The New Stealth Translation: ESV

The New Stealth Translation: ESV September 12, 2016

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.”

Screen Shot 2016-09-09 at 12.51.19 PM

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.

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  • Iain Lovejoy

    (Before reading please see added note at the bottom. )
    I do not think they are “mistaken” at all. Another example I have heard about in the second half of John 5:29: the ESV reads: “… those who exercised faith alone, to the resurrection of life, and those who did not rely on faith alone, to the resurrection of judgment.”
    The actual gospel reads (with little variation in actual translations):
    “…those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have practiced evil to the resurrection of judgment.”
    This is at best commentary disguised as translation, at worst blatant re-writing of the text. Heaven knows how many more examples there are of this (these are just those I happened to have seen discussed).
    Edit: It has been pointed out that the above was a little unclear. When I say I don’t think they were mistaken I don’t mean I think them right but that it wasn’t a “mistake”: I think they have in fact deliberately re-written the text.
    Further edit (this is embarrassing):
    Annoyingly, I think I’ve been had (or got my versions muddled, I don’t know). For what it’s worth, here’s the link:
    My apologies to the authors of the ESV.
    (They’ve still made a complete mess of the Genesis passage, though…)

  • GeeJohn

    This helps me understand the development of the concept of inerrancy.

  • D. Johnston

    Your example does not make sense. The Gospel of John is written in Greek while Genesis is in Hebrew. The blog post makes it clear that this discussion is about the proper translation of the Hebrew preposition. Obviously the ESV committee has made a translation decision based on prior ideological commitments concerning gender.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    I am not quarreling with the blog’s conclusions as to the meaning of the [Genesis] (edit) passage, however the blog post assumes that the translation is a genuine if erroneous attempt to translate the Hebrew. Based on the authors’ approach to “translation” generally as demonstrated by their deliberate re-write of the John passage I would maintain that the “error” in this other case as highlighted in the blog is in anything but good faith.

  • scotmcknight

    Iain, I’m not so sure folks understood that as what you meant in the original post. To say you don’t think they are mistaken sure sounded to me like you were coming into the circle in their defense.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    Oops. Quite the opposite, as you can see. I will clarify.

  • scotmcknight


  • Peter Schellhase

    The ESV online reads “those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” Is this a new change you’re quoting?

  • Zac Dilone

    I don’t see that translation of John 5 in the ESV. Are you sure you “heard about” it correctly?

  • Alison Swihart

    I would say that “all men and women fight” but not “all men and women fight all the time.” It never occurred to me that it was anything other than descriptive.

  • Iain Lovejoy
  • The latest change surely does look suspect, purely as a matter of translation principles. But that aside, the timing of the change with the choice to make the changes permanent going forward is hard to see as anything but an attempt to put as many guns to the ready as possible for complimentarianism’s last stand, however long it lasts.

    I hope such is not the case, but it is hard to see it being otherwise. It’s a shame.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    Annoyingly, I think I’ve been had (or got my versions muddled, I don’t know). For what it’s worth, here’s the link:

  • Peter Schellhase

    Ah, the blogger there made a confusing joke about the “Evangelical Standard Version”—it was supposed to be ironic parody of some sort.

  • mallen717

    ESV 2021: The More Permanent Edition.

  • Dallas McKinley

    Perhaps I’m missing something in the linguistic discussion here but… it appears to me that neither translation changes anything with regards to prescription and description. Why would you assume it? Could it be that you are reading into the text based on your experiences with another group? I see no extra support for either view based on either reading of Genesis 3:16.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    My bad.

  • scotmcknight

    Read the scholarship from the complementarian crowd who react to the descriptive theory.

  • scotmcknight

    Dallas, this surprises because there is some serious discussion about descriptive vs. prescriptive on these verses.

    Odd, I added some comments to this and they disappeared:

    Those who see this as descriptive do not find headship/hierarchy until the Fall; the complementarians have thus sought to root headship in creation order itself and not simply part of the Fall-en order. So the “rule” of the man is by divine design.

  • Veronica Zundel

    That new translation is just horrible. Especially if you see it as a prescription for all time. Isn’t the redemption achieved by Jesus meant to reverse the effects of the Fall? If it does, then even if Genesis was prescriptive, in the Kingdom which has already begun, it would be reversed so that men and women are again equal, as in Genesis 1 (because ‘ezer’ never, ever, means a subordinate). To view it as both prescriptive and permanent is to say that the redemption wrought by Jesus doesn’t actually change anything, which is blasphemy.

    However anyone with an open mind would read Genesis 3 as descriptive, since if it were prescriptive, labour-saving devices for men’s labour would be unbiblical (‘in the sweat of your brow’ would have to be prescriptive too). These translators have made up their minds extra-biblically and then altered Scripture to make it fit.

  • Veronica Zundel

    IMO, Biblical inerrancy is a form of idolatry since it puts the Bible above the Spirit, displacing one member of the Trinity and replacing it with the Bible.

  • scotmcknight

    On the prescriptive view, from Heidelblog:

    Kevin McGrane
    September 12, 2016 @ 4:34 AM
    Surely this goes back to Susan Foh, who wrote in WTJ 7 (1974/75) 376-83:

    “Contrary to the usual interpretations of commentators, the desire of the woman in Genesis 3:16b does not make the wife (more) submissive to her husband so that he may rule over her. Her desire is to contend with him for leadership in their relationship. This desire is a result of and a just punishment for sin, but it is not God’s decretive will for the woman. Consequently, the man must actively seek to rule his wife.”

    What was Foh’s new interpretation in 1975 has 40 years later been embedded in the translation.

    This was taken up by Grudem, Ware, George W. Knight III, Schreiner, Ortland Jr and so many others.

    The ESV has tinkered with so many verses to push this line, and I see this strongly associated with the eternal subordination debate (because they have made it so – which is, to me, nothing but old-fashioned Arianism in its ontological subordinationism, and in its projection from the created order back into the godhead). Its sticky fingers are there a few verses earlier in Gen 3:6, which in the ESV suggests that Adam was at Eve’s side when she ate the forbidden fruit and didn’t exercise proper control over her – exploiting an ambiguity of the meaning ‘with’ in English translations that cannot be substantiated from the Hebrew. And then, the ESV translation of I Cor 11:1-16 is simply outrageous, chopping and changing between man and woman and husband and wife to suit a narrative being forced upon it: the translators’ eisegesis. I have noted several translations in the ESV that lean towards both Arianism and Docetism. It is interesting to note the parallels between the mistranslations of John 1:14 and Gen 3:6: “the only God, who is at the Father’s side” and “she also gave some to her husband who was with her”.

    Rebutting feminism is not well served by dubious exegetical arguments, issuance of Bible translations with heavy-handed and faulty tampering, and the projection of subordinationism into the theology of the godhead.

  • I agree with McKnight’s article, but the quote from John 5 here is meant to be facetious in the blogger’s article. That is not what the ESV says.

  • Dallas McKinley

    Hey Scot. Not sure I’ve understood your response here but I do see your discussion in the article and I realize it’s an issue which is discussed among Christians. Perhaps I didn’t communicate very clearly. Sorry if that’s the case. I’ve always seen this passage as a description of life under the curse. I’m not seeing any reason to change that with the updated rendering. Would this article , based on the translation change, have ever been written if there were not a group trying to use it to support a doctrine not agreed with? Does the translation itself actually warrant the critique or does it stem from the way a group is trying to use it? If the bigger problem is with the group, then perhaps the translation itself has not been tainted by a grievous error. I see it as a legitimate option among translation choices. See NET and NLT at Gen 3:16. You?

  • Jim West


  • scotmcknight

    See my McGrane citation in this thread… not sure where it will appear to you.

  • Donald Johnson

    The ESV: now even more untrustworthy on verses related to gender and sex.

  • Dallas McKinley

    Thanks – I agree completely concerning the translation choices for gyne in the ESV.

  • As a keen gardener and a sweaty bloke in general, I’m happy to that the text doesn’t prohibit labour-saving technologies!

  • PaulK

    Hi Iain, is it worth starting again on this comment – by either editing out your John 5 comment or deleting and reposting an edited version – because the John 5 comment is clearly incorrect and looks bad on you and bad on the ESV unless someone follows the thread through (which they shouldn’t have to really). You’re call. Of course. Just a suggestion.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    Already did, but at the bottom of the post. Have now put a note at the top, too.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    I know. I have added a retraction at the bottom. I have now also done so at the top.

  • Iain Lovejoy

    I know. This is very embarrassing.

  • Doug

    Essentially Sexist Version?

  • Chuck Reed

    It just seems to me that over the past 10-15 years various publishers of Bibles have made changes that bring their Bible more into the politically correct arena than the God correct one. Am I right or wrong…

  • Only insofar as the Fall is by divine design…

  • scotmcknight

    You are right.

  • Christiane Smith

    ‘Mulieris Dignitatem’ does not recognize the ‘prescription’ interpretation, but understands the text to be a ‘description’ of the result of the Fall.

    But those in ‘male-headship’ neo-Calvinism must now change the Bible to accommodate their new theology. Strange days.

  • Dw

    Perhaps it’s impossible to translate from the languages without imposing personal bias? This is precisely why C.S. Lewis pushed the necessity of reading “old books” as opposed to only contemporary, so that we read outside the biases of our age. It’s also why Luther stressed the necessity of having those trained in the “languages,” thus he distinguished between a preacher and a prophet. That said, if the matter is critical to our understanding, our Lord would not leave us hanging dependent on the correct interpretation of a single verse, but would provide a multitude of witnesses in Scripture to fully substantiate what we need to know—On the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact is to be confirmed. This principal needs to be applied to Genesis 3:16.

  • pam

    politics according to whom?

    whatever system of politics insists that God cursed women to be ruled, guided, led, and mentored by men, its days are numbered. aside from how silly, illogical, & impractical it is, it is simply not the direction anyone is going who has an eye for the welfare of community and business success, let alone what is morally right — except for complementarian power brokers who have much money, power, & personal significance to lose.

    if patriarchy is the litmus test of what it means to be “gospel-centered’, in-the-world-but-not-of-the-world, & a peculiar people…. if patriarchy is the hill to die on, the sooner it happens the better for everyone.

    i want my religion back.

  • Dw

    The repetitive NT instructions for wives to focus on childbearing and respect their husbands, and the corresponding instructions for husbands to work hard and love their wives, seem to substantiate a “descriptive” interpretation of Genesis 3:16; an interpretation that posits wives would have a tendency toward vanity and a desire for equality with their husbands, while husbands would have a tendency toward relation-less, narcissistic patriarchy. Contrast this with the original intent of “one body,” with Adam as the head. Consequently, the problem with Adam standing by while Woman ate the fruit, was not that Adam failed to rule her, but that he failed to show his body love by crushing the snake before Woman ate.

  • Damilola Makinde


  • I have to say that, even if I were to agree with their newest translation, I would find the timing of translation/declaration of permanence to be incredibly suspect. “Here’s the latest version oh and by the way it’s permanent, can’t be changed, kthxbai” immediately makes me think that they aren’t confident in their ability to defend the translation.