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The ESV and Genesis 3 & 4: Nothing New Under the Sun?

The ESV and Genesis 3 & 4: Nothing New Under the Sun?

As you, dear reader, may be already aware, the people over at Crossway have created what they’re calling the ESV Permanent Text. This is a static version of the ESV that will be the final form of the ESV text. The Masoretic ESV, if you will. A list of changes included in this Permanent Text was released, and with this list came howls of protest from the Internet. (It may be worth noting that many of the Permanent Text changes are helpful and uncontroversial.) The commotion has almost exclusively been directed at two changes in Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7. In as much as many have undertaken to set forth an account of this matter, O gentle reader, the following is my attempt to summarize the situation and provide a few feeble answers to potential questions that you may have. Ultimately, my goal is to demonstrate that this change is not a departure from the ESV's course.

“Ok, so what’s the deal with Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7?”

The change in question is this: The original ESV rendering of 3:16 was “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you,” and the PT rendering is now, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you” [emphasis added]. A similar change occurred in 4:7; the original ESV rendering, “Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it,” has been changed to “Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” The change in both verses involves how the preposition אֵל is translated. Some folks are perplexed by the insertion of “contrary to” in both verses, so I’m going to attempt to explain the basic issues at hand.

These two verses are notoriously difficult to translate. They both involve the unusual term תְּשׁוּקָה, the rarity of which, according to Gordon Wenham, “makes certainty impossible” (“Genesis 1–15,” Word Biblical Commentary, 1987, p. 82). Additionally, early 19th century German Old Testament scholar Otto Procksch identified Genesis 4:7 as “the most obscure verse of the chapter, even the most obscure of Genesis” (“Die Genesis,” 1913, p. 46). Thus, we shouldn’t be in the least bit surprised that these verses are difficult to render into English. This is not a simple matter than can be resolved by saying, “Well, אֵל does/doesn’t mean ‘contrary to’!” and leaving it at that.

The heart of the matter seems to lie in how one relates these two verses. They employ identical terminology (desire/ruling) and have a parallel syntax. Gerhard von Rad recognized this similarity, but seems to reject any significant conceptual continuity between the two (“Genesis,” The Old Testament Library, 1972, p. 105), interpreting the desire of the woman as “a profound desire for the main in whom she…still does not does find fulfillment and rest…, but rather humiliating domination” (Von Rad, 93). Many commentators have understood the desire here either as some sort of deep-seated attraction, thus von Rad, or as a sexual desire. This interpretation is perhaps driven in part by the appearance of this same term “desire” in Song of Songs 7:10, but given the great difference between the context in Genesis and the context in the Song, the parallel in Genesis 4:7 seems a much surer guide for our understanding of this desire.

How, then, does this desire function in Genesis 4:7? Wenham summarizes in this way: “Here then sin is personified as a demon crouching like a wild beast on Cain’s doorstep” (Wenham, 106). God’s warning to Cain in 4:7 is that sin desires to rule over him, but Cain must instead master sin. I do not get the impression that this interpretation is controversial. Rather, the issue is this: can we understand the desire of the woman in 3:16 as hostile to the main in the same way as Sin’s desire to rule Cain is understood as hostile? 

Wenham seems to cautiously affirm this (Wenham, 82), as does Jack Collins (“Genesis 1–4: A linguistic, literary, and theological commentary,” 160); this interpretation sees continuity between the contexts of Genesis 3 and Genesis 4. Given the exact parallels between these two verses, I think this is warranted. Collins concludes, “In Genesis 4:7 it is plain that ‘desire for’ someone is ‘desire to master’ that person (hence ESV margin, ‘against’), while the ‘ruling’ is not a punishment but the necessary remedy. If we apply this to 3:16, we conclude that God describes a condition of human marriages that is all too familiar, namely, competition for control. The proper remedy is a return to the creational pattern of the man’s leadership—loving, not dominating” (Collins, 160). Thus, gender conflict is a baked-in part of the post-Fall curse; men and women struggle with each other, just as Cain struggles against sin.

But now we’re getting too far afield. Dear reader, you may be exclaiming to yourself, “I thought this was about translation, not interpretation! Can’t you just tell me what the words mean?” You are correct, this is a translational issue! However, as you can hopefully see, one’s understanding of the two contexts in Genesis 3 and 4, as well as whether or not one sees hostility involved in both, has a great impact upon how one translates Gen 3:16 and 4:7; hostility, or the lack thereof, changes the dynamic. The ESV seems to read these contexts as parallel, and so the notion of hostility crops up in both. I happen to agree with this assessment, but hopefully I do not protest too much; I am trying to demonstrate the logic that might lie behind the change.

“But reading the context of one verse into another? Isn’t that eisegesis?”

In a word, no. The parallelism here makes reading these two verses together nigh unavoidable. If anything, I think I would need someone to convince me why they should *not* be read in tandem. Is that a surefire, open-and-shut case? No, but the reasons for maintaining the parallelism here are not inconsiderable.

“That’s all well and good, but why the change to this contrary stuff? Why change at all?”

Well, I’d argue that the ESV has not actually changed. The connotation of “against” has, to my knowledge, always been included via footnote in the ESV text. I just looked at an ESV Study Bible from 2008 and it includes the “against” footnote for that preposition as well as the more detailed study notes explaining a similar understanding of the verse to what I outlined above. You’re free to disagree with the interpretation, of course, but to say that the ESV is all of a sudden introducing something new is not quite accurate. The “against” connotation has simply been included in the main text in the form of “contrary to” instead of being relegated to a footnote. In my mind, “contrary to” fits both contexts and expresses what appears to be the intention of the text, while highlighting the parallelism between the two verses. In short, the ESV Permanent Text is, in my view, only making explicit a connotation that was previously implicit. This change appears to be in line with how the ESV understood the passage all along. Personally, I would have gone with “against,” like in the original footnote, instead of “contrary to,” but that’s just me; I’m not a Semitics expert by any stretch of the imagination.

“But I thought the ESV was a literal translation! This doesn’t seem very literal to me.”

The word literal requires nuance. We determine what a word means based on its usage in context. Words don’t have meaning in a vacuum. If Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 are read in parallel, then the preposition in question means “against” or perhaps “contrary to.” This is not un-literal in my view; this rendering brings out a connotation that would otherwise be somewhat ambiguous. It sounds a bit wonky in English, but we’re trying to understand some weird Hebrew, so I think that’s ok. I don’t think this is a move towards any sort of insidious “dynamic equivalence.”

In conclusion, I must admit, O longsuffering reader, that my own mind has oscillated on this issue. My first reaction to some of the internet buzz was largely ambivalent, but then I thought about the matter some more and my reaction became much more negative (the intemperance of the Internet may be partially to blame!). Now, I regard the change as justifiable. I believe that the changes that appear in the ESV Permanent Text are consistent with their history. Does that mean we ought not to question the rendering? Of course not! Question away. But I’ve seen some folks decrying the change as sinful or somehow damaging to God’s Word. I don’t think this is the case. I suspect that some of the backlash *might* (and that’s a very speculative “might”) be an outgrowth of the Eternal Subordination issue, which is sometimes seen as a theological enshrinement of a particular type of complementarianism. Some might view this change in the ESV as a linguistic enshrinement of the same. I’ll not discuss that matter here, since I’ve already spilled too much digital ink. Others take issue with the concept of the Permanent Text as a whole. Again, I’ll not address that matter here, and again, everyone is free to disagree, or refrain from buying a new ESV, or whatever other course of action one deems necessary. Was the change in translation necessary? Perhaps not. Is it consistent? Yes. This issue has been more than a bit overblown. Although I have most certainly overlooked a myriad of considerations in this matter, I hope my summary has been helpful and somewhat accurate.

To sum up, the changes to Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 in the ESV Permanent Text reflect one accepted understanding of the relationship between those two passages; this understanding has been latent in the ESV text from the outset. There is nothing new under the sun.

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