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Why this theologian is warning about a change to Bible language

Posted September 29

Some of the changes made in the latest — and final — edition of the English Standard Version Bible are creating some controversy among those who see the amendments as "potentially dangerous."

The Bible version, which is published by Crossway, was recently released in a "permanent text edition," with the publisher announcing in a statement that there will be no further changes to the text in future editions.

Crossway compared the decision to keep the English Standard Version in its latest and final form to a choice made in 1769 to stop making edits to the King James Version, though other unofficially sanctioned versions of that text have reportedly popped up outside of the U.K. There are restrictions on reproductions there.

"This decision was made unanimously by the Crossway Board of Directors and the ESV Translation Oversight Committee," the statement about the ESV reads. "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."

But not everyone is happy with the changes made in the permanent version, with debate specifically centering on Genesis 3:16, according to The Christian Post.

The scripture's text was changed 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."

New Testament scholar Scot McKnight, a professor at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Illinois, was among those who penned a blog post earlier this month expressing his concern with the language change.

McKnight noted that there's essentially a dispute over whether the verse — which consists of God speaking to Eve after Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden — should be read as being prescriptive or descriptive.

If the verse is seen as prescriptive, McKnight said it "means this is God’s curse on all women for all time (until heaven and maybe then too)." Under that scenario, women would need to be overseen by men due to Eve's actions in the garden.

In this case, he wrote that the "desire" would be considered the woman's quest to rule or dominate over man's authority, with the man guiding and leading the woman, though he said there are "softer versions" in which a woman is seen in the prescriptive model as desiring the man while the man mentors her.

Either way, McKnight wrote that, in this view, "hierarchy of some sort and patriarchy of some sort are designed by God for fallen human beings."

Then, there's the descriptive view, which sees men and women as sinners who will sometimes find themselves in a "war of wills," as women theoretically seek to rule over men, while men seek to reign over women.

"In other words, for the descriptive view this is not a divine command, this is not divine order, but instead a sad prediction of what life will be like now that humans — males and females — have chosen to be gods and goddesses rather than servants of God," McKnight wrote.

Contrary to the prescriptive view, McKnight said that the descriptive sees Genesis 3:16 as a description of how humans might sometimes behave; it is not, then, the way in which God wants people to act.

McKnight argues that relationships should reciprocate desire and not end up in a war of wills, concluding that Genesis 3:16 has been "over translated" based on the idea that the verse is prescriptive and not descriptive.

At the center of all of this is the Hebrew preposition "el," which was previously taken to mean "for" ("Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you") but is now taken to mean "contrary" in the latest ESV version ("Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.").

McKnight argues that the prescriptive versus descriptive debate is settled in Song of Songs 7:10 when the verse proclaims that men also desire their wives; the text reads, "I belong to my beloved, and his desire is for me."

"If I read the Bible aright, Song of Songs 7:10 proves that a prescriptive theory of Gen 3:16 is a serious misreading of the Hebrew," he wrote.

McKnight was a a bit more forward with his assessment in an interview with The Christian Post last week, calling the ESV interpretation of Genesis 3:16 "potentially dangerous," as it suggests a "curse against the woman is an act of God … that seals estrangement, alienation and tension between females and males."

He added that such an interpretation could give the "wrong kind of males a ready-made excuse for domination."

Bible professor Carolyn Custis James also penned a piece at Missio Alliance, saying that she sees other issues with language that refers to gender in the ESV, particularly when it comes to messages that reference "man" and have not been expanded to include what she believes is a broader message for all of humanity.

"The ESVs 'gender-exclusive' language obscures an accurate understanding for modern readers that impacts multiple texts in the Bible and can lead to false interpretations," James wrote. "Gender-accurate translations answer legitimate questions women are asking when we read the Bible: 'Is this text addressing me? Or am I eavesdropping on a message that only applies to men?'"

You can read more about those issues here. The debate is likely to continue, though there were actually very few changes overall in the latest ESV.

The publisher's recently issued statement noted that only 52 words of the more than 775,000 present in the ESV Bible were changed, with amendments impacting 29 verses out of more than 31,000 in the text.

The changes were made after more than 17 years of analysis by a translation oversight committee that was formed in 1998. The publisher felt as though the collection of changes helped make the text more precise and accurate, with the ESV aiming to be "essentially literal."

Email: bhallowell@deseretnews.com Twitter: billyhallowell Facebook: facebook.com/billyhallowell

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