Inclusive Language and the Message of Isaiah

The use of gender-inclusive language in recent Bible translations reveals the difficulty in producing a work that will find universal acceptance among Christians. Gender-inclusive translations avoid the use of the masculine “he” when the intent of the original author was to include both men and women.

In an article which seeks to present the case for gender-inclusive translation, Mark L. Strauss wrote, “The real issue of gender-inclusive language is not about the role of men and women, but it is about translating the Word of God as accurately as possible. It is about rendering the meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek into the most precise English equivalents possible.”

However, the complexities of the Hebrew language makes it difficult to express the intent of the original writers when determining whether the context of their writing is inclusive or not. For instance, a report titled “An Evaluation of Gender Language in the 2011 Edition of the NIV Bible” published by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood states that “75% of inaccurate gender language translations from the TNIV are retained in the 2011 NIV.”

In an article published in Christianity Today titled “Do Inclusive-Language Bibles Distort Scripture?” Grant R. Osborne answered “No.” He wrote, “it is not the original terms but the meaning of the whole that is important, asking the question, ‘How would Isaiah or Paul say this today to get the meaning across?’”

One difficult issue in gender-inclusive Bible translations today is focused on whether the use of inclusive language changes the meaning of the text and misrepresents what the biblical author was trying to communicate to his audience.

I am not against the use of inclusive language, provided that the translation does not misrepresent the intent of the original text. Word-for-word translation is just not practical because one language does not automatically translate into another language.

A translation of the Bible should be clear and accurate. It should communicate in English precisely what the biblical author was trying to communicate to the primary audience. At times, a good translation may require a little liberty with the text in order to communicate the real message of the original text, but the original intent of the writer must not be changed.

One verse where some translations have chosen to use inclusive language is Isaiah 9:1. However, the use of inclusive language in Isaiah 9:1 has completely changed the original meaning of the text and fails to represent the intent of the message of the writer.

The proper understanding of Isaiah 9:1 requires a brief historical introduction.

When Ahaz became king of Judah in 735 B.C., the nations of the Ancient Near East were dealing with the menace posed by the Assyrian army and the policies of total conquest initiated by Tiglath-pileser III, king of Assyria.

The Northern Kingdom was not immune to the threat posed by Assyria. When Pekahiah, the son of Menahem, became king in 738, he continued his father’s policy of cooperation with Assyria. However, the burden of the tribute paid to Assyria convinced many Israelites that it was time for change. In 737 B.C., Pekahiah was assassinated by Pekah, who was the third man in Pekahiah’s war chariot. Pekah had the support of the anti-Assyrian faction in Israel and of those who advocated cooperation with Syria.

Pekah came to the throne of Israel in order to foment revolt against Assyria. Pekah, king of Israel, and Rezin, king of Syria, formed an alliance in order to resist Tiglath-pileser. Acting in partnership, Pekah and Rezin turned their efforts to the south, to Judah, hoping to increase the strength, proximity, and size of their coalition.

At first, Jotham and then later, his son Ahaz, king of Judah refused to join the alliance. Rezin, king of Syria, and Pekah, king of Israel, invaded Judah in order to place on the throne, Tabael (Isaiah 7:6), a man who would favor a joint alliance to fight against Assyria. This was the beginning of the Syro-Ephraimite War.

Aware that his situation was precarious, and against the advice of the prophet Isaiah, Ahaz asked Tiglath-pileser for military help (2 Kings 16:7). Ahaz paid a heavy tribute to Assyria. In order to gather the money needed for the tribute, Ahaz took gold and silver from the temple and from the royal treasury (2 Kings 16:8).

Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser with the following message: “I am your servant and your son. Come up, and rescue me from the hand of the king of Syria and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me” (2 Kings 16:7).

In response to Ahaz’s invitation, Tiglath-pileser came to Palestine to help Judah. He conquered Philistia first and then invaded Syria. Tiglath-pileser “marched up against Damascus, and took it, carrying its people captive to Kir, and he killed Rezin” (2 Kings 16:9).

Then, Tiglath-pileser came against Israel, conquered several cities in Galilee and Naphtali and deported many people to Assyria: “In the time of Pekah king of Israel, Tiglath-Pileser king of Assyria came and took Ijon, Abel Beth Maacah, Janoah, Kedesh and Hazor. He took Gilead and Galilee, including all the land of Naphtali, and deported the people to Assyria” (2 Kings 15:29).

A few years later, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed an oracle recorded in Isaiah 9:1-6 that is a direct reference to the events related to the Syro-Ephraimite War. Although time and space does not allow me to deal with the entire passage (I may do so at a later time), Isaiah 9:1 (the versification is different in the Hebrew Bible. Isaiah 9:1 is 8:23 in the Hebrew Bible) has been translated differently by translators.

“But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish” (Isaiah 9:1 ESV).

“But there will be no gloom for her that was in anguish” (Isaiah 9:1 RSV).

“But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish” (Isaiah 9:1 NRSV).

“Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress (Isaiah 9:1 NIV).

These four translations differ on how the first part of verse 1 is translated. The word “her” of the ESV and the RSV refers to the “land.” The word “those” of the NIV and the NRSV refers to the people.

The New Living Translation completely misses the message of the prophet when it translates the text as follows: “Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever” (Isaiah 9:1 NLT), and so does, in my opinion, the New Jerusalem Bible, “For is not everything dark as night for a country in distress?” (Isaiah 8:23 NJB).

The feminine pronoun in the Hebrew text requires that the “her” be related to the land. The ESV and the RSV say that because of the events related to the war, the land was in distress. The translations offered by the NIV and the NRSV distort the message of the verse and convey an incorrect impression to the reader by saying that because of the war, the people were in distress.

The translation of the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) is direct and to the point: “Nevertheless, the gloom of the distressed land will not be like that of the former times” (Isaiah 9:1).

Why did the NIV and the NRSV choose to change the text and use “those” instead of “her” in translating the Hebrew feminine pronoun? There are two possible answers:

1. The translators of the NIV and the NRSV understood the land (“her”) to represent the people (“those”). However, this translation disregards the fact that the word “land” in “the land of Zebulun” and “the land of Naphtali” is feminine and is in direct relationship with the pronoun “her.”

2. It is possible that the translators were using gender inclusive language and refused to use the word “her” in the same way they avoided using the word “him” in other texts in the two translations.

I suspect the use of “those” in Isaiah 9:1 came out of a desire to be gender inclusive, but this effort at being gender inclusive completely changes the meaning of the text and does not allow the reader to grasp the real message of the prophet. In response to Grant Osborne’s question, “How would Isaiah say this today to get the meaning across?,” Isaiah probably would say that the translators of the NIV and the NRSV misunderstood what I was trying to say. Isaiah would say, “it was the land that was in distress.”

In their books, the prophets emphasize that the land suffers because of the sins of the people. Hosea said that because of the sins of the people, “the land mourns” (Hosea 4:3). Because of the sins of the people, the land was defiled and became an abomination (Jeremiah 2:7). The message of Isaiah must be understood in the context of the Syro-Ephraimite War: because of the sins of the people, the land was in distress.

The translation of the NIV and the NRSV is unfortunate. Those who read Isaiah 9:1 in these translations may have compassion for the people who were in distress but they will feel nothing for the land, the real concern of the prophet. And the only reason the reader will be unable to sympathize with the distress of the land is because somewhere a committee decided to be politically correct rather than to convey the real message of the prophet.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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