Over the next week, we are posting a three-part series reflecting on the recent changes to the rendering of Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 in the English Standard Version of the Bible. The most recent changes have only appeared after this latest round of revisions although the ESV has undergone two significant revisions over its fifteen year lifespan. The changes to Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 are made permanent by the decision of the translation committee to forego any further revision cycles.
—Wendy Alsup and Hannah Anderson
A few months ago, Wendy took her dad to the doctor after he began experiencing pain from a pinched nerve in his neck. When the doctor recommended ibuprofen to ease the pain, Wendy almost immediately questioned his choice and even had the gall to suggest a different pain reliever entirely. But instead of becoming angry with her for challenging his medical degree and decades of experience, the doctor welcomed her input and ultimately agreed with her.
Why? Why would a man with professional standing in the medical field acquiesce to a woman who had none? As you’ve probably already guessed, there is more to the story than we’ve shared. In fact, there are three mitigating factors that explain why the doctor changed his mind at Wendy’s suggestion.
1. Both Wendy and the doctor had her father’s best interest at heart. The doctor was able to receive Wendy’s feedback (as she did his) because they viewed each other as allies in the cause of her dad’s good health. Instead of reading her question as a threat to his authority, he received it as constructive feedback, both because of how she offered it and because his main objective was the same as hers—her dad’s well being.
2. Wendy had access to scholarship about how ibuprofen would affect her dad’s overall health. When she questioned the doctor’s initial prescription, she did not do so from her own scientific education (limited to a handful of undergraduate science courses from 25 years ago); she relied on information from established sources like the Mayo Clinic—information she had been able to access because of the digital age. She questioned the doctor based on the educated opinions of other doctors. In other words, she acted as a proxy consultant, offering the doctor access to a second opinion from his peers without either of them having to leave the examining room.
3. Wendy had intimate, daily experience with caring for her father. Because of this, she remembered something that the doctor—who saw dozens of patients a day—had forgotten. What had slipped the doctor’s mind was that Wendy’s dad takes Coumadin, a blood thinner. When ibuprofen is taken with a blood thinner such as Coumadin, it can put a patient at risk of serious bleeding. The doctor may have been an expert in medicine, but Wendy was the expert in her dad.
Ultimately, Wendy chose to speak up because of what she had learned from other professionals about the danger of combining Coumadin and ibuprofen and her desire to care for her dad. The doctor heard Wendy’s concerns because he shared Wendy’s desire to care for her dad and respected the opinions of his peers that came to him through her. If either had not responded the way they had, Wendy’s father would have used ibuprofen as originally prescribed and put himself at risk for potentially life-threatening bleeding.
This vignette illustrates some of what we hope to accomplish with this 3 part series. Wendy spoke up for her dad to mitigate risk. The doctor listened to mitigate risk. And we are speaking now in this series about the ESV’s changes to Genesis 3:16 and 4:7, in part, to mitigate risk toward women, but more importantly, to mitigate risk to the authority of Scripture which is the foundation of our life and practice as Christians. As we enter this conversation, we do so from a place of shared commitment to the authority of Scripture, access to scholarship of others well versed in Hebrew translation and a daily, intimate knowledge of how misreading Scripture can affect the lives of the women we disciple.
The Wrong Prescription for a Pinched Nerve
Crossway Publishers recently announced permanent changes to the English Standard Version’s translation of Genesis 3:16. Since its release in 2001, the ESV has consistently rendered this text as
“Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you”
The ESV also included a footnote indicating that “for” can also be possibly translated as “against” because the Hebrew word, el, designates the direction in which an object is moving or directed, called terminal direction. For example, in English, we say “The rake is leaning against the tree” when we want to convey that the direction the rake leans terminates at the tree.
In the latest and permanent rendering, however, Genesis 3:16 now reads
“Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”
Interestingly, the translators still include a note at the bottom of the page explaining that the word “contrary” can also be rendered “shall be toward.” This note is neither clarifying nor helpful as it offers readers an entirely contradictory translation of the Hebrew text. The official translation gives the understanding that the woman’s desire is moving in the opposite direction to the man but this note indicates that it is moving toward him. So which is it?
But more than simply creating confusion, the change to Genesis 3:16 is significant because it touches the pinched nerve that is gendered relationships in the evangelical church. While all of Scripture is necessary to life and godliness, Genesis 3:16 has particular bearing on the gender conversation because it helps to frame our understanding of the difficulties that men and women face after the Fall. And how we understand the brokenness of the world drives the solutions that we try to reach. This is not simply a matter of differing opinions about the proper translation of an isolated passage of Scripture. Set in the middle of the account of the Fall, Genesis 3:16 identifies and thus guides the nature and challenges to women’s spiritual formation in a post-Fall world. Translating this passage accurately has both academic and pastoral implications.
Before we analyze the difficulties with the most recent rendering, we want to emphasize our shared commitment to the stated goal of the ESV translation committee. Both of us have used the ESV as the primary translation in our previous books, in part, because “the ESV Bible is an essentially literal translation of the Bible in contemporary English, emphasizing ‘word-for-word’ accuracy, literary excellence, and depth of meaning.” We are concerned that this new rendering of Genesis 3:16 shifts away from this shared commitment. More specifically, we’re concerned that this new rendering repeats the very mistakes that led to the formation of the ESV in the first place.
According to a report in World magazine, one of the initial driving forces behind the ESV was a desire to offer an alternative to the increasingly gender-inclusive language of other translations, including the NIV. The exact degree to which the gender debate drove the decision to begin work on ESV is unclear (and likely varied from committee member to committee member); but what is clear is that several principal parties who advocated for the ESV have also consistently expressed concerns with the translation philosophy of the NIV and TNIV.
To be specific, the concerns were that the translators go beyond a literal “word-for-word” rendering of gendered passages. While president of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Wayne Grudem helped negotiate the initial rights to use the 1971 Revised Standard Version as the basis of the ESV and eventually acted as lead editor of the ESV Study Bible. Other members of CBMW leadership have contributed to the work of the ESV over the years, while simultaneously tracking and highlighting perceived problems with gender-inclusive translations. (Officially, Grudem has minimized any connection between the work of CBMW and his work with the ESV.)
The point here is not to expose some secret cabal or suggest nefarious motives on the part of the initial translators. The point is to highlight our shared commitment to the careful translation of potentially controversial passages. As users of the ESV, we have always known that the translation of the ESV occurred in context of concerns about gendered language. We understood the concern as such: Because Bible translators can read meaning into gendered words based on current sociological agendas, we want to be constrained by the actual words of the text even if it makes us uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, the ESV’s permanent change to Genesis 3:16 seems to move away from this shared commitment. Instead, it favors an interpretative reading that elevates a specific interpretation of a gendered passage–one that is not shared across the spectrum of conservative thought. Even worse, this change also has the potential to undermine the very conservatism it ostensibly seeks to protect.
Just as Coumadin interacts with ibuprofen to put a patient at risk, a shift in translation philosophy necessarily interacts with gender philosophy. We can only reach and sustain a conservative reading of gender through a conservative approach to translation. If the Scripture is not carefully guarded from sociological constructs (both conservative and liberal), we risk losing the very authority on which we base our understanding of gender. How can we call the Church and the world to reflect the Scriptural teaching on gender if we lose the Scripture itself? Without the Scripture, liberalism devolves into androgyny and conservatism into misogyny.
But with the Scripture as our guide, we have the potential to regain the beauty of gendered relationship. With the Scripture as our guide, we have the potential to be restored to the likeness of the God in whose image we are made as male and female. But to reach this place, we must have the Scripture. This is why careful, precise translation—the approach ostensibly adopted by the committee of the ESV—is essential.
As we continue our reflections in Part II and Part III later this week, we will rely on the knowledge of experts on Hebrew translation and historical evidence from previous translations. Then, we will conclude with the practical ramifications of misreading and mistranslating this passage. Again, we offer these reflections from a place of shared commitment to the authority and sufficiency of the word of God. At the end of the day, our man-made constructs, whether conservative or progressive, cannot protect more than God’s own words can. We may find safety in them for a time, but only God’s word stands for ever. And so it is to these words, we commit ourselves.