Category Archives: doctrine

Interview: Dr Janson Condren talks about bible translations and the original meaning of Genesis 3:16b

Why do Bible translations get updated? How and why might a translation change over history? What’s the best way to translate a difficult phrase? Given the plethora of English translations available today, the differences between them can be confusing and sometimes contested among Christians.

In 2017, Dr Janson Condren, Senior Lecturer of OT at Sydney Missionary & Bible College, published his research into the original meaning of Genesis 3:16b – a verse which underwent a controversial translation change in the 2016 edition of the ESV translation. It was the lead article of the September 2017 issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. [1]

Originally from Ohio, USA, Janson received his M.Div. and Th.M from Baptist Bible Seminary in Pennsylvania (1996, 1998), and his Ph.D. in Theological Studies (Old Testament emphasis) from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago (2005).

I had the privilege of studying under Janson last year, and what he shared on this topic during a lecture piqued my interest. I caught up with him recently for an interview.

(Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)


1. Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m a child of God and a follower of Jesus. I was raised in a Baptist church and a Christian home from a very young age. I remember sitting in Year 3 Sunday School and a visiting missionary explaining what she did, and thinking: “I guess I’m going to be a missionary.” When I finally went to Bible College, I was encouraged to think more about theological education, as most mission fields ask to be given tools to understand and teach the Bible. At the same, I was getting excited about the nitty-gritty aspects of academics and biblical interpretation. I was overwhelmed by how much I didn’t know, and what I hadn’t been taught in church – especially from the Old Testament.

2. How long have you worked at SMBC and what do you teach?

We’ve just finished up 12 years. I teach Hebrew, and a whole range of Old Testament books – the Prophets, the Writings, the Pentateuch.

3. Earlier this year you published a journal article detailing your research into Genesis 3:16b. How long did you spend on this project?

I had study leave from college (in Semester 2 of 2016), so had several months to work on this.

4. What motivated you to spend half a year studying half a verse?

It was right in the time that the ESV 2016 translation update was issued, and they changed the wording of Gen 3:16b from: “Your desire will be for your husband” to “Your desire will be contrary to your husband” – a very abrupt change making it mean the opposite of what it had meant. Right after that, they issued a public statement saying that the ESV was now to be frozen for all time, never to be adjusted again (Ed: the decision was later reversed). That perked my own interest: that a translation committee would cease to improve their translation, especially when new research and discoveries are coming out on a regular basis. It was a surprising move on top of a surprising change.

5. In the abstract of your article, you mention that an adversarial view of Gen 3:16 (i.e. a desire for the wife to contend with her husband for leadership) is “seriously misguided”. Could you share why?

Firstly – it’s a very recent interpretation. The ESV is following the NLT and the NET translations. All of them are building on a trend in interpretation since the mid-1970s when Susan T. Foh put forward this view. Now it’s not always the case that a new interpretation is wrong, but it needs to be adopted very carefully. As I scratched beneath the surface, what I found was before the 1970s, there was no precedent for understanding the woman’s desire as adversarial. The idea that the woman’s desire is contrary to her husband seems to be a completely new idea in the history of interpretation.

6. Let’s walk through some of the other points in your article, arguing against the adversarial view. First you examined how Gen 4:7, which the adversarial reading of Gen 3:16 relies on, has some major interpretive difficulties. Can you explain more?

In Gen 4:7, sin is personified as “crouching at the door”, and its desire is for Cain, and it’s not affectionate there. The same word for desire (Heb. tešūqâ) is used there, as in Gen 3:16. The grammar and syntax of the two texts is strikingly similar. So there’s good reason to relate the texts together.

But to say the adversarial desire in Gen 4:7 is reason for seeing the woman’s desire as adversarial against her husband, like sin’s desire against Cain, runs into serious difficulties. That’s because the interpretation of Gen 4:7 itself is highly debated throughout history.

7. In what ways?

For example, Matthew Henry sees the word sin not to mean a “door demon”, crouching at the door, but to mean a sin offering. There’s no adversarial desire there.

Also, where it says “its desire is for you”, the pronoun “its” is masculine, whereas the noun “sin” is feminine. In Hebrew, those are supposed to agree in gender. So many would say “its desire” is not sin’s desire, but a masculine noun in context, such as Abel.

So I would question whether we can base this brand new view of Gen 3:16 on Gen 4:7, a text around which there’s all this debate.

8. Next you conducted a detailed survey of the translation and interpretation of the key word (Heb. tešūqâ) throughout history. From reading early translations such as the Septuagint, early Church and Jewish writings, and the use of the term in writings outside the Bible, what did you find?

The vast majority of all translations and interpretations of this term – in Gen 3:16, 4:7 and in Song of Songs 7:10 – do not read it as “desire” at all, but rather as something more like “return”. All the way back to the Septuagint (200 BC), in Jewish sources like the Book of Jubilees, through the first several hundred years after Christ, it’s understood to mean “return”. It’s only from 300-400 AD that the interpretation “desire” starts showing up in Jewish sources. In Christian texts, the interpretation “desire” doesn’t show up until the 1500’s.

But that’s not the most striking thing. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, the word appears in texts unrelated to Gen 3:16 or other passages where the term is used. So that provides an objective test case, outside the Bible, for what the meaning of this word is. And there’s good evidence there that it means “return” as well. For instance, in a lament poem about humanity’s insignificance (Ed: 1QS 11:21-22), the word has been translated as: “Your desire is for dust”. But considering the context, it would make more sense not as “desiring for dust” but “returning to dust”.

9. So if the original meaning is indeed “return”, then how exactly should we understand Gen 3:16b?

My initial guess is that it would have to do with a return towards the wife’s original relationship with the husband, an effort to recapture the original intimacy that God created the man and the woman to have in the Garden. The intimacy was lost because of the Fall, but there’s a deep need to return to it, and the woman wants to recapture that. I don’t think it’s primarily a sexual movement towards her husband, although that would be included. It’s the farthest away from an adversarial movement against her husband.

10. So if you were on the ESV Translation Committee, what would you do with this verse?

More study needs to be put into it before we abruptly change a translation! But I would change it back to an affectionate desire, because the adversarial desire most definitely does not fit with “return”. In the end, my proposal of “return” isn’t strikingly different to what we have in most translations with “desire for”. But where “desire” is usually seen as sexual, “return” helps to make a broader point.

11. As you mentioned earlier, the ESV 2016 translation made the adversarial reading the official one last year. One scholar (Scott Mcknight) alleges that it was a “stealth translation” which was “sneaked into the text of the ESV for ideological reasons.” (Ed: see also Denny Burk’s response) Do you think that’s fair? Does an adversarial view bolster a specific understanding of gender relations?

I’m not sure if I’m well-equipped to answer that. But there are people on both sides of the egalitarian-complementarian debate who have adopted this “adversarial desire” reading. So I’m not sure if it necessarily bolsters one or the other, though it does seem to go hand-in-hand with the complementarian viewpoint.

I don’t know if it’s because the woman’s desire contrary to her husband then needs to be met with an equal and opposite reaction from the husband – “and he shall rule over you”. There’s a tendency in the complementarian camp to want to see this rule as the way it needs to be, or should be. This research certainly detracts from that interpretation.

12. Some of us might only come across this change when we open up our bibles to teach Sunday School or lead a bible study. For those of us who don’t know Hebrew, or all this history of interpretation, should a change like this freak us out? How should we respond as Christians?

I don’t know if it’s need for worry at all – it’s only a need for a greater understanding of the process. God has revealed himself to us through the Scriptures, but in this fallen world we live in, we don’t necessarily have perfect access to that revelation.

For example, my wife can tell me very clearly to do something, and I can easily miss what she said and go off in another direction. That doesn’t mean my wife’s at fault or there’s a huge problem in our relationship! But we have to recognise that we’re not perfect, I’m not perfect. The interpreter is fallen, and we’re taking strides to improve, but we haven’t arrived at perfection this side of heaven.

It’s helpful to understand that we don’t have a perfect translation – it’s an imperfect effort to capture the original Hebrew. We’ve got good scholars working on that, and it’s 99% worked out. But there are these little bits that are still being debated, and this happens to be one of them. This is one of the more extraordinary cases where a translation committee completely flipped the meaning of a verse 180 degrees based on very recent scholarship.

13. All this work certainly testifies to a deep love for knowing the Scriptures better. Any encouragement for us as we read the Old Testament and try to understand it for ourselves?

Hopefully it’s an encouragement to take seriously the details. We might not have perfect knowledge, but the details do matter. Verbal plenary inspiration means every word is God’s intended revelation for us, and it’s worth our time and effort to wrestle with the details.

Yet our inability to completely grasp it should encourage all of us to come on our knees before the text. Bow in humility before sacred writ: God has revealed Himself, but we are unable to completely grasp it ourselves. We have enough – everything we need for life and godliness. But if we kept in mind how much we lacked, it would keep us very humble. So there’s little room for arrogance in these debates, and the heat we generate is unnecessary and moves against the nature of this enterprise.

 

Reference:

[1] Janson Condren, “Toward a Purge of the Battle of the Sexes and ‘Return’ for the Original Meaning of Genesis 3:16b”, JETS 60/2 (2017): 227–45.


The playground of Eden, the patience of God

At 21 months old, our eldest daughter E amazes us. Each day she seems to pick up something new. I’ve been sitting here at the playground and she’s climbed each of the ladders (all different sizes) on her own, and slid down the slide (she loves it by the way, especially once she’s at the bottom, where she copies me and stares up at the sky for a moment and says, “Sleep”).

She can now walk along the rickety bridge, climb up the slide with the help of her sticky shoes, and hoist herself up on the see-saw before declaring to the world, “Horse!”, followed by a small galloping motion that is better seen than described.

She now also picks up random bits of rubbish, and at my encouragement instead of eating it, motors towards the rubbish bin and drops the cigarette butt/sweet wrapper/paper bag into the bin. High fives and fist bumps all round.

And when she climbs up the ladder to get to the slide, she’s very careful. She takes small, calculated steps with her legs. She’s patient to move one leg only after the other and her hands are holding firm. And the beam on her face as she stands above the ladder victorious is priceless.

This evening I juxtaposed our playground moment with some light reading, Joel Beeke’s Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life. And at the end of chapter 4, he summarises what the Puritan Stephen Charnock says about one of God’s attributes, His patience:

The wickedness of man is an affront to God, but God nevertheless exercises patience in terms of delaying His wrath and tempering it. The question inevitably must be raised as to why God does so. The answer given above has in view the mediatorial work of Christ. This is certainly the main reason, but the patience of God toward sinners on account of Christ also shows God to be appeasable. God desires reconciliation with His creatures and so He does not destroy them at once, but gives them space for repentance.

Practically speaking, the patience of God also allows for the propagation of the human race. Mankind would be unable to increase in number if God killed all humans upon their entry (or even conception) into the world. More specifically, God’s patience allows for the continuance and growth of the church… in this light, Charnock observes, “There could not have been a saint in the earth, nor, consequently in heaven, had it not been for this perfection”…

So if God were not patient and merciful, slow to anger, these precious playground moments wouldn’t have existed. E would not have lived past one moment of conception. I would not have done so. Cheryl would not have.

Whether E or sister H end up worshipping God in Christ, the Patient One knows. But I can be thankful to God that His patience means salvation for girls and boys, men and women of every race.

Why we don’t believe sin provokes the wrath of God

Webtreats Tileable Light Blurs and Abstract Circle Patterns in Bright Lights 4

In Chapter 4 of The Cross of Christ, The Problem of Forgiveness, John Stott identifies five vivid metaphors used in Scripture to illustrate that sin cannot approach God, and God cannot tolerate sin: height (Psalm 7:17), distance (Josh 3:4), light (1 John 1:5), fire (Heb 12:29), and vomiting (Rev 3:16).

He continues,

“[these] all say that God cannot be in the presence of sin, and that if it approaches him too closely it is repudiated or consumed.

Yet these notions are foreign to modern man. The kind of God who appeals to most people today would be easygoing in his tolerance of our offences. He would be gentle, kind, accommodating, and would have no violent reactions.

Unhappily, even in the church we seem to have lost the vision of the majesty of God. There is much shallowness and levity among us. Prophets and psalmists would probably say of us that ‘there is no fear of God before their eyes’. In public worship our habit is to slouch or squat; we do not kneel nowadays, let alone prostrate ourselves in humility before God. It is more characteristic of us to clap our hands with joy than to blush with shame or tears. We saunter up to God to claim his patronage and friendship; it does not occur to us that he might send us away.

We need to hear again the Apostle Peter’s sobering words, “Since you call on a father who judges each man’s work impartially, live your lives… in reverent fear.” (1 Peter 1:17) In other words, if we dare to call our judge our Father, we must beware of presuming on him. It must even be said that our evangelical emphasis on the atonement is dangerous if we come to it too quickly. We learn to appreciate the access to God which Christ has won only after we have first cried, “Woe is me for I am lost.”

In [R.W.] Dale’s words, “It is partly because sin does not provoke our own wrath that we do not believe that sin provokes the wrath of God.”

– John Stott, The Cross of Christ: 20th Anniversary Edition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989), 128-9.

We need to hold fast to the biblical revelation “of the living God who hates evil, is disgusted and angered by it, and refuses ever to come to terms with it.” That’s the essential background to amazing grace offered at the cross.

 

Raising my Ebenezer and changing hymn lyrics

Waiting for Indiana Jones by Pandiyan V

Anyone sung the following hymn line from “Come Thou Fount” recently?

Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Hither by Thy help I’m come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

The word Ebenezer there is a reference to 1 Samuel 7:12, where the prophet Samuel takes a stone and names it “the stone of help”, for he said, “Till now the Lord has helped us.” When understood, it’s a great reminder that God’s faithful to his people throughout biblical history.

Russell Moore recently tweeted the following about it:

Which sparked a conversation about whether song leaders should change obscure words in hymns, or teach them what they mean each time:


 

Following this exchange, Stephen Altrogge fleshed out in a blog post why he errs on the side of Biblical illiteracy, and makes his case for dropping words like Ebenezer. He shares:

…the reality is, our culture is becoming more and more Bible illiterate. Words that once were commonly understood are no longer used. We can’t assume that our friends, coworkers, and fellow students understand what we mean by traditional Bible words, such as “repent”, “sin”, and “forgiveness”. We can’t assume people understand what we’re talking about when we use Bible-rich words like “propitiation” and “justification”. These aren’t commonly used words in our culture anymore. There is no moral majority. We are living in a post-modern, post-Bible culture that doesn’t have a shared repository of religious words.

… Plus, certain words are more important than others. I would prefer that people understand “repent”, “believe”, “grace” and, “forgiveness” before they understand “Ebenezer”. I would prefer that people be firm on “justification” and “sanctification” before they be firm on the word “fount”.

The more biblically literate might argue that it’s a false choice to say people can’t learn about justification, sanctification and Ebenezer. I agree we shouldn’t underestimate the ability to understand Biblical allusions, but we don’t want to presume on people understanding them either.

So some Sundays I’ve taken the time to explain words and phrases that are unclear (it’s even better when our pastors would do this). It usually only needs to take half a minute and can be immensely beneficial.

Here’s two points I think was missing from the conversation.

1. Come Thou Fount has always had more variations than we realise.

From Hymnary.org:

The original hymn includes five verses, but most modern versions use only the first three. There are a few common word changes in different versions. In some texts, instead of “Here I find my greatest treasure,” (Psalter Hymnal) the first line of verse two reads “Here I raise mine Ebenezer,” a reference to 1 Samuel 7:12, in which Samuel sets up a stone and names it Ebenezer meaning “The Lord has helped us” (Episcopal Hymnal, Presbyterian Hymnal, Baptist Hymnal, Methodist Hymnal). As well, the last line of the second stanza can be read “Interposed his precious blood” or “bought me with his precious blood.” The two verbs signify different metaphors of the atonement of Christ.

So most of our hymnals and arrangements don’t even use Robert Robinson’s original 5-verse text anyways. Hymnal collections adapted the words for the audiences in their time (e.g. “Here by Thy great help I’ve come” to “Hither by Thy help I’m come”), and others have done the same in recent years to make the words more understandable.

2. Songs teach Scripture, they’re not Scripture.

Unless you’re singing word-for-word from the Bible, the words in our hymn books and song sheets weren’t breathed out by God. So let’s not treat them that way.

Granted, I think it’s important to sing lyrics consistently to help the words dwell in us easily (when our eyesight fails and our bones grow weary, having songs memorised can be a real encouragement). I probably won’t help my church family if  I’m flipping the words to our hymns every other week.

But if some hymn lyrics we’re asking our brothers and sisters to memorise are too archaic or too obscure, I think we have an opportunity to change them so that they better communicate the Scriptures. That’s what drove hymn writers like Isaac Watts went against the grain in his time, and rewrote metrical psalms to help people understand and connect emotionally to what they sang.

So I think it’s in the same spirit that we adapt the language of hymns for the sake of modern congregations.

Of course, we should change words to hymns with care and sensitivity: care for an accurate meaning, and sensitivity to the needs of your particular church family. Children, visitors, new Christians, old Christians, English-as-second-language Christians will all benefit from better understanding what we sing.

So in conclusion, I think I’m in agreement with Stephen on this question (thanks for raising the topic!), and see no problem with changing hymn lyrics with care and sensitivity. How about you?

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Further reading: 

Raising Ebenezer – Gary A Parrett argues against modernising hymn texts.

How to revise hymns without destroying them – Bobby Gilles talks about the balance between when to revise and when not to revise lyrics.

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1000 km of cycling later…

image

 

It was after a “setting smart goals” session at work and realising I hadn’t been exercising since Eden’s arrival, that I resolved to start cycling.

At the time it was a pretty daunting prospect since the only time I had cycled in the past 18 months was to move my bike (which I got as a present when I turned 12) from one house to another (it was not far, and I remember it was extremely tiring).

As for other types of exercise: I used to run a fair bit bit but since getting married I’ve not developed a consistent habit to run, nor get involved in other sports out there (watching the All Blacks on the couch, sadly does not count).

 

Yet today I’m reflecting on the fact that since November, God’s graciously kept me safe on my bike for over 1000 km.

And I’m still enjoying it!

http://runkeeper.com/user/wchong/fitnessReports/cycling/view

 

Some fun personal stats:

  • Over 150 times on my bike since November
  • Over 1000 km pedalled since November
  • elevation climb of over 9000 m (equivalent of Mt Everest) since November
  • top speed I’ve reached is 50 km/h (zipping down Botany Rd)
  • longest bike ride was for an hour on New Year’s Day, cycling 18.4 km to the Panmure basin, the Rotary track and back
  • Petrol spend down from $94 to $72 a month since getting on my bike (now that the car’s mostly for weekends and specific trips)

 

Cycling 1000km

 

As a Christian I can expect God to teach me things about living in His world under His rule, using a variety of experiences. Here are two things God’s been showing me through my attempts to make cycling a habit:

1. Habit-forming is a daily commitment, not a one-time decision.

My success or failure in maintaining a habit isn’t the result of one big decision (I’m going to start cycling), but making small daily decisions (I’m going to cycle today). Each time I’m presented with the choice of slothfulness or faithfulness (though the temptation to be slothful grows with cold, rainy weather!)

This truth is surprisingly transferable.

In the same way, faithfulness as a husband doesn’t happen because of the one decision to get married, but comes about as I daily commit to the woman I made the promise to.

Consistency as a father doesn’t happen just from a big decision to care for your child, but to daily say no to hundreds of me-first activities and to say yes to feeding, clothing, showering, rocking, nappy-changing her.

And being a faithful servant of Jesus Christ isn’t the result of one decision to “ask Jesus into my heart”, but a daily, moment-by-moment call to deny myself, take up my cross and follow Him.

I need this reminder because when I’m discouraged from reading my bible after missing a few days, or frustrated about a sin I’ve lapsed into again, rather than “let go and let God”, or just giving up, or blaming others, it’s more helpful to put my head down and strive to do it right the next time. And the time after that. And so on.

 

(Explored) by Wen-Cheng Liu

2. Yet habit-forming does not equate to legalism.

I think it’s actually commendable to form habits. The error of legalism is to claim that because of these habits, God is satisfied with me (when he’s already satisfied with me through His perfect Son).

Yet sometimes in an overreaction to legalism, we can almost swing away from seeing diligence at anything as a virtuous thing.

It’s probably too big to explore in one sitting, but at the very least, I think I often forget that working at a craft or habit is a normal means that God uses to grow in holiness, or to improve our skill. The oft-quoted statistic is that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something.

In an interview, worldview theologian James KA Smith points out that

“most contemporary evangelical understandings of discipleship have no place to appreciate the power of habit (except perhaps negatively). But that is a very odd scenario since Christians across the ages have long understood habit formation to be at the center of spiritual formation and discipleship.

 

The balance between God’s enabling and our efforts I think can be seen in Philippians 2:12-13, where the Apostle Paul exhorts his readers to

“continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.”

 

 

I haven’t read Kevin DeYoung’s “Hole in our Holiness” book but I’m sure there would be helpful points in there too about this balance between what God enables us to do and actually doing it.

So I can reasonably say that God grants me the grace to ride my bike, read my bible, love my wife and daughter consistently, yet he achieves this through me making daily decisions to do what’s right.

I’m given both the power do something, and the responsibility to do it.

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