The New Stealth Translation: ESV

The word is now out that Crossway has said the ESV is now as unchangeable as the law of the Medes and Persians and thus the publisher/translators have stood back in admiration of their creation and said, “This is very good.” The NIV 1984 will not be revised, but it has plenty of successors — the TNIV and the NIV 2011.

Confession time: when I teach or preach I use the translation used most in that audience, which means I most often use the NIV 2011. I like the NRSV and the TNIV the most, though the CEB and NIV 2011 are very reliable translations too.  I have a post on the politics of translation, in which I say this with only a bit of my tongue in my cheek:

The NIV 2011 is the Bible of conservative evangelicals.
The NLT is the Bible of conservative evangelicals.
The TNIV is the Bible of egalitarian evangelicals.
The ESV is the Bible of complementarian conservative evangelicals.
The NASB is the Bible of conservative evangelical serious Bible students.
The NRSV is the Bible of Protestant mainliners.
The RSV is the Bible of aged Protestant mainliners.
The CEB is the Bible of Protestant mainliners.
The KJV … fill in the blank yourself.
The Message is the Bible of those who are tired of the politics (and like something fresh).

If the new Crossway-ESV announcement means they will be composing an entirely new translation in the future and this Permanent ESV will become the final edition of the ESV (=ESV2016), fine. But if they think their work is over, they are theoretically deeply mistaken. Language changes and that means this translation will become increasingly dated. Maybe Crossway will explain. As it is, there’s too big of a gap. Here are their words:

Beginning in the summer of 2016, the text of the ESV Bible will remain unchanged in all future editions printed and published by Crossway—in much the same way that the King James Version (KJV) has remained unchanged ever since the final KJV text was established almost 250 years ago (in 1769). This decision was made unanimously by the Crossway Board of Directors and the ESV Translation Oversight Committee. All future Crossway editions of the ESV, therefore, will contain the Permanent Text of the ESV Bible—unchanged throughout the life of the copyright, in perpetuity.

The creation of the ESV Permanent Text represents the culmination of more than seventeen years of comprehensive work by the Translation Oversight Committee, as authorized and initiated by the Crossway Board in 1998. (For additional information about the ESV Bible translation, read more about the translation philosophy). The decision now to create the Permanent Text of the ESV was made with equally great care—so that people who love the ESV Bible can have full confidence in the ESV, knowing that it will continue to be published as is, without being changed, for the rest of their lives, and for generations to come.

This sounds to me that they’ve got a Medes and Persians final translation. Perhaps all they are saying is that this translation will now serve us until we are in need of another. I’ll now move on in light of these considerations.

First problem is that in this final revision they have sneaked in a translation that is not only mistaken but potentially dangerously wrong. It is too bad they chose to do this just before the “Permanent Text” announcement. This sort of move, had it been done 3 revisions ago, could have been assessed publicly over time. Instead, it suddenly becomes Permanent. It is profoundly unwise for a translation to alter this kind of text to this kind of reading without public discussion of it, and then to pronounce it Permanent. [Was there a previous edition with this as a translation variant at 3:16? It is not in the electronic version I use.]

I refer to Genesis 3:16’s use of “contrary to” for the Hebrew el. In the Permanent ESV we have “contrary to” while in the Protestant-like Semper Reformanda ESV we had “for” with “and.”

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A brief discussion. First, 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 (until heaven and maybe then too). Women will need to be ruled over by their men (and many think this is true both about home and society, though not all) because women, evidently, acted out of order when Eve did what she did.

The “desire” of the woman in Genesis 3:16 is understood, as the result of the fall and God’s curse on them, to be a desire to rule or dominate. They want to usurp the man’s authority. The man’s task — as part of God’s prescriptive design — is to rule, guide, and lead the woman. I do hear at times softer versions: women desire to be with men and it is the man’s job to mentor and rule women. Either in the harder or softer form, this is God’s design for women and for men during at least the Fall period of human history. Hierarchy of some sort and patriarchy of some sort are designed by God for fallen human beings.

This translation turns women and men into contrarians by divine design. The fall means women are to submit to men and men are to rule women, but women will resist the rule. This has moved from subordinationism to female resistance to subordinationism.

In my circles, which do not generally affirm the prescriptive view, there is found instead a descriptive view of fallenness: women and men as sinners will at times be in a war of wills. The woman will desire the man and the man will want to rule — suggesting then that “desire” might have some sense of desire to rule the man. In other words, for the descriptive view this is not a divine command, this is not divine order, but instead a sad prediction of what life will be like now that humans — males and females — have chosen to be gods and goddesses rather than servants of God.

Which means Gen 3:16 describes how fallen humans may/will behave at times. This is not what God wants; but this is what will happen. It is not a necessity (and doesn’t history absolutely prove that not all men and women fight?). It is not God’s design.

Already in the Old Testament there is evidence that there is a better way: truly loving relationships are reciprocal relations of desire for one another, not a war of wills. Not a desire-rule but desire-desire. I turn to an excellent study of this by Sam Powells, but we differ in some ways.

The ESV here is mistaken in over translating Genesis 3:16 and the mistake is the assumption emerges from the belief that this is prescription and not description. As description it needs some nuancing; as prescription it turns the male against the female, the wife against the husband, and it means the male partner will rule by God’s design.

Exegesis can settle this, and if this exegesis is right, the ESV must at least consider an immediate change in its translation. When I first heard this my first response was, “Why would the ESV do this? Why would they alter this verse in this way and then say it is Permanent?” The “Whys” crop up because of this sort of discussion:

Notice this — from anyone but a feminist-leaning egalitarian:

The question is whether the preposition ‘el ever has the meaning “contrary to”, as the ESV revision committee, following the lead of Susan Foh, claims.

The simple answer is no. If you wish to do a very technical study, you may look at Bruce Waltke and M. O’Conner, Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns) 1990. 11.2.2. A helpful summary of that massive work is the work by Bill T. Arnold and John H. Choi (A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2003). Hebrew prepositions generally have a primary spatial meaning, with metaphorical secondary meaning. The primary spatial meaning is terminative (to, unto, towards).

I know, very technical. Let me break it down. The preposition ‘el means to, unto, or towards. It is a preposition indicating the termination of movement. That is it’s primary meaning. If I leave my office and walk to my house, I would use the preposition ‘el. Towards. Most commonly, it is used with the verb “to say” to indicate to whom the words are said. In the phrase, “And God said unto Moses”, the preposition ‘el would be used. God designed his words to terminate in the ears of Moses. I hope this makes sense….

To summarize this rather complicated  survey, the basic meaning of the word is to, or towards. Sometimes, if the context and the verb used are hostile, “against” would be a proper meaning. But this does not mean that we can pick and choose whatever meaning we want. “Contrary to”, in the context of Genesis 3:16 or 4:7, cannot be justified. Only if we make the assumption that the word “longing” indicates hostility can we make this phrase mean “against her husband”.

There is almost certainly here a sense of the will of one and the will of the other creating some tensions; instead of beautiful harmony there is tension. The woman will desire her man and the man will want to dominate his woman. This is a prediction.

This tension is resolved in the Old Testament in the book many complementarians seem to avoid when talking about these matters, and this text a beautiful harmony is restored in that the desire of the one for the other is reciprocated with desire back for the other:

I belong to my beloved, and his desire is for me (Song 7:10).

If I read the ESV aright, there is prescription here: women are at war with their men; men are to rule their wives. It is not description but prescription.

If I read the Bible aright, Song of Songs 7:10 proves that a prescriptive theory of Gen 3:16 is a serious misreading of the Hebrew. Instead of a tragedy, we’ve got divine design. But if Song 7:10 proves that there is another way, then a descriptive reading offers the readers of Gen 3:16 not divine design but a sad reality that is both a reminder of sinfulness and a challenge to reconcile and live a life of loving sacrifice for one another.

Just like Song of Solomon 7:10.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.