The Curse of Woman and the ESV

The Fall

I have often stated that this blog is not about Biblical scholarship. There are many people who have already done that way better than I could and I see no reason to attempt to repeat their work. No. This blog is about the implications of what Biblical scholarship reveals and how it affects our lives.

Since I have received training as a linguist and a Bible translator, Bible translation questions are heavy on my heart (though probably it’s the other way around – I received training BECAUSE Bible translation is important to me). I believe faithful Bible translation is one of the single most important aspects of modern ministry – very few of us can read in the original languages of the Bible. Few of us even know how to use tools so that we can investigate what the original languages said without actually knowing the languages for ourselves. Many of us are utterly dependent on the English language translations that we have in our homes. We use these Bibles to study God’s words to us and to draw conclusions and to develop our theologies. We use our English translations to be “bereans” and check the teachings of our leaders. We hear God’s words spoken directly to us most clearly and personally when His words are in our mother tongue or our “heart language” – the language that you would speak to your children or your lover. The importance of accurate and faithful Bible translation cannot be overstated.

The editors of the ESV translation of the Bible have announced that they are Done with the translation. After a mere 17 years of use (compared with the 150 years of use and correction before the KJV was crystallized) they do not believe they will be able to improve on it any more and they are committing to letting the text remain as their permanent testimony that it now reflects the Hebrew and Greek as well as they will ever be able to get it to.

Setting aside what I see as great pride, they are combining this declaration with a final round of changes. So they are finalizing changes before they have even given the broader Christian community time to work with these changes and weigh in on them.

Of these changes, I believe the change to Genesis 3:16 is the single most important change in that entire translation. In the CEB, which I believe reflects the Hebrew most closely according to everything I’ve read about this verse in the past couple weeks, God says to the woman, “You will desire your husband, but he will rule over you.”

The ESV has changed their translation from “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” to “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” This is a really big deal! You can read this technical post by Sam Powell about why the change from “and” to “but” leads to greater accuracy but the change from “for” to “contrary to” is really, really wrong. The sum up is that the Hebrew word here means “to, unto, toward” and in some contexts, *some* scholars believe is may also mean “against,” though in this verse there is no indication at all that the word could mean “against” here. Even that word implies a movement *toward* something else. In this phrase, where there is no negativity implied at all, the word means simply a “movement toward.”

Powell says, “So the simple reading of the text is this: ‘To your husband your longing.’ In English, we would have to supply the verb ‘will be.’ To your husband will be your longing. In other words, ‘your longing will terminate on your husband,’ or, ‘your longing will be to your husband.'”

So why in the world is the ESV translating the word to say “contrary to”? Why translate this word so that it implies a movement away? Why translate this word in such a new way with absolutely no linguistic or historic or cultural evidence that this is how the ancient first readers would have understood it?

The lead editor of the ESV is Wayne Grudem. He is a notorious hardline complementarian. Foundational to his gender hierarchy is the belief that God instituted that hierarchy *before* the curse.

Genesis 3:16 contains two statements: 1) To your husband will be your longing. 2) But he will rule over you.

So there are 3 options for understanding which of these is the curse actually, because God would not just restate the way things were before the curse *in* the curse. He’s changing things. He telling them the consequences of their sin. So we can understand that 1) Both statements are curses; 2) The first statement is a curse while the second is the way things used to be; 3) The first statement is the way things used to be while the second is a curse.

I have never heard an analysis that they are both curses. They are set in opposition to each other (hence the “but”) so it does not make much sense that they would both be curses.

Complementarians must believe the second option. If men were created to rule over women, that MUST be the statement that explains the way things used to be. They cannot remain consistent in their beliefs and also believe that men ruling over women is part of the curse. So they must then believe that it is the woman’s longing that is new, her desire that is the curse.

Did Eve desire Adam before the curse? Well yes. She was designed to desire her husband, just as he was designed to desire her. Desire and longing are good in a marriage. They are good in any love relationship. So how do complementarians understand this statement to mean something bad?

They say that her desire is a perverted one. She doesn’t just desire her husband, as the text says, she desires his authority, she desires to have his power.

To make this understanding seem more clear and more Biblical, Grudem, et al have changed the actual text of the Scripture that people read and point to: “See, it says that her desire is CONTRARY to her husband – the curse is that Eve no longer wanted to submit to his rule.”

[I am taking a break from writing here because I am shaking too much to type and I feel like vomiting.]

So is this true? Is woman’s desire perverted? As Cowell says,

“The word ‘longing’ only appears three times in all known Hebrew literature. In Genesis 3:16, Genesis 4:7, and Song of Songs 7:10…The word ‘longing’ in all  three passages admits the same meaning: a great desire, a longing. It isn’t the same word as ‘covetousness,’ and it isn’t the same word as ‘wanting something.’ It is a rare word and ‘longing’ is a good translation of it. I would be hesitant to go any deeper than that; that isn’t how language works.”

So while in Genesis 4:7 we see sin having this longing (and the text goes on to explain explicitly what the longing is for and why it is bad), the other context of this word is yet another marriage relationship – and it is very good and very beautiful.

So if the word translated “to” or “for” (or, as in this ESV “contrary to”) indicates a movement toward and is a simple word with no negative connotations by itself, and if the word translated “desire” or “longing” is not a word for evil desire and therefore does not provide a context for a remotely negative understanding of the word for “to” or “for,” then NO. Woman’s desire is not perverted. There is no evidence in this statement to indicate that woman feels at all hostile to her husband. Quite the opposite – her desire is for her husband as the lover in the Song desired his wife.

The first statement is how things were before the curse.

Therefore, the curse must lie in the linguistically uncontested second statement. “But he will rule over you.”

And we see throughout world history, in the vast majority of cultures, wherever there is pain in childbirth, wherever there is enmity between children and snakes, wherever men struggle to put food on the table – men rule over women. Women are denied education, we are forced to work as sex slaves, we are told to be quiet and obey, we are married off as children, we are suspects in our own rapes and violations, we are abused and then told that we should stop making him angry, we are told that the only way to be Biblical women is to stay at home and care only for our husbands and children (despite great evidence to the contrary). Men, meanwhile, are the perpetrators of violent and heinous crimes all over the globe. Power corrupts and men, who have the power in this world that is writhing under the curse, feel the effects of equivalent corruption. Men rule over women and it bears Terrible Fruit. Women are oppressed all over the world. It is ugly and it is painful to both women and men.

But you know what? The curse has been broken! Jesus came and redeemed us! He lifted women up. In Him, there is no man or woman. He gives His Holy Spirit and all his gifts to both men and women. In his Kingdom, He is the first born and we are ALL heirs with Him. We try to make childbirth less painful. We try to make work less burdensome. We try to mitigate the enmity between children and snakes. We are also free to try to equalize men and women! We are free to lift up the lowly, to humble ourselves and serve, to encourage and build up our sisters and mothers and daughters. We are free to encourage our fathers and brothers and sons to let go of the power that corrupts (and the terrible responsibilities that go with it) and embrace freedom and service as Jesus did.

All through the New Testament, Jesus and the Apostles tell us to give up our power and serve. To humble ourselves and submit ourselves to each other, to place ourselves under each other and lift each other up. This is the radical Kingdom of God. We must follow our Savior rather than trying to model our churches and homes after the patterns of this world that is bent and broken under the curse. His Kingdom come. His will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven. To Him be the Glory, now and forever more. Amen.

Update 10/2/2016: Since the writing of this post, Crossway has released a statement rescinding their commitment to a permanent translation! This is wonderful news. I applaud their willingness to rethink their position! I am hopeful that in their next update, they will rectify the mistake they have made in their translation of Genesis 3:16 and 4:7.

Published by Nikki Holland

I am a Quaker wife, mother, pastor, and writer. I work as the country branch director of a fabulous NGO in Belize City and I recently graduated with an MDiv from Earlham School of Religion. I love my family, and I love my community.

5 thoughts on “The Curse of Woman and the ESV

  1. So well explained! I’ve seen people voicing their frustration with this change, but most struggle to put a finger directly on the problem. You’ve laid it out beautifully! The translators clearly tipped their hand in this one as to how their bias has affected their translation.


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