Crossway recently announced that the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible would “remain unchanged in all future editions . . . to guard and preserve the very words of God as translated in the ESV Bible.” That way “people who love the ESV Bible can have full confidence in the ESV, knowing that it will continue to be published as is, without being changed, for the rest of their lives, and for generations to come.”
Update: The next month, Crossway issued a statement saying, “We have become convinced that this decision was a mistake. We apologize for this and for any concern this has caused for readers of the ESV.” Crossway said it would “allow for ongoing periodic updating of the text to reflect the realities of biblical scholarship such as textual discoveries or changes in English over time.”
This so-called “permanent text” of 2016 represents a third revision of the translation, which was first published in 2001 and then revised in 2007 and 2011. This last text incorporates what the publisher calls “a very limited number of final changes” (“52 words . . . found in 29 verses”) that are designed to make “a substantial improvement in the precision, accuracy, and understanding” of the text at these places.
One of these changes has already become very controversial. In the account of the fall, in previous editions of the ESV, God says to Eve:
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”
The permanent text now reads, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” I am not aware of any statement that Crossway or the ESV Translation Oversight Committee may have offered explaining the rationale for this change. But it appears to me that the concern was that the phrase “your desire shall be for your husband” would be misunderstand to mean that Eve would still want to be emotionally and relationally close to Adam, and that to accomplish this she would accept to live in a household in which he was in authority.
These phrases actually do mean something different. They appear again, in word-for-word parallel, shortly afterwards in Genesis when God warns Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” Sin is represented metaphorically as a wild animal poised to pounce on Cain, and this makes clear the meaning of “its desire is for you”: Sin wants to have Cain in its power, but Cain must not succumb to that power; he must remain in control of his own actions.
So it is important to correct the misimpression that Eve has a “desire for” closeness and affection with Adam. No, she wants to have him in her power. But he will resist and dominate her instead. In other words, after the fall, marriage is no longer a cooperative enterprise but a struggle between husband and wife for dominance.
However, I don’t think that the ESV has gone about correcting this misimpression the right way. The expression “your desire will be for your husband” (= “its desire is for you”) is an idiom. (Like Muhammad Ali famously saying “I want Joe Frazier,” emphasis his, before one of their fights.) It is not describing an actual desire or longing that a person feels. Instead, it means, as the New English Translation puts it, “You will want to control your husband.” The New Living Translation says similarly, “You will desire to control your husband”—desire in the sense of wanting to do something.
But the ESV now uses, for the first time in any English translation, a qualifying adjective, “contrary,” instead a preposition (“for” or “against”) as in Hebrew. The presence of this adjective requires us to understand this literally as an actual wish, desire, or longing, and one that is necessarily opposed to the husband’s wishes. Now “he shall rule over you” means not “you won’t be able to control him,” but he will get his way, you won’t get yours!
Still, does this really matter that much, since in any event it portrays a formerly cooperative relationship dissolving into conflict? I believe it does. The essential issue here is interpretation rather than translation, but a given translation can serve to advance one interpretation and hinder or prevent another.
The interpretive question is whether redemption restores God’s original intention for marriage, so that within the kingdom of God couples can live out a cooperative enterprise once again, or whether male authority needs to be insisted upon even among regenerate people.
I’d observe that we do everything we can to mitigate all the other effects of the fall as described in Genesis. We use every technique and medication available to make sure that women have as little pain as possible in childbirth. I don’t know one man who doesn’t try to make his work as efficient and labor-saving as possible. (Another effect of the fall was painstaking toil to earn a living.) So shouldn’t we also believe that we’re supposed to mitigate the distortions in husband-wife relationships, and in male-female relationships generally, that resulted from the fall?
The mandate to do this is clear if the consequences of the fall are that husband and wife will both try to be in control. Once they become regenerate people, they will treat one another the way the New Testament says all followers of Jesus should treat each other: “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” Taking this attitude makes marriage a cooperative enterprise once again.
However, if the consequences of the fall are that husbands and wives will want “contrary” (opposing) things, and the solution is that the husband gets his way, and the wife has to “submit” to that—what’s there to fix? There’s no conflict when everybody knows who’s in charge.
But leaving things this way is dismal. How much better it is for both husband and wife to bring all of their increasingly sanctified hopes and wishes and desires to the table, and if some of them differ, for the two of them to seek God earnestly to find a greater plan, more comprehensive and far-reaching than either of them could imagine, that will catch up everything they could hope or dream for into an enterprise that calls for all of their gifts to be used to the fullest, interactively, to bless far more people than they ever could have anticipated.
We should not continue to see a husband’s and a wife’s desires, if they differ, as contrary, in light of provisional arrangements made after the fall. Instead, we should recognize them as complementary, just awaiting the hand of the Creator to weave them together into something unified and glorious.