Toward a Better Reading: Reflections on the Permanent Changes to the Text of Genesis 3:16 in the ESV Part 2

How did desire “for” the man become desire “contrary to” the man?

The only way translators can justify rendering ‘el as “contrary” is to assume something negative about the womans desire based on the use of desire in Genesis 4:7-8. But such a novel change relies solely on commentary, not on accepted definitions to the Hebrew ‘el.  In fact, Denny Burk, current president of The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood concedes this in his article on the changes. Instead of arguing that the new changes fit the ESV’s essentially literal, word-for-word philosophy, he argues why it is OK that they do not. It’s worth noting that Denny also says that he does not prefer the new translation and wished that they had stuck with the original, more literal translation.


In 1525, William Tyndale finished the first translation of the New Testament into English. Despite severe persecutionand eventual martyrdom, Tyndale devoted his life to ensuring that common people had access to the Scripture in their native tongue. Tyndale’s passion to translate was fueled both by a desire to see the Scripture take root in common people’s hearts, as well as a desire to break the monopoly that the clerical class held over them.

Because the Word of God is powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, it was essential that lay people have access to the Scripture to defend themselves in situations where leaders misused and abused their spiritual authority. In this sense, careful translation work was a way to protect the most vulnerable members of the church. Once when confronted by Church authorities, Tyndale famously replied, “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy who drives the plough to know more of the scriptures than you do.” 

During the Reformation, new translations and the advent of the printing press led to increased Biblical literacy across Europe. Today, five hundred years later, advances in scholarship and the advent of the internet have led to even more Biblical engagement. Not only can the plough boy read the Bible, the milk maid also has access to online helps that allow her to engage it in the original languages. The accessibility of scholarship does not negate the need for scholars any more than Wendy’s accessing a study from the Mayo Clinic negated her father’s need for a doctor (recounted inPart 1). But online technology does offer us the ability to work cooperatively with scholars for the good of the church. It allows the laity to be informed–to access lexicons, scholarly articles, historical documents, academic journals, and even professors and researchers personally. We live in a time when a translation change like that of Genesis 3:16 can be easily examined and compared to historic precedent by, yes, even the plough boy and milk maid.

Toward vs. Contrary  

In this post, we want to focus on the most significant change in the ESV: rendering the Hebrew preposition ‘el in Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 as “contrary to” when it had been previously rendered as “for.” Discussions of Genesis 3:16 often focus on the meaning of “desire” (teshuquah) which is found in only two other places in Scripture (Genesis 4:7 and Song of Solomon 7:10); regardless of the contextual meaning and the positive or negative nature of the desire, the word itself is reasonably clear and so ESV translators have rendered it as “desire,” with which we agree. What has been altered in the ESV is the preposition (‘el) that is connected to the woman’s desire. 

The ESV originally translated this passage as desire “forthe man.  Some argued that the preposition may also be rendered “against” and was noted in a footnote.  In the latest (and permanent) edition, the ESV had translated it to be desire “contrary to” the man.  At first, this might seem a reasonable progression in English (see Denny Burk’s article), but we want to emphasize that while the progression from againstto contrary to” may be reasonable in English, it is not at all reasonable in Hebrew.  

The Hebrew preposition in question tells us something about the direction or focus of the woman’s desire. Historically, English translations have translated it in Genesis 3:16 as “to” or “toward.” Consider this brief survey  and you discover that most English translations since the 1500’s support the ESV’s original translation of “Your desire shall be for your husband…”

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