Scholars sometimes make mistakes because they are lacking understanding or adequate information. That is regrettable, but understandable. Scholars — or persons who claim to be scholars — may also err in order to promote a personal agenda. Worse than regrettable, that is a disservice to those who depend upon their work.

A recent case in point is a revision of the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible, a version favored by many conservative Christians who want a near literal translation that is easier to read than the King James Version. Translators of the ESV include arch-conservatives like Wayne Grudem, J. I. Packer, and other folks known to favor a so-called “complementarian” view of male-female relationships in which men and women are supposedly equal in value but have been assigned “complementary” roles in which women are expected to live in submission to men.

An engraving by Albrecht Dürer (German, Nuremberg 1471–1528). Metropolitan Museum of Art.

An engraving by Albrecht Dürer (German, Nuremberg 1471–1528). Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Adherents of the view often cite Genesis 3:16 in support of their view. It’s from the story of the so-called “fall,” when Adam and Eve (interpreted as literal characters) ate from a forbidden tree and fell under a divine curse. God’s curse on the woman, as translated in the NRSV, was “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” 

The verse clearly indicates that this is not an ideal situation: the writer believed that God had created the man and woman fully equal, but he lived in a culture where men routinely dominated women. The Garden of Eden story is an etiology that sought to explain why reality did not match the ideal. Because of Adam and Eve, women were doomed to have a strong “desire” for their husbands, even though it would lead to a painful experience in childbearing and a subordinate role.

The new version of the ESV translates the penultimate phrase as “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband.” This appears to be inexplicable, since the Hebrew preposition used (‘el) clearly means “to” or “towards.” It can rarely take on meanings like “at” or even “against” (after having moved up to something), but never in the sense of being opposed or contrary to.

Much of the discussion about the change has been about what seems to be assigning a blatant change in meaning to the preposition.

The change does result from a an unusual translation choice, but I suspect it is not the ‘el. Rather, the translators seem to be following the lead of the New English Translation (NET). Produced by the folks behind the website, the NET is a generally reliable translation, and one I recommend to my students, largely because it includes thousands of translation notes.

In Gen. 3:16, I believe the NET translators (who are also from the conservative end of the spectrum) missed the boat. They translate the last part of the verse as “You will want to control your husband, but he will dominate you.” In an explanatory note, the translators argue that the word teshukah, typically translated as “desire” or “longing” should be rendered as a desire to control. The word is used only three times in the Hebrew Bible. In the Song of Songs 7:11 it has the typical meaning: “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.” The word’s only other appearance is in Gen. 4:7, part of God’s warning to the recalcitrant Cain that “sin is lurking at the door, its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

The NET translators’ argument is that sin, metaphorically personified, had a desire to control Cain, so the word must carry an element of control in other contexts, too. Thus, the NET translators don’t change the meaning of the word for “towards,” but stretch the meaning of “desire” so that it means “desire to control.”

I suspect it is this argument, rather than an obviously unsupportable mis-translation of the preposition, that led the ESV’s male-dominant oriented translators to justify the translation “your desire shall be contrary to your husband.” The implication is that women are hard-wired to be antagonistic toward their husbands — but should be submissive to them anyway. The translation demeans women even more than the mistaken idea that God wants women to be eternally subordinate to male domination.

This translation not only twists the meaning of the words to suit the translators’ patriarchal belief system, but fails to reflect the text’s clear indication that conflict between the sexes and female submission is not the way God intended things to be. The author behind most of Genesis 2-4 sought to explain why a corrupt human society did not reflect God’s true desire for humankind — not to reinforce its degraded practices as God’s intent.


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