This is Part 2 of a three part series on the ESV changes to Genesis 3:16. You can read Part 1 here, where we emphasized our shared commitment to the essentially literal, word-for-word translation philosophy of the ESV translation team.
–Hannah Anderson and Wendy Alsup
In 1525, William Tyndale finished the first translation of the New Testament into English. Despite severe persecution and eventual martyrdom, Tyndale devoted his life to ensuring that common people had access to the Scripture in their native tongue. Tyndale’s passion to translate was fueled both by a desire to see the Scripture take root in common people’s hearts, as well as a desire to break the monopoly that the clerical class held over them.
Because the Word of God is powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, it was essential that lay people have access to the Scripture to defend themselves in situations where leaders misused and abused their spiritual authority. In this sense, careful translation work was a way to protect the most vulnerable members of the church. Once when confronted by Church authorities, Tyndale famously replied, “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy who drives the plough to know more of the scriptures than you do.”
During the Reformation, new translations and the advent of the printing press led to increased Biblical literacy across Europe. Today, five hundred years later, advances in scholarship and the advent of the internet have led to even more Biblical engagement. Not only can the plough boy read the Bible, the milk maid also has access to online helps that allow her to engage it in the original languages. The accessibility of scholarship does not negate the need for scholars any more than Wendy’s accessing a study from the Mayo Clinic negated her father’s need for a doctor (recounted in Part 1). But online technology does offer us the ability to work cooperatively with scholars for the good of the church. It allows the laity to be informed–to access lexicons, scholarly articles, historical documents, academic journals, and even professors and researchers personally. We live in a time when a translation change like that of Genesis 3:16 can be easily examined and compared to historic precedent by, yes, even the plough boy and milk maid.
Toward vs. Contrary
In this post, we want to focus on the most significant change in the ESV: rendering the Hebrew preposition ‘el in Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 as “contrary to” when it had been previously rendered as “for.” Discussions of Genesis 3:16 often focus on the meaning of “desire” (teshuquah) which is found in only two other places in Scripture (Genesis 4:7 and Song of Solomon 7:10); regardless of the contextual meaning and the positive or negative nature of the desire, the word itself is reasonably clear and so ESV translators have rendered it as “desire,” with which we agree. What has been altered in the ESV is the preposition (‘el) that is connected to the woman’s desire.
The ESV originally translated this passage as desire “for” the man. Some argued that the preposition may also be rendered “against” and was noted in a footnote. In the latest (and permanent) edition, the ESV had translated it to be desire “contrary to” the man. At first, this might seem a reasonable progression in English (see Denny Burk’s article), but we want to emphasize that while the progression from “against” to “contrary to” may be reasonable in English, it is not at all reasonable in Hebrew.
The Hebrew preposition in question tells us something about the direction or focus of the woman’s desire. Historically, English translations have translated it in Genesis 3:16 as “to” or “toward.” Consider this brief survey and you discover that most English translations since the 1500’s support the ESV’s original translation of “Your desire shall be for your husband…”*
But more than simply offering a historical accounting of Genesis 3:16, access to online and digital lexicons also offers clarity into how this Hebrew preposition is translated across the body of Scripture. While ‘el can be translated a variety of ways, we could not find evidence that it has ever been translated “contrary to” in any previous version of the ESV, any other English translation, or in any of the over 5000 other times that it is used in the Old Testament. We believe that there is no other example of ‘el being translated as “contrary to” for the simple fact that it does not mean “contrary to” the way we use it in English.
As mentioned, the Hebrew preposition ‘el consistently communicates some variation of terminal direction; it shows the direction something is pointed or headed. You talk TO someone. You direct something TOWARD someone. You are heading FOR the door. In Genesis 3:16, a woman’s desire is directed toward the man. In Genesis 4:7, sin’s desire seems directed toward Cain. (** See note for discussion of gender problems between sin and desire in 4:7). While ‘el tells us where the desire is directed, it alone cannot tell us the quality or nature of the desire. It simply points to which object is being desired.
Unlike the Hebrew ‘el, the English word “contrary”—the word chosen by the ESV translation committee—inherently implies a movement away from or opposite to something. We understand this in the colloquial sense when we describe a child as “contrary.” He or she has a disposition to move in the opposite direction of what is expected of him or her. ‘El, on the other hand, specifically indicates the direction of movement toward someone or something.
Even when ‘el is translated as “against,” it still retains the idea of being directed toward someone or something. Consider how we can use “against” in English to show direction. We say, “The rake is lying against the tree” to describe the physical relationship of the rake toward the tree. Or to give an example of negative usage, Genesis 4:8 records that Cain “rose up against” Abel. Here the use of ‘el has a negative connotation because it is attached to the Hebrew verb quwm for “rise up,” but the direction of the movement is unchanged. Cain is not moving away from Abel; he is moving toward him, albeit in violence. By changing Genesis 3:16 to read “contrary to”, the ESV fundamentally changes the direction of the woman’s desire and the meaning of ‘el itself.
What’s Going On
So what happened? How did desire “for” the man become desire “contrary to” the man? To extend the metaphor from Part 1, why was ibuprofen prescribed when it is contraindicated when taking Coumadin?
At this point, we must note the difference between translating the words of a passage and interpreting the significance of a passage. The work of translators who share the ESV philosophy is to give the literal sense of the Hebrew or Greek in as approximate English as possible. This work will include understanding idiomatic expressions, original audience, and cultural context; but the goal is to give the most accurate translation of the words themselves, not to invest those words with certain significance. While translation work does include the work of weighing texts against other texts, searching for the thread that illuminates a difficult word, and tracking down lexical clues, it should not be confused with commentary. The goal of translation, particularly the philosophy espoused by the ESV translation team, is to preserve an intact text so that believers can read and interpret in community.
The easiest explanation for why translators changed the “for” to “contrary” is that they moved from translation to commentary, projecting the negative meaning of Genesis 4:7-8 back into Genesis 3:16. To be fair, the two passages have lexical similarities, but the question we must answer is “What are the similarities?”
In the height of the battle against feminism in the 1970s, Susan Foh proposed that the similarity between 3:16 and 4:7 was that a woman’s desire toward a man was similar to sin’s desire to destroy Cain. It was, dare we say, contrary to him. This connection is problematic for many reasons, including the fact that the language of Genesis 4:7 is unclear and may actually refer to Abel’s good desire toward Cain.**
Worse, from an interpretive standpoint, Foh used the confusing and obscure text of Genesis 4 to project something back onto the clearer Hebrew in Genesis 3. In contrast, a straightforward chronological reading of Genesis 1-4 actually affirms the lexical definition of the preposition ‘el as “for” or “toward.” In terms of the fall, the woman’s desire for children, her desire for her husband, and the man’s efforts at cultivating the ground are all good things to be pursued in fulfillment of the Creation Mandate; but post-Fall, these good desires are thwarted with painful consequences. Just as the man’s desire to produce fruit from the ground is rewarded with sweat and pain, a woman’s desire to produce children from her own body is rewarded with sweat and pain. Just as the man turns to his attention to the earth looking for fruitful relationship, a woman turns toward (not away from) a man seeking fruitful relationship. (We will explore this more in Part 3.)
The only way translators can justify rendering ‘el as “contrary” is to assume something negative about the woman’s desire based on the use of desire in Genesis 4:7-8. But such a novel change relies solely on commentary, not on accepted definitions to the Hebrew ‘el. In fact, Denny Burk, current president of The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood concedes this in his article on the changes. Instead of arguing that the new changes fit the ESV’s essentially literal, word-for-word philosophy, he argues why it is OK that they do not. It’s worth noting that Denny also says that he does not prefer the new translation and wished that they had stuck with the original, more literal translation.
The problem we present is more than a technicality. When non-academics come across this change in the ESV—a pastor or Sunday School teacher or woman’s Bible teacher—they may notice the difference but they won’t understand the significance because in English the word “against” acts as a bridge across the gulf of meaning. In their previous version, the verse had a footnote indicating the word “for” can also be translated “against.” In the updated version, the text has changed to “contrary to”—not much of a leap from “against,” right?
If “for” can mean “against”
And “against” can mean “contrary,”
then “for” can be replaced by “contrary.”
Again, the problem is that “against” in English can have two different shades of meanings—both inclined toward and opposed to; ‘el in Hebrew does not. Unfortunately, those of us who don’t read the Scripture in Hebrew (the majority of ESV users) would have little way of knowing that the translation has shifted so dramatically. They won’t understand that the meanings of ‘el that allowed it to be translated “against” in Gen. 4:8 are the very ones that make “contrary to” completely inappropriate.
William Tyndale, the scholar who was martyred for translating the Bible in the language of the common man, said this: “I call God to record against the day we shall appear before our Lord Jesus Christ to give a reckoning of our doings, that I never altered one syllable of God’s word against my conscience.” We make no claims to be a William Tyndale or even to have credentials equal to those of the ESV translation committee. We do, however, have access to online scholarship, peer review, and (we hope) the ability to form a rational argument. Our desire is that those with more education than we have will give pause and consider the potential risk of these changes – risk to women, yes, but more importantly, the risk to very Scripture itself. Instead of revealing and preserving the text of Scripture for the common man, this translation change corrupts with commentary a critical text dealing with theological anthropology.
In part 3, we will look at the ramifications of these changes in light of the larger creation narrative of Genesis 1-3 and the potential affect on women’s discipleship.
*The only Bible translation that translates Gen. 3:16 remotely close to the new rendering of “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband…” is the New Living Translation, whose translation philosophy is much broader than the ESV, functioning in places as an interpretive paraphrase. Using the NLT to support the new rendering of Genesis 3:16 would simply confirm our concern that the ESV has strayed from its original translation philosophy.
**It’s important to note that scholars throughout Church history have strongly disagreed as to whether the pronoun attached to “desire” in Gen. 4:7 refers to sin or to Abel. The pronoun itself is masculine while the Hebrew word for sin is feminine. It’s possible that this phrase refers to Abel’s desire for Cain and Cain’s corresponding ruling over him (John Calvin interpreted it this way), not sin’s desire for Cain. This is a more natural parallel to the language of Genesis 3:16. Abel’s desire is toward his brother, but Cain seeks to master him, actually rising up against him physically in the next verse. Regardless, the preposition ‘el still signals movement toward an object, not away from it.