Son and Grandson in the Hebrew Bible

Ancient Jews used the word, ben, for both “son” and “descendant” and didn’t have a specific word for “grandson.” So the Hebrew Bible expresses grandson as “son of son” (Gen 11:31; 45:10; 46:6). Cf. Father (in Hebrew ʾab) can also designate “ancestor.” This lack of a specific term for “grandson” causes confusion. Let’s look at some examples. 

1. Generally, if the terms, such as son, daughter, and grandson, are translated in another language, those original words are easily guessed from translated words. For instance, the German word “Enkel”, if translated from English, is definitely from “grandson.” But that is not the case with biblical Hebrew. For example, “grandson” in Hebrew is generally expressed as “ben of ben,” that is, “son of son,” but sometimes as nin and kekhed too. These words designate offspring and descendant but are sometimes translated as “son” or “grandson.”

When Abraham lied to Abimelech that Sarah is his sister, which almost led Abimelech to taking her his wife, he warns Abraham not to lie ever again as follows: “Now therefore swear unto me here by God that thou wilt not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son’s sonbut according to the kindness that I have done unto thee, thou shalt do unto me, and to the land wherein thou hast sojourned’ (Gen 21:23, KJV). Here, nin and kekhed is used in the place of “my son, nor with my son’s son,” rather than ben and ben of ben. 

2. “ben” basically denotes “son” but can connote “grandson.” So it is not always right to translate it as “son” if the context is right, ben has to be rendered as “grandson.” Nonetheless, “context” is a matter of interpretation, which cannot be absolutized sometimes. So translation of “ben” can be quite tricky at times.

According to Gen 29:5, when Abraham’s servant, who was on his journey to get Isaac’s wife, arrived at a well near Paddan-aram, he asked some strangers whether they know “Laban, Nahor’s son,” that is, Nahor’s ben.

As we know, Laban is Bethuel’s son, and Bethuel is Nahor’s son. Therefore, Laban is Nahor’s grandson. But NRSV has it as “Nahor’s son,” not to mention KJV. I do not mean, however, that it must be “grandson.” We never know if there is a lost tradition that has Laban as Nahor’s son, not Betheul’s, and if Gen 29:5 follows the lost tradition. That is why translations of ben can be controversial at times. 

Moses’s father-in-law causes a similar problem. Num 10:29 introduces the father-in-law as follows: “Moses said to Hobab son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses’ father-in-law.” Here, if Mose’s father-in-law is Hobab, the verse contradicts Ex 2:18, in which Reuel is the father-in-law. To resolve this problem, we can think of two options. (1) First, to interpret Reuel in Num 10:29 as the father-in-law like Ex 2:18; (2) second, to take Hobab as the father-in-law and interpret Reuel as a representative name of the house. The latter option is possible because in Gen 25:3 of LXX Reuel appears to be the ancestral figure (for a detailed discussion, see here). So “Hobab son of Reuel” can be understood as “Hobab descendant(ben) of Reuel,” or maybe Hobab ben Reuel. Hobab is Reuel. As we saw, Laban is also called Laba ben Nahor. But, of course, interpretations cannot be absolutized.

3. Unlike the examples above, “ben” sometimes is clearly “grandson.” For instance, When Laban chased after and finally caught Jacob, who ran away from Laban, he reproved Jacob for not allowing him to make his farewells to his grandsons and his own daughters as follows: “And why did you not permit me to kiss my sons and my daughters farewell? What you have done is foolish” (NRSV). Here, there is no reason for Laban’s “sons,” who do not even appear in the narrative, to run away with Jacob. The sons are obviously Laban’s grandsons, that is, the sons of Leah and Rachel. So the translation should be “my grandsons and my daughters” to be clear. 

Ok, this is it. Today, we talked about the Hebrew expressions for “son” and “grandson” and explored a few interesting facts about those words.

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