in this verse from Genesis 4.

And Lamech said unto his wives, Adah and Zillah, Hear my voice; ye wives of Lamech, hearken unto my speech: for I have slain a man to my wounding, and a young man to my hurt (emphasis added).

Genesis 4:23 (KJV)

We might also extend our consideration for the use of the word “child” as we would anyone who might describe their children. If you are 50 years old, you are still a “child” of your parents, although most would take umbrage to such characterization. Nevertheless, the word child only sometimes refers to age, even in English.

Thus, there is no contradiction in Genesis 21:14.