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.

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