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A few columns ago I wrote about language as a gift of God: supple, powerful, and evocative. Also slippery in translation, as the laborers working on a certain construction project on the plain of Shinar (Genesis 11) quickly discovered. Mistranslations can be historic. During the Cold War, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made a speech to Western diplomats, the key phrase remembered as “We will bury you!” What he said is more accurately translated, “We will see you buried”—a shade of meaning not quite as aggressive as Khrushchev’s attitude made it seem.
Everyday mistranslations are both charming and jaw-dropping. Lonely Planet sponsors an annual “Lost in Translation” photo contest, where travelers submit unintentionally hilarious Asian-to-English signage, such as, “Loveable but pitiful grass is under your foot.” Or, “Our food is guaranteed not to cause pregnancy.”
Holy Scripture is not immune. When Jerome translated the Old Testament into Latin, he studied the original language rather than relying on versions of the Septuagint (Greek translation). As befitting the patron saint of future scholars-to-be-flustered-by-Hebrew, Jerome confused karan, the “radiance” that veiled Moses when he came down from the mountain, with keren, “horned,” which explains why Moses sports a pair of horns in Michelangelo’s statue.
A more recent translation kerfuffle occurs in the 2016 edition of the ESV, favored by Reformed evangelicals and this magazine. In reference to Eve’s curse, Genesis 3:16 is rendered, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband [rather than ‘for your husband,’ as the earlier editions read], but he shall rule over you.” That phrasing has raised some scholarly hackles, in a controversy that reached The Atlantic website in November.
Eve’s desire to control her husband is not a recent gloss but a traditional understanding.
An online article called “Rewriting the Biblical ‘Curse’ on Womankind” quotes Hebrew scholars and seminary professors claiming the translation is just wrong—or at the very least, “a stumper.” That’s according to Joel Baden of Yale. Jan Joosten of Oxford agreed: “The Hebrew preposition ‘el means toward and not contrary to.” Scot McKnight of Northern Seminary called the ESV’s choice of words “not only mistaken but potentially dangerously wrong,” because it appears to cast women as perpetual antagonists to men.
I used to read Genesis 3:16 as a description of women’s plight: You will yearn for the companionship and sympathy of your husband, but he will take advantage of you. Later, encountering Reformed scholarship, I learned that the interpretation implies something deeper: Eve’s desire to control her husband is not a recent gloss but a traditional understanding, which the ESV now reflects. Later editions of the best-selling New Living Translation concur: You will desire to control. So does the NET Bible: You will want to control. This can’t be chalked up to male chauvinism; something in the original text must imply it.
According to my Hebrew lexicon, the preposition can indeed be rendered against—as well as with, into, because of, and more. Far more pertinent is desire, a Hebrew word that appears in the Old Testament only two other times. One is in the next chapter, where God warns Cain that sin “desires” to have him. The other is Song of Solomon 7:10: “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.” A surface reading might see sin’s desire as negative and Solomon’s as positive—Eve’s could at least be a toss-up. Professor Baden finds “something very nice about the fact that the biblical author recognizes the inherent unfairness of this situation.”
The “biblical author” (aka God) isn’t always nice, and not primarily fair, but He’s supremely truthful. The curse on Adam and Eve affects what is central to each of them: occupation and relationship. Sin’s desire for them is possessive and unlawful, reflected in Eve’s desire for her husband. If we women are honest, we should acknowledge how easily our yearning for relationship is twisted into manipulation—just as men must realize how natural authority slides into tyranny. By submitting to sin’s desire, our first parents locked themselves in a permanent power play that won’t be solved by fairness or equal rights—only by God’s desire to save us from ourselves.