Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Men Ruling over Women? How Has That Worked?

Bible translation is much more a rough art than an exact science. It breaks down into three domains, each of which presents major problems for translators:

1. The Accuracy of the Starting Texts. The Old Testament was written mainly in Hebrew (and a small part in Aramaic); the New Testament was written in Greek. We do not possess any of the original manuscripts, but only copies -- of which we have tens of thousands, but which are an unknown number of generations removed from the originals. Added to some 5,800 Greek sources for the New Testament, for example, are ten thousand or more manuscripts and fragments of the NT translated very early into another language, such as Latin. Although we thus have many, many more such fragments (and in some cases, complete books) to work from than is the case with any other ancient document, and although there is agreement (consensus) as to practically 90% of its text, there are still many variant readings as to which scholars differ. Most of those are trivial or minor, but some are major, such as in the case of John 7:53-8:11, which does not appear in several manuscripts. Moreover, the discovery of older fragments, such as those found at Qumran, continually reshapes our views of what particular reading in any given case would be closest to the "original." So the first problem in Bible translation is to decide on the starting text (and avoid the trap of "garbage in, garbage out").

2. The Meaning and Context of the Words in those Starting Texts. Language dictionaries are only a very recent phenomenon. The Hebrew words of the Old Testament in many cases remain the same today, but their meanings have changed; the same is true of the Koine dialect of Greek in which much of the New Testament was written. In many cases, the recovery of lost meanings is pure guesswork, as in quite a few instances, particular words may occur only once or twice in the entire NT (or OT). And even when we have a pretty good idea of how a word was used in the first century (or earlier), we have to put it into the context intended by its author, which was aimed for the most part at hearers or readers who were alive at that time. We have to beware of anachronistic interpretations.

3. The Meaning and Context of Words in the Target Language. As just noted in the last paragraph, language is not static, but changes continuously with time. To put the Bible into the English of 1611 was a wholly different task from putting it into the English of today (and whose English -- British, American, Australian, Canadian, Scottish, or Irish?). The process of translation thus presents a continually moving target. While the meaning and context of the original words may have been fixed at the time they were written, the same is not at all true of any given target language into which they may be translated. And no translation can at the same time be one that is word-for-word and is also suitable for reading aloud to a congregation. A balance must be struck, and in each case it is different, depending on the goals of the translators.

It comes rather as a surprise, therefore, to learn that the publisher of the respected English Standard Version of the Bible has decided, in conjunction with its Translation Oversight Committee, to make just a further 52 changes in its official text, and then no more, forever and ever, amen. It will thus join the King James version (last changed in 1769) as a fossilized text: those in the far future who wish to use it will first have to master the vocabulary of English as it stood in 2016, and not as it may have further evolved in their own day. [UPDATE 09/29/2016: persuaded by the instant and numerous reactions to its decision, the publisher Crossway has announced it made a mistake. It will continue to revise the ESV, chiefly for the reasons I identified above.]

The decision has been strongly criticized, and with good reason. I shall not add to the general criticism here, but I do want to take issue with some of what the Oversight Committee thinks are necessary and advisable changes to make before the text becomes "permanent." For in my view, the changes they have adopted to the ESV's translation of Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 are going in the wrong direction -- please have a look:
Permanent Text VersesPrevious Text Verses
Genesis 3:16
Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.
Genesis 4:7
Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.
The words in each case are spoken by God -- to Eve in verse 3:16, and to Cain in verse 4:7. In both cases the change involves the translation of a Hebrew preposition, 'el, which normally has a spatial element of motion to or toward an object or destination. Thus as previously translated, verse 3:16 conveyed the thought in English that Eve would experience a desire for, or toward, her husband Adam; verse 4:16 expressed the notion that sin would likewise approach Cain if he did not curb his anger.

Changing these expressions from "for" to "contrary to" in each instance is not just a subtle shift in meaning, but introduces (in my view) a whole new social context that is foreign to our traditional reading of these verses. To see this, let's focus on Gen. 3:16 more closely.

As is well explained in this post, there are two differing exegeses of what God is saying to Eve in verse 3:16. The first is that God's statement is a prescription, both for her own future and for that of all women who come after her -- it lays down a principle of what her nature will cause her to do.

The second is that God's statement is simply descriptive of what the fallen world after Eden will be like for women.

So in the first case, the ESV translators are in effect saying that God has willed it that men and women should be always at odds with each other. And in the second case, well, He may not have willed it so, but it will always be so.

Either way, the ESV choice simply underwrites current feminist theology without any warrant in the Hebrew text for doing so, since "to go against" is not one of the normal or usual senses of 'el in the Hebrew Bible. And drawing on Genesis 4:7 for support of that context is, as Sam Powell says in the post I cited to explain the use of that preposition, "pretty sketchy exegesis." (I have always believed that the Devil was not content merely to act contrary to us; he would far rather entrap us. So saying that his desire is "contrary to" man is like saying that a policeman just wants to act differently from a thief: it may superficially be true, but it by no means tells the whole story of their respective roles.)

Both Sam Powell and Scot McKnight, in the posts cited above, point to the use of 'el in the Song of Solomon, verse 7:10, to derive the proper understanding of its use in Gen. 3:16. The ESV translates that verse as follows: "I am my beloved's, and his desire is for me" (my bold emphasis). No sense of "contrary to" there -- and yet it is love's desire that is being described in each case. So why does it have to be one sense for Eve, and another one for the Song of Solomon?

And moreover, why does it have to now be permanently so? (Actually, I note that although the changes have been incorporated into the online ESV version, they provide the alternative translation of "toward" in a footnote reference to verses 3:16 and 4:7.)

The move to make the change fixed forever in stone bespeaks a pride or even arrogance that does not become a "Translation Oversight Committee", no matter what is their underlying theology. Pastor Powell has added to his exegesis of Gen. 3:16 cited above some further remarks on the topic of men versus women and women versus men in this post, entitled "Headship is not Hierarchy." I commend it to your careful attention.

Husbands, love your wives. Wives, love your husbands.


  1. Thanks for posting this.

    To this pewsitter's ears, the switch from "for" to "contrary to" does the most serious damage to Genesis 4:7. It sounds as if God is addressing Cain as a man without sin (a pelagian heresy?). "Original Sin" has already taken place by this time and man already is fallen.

    As far as Genesis 3:16 goes, the new translation seems to drive a wedge between man and wife which does more harm than good.

  2. I'm no linguist, but if "el" does connote "to" or "toward", the new translation of "el" to "contrary" or "against" imparts nearly the opposite meaning of the word. But why do you think the updated translation "underwrites current feminist theology"? The descriptive/prescriptive exegeses could apply to both translations.

  3. Generalizations are always subject to qualification, but current feminist theology tends to see the female of the species as "oppressed" or "subjugated" by the male on account of the latter's preference for patriarchy -- and so the female should not be submissive, but fight back, and resist male domination. I claim that the new translation, by portraying men and women as permanently at odds with each other, supports that theology. The old (and traditional) translation of "desire for [or "toward"] your husband" has no such connotation; it states a truth about marriages that enjoy the blessing of God. See also Ephesians ch. 5: "Husbands, love your wives; wives, respect your husbands."

    1. Yes, I see how new translation seems to paint men and women as doomed to bicker, whereas the older translation is more subtle; in some way, a woman's distorted desires betray her and tie in to an equally distorted male hegemony. I think the implications of the older translation are far more interesting - and equally so in the verses about Cain, which you point out. But the "he will rule over you" in both translations is a recipe for friction between the sexes no matter what, because such domination is not the natural, good, pre-Fall state of things, but a fallout from sin, part of the great curse. I find it ironic that these verses have been used to justify male domination/female oppression/etc. If, under the curse (which is by definition a bad thing), women are dominated by men, then such a relational state must be antithetical to God's original vision. And of course that's what Christ came to re-instate. While we still live under the curse, we shouldn't lull ourselves into thinking that we aren't called to live beyond it.

  4. You wrote, "Both Sam Powell and Scot McKnight, in the posts cited above, point to the use of 'el in the Song of Solomon, verse 7:10." That is not quite right.
    For the record, 7:10 (7:11 in the Hebrew Bible) which in English reads "and his desire is for me" does not have the Hebrew word 'el but rather the preposition 'al which can mean "on top of" (oh my!) or simply, "concerning" or "for."
    Note: prepositions must be understood together with they words they appear with. Sometimes two "opposite" prepositions mean just about the same thing. For instance, "I want to write that up" and "I want to write that down." The more instances of pairing that we can find, the better we can tell what that pairing of words communicates.
    Back to Scripture, this Hebrew word for “desire" (teshuqah) appears only three times in the Hebrew Bible. Both other places have 'el and are Genesis 3:16 and 4:7, the very verses under consideration in the post.

  5. Robert Stallman, thank you for your contribution to the dialogue here. I cannot let your comment pass, however, without noting that according to the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, the preposition 'al (Hebrew אַל) is often substituted in the Hebrew text for the preposition 'el (Hebrew עַל), with the same meaning of "to, towards":

    "Or. ʾil, Sec. ελ: prep.; except Ex 3234 Jos 723 Is 3612 always אֶל־; by-form אֱלֵי־ Jb 322 526 1522 2919, cj. Ps 632 for בְּלִי and 859 for אַל־; often alternates with עַל, → Sperber 105: MHb., Lach., Ph. (Friedrich §250); Arm. mostly replaced by עַל (→ BArm.), DISO 13; Arb. ʾilāy; < *ʾil and *ʾilay, BL 640h: אֵלַי/לָֽי, אֵלַיִכְ/לָֽיִךְ (Sec. ηλαχ), אֵלָיו (K אֵלָו 1S 2213 Ezk 94), אֵלֵינוּ, אֲלֵיכֶמ/הֶם, occasionally אֲלֵכֶמ/הֶמ/הֶן (BL 252r), 3rd. pl. אֵלֵימוֹ (BL 215j) Ps 25: basic meaning towards; —1. used with actions and events directed towards something, like to go, to come, to throw Lv 116, to bring Gn 219, to look Is 822, to hear Gn 1611 ..."

    --Koehler, L., Baumgartner, W., Richardson, M. E. J., & Stamm, J. J. (1994–2000). The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 50). Leiden: E.J. Brill.

    So your point carries little weight in this discussion, unless you can point to a use in the Hebrew text of אֶל in connection with תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ that is at odds with its use in SSol. 7:10 (English text) -- or, if you prefer, 7:11 in the Hebrew text (because it treats our vs. 6:13 as its vs. 7:1, since it has ch. 6 ending with vs. 6:12). And as you yourself note, the Hebrew word "desire" ( תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔) appears only once with the variant אֶל (which in so many other cases equates with עַל), and twice with the preposition עַל, so the natural interpretation of it is to have the same sense in all three cases. (I would submit that to read the sense of אֶל as physically "upon" in the context of an abstract noun like "desire" would be a reading that is, without further textual evidence, anachronistic for our day and age.)