85. Can the same word mean “yes” and “no”?

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How can the same word mean “yes” and “no”? In Genesis 17:19, in the EHV God responds with a “No” to Abraham’s question. In the NIV he responds with “Yes.” How can this be?

Can the same Hebrew word be translated either “yes” or “no”? The short answer is “yes.” Abal is one of a number of Hebrew interjections that can either affirm or deny the preceding statement. It can also be a corrective to the preceding statement, “yes, but.”

Here is the context in Genesis 17:

15God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai anymore, but her name will be Sarah. 16I will bless her and even give you a son by her. Yes, I will bless her, and she will be a mother of nations. Kings of many peoples will come from her.”

17Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said in his heart, “Will a child be born to someone who is one hundred years old? Will Sarah, who is ninety years old, give birth?” 18And Abraham said to God, “Oh, let Ishmael live in your presence!”

19But God said, “No, Sarah, your wife, will bear a son for you. You shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.”

There are two questions in play here. Will Sarah really bear a child? The required answer is “yes.” The second question is whether Ishmael can live in God’s presence. The answer to that depends on what the question means. If Abraham is simply asking whether Ishmael can still live in God’s presence, the answer would be “yes.” Ishmael cannot be Abraham’s heir, but he can still be a child of God. But Abraham seems to be asking “Can’t you accept Ishmael as my heir?” To that the answer is “No! Isaac, Sarah’s son will be your heir.” Here is a case in which the translation “yes—but” works well. “Yes, Ishmael can live with me, but Isaac must be your heir.”

Most English translations answer the question with a “no” or with a paraphrase that says Isaac must be the heir. The NIV seems to be in the minority with its rendering, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac,” but notice that its answer is not a plain “yes” but a “yes, but.”

An additional question is what attitude is implied by Abraham’s laughter and speaking in his heart. Is it pure joy that Isaac will be his heir, or is he asking why can’t God use Ishmael, the heir Abraham and Sarah had provided by using Hagar as a surrogate mother? The text does not explicitly answer these points. It is, however, explicit about this: Isaac must be the heir.