Five quick points on the ESV’s rendering of Genesis 3:16

This is not the definitive post on the translation of Genesis 3:16. But in light of controversy surrounding recent changes in the ESV, I thought I’d offer some reflections on the interpretation of this text. I am particularly interested to interact with some of the items in Scot McKnight‘s post on the topic. So here we go.

But first, here is the change that was made:

Permanent Text of Gen. 3:16 Previous Text of Gen. 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.

1. On Translation Theory

All translation is interpretation. No matter what translation philosophy one pursues (essentially literal/formal equivalence or dynamic equivalence), one is dealing with an interpretation philosophy. What distinguishes these approaches is not that one translates and the other interprets. The difference (in part) is that one exhibits a tendency toward more narrow interpretation (dynamic equivalence) while the other tends to leave more interpretive options open (essentially literal/formal equivalence).

For example, when the NASB interprets DIKAOSUNE THEOU as “the righteousness of God,” it yields an English expression that has a wide semantic range (e.g., righteousness from God, God’s own righteousness, etc.). When the NIV 1984 renders the same phrase with “righteousness from God,” it yields an English expression with a narrower semantic range. Both translations are interpreting, but the NIV 1984 is giving a more narrow interpretation than the NASB. That tendency is characteristic of dynamic equivalence translations. In contrast, more literal translations of the Bible tend to favor renderings with a broad semantic range.

But it should be noted, that these are just tendencies not absolute rules. Sometimes dynamic equivalence translations offer renderings that go against the normal tendency. For example, the NIV 2011 in many ways moved toward more essentially literal renderings of key expressions. In Romans 1:16, “righteousness from God” has become “righteousness of God.” Also, the rendering of SARX (which appeared as “sinful nature” in NIV 1984) has become “flesh” in NIV 2011. There are other examples of this, but you get the point. A translation philosophy establishes a tendency or preference in translation, not an absolute rule. Sometimes dynamic equivalence translations adopt essentially literal renderings, and sometimes essentially literal translations offer more dynamic renderings.

There are countless examples of this. And it’s no big deal… unless of course the text is of particular theological consequence and controversy. In that case, what is normally no big deal in translation can get distorted by ideological concerns. I think that is what has happened with the ESV’s new rendering of Genesis 3:16. They seem to have adopted a more narrow translation of Genesis 3:16 in the permanent text edition, and this has surprised some observers. My simple point is that there is no reason to be surprised or perplexed by this. This happens a lot in all translations including the ESV, and there is nothing nefarious about it.

2. On “Stealth” Translations

Scot McKnight suggests that the new rendering is a “stealth translation” that has been “sneaked” into the text of the ESV for ideological reasons. This doesn’t seem like a very compelling argument to me. The publisher is not being “stealth” or sneaky when they post a press release on their website announcing the changes. Also, the new interpretation already appeared in previous editions in the form of a marginal note. That means that at least some of the translators were already favoring this interpretation in previous editions. That the committee became persuaded of the interpretation in the marginal note and then moved it into the text is relatively unremarkable as far as translation goes, and in this case was anything but “stealth.”

It is worth pointing out that other translations have made similar moves in even more controversial gender texts. The TNIV 2002 translated 1 Timothy 2:12 as “have authority.” But without explanation the TNIV 2005 rendered the same expression with “assume authority” and relegated alternate translations to a marginal note. When the NIV 2011 came out, it followed the latest revision of the TNIV and rendered the same expression with “assume authority,” but it provided no alternate translations in the marginal note. So the original interpretation of NIV 1984 “have authority” went from main text to marginal note to nowhere. This stuff happens in translation. We can debate the accuracy of the translation when such things do happen, but I have learned that we need not attribute nefarious motives to the translators when they do.

3. On Claims of Inaccurate Translation

Scot McKnight says that the ESV has adopted a translation that is “not only mistaken but potentially dangerously wrong.” This critique seems overwrought to me. The change from “for” to “contrary to” is exegetically justifiable. The underlying term is the Hebrew preposition EL. The standard lexicon of biblical Hebrew (HALOT) includes the gloss “against” as one of its meanings for this preposition, and “against” is a synonym of “contrary to” (see number 5). Also, the preposition EL is translated as “against” in a number of different texts in a number of different versions. Just to use one example from the near context:

Genesis 4:8 (NASB) “And Cain told Abel his brother. And it came about when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.”

The preposition is rendered “against” also in the ESV, NRSV, KJV, and RSV. In short, “contrary to” or “against” are within the semantic range of this term. And there is a reasonable case to be made that it means that in this particular use of the term.

For what it is worth, I favor more literal approaches to translation—the ones that leave more interpretive options open. I favor that approach especially in cases where inner-biblical resonances are lost because of dynamic translations and in texts where the precise meaning is a matter of significant dispute. So in this case, I prefer the translation “for” rather than “contrary to,” even though I agree with the ESV’s interpretation. So I view the ESV’s translation as an entirely reasonable rendering, even though it is not the one I would have chosen.

4. On the Meaning of “Prescriptive”

Scot McKnight says this about the ESV’s new rendering vis a vis complementarianism:

“For everyone I’ve discussed this with in the ESV complementarian camp, these verses are prescriptive. Which means this is God’s curse on all women for all time.”

There is a non-sequitur between the first and second sentence. Scot seems to be confusing permanence with prescription. But “God’s curse on all women for all time” is not a definition of “prescriptive.” Prescriptive means something that is commanded for people to do in obedience to God. God’s own curse does not fall into that category. For example, pain in child-bearing is a part of God’s curse, but we would in no sense construe that as prescriptive—as in “thou shalt not have ease in childbirth.”

Likewise, the man’s domination of the woman is a curse but it is not commanded of him. The interpretive issues at stake here are complex, so let me cut to the chase. I agree with Ray Ortlund’s interpretation which views the man’s “rule” not as the benevolent, self-sacrificial headship of Genesis 2 but as “ungodly domination” on the part of the man (RBMW, p. 109 ). In short, the man’s rule is sinfully motivated. God doesn’t prescribe or command anyone to sin. So the husband’s rule in this sense is anything but prescriptive. It describes the sad state of affairs that afflicts the relationship of husband and wife because of the man’s sin. This isn’t the nullification of the headship principle; it’s the sinful distortion of it. McKnight suggests that the complementarian view turns men and women into “contrarians by divine design.” Nothing could be further from the truth. That is not what this text is teaching, and it is not the complementarian view.

5. On the Gender Issue

I happen to agree with Susan Foh’s interpretation of “desire,” which defines the term in connection with its appearance in Genesis 4:8. I think it is a compelling connection and of course would be consistent with the new ESV interpretation. Having said that, neither complementarianism nor egalitarianism stands or falls on the interpretation of this single verse. One can be an egalitarian and agree with the Foh interpretation of “desire.” One can be complementarian and believe that “desire” should be defined in connection with Song of Songs 7:10 (7:11 MT). The interpretation of this verse is a piece of the puzzle, not the whole puzzle.

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