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. 
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.
 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.