Recently, Crossway, the publisher of the English Standard Version (ESV), announced that beginning with a small revision of the present translation, the text of the ESV will remain unchanged in all future printing of this popular Bible. The following is an excerpt from the announcement:
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.
According to Crossway, the changes are minimal since only 52 words are affected. This is how Crossway explains the changes:
The number of changes in the new ESV Permanent Text is limited to 52 words (out of more than 775,000 total words in ESV Bible) found in 29 verses (out of more than 31,000 verses in the ESV). The guiding principle for creating the ESV Permanent Text was to make only a very limited number of final changes to the ESV text, where such changes represented a substantial improvement in the precision, accuracy, and understanding of the ESV.
There are 29 verses that were changed; 18 in the Old Testament and 11 in the New Testament. I checked all Old Testament verses changed in the ESV with the Hebrew text. I concluded that most of the changes are valid. These changes were made in order to bring these 18 verses to reflect what the original text actually says.
I have, however, one minor and two major problems with three changes in the ESV. I will explain the three problems beginning with what I consider to be a minor problem. The first problem is found in Micah 4:3.
The original text read as follows: “He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations far away.”
The permanent text will read as follows: “He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide disputes for strong nations far away.” In the permanent text, the translators added the word disputes which is not in the Hebrew text. This is how two translations deal with Micah 4:3:
NRSV: “He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away.”
NIV: “He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide.” The Permanent ESV text is following the approach of the NIV by explaining the meaning of “decide.”
My biggest problem is with the proposed ESV Permanent Text translation of Genesis 3:16. The original text read as follows: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
The Permanent Text will read as follows: “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”
Here the Permanent Text changed the word “for” and replaced it with the expression “contrary to,” thus creating a conflict between the husband and the wife. The dictionary defines “contrary” as “opposing in essence, purpose, or aim.” The word carries the idea of being opposite to one’s position or direction.
There are several problems with this revision in the ESV. First, is the inconsistency of the translators in translating the Hebrew preposition ’el. According to BDB, אֶל (’el) is a “preposition denoting motion to or direction towards.” The preposition is used to denote “motion to or unto a person or place.” According to HALOT, the preposition ’el is “used with actions and events directed towards” something or someone as in “to speak,” “to look,” “to hear.” The preposition ’el is used 3867 times in the Hebrew Bible and, to my knowledge, never with the meaning “contrary to.”
Here is how the original text of the ESV translated the preposition ’el in the first few verses of Genesis:
Genesis 1:9: “into (’el) one place.”
Genesis 2:19: “to (’el) the man.”
Genesis 2:22: “ to (’el) the man.”
Genesis 3:1: “ to (’el) the woman.”
Genesis 3:2: “to (’el) the serpent.”
Genesis 3:4: “to (’el) the woman.”
Genesis 3:9: “to (’el) the man.”
Genesis 3:14: “ to (’el) the serpent.”
Genesis 3:16: “to (’el) the woman.”
Genesis 3:16: “for (’el) your husband.” (Original ESV translation)
Genesis 3:16: “contrary to (’el) your husband.” (Permanent Text)
The expression “contrary to” appears in seven verses in the ESV. All the seven verses where the expression “contrary to” appears, the Hebrew word used to translate “contrary to” is קֶרִי (qerî) but never the preposition ’el.
Second, the preposition ’el is used in Genesis 3:16 with the word תּשׁוּקָה (teshûqâ), a word used three times in the Old Testament (Gen 3:16; 4:7; Song 7:10). There is much controversy about the meaning of the word teshûqâ in Genesis 3:16. Most translations translate the word as “desire,” a word that indicates sexual desire. Others believe that the word means “turning,” with the idea that the woman is turning from God and turning to her husband. Others translate the word as “urge,” that is, the woman’s urge for independence.
The problem in translating the word teshûqâ into English reflects the difficulty translators have in understanding the intent of the author in his use of the word. I will not deal with this problem at this time because of the complexity of the issue. A proper discussion of this word would require a long study on the different ways the word has been translated in the past.
It is evident that the translators of the ESV believe that the word teshûqâ involves sexual desire. Twice in the Hebrew Bible the word תּשׁוּקָה (teshûqâ) implies sexual desire. In Genesis 3:16 the word teshûqâ refers to the sexual desire of the woman for the man. In Song of Songs 7:10 the word refers to the sexual desire of the man for the woman. Some evangelicals see the sexual desire of the woman in Genesis 3:16 in the context of sin and judgment. Victor Hamilton wrote:
There are two differences between the Gen passage (Gen 3:16) and that in the Song of Solomon. In the former the reference is to the wife’s desire for her husband. In the latter it is the bridegroom’s desire for the bride. Second, in the Gen passage the reference to ‘desire’ is in a context of sin and judgment. In the latter, the reference is in a context of joy and love (Hamilton: 1980: 2:913).
By translating the preposition ’el in Genesis 3:16 as “contrary to,” the ESV interjects a radical tension in the relationship between man and woman. The expression “contrary to” communicates the idea that everything the woman desires is contrary to what the man desires. If the word “desire” in the ESV is to be understood as sexual desire, then the Permanent Text of the ESV “communicates the thought that only the woman desires to be with man—sexually or otherwise—and that man has no real need or desire to be with woman” (Schmidt 2000:87).
It is no secret that many Christians use Genesis 3:16 as a proof-text to defend and justify the subordination of women. The revision proposed by the ESV, in a sense, requires a woman to be submissive to an all-wise man, since her desire is contrary to man’s desire. This means that only the man’s desire is correct and the woman must follow his desire because all her desires are “contrary to” her husband’s desire.
The third problem I have with the Permanent Text is found in the ESV’s revision of Genesis 4:7. The unrevised text says: “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
The permanent text will read as follows: “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” The reason for the change in the Permanent Text, I surmise, is for the sake of consistency. Since the words ’el and teshûqâ appear in Genesis 4:7, the translator had to be consistent and translate the two Hebrew words in the same way the two words were translated in Genesis 3:16.
But, what does the revised text say? “Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” How is sin’s desire “contrary to you?” The Hebrew text of Genesis 4:7 is very difficult; the ESV’s revision complicates the interpretation of this obscure text. Most scholars believe that the word teshûqâ in Genesis 4:7 means “urge.” Sin has a strong desire to dominate Cain but he cannot allow sin to become his master. Westermann proposes the following translation: “Sin is there lying in wait at the door, it is greedy for you, but you must muster it” (Westermann 1984:281).
One problem with a permanent text like Crossway proposes for the ESV is that language changes with time and old words need to be explained to a new generation of readers. Very few people today would know the meaning of obsolete words in the KJV, words such as “ague” (Lev 26:16), “amerce” (Deut 22:19), “cockatrice” (Isa 11:8), “habergeon” (Exod 28:32), “latchet” (Isa 5:27), “mufflers” (not of cars, Isa 3:19), “nitre” (Pro 25:20), “sackbut” (Dan 3:15) and many others.
A few years from now, when a new generation of scholars write commentaries based on the Permanent Text of the ESV, they will have to explain to their readers words that have become obsolete and have changed their meaning. Even now I am asking myself: what is the meaning of Genesis 4:7 in the Permanent Text of the ESV?
Honestly, I cannot recommend the ESV to my students. These and many other texts are problematic and reveal an ideology that dictates how the text must be translated.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Victor P. Hamilton, “shwq,” Theological Workbook of the Old Testament, ed. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr, and Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980): 2:913.
Alvin J. Schmidt, Veiled and Silenced: How Culture Shaped Sexist Theology. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2000
Claus Westermann, Genesis 1-11: A Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984.