Sunday, April 10, 2005

The make-believe Bible

A short letter to the 3/26/03 issue of World Mag did a wonderful job of encapsulating a controversy over which entire books have been written:


As I was reading the TNIV verses, like "Blessed are those who do not walk in the counsel of the wicked," I felt, that's me! God includes me, and I can't wait to get a copy of the TNIV simply because, as a woman, I'm included. I'm not suggesting that the TNIV doesn't have its problems--every translation does--but why are we so quick to discard over half of the body of Christ and tell them to "just figure it out"?


Why indeed? Good question. What's the answer?

Think, for just a moment, of what she is saying. On the basis of the TNIV, she feels that God has included her. Not on the basis of the original Hebrew. Not on the basis of what the original actually said or intended to mean or referred to.

No. On the basis of something that is not in the original. On the basis of a translational gimmick, a linguistic sleight-of-hand.

Let's be clear on this. Utterly, brutally clear. Her confidence in whether she is included in the word of God is based on something that is not, in fact, in the word of God. Her confidence is based on a form of words that the translation committee simply invented up to make her feel included.

It is a purely verbal artifice, with nothing to back it up. It doesn't go back to the any promises that God actually made in Scripture. Rather, it originates with the translation committee. It has no life, no warrant, no subsistence beyond the translation committee, which conjured it into being to make her feel included.

So her assurance of salvation is founded on thin air. Literally. On merely man-made phonemes or vocables.


Dear Paul,

A good question which calls for several answers.

1. Although Andrew posted this trifle of mine, it was actually written by me (Steve Hays). Hence, Andrew may or may not agree with the exact way in which I chose to word everything I said. And he may or may not agree with my explanation. I leave that to him.

2. My main point was not to comment on whether the original Hebrew does or does not support this inclusive rendering. Rather, my main point is that this woman, and people like her, don’t even ask that question. They don’t care. They shop around for a translation that tells them what they want to hear. And if you were to tell them that the original Greek or Hebrew did not support a particular inclusive rendering, they would get very angry and impatient. They have a preconception of what God is like. They have a sense of entitlement. From their point of view, a unisex version is justified because that’s the way the world is supposed to be.

So my primary point is that you are posing a question which she didn’t bother to ask. This is the sort of question she should be asking. But she doesn’t ask it because she has already made up her mind what sort of answer she is prepared to hear.

And this reduces Christian faith to make-believe and wishful thinking. For we only know if we are included in the promises of God based on God’s revealed will.

3. Moving on to your own question. It is really up to the translators of the ESV to explain their own footnotes. I think that what I’m about to say is quite compatible with the footnote. But I’ll leave the interpretation of the footnote up to someone like Dr. Poythress.

4. As I understand it, the Hebrew word “ish” normally means a male member of the human race. In fact, one could argue that it always means a male human being. There are a few cases where it might approximate a generic male pronoun, when it is used more generally to designate a group which, by implication, would include women. Yet that is not what the word “means.” That is only an incidental, contextual generalization, where the implied referent might well include women.

BTW, there is a distinction between intent and implication. For example, the Mosaic Law talks about fencing the roof of a house as a safety precaution. By implication, this might be used to justify modern safety features as well. Yet that would not be intended by the original author (Moses), even though it may well be a legitimate inference or application.

Sometimes, too, “ish” is used in Hebrew parallelism, although that doesn’t mean that the two words are strictly synonymous, but only that they share enough of the same semantic domain that they can be paired off for literary purposes.

So the precise answer to your question is the bare meaning of the Hebrew usage does not, of itself, include women. The Hebrew is denoting a “man” in the gender-specific sense of the term, and that is the mental image intended by the usage.

5. Does this imply that women are thereby excluded? No.

Ps 1 is written with an ideal reader in mind. The Psalmist doesn’t assume that the reader comes to this text in a vacuum. What we take from any given verse of Scripture is largely determined by what we bring to it.

Since Ps 1 is anonymous, we can safely assume that it was written later than David. So the ideal reader would come Ps 1 with a knowledge of all the canonical books up to Ps 1.

Where the cut-off point comes is, of course, a bit speculative, but on any orthodox view of Scripture, it would certainly include the Pentateuch and other books leading up to the monarchy, as well as, perhaps, the early history of the monarchy. Something on the order of Gen-2 Sam.

And if a reader came to Ps 1 with this background, he or she would read it in light of certain extraneous, but pertinent information. As it bears on your question, there would be at least three salient considerations:

i) There is a principle of federal headship in the OT (as well as the NT), where individual men represent other men and women, viz., Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David. So a man can represent a woman.

ii) In the Torah, women had certain rights and responsibilities. Jewish women were morally obligated to be righteous—no less than men.

iii) Moreover, the historical books of Scripture give concrete examples of righteous women.

So the ideal reader would bring this background information to his reading of Ps 1. In that canonical contextual sense, women are included in Ps 1.

The ideal reader of Ps 1, to whom the Psalm was originally addressed, would bring this subliminal understanding to the text. It would ordinarily operate at a tacit, subconscious level.

What is more, Scripture was intended by God to be read, not only forwards, but backwards—not only in the context of promise, but the context of fulfillment. Christians who read the Psalms know how the story ends, as well as how it begins. We know how the Psalms find fulfillment under the New Covenant. And we know that women are included in the New Covenant as well.

6. I would add a distinction between sense and referent. For example, on the orthodox interpretation of Isa 7:14, the ultimate referent is the Virgin Mary and the Christchild. Yet no intelligent Christian would insist that Isa 7:14 should be rendered: “Behold, the Virgin Mary shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Jesus Christ.”

Such a “translation” would be a gross mistranslation of the original because this is not what the Hebrew says or means—even if that is the ultimate historical referent.

By the same token, it is wrong to try to build every implicit application back into the rendering. There are people in the church who demand that a mere translation should do all the work of a commentary or expository sermon. But the job of a translator is to render the text, not to import all of the historical background or future fulfillment into his rendering. So even if we accepted the egalitarian version of role-relations (which I don’t), that would not justify an egalitarian version of Scripture.


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