In the biblical book of Genesis, God expels the first two human beings from the Garden of Eden after Eve entices Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. God “curses” Eve for her misdeed, using ominous words that seem to doom her to live subordinately to Adam. In the phrasing of the historic King James Version familiar to many Protestant readers, God says, “Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”
This phrase was recently altered in the English Standard Version translation of the Bible—which is produced by a committee of prominent theologians and typically used by evangelicals—so that the intent of the “curse” seems different. Whereas the first half of that sentence formerly read “Your desire shall be for your husband,” it now reads, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband.” It appears to suggest that women naturally oppose their husbands’ desires, and thus are responsible for marital conflict. While many major Bible translations are regularly updated, this alteration isn’t as inconsequential as it may seem: Translations like this have the potential to invisibly shape evangelicals’ thinking about women’s role in marriage.
The text as other major translations have it—and as the ESV originally did—acknowledges female desire, a relatively progressive move given the ancient context. But the new translation erases the allusion to Eve’s natural want for physical and emotional intimacy and replaces it with anticipation of marital strife. This matters because for most evangelical readers, the Bible translation they use represents divinely inspired scripture. Because the “curse” supposedly applies to all women, the new translation may lead readers to believe the Bible says God cursed women with the desire to resist their husbands’ wishes.
This change, which has been controversial in some evangelical circles, is especially troubling because it could influence the faithful without their knowledge. Bible translation is inevitably shaped by theology: For instance, some conservative Christians resist gender-neutral translations, preferring, for example, that their Bible text refer to “man” instead of “humanity.” But whereas a Bible translation’s use of gendered language is clearly visible to the reader, other changes that reflect translators’ theology, like this one, are rendered more subtly.
The translation hinges on a single Hebrew preposition: ‘el. Virtually no other major translation takes this word to mean “contrary to,” as the ESV now does. Joel Baden of Yale University, who teaches the Hebrew Bible, called the new translation “a stumper” in an email. Oxford University’s Jan Joosten, also a Hebrew Bible scholar, concurred: “The Hebrew preposition ‘el means ‘toward’ and not ‘contrary to’—everyone agrees on that,” he told me. Not only do many scholars agree that the ESV translation committee has made a startling choice, but the evangelical blogosphere has also been buzzing with discussion of the revision. Many of those weighing in are pastors or seminary professors. Scott McKnight, a New Testament scholar at the evangelical Baptist Northern Seminary, wrote a blog post calling the translation “not only mistaken but potentially dangerously wrong.” The blogger Amy Gannett wondered “if some in Christian circles believe that my sin nature as a woman is hard-wired to be contrary to men.”
Some evangelicals have also questioned the timing of the new translation, including McKnight, who called it “profoundly unwise.” There are hundreds of contemporary translations of the Bible. Many widely read translations, such as the New International Version and New American Bible, are periodically re-issued in updated editions that reflect the latest scholarship. Likewise, the ESV was quietly updated in 2007 and 2011 after having first been published in 2001. But at the same time it announced its new translation of the curse, the ESV publisher Crossway revealed that after 17 years of occasional updates, its latest edition would no longer see revisions, leaving the rewrite as the permanent text.
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