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Toward a Better Reading: Reflections on the Permanent Changes to the Text of Genesis 3:16 in the ESV

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

PART I

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.

Shared Commitment

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.

Here is Part 2 and Part 3.

Hannah Anderson is author of the excellent Made for More and upcoming (and equally excellent) Humble Roots.  She offers wise commentary on life and faith through twitter.  Follow her @sometimesalight.

29 Responses to Toward a Better Reading: Reflections on the Permanent Changes to the Text of Genesis 3:16 in the ESV

  1. Jennifer S September 26, 2016 at 11:42 am #

    I wasn’t even aware that these changes had been made. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. Furthermore, thank you for taking time to have a rational, measured response. I respect that very much but I have an inkling of a feeling that no man would be required to make so many qualifications before stating their own disagreement with this change in translation.

    • Wendy September 26, 2016 at 11:45 am #

      Yes to your last sentence, Jennifer. Yet we are willing to do it if it enables dialogue and mutual edification. 🙂

    • Alistair September 28, 2016 at 1:35 am #

      Re. your last sentence, I guess it depends on the man. Plenty of men post qualifications before critiques, and plenty, including myself, are ignored – even by women on other blogs who claim to get ignored! 🙂

    • Jennifer S September 28, 2016 at 7:08 am #

      For sure some men are careful to pre-qualify their position… but it is rare to see men step so carefully into this type of discussion.

  2. Marie September 26, 2016 at 6:00 pm #

    Great piece. Definitely looking forward to the rest.

    There are so many things I want to say, but it all really boils down to one question: What is this really about? The answer is, to me, fairly obvious. Textual clarity is not the concern; rather, this is about a specific gender agenda. Frankly, the ESV committee has crossed a line here. Not saying that any or all of them is/are unsaved as I can’t possibly know that, but we tread on dangerous ground when we manipulate Scripture. To my eyes, that’s what has happened here.

  3. Barbara Roberts September 26, 2016 at 8:08 pm #

    Excellent post, Wendy and Hannah. Your preamble about the doctor scenario is terrific … and yes, giving those reassurances to male theologians something we as women often have to do if we are going to be given a place at the table. It’s sad, but true, that women are under automatic suspicion if they voice any push back to the big shots who teach complementarian dogma.

    You are voicing your pushback well. Looking forward to the rest of this series. And sharing this tomorrow on A Cry For Justice. 🙂

    • Wendy September 26, 2016 at 8:46 pm #

      Thanks, Barb!

  4. Barbara Roberts September 26, 2016 at 8:55 pm #

    I’ve shared this on Twitter and many places on FB. 🙂

  5. Grace Henry September 27, 2016 at 3:59 am #

    Excellently introduced, Wendy. Thank you for taking this up and being so careful with your approach. I will be tracking with the conversation.

    May the sincerity of your and Hannah’s (and my!) perspective be heard and prove helpful to the Kingdom.

  6. MarkO September 27, 2016 at 7:48 am #

    Good analysis. Looking forward to parts 2 n 3. Every translation committee or at least publisher has targeted objectives in mind. The Geneva Bible was set aside for the KJV for reasons that were more than a pristine desire for accuracy. Translation objectives reveal to some degree a bias. That is unavoidable. Yet, oddly Bible translators and politics sit as allies in that reverent space. Grudem has made it clear that “the most troublesome, most objectionable verse in the NIV 2011 is 1Timothy 2:12.” His vehemence in this regard rests mostly on one word in that verse. Well, well – the difference a word or two can make and I see that Gen 3:16 comes before Paul’s epistles. It is as though the ESV PT (my wife gets a perm but even that doesn’t last) has filled it’s cannon with heavier shot to answer volley ‘gainst the battlements of NIVers. Seems to me that the ESV may have shot itself in the foot with its new perm. Time will tell.

  7. Edmond Sanganyado September 27, 2016 at 1:15 pm #

    I agree that every Bible translation is inherently a Bible interpretation. I believe, each member of the Bible translation committee always bring hermeneutical assumptions. The smaller the number of assumptions the more accurate the translation.

    The new rendition of Genesis seems to be a result of such hermeneutical assumptions. I was intrigued by how your explained the meaning of ‘el’. It seems using against to mean lean toward is only possible for inanimate objects. But the moment you use it for emotional states it means the opposite.

    It seems there’s an apparent conflict with the grammatical context of the verse in the Permanent Text. I look forward to your next installments.

  8. Michael Gulotta September 27, 2016 at 1:58 pm #

    It seems to me that the translators are attempting to do justice to the fact that this is a curse being rendered, and, as some have seen a woman’s ‘desire’ for her husband, whether that is sexual or in some other way, if the desire is a positive thing, which sex surely is, would not fit well as part of a curse. And we must also remember that the curse is also on the ‘man’, as well. A woman’s ‘desire for her husband’, in these respects, would not seem like a curse to a man. So, as I have heard other preachers ‘interpret’ the text, & especially, when seen in the light of the other text [Gen 4:7- sins “desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” ] the intention of the text is that a woman’s ‘desire’ would be; to be in the ‘position’ of her husband, the position of authority, & yet he will rule over you’ seems to fit with the curse best. I say that, because that is what we see in the fallen world, men & women competing for dominance over one another. This is a curse that should be overcome when men & women are regenerated by the Holy Spirit. The ‘New Man’ is given the ‘life’ of the New Adam, Jesus Christ, & subsequently, the curse of competing for ‘who rules’ should be rendered great damage, if not utterly destroyed. I believe this may be where the translators are coming from, when they try to render this idiom with a meaning that makes sense to the modern receiver.

    • The Music Student September 27, 2016 at 9:30 pm #

      Isn’t the argument that since women seem to try to rule over men from one’s observation, therefore, the interpretation of Genesis 3:16 must mean that the woman’s desire will be contrary to her husband somewhat unsound? It is not good exegesis to interpret the Bible by one’s observations of how things seem to work in the world. After all, feminism is a rather limited phenomenon, in both time and place. I lived for a while in a culture where a woman who was beaten by her husband would be told by other women that was just the way things were and just put up with it – such ‘traditional’ cultures exist simultaneously with what we call the post-modern culture and the numbers who live in such cultures exceed the population of the Western world.

      Furthermore, if the woman’s desire was to rule over her husband, why is it part of the curse to the woman? The man would be the one to be cursed with an overbearing wife. But the phrase is directed to the woman, not the man. Luther and other historical church elders interpreted the desire toward the husband as one of a desire for a husband in spite of the fact that her husband will rule over her and that she will suffer in bearing children. She wants it in spite of the pain that will surely follow.

    • Wendy September 28, 2016 at 9:11 am #

      Thanks, Michael, for contributing. I disagree with your reasoning, since the other aspects of the Fall, a woman having children and a man working are inherently good, not evil, pre-Fall. I believe the woman’s desire is not the negative problem in the curse anymore than a desire to have children is. Instead it is pain in childbirth and the ruling response of the man that are the post-Fall negative consequences.

    • Michael Gulotta September 28, 2016 at 11:43 am #

      By the way, I agree, that the man’s ruling [lording over’] response is quite ‘negative’, which is a result of the Fall. Of course, this doesn’t mean, he’s not supposed to be ‘leading’ [1 Cor 11:3, 8-9] But I would add that the woman’s ‘desire’ is also affected ‘negatively’ by the Fall. Every detail, which was, at one time, designed to be ‘positive’, such as, in this instance, a woman being man’s helpmate[Gen 2:18], has become ‘negative’, as well. The curse is a curse in every conceivable way. So, when it says, “her desire will be for her husband”, I believe this is as ‘negative’ a part of the curse as “sin’s desire to rule over or master” Cain in [Gen 4:7] Any thoughts?

    • Wendy September 28, 2016 at 12:00 pm #

      Michael, have you read Part 2? We just posted so maybe not. But let’s interact in the comments there, since it deals more with the point of your question.

    • Michael Gulotta September 28, 2016 at 1:32 pm #

      That sounds fine, Wendy. If I don’t get back to this blog for a while, it’s only because I have my plate full right now. [Sermon prep, visitation, other chores, etc…]. Keep up the good God honoring discussion. Glad you’re there. I’ll read it soon & maybe it will address my questions. Soli Deo Gloria. Michael Gulotta

  9. Toiler September 27, 2016 at 3:07 pm #

    Great articulation! Can’t wait to hear parts 2 & 3.

    • Barbara Roberts September 28, 2016 at 8:33 am #

      Toiler, I want you to know that you give me courage; your comments are one of the things that keep me going 🙂
      Bless you!

    • Michael Gulotta September 28, 2016 at 11:03 am #

      This is a response to both, the Music Student & Wendy: Music Student- I agree with you that using what we observe to interpret a text is not the most sound way to interpret. And you make a very good point about the other cultures vs. our Post Modern Culture. But I don’t think my only reasoning was societal observation. The ‘analogy of faith’, comparing Scripture with Scripture, was part of my observation, as well. I believe the other passage [Gen 4:7] may shed some light on the meaning of this one in Gen 3:16, because Moses seems to be saying that [as a result of the fall] ‘sin’, in a sense, ‘personified’ has a desire to rule over Cain. No doubt, someone may misinterpret what I just said, as if I were equating ‘women’ with ‘sin’. Before I get accused of that, please understand, I am not doing that. My point is that there is some sort of relationship between the 2 passages, which may be helpful.

      I, also, agree with you, Wendy, that none of the details isolated are ‘negative’. Nor, am I saying that a woman shouldn’t be ruling with a man. After all, when Man was made in the Image of God, we were made male & female, together, to take dominion over the created world [Gen 1:26-28]. But, since the woman was created to be the helpmate for the man, which is also supposed to be, originally, a positive thing, then somehow, as a result of this Fall, this positive purpose has been distorted by the entrance of sin, as well.

      Let me ask this, for all those writing, & I ask this because I don’t know the answer: Is this an Egalitarian vs. a Complementarian issue, more than a concern for the way the text has been translated? Or do you think that those involved have now altered the translation because of their bias?

  10. Barbara Roberts September 28, 2016 at 12:26 am #

    @The Music Student said—

    “Luther and other historical church elders interpreted the desire toward the husband as one of a desire for a husband in spite of the fact that her husband will rule over her and that she will suffer in bearing children. She wants it in spite of the pain that will surely follow.”

    You may have rendered Luther’s viewpoint accurately, but please may I caution you against the final sentence there, which I think might be yours, not Luther’s

    To say that “she wants it in spite of the pain that will surely follow” is very close to depicting women a masochists. Victims of domestic abuse are quite upset when people see them as masochists. The victim of abuse is not a masochist. She is resisting the abuse. Submission to abuse is not the same thing as consent to abuse.

    The way we use language in this area is very important. It’s all to easy to use expressions that inadvertenly blame the victim or pathologise the victim in some way. But the victim is not pathological, the victim is not deficient or defective or ‘wrong’. That’s what the abuser tells her all the time, but it’s not true. And bystanders need to take care not to inadvertently echo the things the abusers say.

    • The Music Student September 29, 2016 at 10:40 am #

      Barbara, I was summarizing several different people’s viewpoints in that paragraph, not just Luther’s, and several of those commentators did speak similar words to that. I do not think either they, and certainly not I, had the thought of masochism.

      To say that one desires something in spite of the pain it will bring is not in the least perverted. The athlete who strives for a gold medal will work through the pain to get it. It says in Scripture of Christ that he willingly suffered the pain for the joy that was set before him. So, in a similar way, there is great pain, physical, mental, and emotional, attendant on the role of wife and mother, due to the entry of sin into the world, but there may well be great joy as well, as Eve herself experienced in the birth of Seth, after the pain of Cain’s murder of Abel. Christ made the analogy of the pain of the Christian life to the pain of childbirth, which passes away once the child is born. I am sure that you have come across commenters who are antagonistic to the Bible, who try to say that God is sadistic because it says that he disciplines those whom he loves or that to rejoice in suffering, as Christians are told to do, is masochistic. I know I have. We know they are wrong and are deliberately misunderstanding what the Bible says.

      I have frequently come across your comments, as you and I seem to read many of the same sites, and I have appreciated and learned from what you have written. We usually agree. I have also observed that you often tell bloggers and commenters that their words could be harmful, and I have sometimes wondered if you were not placing heavy and unreasonable burdens on people who wrote with no ill will. You have done so in my case.

    • Barbara Roberts September 29, 2016 at 10:05 pm #

      @ Music student, thanks very much for responding to my comment 🙂 I really appreciate it.

      You said ” I have frequently come across your comments, as you and I seem to read many of the same sites, and I have appreciated and learned from what you have written. We usually agree. I have also observed that you often tell bloggers and commenters that their words could be harmful, and I have sometimes wondered if you were not placing heavy and unreasonable burdens on people who wrote with no ill will. You have done so in my case.”

      If you felt I was placing an unreasonable burden on you, I am sorry. My only intention was to offer you a little education about how to use language in ways that are less likely to hurt victims. I said—
      ” bystanders need to take care not to inadvertently echo the things the abusers say.”

      ‘Inadvertently’ was my careful choice of word there. How did you infer that I was blaming you for writing with ill will, when I used the word ‘inadvertently’?

      I would be very grateful if you could explain that, as I know people quite often perceive me as blaming them when I am not blaming them I am only seeking to educate them. I assume that most people don’t want to inadvertently say things that would contribute to the suffering of domestic abuse victims. But it seems that many people, when one points out that they have used language which could easily hurt victims, they don’t want to take the feedback on board. And they bristle.

      I would dearly love to find a better way through this problem, so if you can help me I’d very much appreciate it. Thanks.

  11. Nick Stuart September 28, 2016 at 9:04 am #

    Having only read the post, not studied it in detail, I may have missed it.

    The question would seem to be “Which translation is the most accurate?” vs. “Which change does the least to upset the balance of a controversy we’re having?”

  12. Barbara Roberts September 29, 2016 at 10:11 pm #

    And Music Student, at the risk of running even more onto the rocks with you, I can if you like explain more about why “she wants it in spite of the pain that will surely follow” could be heard as depicting victims of domestic abuse as masochistic.

    But I won’t go into the explanation unless you want me to. 🙂

    • The Music Student September 30, 2016 at 11:50 am #

      Barbara, before anything else, I need to know, did you understand my explanation of why it wouldn’t occur to me or others to think of such a statement in terms of masochism?

  13. Barbara Roberts September 30, 2016 at 9:28 pm #

    Hi Music Student, yes I understood your explanation of why it wouldn’t occur to your or to others (others who have not been subjected to domestic abuse) to think of such a statement in terms of masochism.

    And to reassure you that I understood, allow me to reflect back to you what you said, in my own words.

    You made that point that it is not in the least perverted to say that someone desires something in spite of the pain it will bring. And you gave a few examples: The athlete who strives to win even though the race will be painful. Jesus’ willingness to suffer on the Cross because he wanted to bring us into salvation. Women being willing to endure the pain of childbirth.

    —- Also, I’ve been thinking about your telling me how you felt hurt by what I wrote. I need to ask your forgiveness for causing you that pain.

    I now understand that you were relaying what some commenters in the reformation period had said about Gen. 3:16, you were not giving your own viewpoint.

    In my offering my caution, I would have been wiser if I had not pointed it at you so directly. It would have been better if I had directed my caution at the commenters (whoever they are) who take the view that “she wants it in spite of the pain that will surely follow”.

    • The Music Student October 3, 2016 at 4:03 pm #

      Barbara, I’m currently without a regular internet connection and will be for a while. Thank you for this reply. I appreciate that you took the time to listen. Our paths will probably cross again.

  14. Barbara Roberts October 4, 2016 at 2:30 am #

    Thanks Music Student. Bless you 🙂