Updated: Feb 12, 2020
And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off, as it were a bowshot: for she said, Let me not see the death of the child. And she sat over against him, and lift up her voice, and wept, Genesis 21:16.
A particularly astute reader recently asked me about the phrase "over against". He was having trouble establishing a meaning. My first reaction was to wonder why he was making it so hard. Then I looked at the phrase in the 91 verses which contain its 103 uses. Over against is not as simple as it may seem. The reader is required to look at the context.
If we were to use the phrase today we might say something like, "Put the package over against the wall". We are plainly asking that the package be put next to and touching the wall. If we look at our opening verse, Genesis 21:16, that definition would not stand up. Hagar sat over against Ishmael, a long way off. In this verse over against shows us the juxtaposition or contrast between Hagar and Ishmael. She is sitting opposite of him. From a bowshot away she is sitting in relationship to him and has chosen her position accordingly. They are in the same clearing, but she has put herself over against him. She is on the opposite side of their clearing. She has positioned herself so that her position depended on his, but to be as far away as possible but still in the same place. She didn't want to see his death.
We might use that term in the case of war. We crossed over the English Channel. We went over against the German Army. We see such a scenario in Judges 12:3; And when I saw that ye delivered me not, I put my life in my hands, and passed over against the children of Ammon, and the LORD delivered them into my hand: wherefore then are ye come up unto me this day, to fight against me?
Then we see the phrase used in a context that doesn't deal with physical proximity but still emphasizes juxtaposition. These likewise cast lots over against their brethren the sons of Aaron in the presence of David the king, and Zadok, and Ahimelech, and the chief of the fathers of the priests and Levites, even the principal fathers over against their younger brethren, 1st Chronicles 24:31. Here we see that the younger and older men may well be standing physically opposite one of the other, but the crux of the matter is that a proper proportion of men was needed in the draw. The courses needed to be evenly apportioned.
The term is used in the New Testament to show juxtaposition. And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much, Mark 12:41. Jesus is not leaning against the treasury. He is sitting counter to it so that he can see the people as they throw in their money. Likewise we see that with Mary Magdalene and the other Mary; And there was Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulchre, Matthew 27:61. They are not leaning on the sepulchre, they are sitting where they can see it.
Knowing how to use the term as a position is important. The west side also shall be the great sea from the border, till a man come over against Hamath. This is the west side, Ezekiel 47:20. A man walking along the sea to understand the borders of Israel in the Millennium would start at the border and walk until he reached a line parallel with Hamath which was 60 miles to the east. (That's 96 kilometers to folks using sillymeters.)
Our good friend Avi Gold from Israel who thinks in Hebrew weighed in on the use of this phrase in an email. I will copy it below.
Good morning, Pastor John, Thanks for your question about "over against". I looked at the verses, both in Hebrew and in English, and I have some observations to share which will hopefully be of some help. In Genesis 21:16, "over against" translates the Hebrew word מִנֶּגֶד (mineged). In Deuteronomy 2:19, "over against" translates the Hebrew word מוּל (mul). In I Chronicles 24:31, "over against" translates the Hebrew word לְעֻמַּת (le`umat). Thus, the same phrase in English actually translates three different relational words in Hebrew. The word "mineged" is derived from the Hebrew "neged", which means "against, in opposition to". This can be both in terms of physical position of one object in relation to another, and can also be in terms of opposition between two ideas. The word "mul" means "facing". In the abstract it can be used a bit like the way "facing" can be used in English with abstract concepts. The word "le`umat" refers to yet another sort of relational observation between two objects. It is clearly the most abstract of the three. When it compares physical objects it has the sense of "in the presence of", but also means "in comparison with". "with regard to", "in relation to", etc. In terms of the Hebrew, the sense of "mineged" in Genesis 21 is of Hagar at a distance from Ishmael (opposite him). In Deuteronomy 2, the sense of "against" fits in terms of the tension over possible military confrontation, but also the idea of Israelites being camped in a formation of some sort, facing the Ammonites, in a manner which would convey to the Ammonites that they were a force to be reckoned with. In I Chronicles 24, it's pretty clear that the verse does not point to a relation in space. The sense of "in comparison with" or "in relation to" seems a better match. After the priests had been divided by the draw of the lot into 24 groupings, the Levites were also divided into the same number of groupings by lot. And importantly, each group of Levites was paired with a group of priests, so that the number of priests and the number of Levites in the Temple could be kept constant, and so that the various functions of the Temple would be kept in good running order. So, the drawing of lots for the Levites was "in relation to" the lots drawn by the priests, because the groups of Levites would be paired with groups of priests. The full list of divisions of the Levites is, of course, provided in chapter 25. I hope this helps with the question about "over against". Be well, Avi