Gen 3:16, the ESV, and My תשׁוקה for Folks to Stop Using Hebrew Grammar in the Debate

This controversy on the ESV of Gen 3:16 is getting a bit tiring to see in the biblioblogosphere. Here are just a few of the links in the crazy discussion (here, here, here, here, here, here, and for a little fresh air, here).

The debate seems to be about translation theory, translation committees, transparency, theology (complementarianism versus egalitarianism), and an opportunity to seize on something exciting to shake off the end of the summer blues. What the argument is, should not, must be about is serious Hebrew grammar. And yet, statements about the meaning of a preposition (אֶל for Hebrew readers) and even the conjunction waw, which is important (“say hello to my little friend!”) but harder to figure out than most will admit.

After seeing so many links fly by from the biblioblogosphere, I couldn’t help but finally give in a read a few. And now I’m simply tired of seeing the same injudicious use of Hebrew bandied about again and again. So I add my voice to the cacophony, though I suspect it will probably be entirely futile. I’ll try to summarize in just a few points why the ESV’s new “permanent translation” of Gen 3:16 is grammatical defensible, even if I wouldn’t choose it, and then provide my own analysis of the verse. First, the Hebrew and ESV of Gen 3:16—

Gen 3:16 (Hebrew): אֶֽל־הָאִשָּׁ֣ה אָמַ֗ר הַרְבָּ֤ה אַרְבֶּה֙ עִצְּבוֹנֵ֣ךְ וְהֵֽרֹנֵ֔ךְ בְּעֶ֖צֶב תֵּֽלְדִ֣י בָנִ֑ים וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ׃ ס

Gen 3:16 (ESV): To the woman he said,“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”


My response in a smallish nutshell:

1) Not knowing the ESV translator for this verse, I’m guessing at the underlying analysis. My comments reflect my giving the person a reasonable benefit of doubt. Contrary to (ha ha!) all the hubbub, the “contrary to” is not ungrammatical. Certainly, the “to” in “contrary to” is not the spatial or directional uses of אֶל, which is quite common in the Hebrew Bible. But anyone use knows there way around the accepted research lexica should be able to determine that the English “to” in “contrary to” reflects a still well attested use of אֶל, which is not spatial or directional. To wit, this matches the occurrences in which אֶל is used in the way that Waltke and O’Connor (somewhat ambiguously) refer to as “specification” (Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, §11.2.2. #15). Similarly, see Clines’ Dictionary of Classical Hebrew under אֶל in §3a <coll> in , “with respect to” and especially §7, “about concerning”. The use of Hebrew אֶל in such cases reflects a relational use of the preposition that is quite well matched by the similar use of English “to.” So, whence “contrary”?

2) The notion of “contrary” (ignoring the “to”) cannot not derive from the preposition, but may reflect a legitimate interpretation of the word order in the poetic verse. There are four lines (two bicola) that work together:

Line A הַרְבָּ֤ה אַרְבֶּה֙ עִצְּבוֹנֵ֣ךְ וְהֵֽרֹנֵ֔ךְ
Line A’ בְּעֶ֖צֶב תֵּֽלְדִ֣י בָנִ֑ים
Line B וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ
Line B’ וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ

Line A sets the stage, but has nothing particularly notable about the word order. Line A’ has a Focus-fronted PP (בעצב), which is likely meant to reinforce that it is not just in the pregnancy but also in the birth that there will be עצב. Line B also has a fronted PP (אל אישׁך), which is likely Focus-marked—but why? The ESV has apparently (and I say this with great hesitation, since I don’t know the translators from Adam and Eve) interpreted the *word order* (not the preposition) to signal a contrastive meaning. And if so, they would be right, but not entirely so. As punctuated in the ESV, the contrast is one with the husband, which results in this logical set: your desire will be with [your husband, not your husband]. (On my reading of word order variation, see here and this article.)

But the grammar does not signal a contrast just with the husband (following clause) but also with the children (preceding clause). In the context of the immediately precisely clause, the fronted PP “to your husband” is intended to establish a contrast between בנים and אישׁך—the woman’s desire (not sexual, just powerful emotion) will suffer tension, between her motherly love of her children, whom she pained for over 9 months, and her husband. Line B’ also has a Focus fronting, the “redundant” subject pronoun הוא. Tragically, into the already tense family conflict, the curse suggests that the husband, rather than comforting the woman or navigating the tension, will exacerbate them by pitting himself again the children and משׁל-ing over the woman.

Like most curses, I take these to be etiological—they provide an origin story for what was/is often the case (over-bearing, insensitive husbands), not what must be the case.

3) Notable in my analysis is the lack of any mention of the Hebrew ו (waw). The ו at the beginning of Line B (as well as Line B’) simply indicates the beginning of a new clause. It is a clause-edge marker, as I’ve argued before (see here and here under “hypotaxis”). This poor little conjunction cannot bear the weight of some of the functions I’ve seen assigned to it —it does *not* mean “connection” and “continuation”, it does not signal a contrast. These things are the product of the juxtaposition of clauses and/or word order. We must resist over-reading the poor little ו.

4) My point in all this is not really to explain Gen 3:16, although it is a good excuse (and I have notes on this verse going back over 15 years, but never thought them worth working up into an article).

Rather, my interest is to provide mild chastisement for those serious about how we use Hebrew in discussing Bible, theology, and even translation. First, all translations are imperfect; argue about them based on the ideologies they may reflect and promote, or their literary-poetic merits, but resist the temptation to reconstruct the translators understanding of the source language. Second, Hebrew is often misunderstood and misused (e.g, the preposition לא and the conjunction ו in this entire Gen 3:16 hullabaloo) and such behaviour should cease by those who are sensible (and all sensible people should simply ignore those who perpetuate such mistakes). all too often, such things devolved into a Hebraist version of the blind arguing with the blind.

I recognize that many connect the discussion of the ESV Gen 3:16 to larger issues and to that I say—have your beef with complementarianism or egalitarianism or just plain Arianism, but in 99% of the cases, leave Hebrew grammar out of it.

17 Responses to “Gen 3:16, the ESV, and My תשׁוקה for Folks to Stop Using Hebrew Grammar in the Debate”

  1. Alex Kirk Says:

    The word-order analysis is helpful. It puts more of the meaning in the verse on poetics and phrasing and less on the grammar. In your opinion, though the grammar allows for the ESV translation, does it warrant it? I.e., how would you bring out the focus-fronting/contrast in English?

    Another question I have is, what does the meaning of תשׁוקה​ ​do to the force of​ ​אל​? With so few occurrences there may be little to say. Plus, it doesn’t seem that you would allow much to hang on the​ meaning of the​ preposition​,​ which​ is why you went to word order. ​Is that right?

    I do think that the theologically loaded angle is short-sighted. The curse is certainly etiological. What to do with it from there is a different matter. Moses allowed divorce because of your hardness of heart, but from the beginning it was not so…

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      Warrant the ESV translation? No. I can’t say it’s a particularly good translation in terms of all the nuances, but I also admit that I don’t follow translation theory or do professional translation work. If I were translating for a public audience, I’d probably mess with the English word order as much as grammatically possible to get across the poetic-ness of it.
      On תשׁוקה, there is so little evidence I think it can only be defined by the immediate context. I’m not sure I understand your question on the preposition.
      Translation is interpretation. If the ESV wants to be theologically loaded, it’s their prerogative. I suspect the issue is that lack of user input since it’s become a popular translation. But frankly, I don’t have a lot of a patience with what I see as simple whining. People don’t like it, they can give their ESV away and find another translation. That’s the great freedom of the marketplace.

      • Alex Kirk Says:

        My question on the preposition was does the meaning of תשׁוקה suggest a nuance for the preposition? Basically, what do you say to someone citing HALOT’s gloss “against” for certain instances of אל?

        So… before hit “post comment,” I decided to go read HALOT and the Hebrew of Gen 4:8 (which uses אל with nuances that translators tend to treat differently within the same verse). Basically, I determined that when “אל” is translated “against” it means “against” in a locative sense, i.e., up to/adjacent to. So, saying that “against” and “contrary to” are synonymous is not really the whole story (as Burk does in the linked-to blog article above). You insinuated this by your use of W&O and by not finding possible warrant for the word “contrary” in the preposition but instead in the word-order.

  2. Alexandria Says:

    Hi, thanks for your post. I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and reply to your comment on my post/reply to your post.

    I don’t see how (or why) we should leave Hebrew out of it, even if we’re talking about translation politics. It can be very illuminating. But by no means would I like to suggest my own reading was definitive, conclusive, or even totally accurate (I do write in an assertive tone, but that’s hotheadedness, not confidence!).

    I think the issue here is the writing medium—I try to appeal to both academic and the general blogger audience. I know I simplify, condense, and do not reproduce all my research for the sake of writing a readable blog post. Maybe this accommodation is the root of the problem.

    Perhaps this bit of throat clearing would have been helpful, I don’t know. Thanks for the suggestions, I will keep them in mind for future posts.


    • robertholmstedt Says:

      Alexandria, I’m afraid my response isn’t going to go down well, so I’d suggest having a glass of wine first.

      Bloggers should leave Hebrew out of it unless they are experts in Hebrew grammar. And I’m pretty sure I know all those folks who are qualified to comment on such matters. Simple as that. Lots of folks study a few years of Hebrew. Very few of those every get anywhere near an insightful understanding of the grammar. And yet, many people feel free to theologize or whatever else based on a couple years of seminary Hebrew. It’s like allowing someone with a few years of college pre-med to diagnose diseases.

      Frankly, the first intelligent response to the ESV translation issue should have been to email Hebrew language professors to ask about the options. Not just me — I could list a half-dozen off hand and one of them (hopefully more) would have responded. It’s what journalists do — they ask an expert, or two. It’s the way of life outside everything but, sadly, biblical studies …

      • Alexandria Says:

        Why are you assuming that I did not consult a professor? Or a lexicon? Or journal articles? True, I did not reproduce their lengthy analyses, but the post was not about the grammar. In any case, did I say something radically original about el? I merely said it does not mean contrary to, ie. what you also conclude. And I looked at pretty much every English translation to see if the verse was translated like that, but nothing. That’s an ok leg to stand on for a little blog post, no? (I heeded your advice on the vaw bit, so it’s gone).
        This is needlessly antagonistic and really does seem precipitated by your irritation over the whole affair.

      • robertholmstedt Says:

        You’re interpreting it as antagonistic because you’re not responding to me as a professor. My first two responses were friendly and no different than I respond to my own doctoral students when they propose something in my seminars. English translations often won’t provide insight into matters of Hebrew. I didn’t say you didn’t consult a lexicon, but I did point out how you must have missed what the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew had to offer. And you mentioned no Hebrew language professor (and I know those who teach at Mac Div), so why should assumed differently?

        Blog posts are public. Like a church lecture or even academic paper, but they stick around longer. And they have been known to affect future career choices of all types. I have stated my opinion of students blogging on this blog in an earlier post, so perhaps you’ll understand why I interact slightly differently with a known students versus just bloggers like those at the BLT translation site. I have a concern for the students, not the other bloggers. My interest is accuracy and reasonableness when it comes to Hebrew.
        *And I’ll add — now that you know of a Hebrew prof down the road, if you send me future questions, I’ll happily respond, even if it’s no more than to say I can’t figure a strange verse out (there are some real doozies here and there; I was just asked about one by a colleague in Australia).

  3. J. K. Gayle Says:

    Robert Holmstedt —

    Your first link above is to a mere reblogging of the post you link to second. That may be part of why you got so tired so quickly. (Thanks for linking to BLT anyway.)

    I’d invite you to look at just one more blogpost. It’s one where the English syntax counts (at least as much as the Hebrew syntax):

    And also take a look at how the ESV handles in Leviticus 26 the use(s) of קְרִי. The English there is fine (even comparing the ESV “grammar” to Isaac Leeser’s or to Julia Smith’s or to Everett Fox’s or to Robert Alter’s). It highlights how peculiar the now Permanent ESV text at Genesis 3:16b is with respect to what you’re calling English grammar.

    – J. K. Gayle

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      Yes, I knew it was a reblogging, and I had already read your other post, which reflected the same lack of Hebrew knowledge as all the other posts on the topic.

      What I am “calling English grammar” is simply that — grammatical. You may call the ESV peculiar all you want, it doesn’t mean it’s not grammatical English reflecting a legitimate analysis of the Hebrew.

      I don’t think it’s a great rendering of Gen 3:16 — and by the way, I can’t look at it for Lev 26, because I don’t own a copy of the ESV; when I’m curious about translations, I still look at the NRSV or NJPS. But all this huffing and puffing about the supposed misuse of Hebrew and/or ideological atrocities of the ESV committee seems to be little more than casting about for a useful club to respond from an equally ideologically-driven perspective.

      As I said in another comment, there are other translations for sale. If it’s really distressing folks, they should punish the ESV publisher by not buying the product.

  4. J. K. Gayle Says:

    Robert Holmstedt —
    Are you objecting to the knowledge of Hebrew and of English grammar that Lesser, Smith, Fox, and Alter have? Do you believe they’re huffing and puffing? Are you yourself doing some huffing and puffing about what they do? What when reading my post do you really think?

    It’s not the ESV per se that’s peculiar but rather the final and permanent change to Genesis 3:16 that offers a very peculiar reading, one that is more peculiar because of the syntax, which my post make clear. There are any number of alternatives to the syntax while retaining the identical lexicon. For me there is no question of translational legitimacy for the Permanent ESV rendering of Gen.3,16,b, I love the variations. But this is the problem: the Crossway folks rather oppose now variation from their one and only translation, don’t they? And you don’t have to buy the ESV since it’s freely available online.
    — J. K. Gayle

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      I’m assuming you didn’t intend to post the same comment twice, so I deleted the other one.
      No, I generally don’t think looking at a bunch of English translations, no matter how old or new or from whom (and no, I don’t consider Alter an authority — nor does any Hebrew language researcher I’ve ever talked to), is going to provide insight into what’s going on in the Hebrew, and English grammar has changed.

      No, I’m not huffing and puffing, because I provided a *real* analysis of Gen 3:16, reflecting expertise in Hebrew. And by the way, let’s just be clear — your first comment here, on my blog, headed in this direction, so don’t get so ruffled about getting the same back. I have little patience for those who don’t listen to me carefully and thoughtfully, even if they disagree.

      And yes, you’ve identified one of the issues that folks are upset about — the ESV has dared to stop making changes and called it’s last set of decisions the “permanent text”. So what? Most translations were done, published, and didn’t change.

      It is absurd that there is all this nuttiness about a decision by one among dozens of available English translations.

  5. bobmacdonald Says:

    Ayjay allows the old committee to die. But he notes that the KJV was not frozen until 1769. Did the original King James committee live that long?

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