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

We’re concerned that this new rendering repeats the very mistakes that led to the formation of the ESV in the first place

As users of the ESV, we have always known that the translation of the ESV occurred in context of concerns about gendered language. We understood the concern as such: Because Bible translators can read meaning into gendered words based on current sociological agendas, we want to be constrained by the actual words of the text even if it makes us uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the ESV’s permanent change to Genesis 3:16 seems to move away from this shared commitment. 


Over the next week, we are posting a three-part series reflecting on the recent changes to the rendering of Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 in the English Standard Version of the Bible. The most recent changes have only appeared after this latest round of revisions although the ESV has undergone two significant revisions over its fifteen year lifespan. The changes to Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 are made permanent by the decision of the translation committee to forego any further revision cycles.

Wendy Alsup and Hannah Anderson


A few months ago, Wendy took her dad to the doctor after he began experiencing pain from a pinched nerve in his neck.  When the doctor recommended ibuprofen to ease the pain, Wendy almost immediately questioned his choice and even had the gall to suggest a different pain reliever entirely. But instead of becoming angry with her for challenging his medical degree and decades of experience, the doctor welcomed her input and ultimately agreed with her.

Why? Why would a man with professional standing in the medical field acquiesce to a woman who had none?  As you’ve probably already guessed, there is more to the story than we’ve shared. In fact, there are three mitigating factors that explain why the doctor changed his mind at Wendy’s suggestion.

1. Both Wendy and the doctor had her father’s best interest at heart. The doctor was able to receive Wendy’s feedback (as she did his) because they viewed each other as allies in the cause of her dad’s good health. Instead of reading her question as a threat to his authority, he received it as constructive feedback, both because of how she offered it and because his main objective was the same as hers—her dad’s well being.

2. Wendy had access to scholarship about how ibuprofen would affect her dad’s overall health. When she questioned the doctor’s initial prescription, she did not do so from her own scientific education (limited to a handful of undergraduate science courses from 25 years ago); she relied on information from established sources like the Mayo Clinic—information she had been able to access because of the digital age. She questioned the doctor based on the educated opinions of other doctors. In other words, she acted as a proxy consultant, offering the doctor access to a second opinion from his peers without either of them having to leave the examining room.

3. Wendy had intimate, daily experience with caring for her father. Because of this, she remembered something that the doctor—who saw dozens of patients a day—had forgotten. What had slipped the doctor’s mind was that Wendy’s dad takes Coumadin, a blood thinner. When ibuprofen is taken with a blood thinner such as Coumadin, it can put a patient at risk of serious bleeding. The doctor may have been an expert in medicine, but Wendy was the expert in her dad.

Ultimately, Wendy chose to speak up because of what she had learned from other professionals about the danger of combining Coumadin and ibuprofen and her desire to care for her dad. The doctor heard Wendy’s concerns because he shared Wendy’s desire to care for her dad and respected the opinions of his peers that came to him through her. If either had not responded the way they had, Wendy’s father would have used ibuprofen as originally prescribed and put himself at risk for potentially life-threatening bleeding.

This vignette illustrates some of what we hope to accomplish with this 3 part series. Wendy spoke up for her dad to mitigate risk. The doctor listened to mitigate risk. And we are speaking now in this series about the ESV’s changes to Genesis 3:16 and 4:7, in part, to mitigate risk toward women, but more importantly, to mitigate risk to the authority of Scripture which is the foundation of our life and practice as Christians. As we enter this conversation, we do so from a place of shared commitment to the authority of Scripture, access to scholarship of others well versed in Hebrew translation and a daily, intimate knowledge of how misreading Scripture can affect the lives of the women we disciple.

The Wrong Prescription for a Pinched Nerve

Crossway Publishers recently announced permanent changes to the English Standard Version’s translation of Genesis 3:16.  Since its release in 2001,  the ESV has consistently rendered this text as

“Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you”

The ESV also included a footnote indicating that “for” can also be possibly translated as “against” because the Hebrew word, el, designates the direction in which an object is moving or directed, called terminal direction. For example, in English, we say “The rake is leaning against the tree” when we want to convey that the direction the rake leans terminates at the tree.

In the latest and permanent rendering, however, Genesis 3:16 now reads

“Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”

Interestingly, the translators still include a note at the bottom of the page explaining that the word “contrary” can also be rendered “shall be toward.” This note is neither clarifying nor helpful as it offers readers an entirely contradictory translation of the Hebrew text.  The official translation gives the understanding that the woman’s desire is moving in the opposite direction to the man but this note indicates that it is moving toward him. So which is it?

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