Better Bibles Blog has moved. Read our last post, below, and then
click here if you are not redirected to our new location within 60 seconds.
Please Bookmark our new location and update blogrolls.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Every Male Among The Men (Genesis 17:23 ESV)

Someone off blog drew my attention to Genesis 17:23 in the ESV, especially the wording "every male among the men of Abraham's house". Does this imply that the ESV translators thought that there were also females among the men of Abraham's house, and were therefore using "man" in a gender generic sense? If so, this shows considerable inconsistency in ESV usage, especially as the head of the ESV Translation Committee has stated that "men" in 2 Timothy 2:2 was intended to be gender specific. Or maybe they were simply copying RSV, in which "men" is to be understood as generic.

The Hebrew word אִישׁ 'ish is commonly understood to be a specifically male word. But Genesis 17:23 implies that at least in the plural form used here it can be gender generic. In fact there are clear cases where even in the singular it is gender generic. However, the Colorado Springs guideline
Hebrew 'ish should ordinarily be translated "man" and "men"
seems to imply that the word must be understood as gender specific. No wonder the ESV translators were confused at this point and so ended up with nonsense wording.

PS (update): I note that NRSV has the same confused reading as ESV. And of course KJV as well as RSV does, but there was no problem in their time as "men" was understood generically. So ESV follows a venerable tradition. That does not excuse it for a reading which in 21st century English makes little sense. For more on this, see the comments.

22 Comments:

At Fri Aug 18, 09:21:00 AM, Blogger J. Mark Bertrand said...

If the ESV translators were confused, that confusion seems to have been widespread. Not only did the KJV and RSV translators share it, but so did the translators of the NASB and the NKJV. Even the NRSV has this reading. Why single out the ESV translators? I doubt that it has ever made sense in English to talk about every male among the men, after all, even as far back as 1611.

 
At Fri Aug 18, 10:08:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

A good point, Mark. My feeling is that this reading did make sense in 1611, and even in 1952 (RSV). I don't think the KJV translators wrote what was nonsense to them. But by 1990 (NRSV) it no longer did make sense. So my criticism could have been directed at the NRSV translators as well as the ESV team, for also being inconsistent on gender.

If anyone is surprised that I find this reading nonsense, they should ask themselves what their reaction would be to "every female among the women".

 
At Fri Aug 18, 10:35:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Mark remarked (!):

Not only did the KJV and RSV translators share it, but so did the translators of the NASB and the NKJV. Even the NRSV has this reading. Why single out the ESV translators?

I agree, Mark, the ESV should not be singled out. However, one reason for doing so might be that it is the latest version to use this nonsensical wording in English. And ESV promotional advertising raises such high expectations of being worded in such good English that we would expect better.

The problem has to do with not properly translating the Hebrew wording to an equivalent English wording. That happens when one is paying so much attention to the biblical language text that inadequate attention is paid to the quality of the translated text.

The NIV got it right for current English with:

"every male in his household"

Similar wordings in other English versions have it translated right also.

 
At Fri Aug 18, 10:58:00 AM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Even the HCSB which also followed the CSG renders the passage better: "every male among the members of Abraham’s household."

I got two chuckles out of this post. One was just from reading it as Peter described the oddness of the traditional translation (agreed, found in much more than the ESV). Then, after comparing a few translations myself, I found this awkwardly worded rendering from the NLT1: "On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and every other male in his household and circumcised them, cutting off their foreskins, exactly as God had told him. "

I had this mental images of the servants being counted and the ones spared from circumcision saying, "Whew!"

 
At Fri Aug 18, 11:40:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I had this mental images of the servants being counted and the ones spared from circumcision saying, "Whew!"

"1, 2, 1, 2, 1, 2, ..."

"OK, everybody, 1's are in, 2's are out."

:-)

 
At Fri Aug 18, 12:10:00 PM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

The NET seems to get this verse right Abraham took his son Ishmael and every male in his household...

This post almost feels like bad reporting. You know like a newpaper article reveals something about a company or something, we all read it, are shocked, and then come to find out that it has been done that way many times before.

To bad the CSG weren't around a few hundred years ago, that would have made this post retain a little bit of integrity.

The inherent desire to single out the ESV translators on this post only served to make the remarks somewhat embarassing.

Better Bibles blog? Someone start a section on Better Reporting.

Why am I so critical of this post? It isn't the worst thing ever right? True. And I do not support the ESV (I don't even own one). But, we must realize that what is said on Blogs and in electronic media is often taken at face value. Can you imagine someone who read the entry but didn't read the comments? Now that person may have a misconstrued perspective on the entire CSG/ESV/Gender Issues and no idea that this rendering has been done before.

We need to be responsible with what we say because not everyone is as investigative as others.

 
At Fri Aug 18, 01:10:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At Fri Aug 18, 02:21:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

Good points everyone. I agree - there is a long tradition here (with this passage and others). Tradition isn't everything - but - one should be careful when they start drawing outside the lines.

-Nathan

 
At Fri Aug 18, 02:43:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Matthew, two wrongs, or even hundreds of wrongs, don't make a right. Just because others have done the same thing wrong before, that doesn't mean that the ESV translators were right. Note also that I did make it clear that the RSV translators had used the same wording, although they were not confused as for them "men" is usually generic and so there is no problem in this verse.

But, just to keep you happy, I have added a PS so that people who don't read the comments know that NRSV made the same mistake.

 
At Fri Aug 18, 05:32:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At Fri Aug 18, 09:08:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I looked this up in my copy of Genesis Octapla (ed. Weigle)

Thanks for all the interesting citations, Ishmael. (BTW, it feels good to have a name by which to address you. And Ishmael works for me.)

 
At Fri Aug 18, 09:36:00 PM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

One thing I notice is that there's a distinction between the Tyndale/KJV tradition and the non-Tyndale/KJV traditon. Every translation in the first tradition contains the redundancy, even the NRSV. Non-Tyndale/KJV translations such as the NIV/TNIV, HCSB, NET, NLT, etc. do not contain it.

Over the last eight months or so, I've tried to make a concerted effort to use Tyndale/KJV tradition Bibles less in my teaching ministry. I've been primarily using HCSB and TNIV. My evidence is anecdotal, but I feel like I am breaking free of some very bad habits/leftovers (such as the one in Gen 17:23) that are in that older tradition.

 
At Sat Aug 19, 08:10:00 AM, Blogger M. J. Mansini said...

Matthew, two wrongs, or even hundreds of wrongs, don't make a right.

That is so true!

Just because others have done the same thing wrong before, that doesn't mean that the ESV translators were right.

This is also sooo true!

But, just to keep you happy, I have added a PS so that people who don't read the comments know that NRSV made the same mistake.

You are so amazingly kind. But, how does it feel to act responsibly with your information? A new concept for blogging?

;D, All in good humour...

 
At Sat Aug 19, 11:37:00 AM, Blogger son of abraham said...

Peter,

There is no problem with the rendering "Every male among the men of Abraham's house" if you will only quote the whole phrase, and put the emphasis where it belongs. "Every male among the men of Abraham's house" means "every male among the men of ABRAHAM's house," not "every male among the MEN of Abraham's house. The right emphasis is not possible if you cut off the words following "men," as you do here. The idea that the grammatically masculine word 'enosh must have a gender-neutral sense here runs into problems when we come to the same word in verse 27, where it cannot be inclusive of women. See the Hebrew text. That is probably why the NRSV editors, who ordinarily neutralize the language if it can be justified, refrained from doing it in this context.

Michael Marlowe

 
At Sat Aug 19, 12:36:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Peter, I field tested "every male from among the men of Abraham" after you posted this message. Here was my question:

"What meaning do you get from a traditional wording in this verse (I gave the reference in the message header):

'every male among the men of Abraham's house'"

I have received a number of interesting responses.

This s from one of my coworkers:

"Well that's easy, it's ummm, ummm, well... hmmmm. I guess it's every male in Abe's lineage, who is among the men. You see, I suspect that there were females IMPERSONATING men, just so they could be among the men and check things out. That's the only way they could have access to the high speed internet that the men of Abe's camp had. The women had no such access.

On the other foot, it does have meaning to me as "every adult male" as opposed to every male of any age including little boys.

Of course, high speed internet was only 2 bits/sec, that's all the bridles they could fit on those old camels. So even the females that lived among the men, impersonating them, didn't have it that good by today's standards. But at least they got their two bits! Ha ha ha!"

Here is my wife's response:

"I didn't know there were any none-male men!"

From someone else:

"I'd say "all the male goats, male sheep, male children etc. of all the male descendents of Abraham."

And from another:

"I think it just means every Jewish male above the age of 13, or whatever
they considered the age of accountability."

From a Brit:

"It sounds to me as if there were some men undergoing gender realignment
surgery so they were not the ones wanted."

From a Bible translator:

"It appears redundant to me, Wayne."

There were several people who got the intended meaning from the wording.

 
At Sat Aug 19, 12:45:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Michael commented:

There is no problem with the rendering "Every male among the men of Abraham's house" if you will only quote the whole phrase, and put the emphasis where it belongs. "Every male among the men of Abraham's house" means "every male among the men of ABRAHAM's house,"

Yes, I think that increases the acceptability for the English for me a bit, Michael. But I'm still struggling with it, even with the emPHAsis on the other syLABble, I mean, word, ABRAHAM.

To my ear, the entire wording sounds redundants with both "male" and "men", even with the addition of "Abraham's house." Of course, this may be a defect in MY ear

:-)

One suggestion that came from a members of the Bible Translation discussion list was that the HCSB wording was good (he is one of the HCSB translators):

"every male among the members of Abraham's household."

That makes sense to me. Does it seem to you to capture all the meaning components of the original Hebrew?

 
At Sat Aug 19, 03:04:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At Sat Aug 19, 03:36:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Ishmael asked:

After all, if one finds

Every male among the men of Abraham's house

redundant, wouldn't one also find

every male among the members of Abraham's household

redundant?


The difference is that for those speakers who hear a redundancy (I am one of them since for me "the men" only refers to adult males), "men" is a subset of "males". So the second set is entirely subsumed within the first. Referring to such overlapping of sets results in redundant expressions.

But for the second wording, not all members are all males (some members--or "people"--are females), so there is no redundancy of expression when referring to them.

 
At Sat Aug 19, 04:11:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At Sat Aug 19, 07:30:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Ishmael wrote:

Let me repeat my question above -- what is the difference between (using the HCSB)

males among the members of Abraham's household

and

males among Abraham's household

Right, these two mean the same. Thanks for following up.

My concern about redundancy is that certain kinds are inappropriate in certain contexts for different languages. Hebrew repetition (which isn't really the case for this verse, since the second noun doesn't really mean 'men') often had a function within the language. That function was often different from what we would have if we simply translated the original repetition literally to English. What is needed, and this is difficult, is to try to determine the function of repetion in each language, and match up functions between languages. Often Hebrew repetition emphasizes the elements that are repeated. In Hebrew poetry, as you know better than I, I'm sure, there is important repetition. It serves an important function in Hebrew. We should not allow that function to slip through the cracks in translation. We need to try to capture it somehow in the translation.

 
At Sat Aug 19, 08:51:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At Sun Aug 20, 07:32:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Ishmael wrote:

My view is that the text is doing something very special and very important here -- and it is definitely not poetry, but a particular genre which has is lost to us today. The Biblical text is deliberately repeating this information over and over again. In my view, translators should translate this section precisely -- retaining all the repetition.

I agree with you, Ishmael. And I agree that there was a purpose for that Hebraic repetition. One might have been to make it easier for an oral culture to transmit the details precisely from one generation to another. Another might have been to emphasize how the instructions were to be carried out exactly the same for each of the twelve.

But I could easily imagine a field test would reveal something different -- and if it does, I argue that it calls into question the idea of field testing.

Well, yes, field testing has its limits and should not be applied to something like this, where there is intentional repetition operating at a higher level of language as a feature of rhetoric.

Field testing is especially useful for spotting problems in the translation language wordings, such as unnatural word collocations, ungrammatical wordings, transitive verbs lacking objects (this exists in some English versions), etc.

I think the perceived redundancy of Gen. 17:23 is once such problem for the English translation, not for the Hebrew original. In my dialect it doesn't sound like good English to write about "every male from among the men of Abraham's household." The problem is not with the Hebrew. The problem is not with any repetition in Hebrew (and there actually isn't any since there are different Hebrew words behind the translations 'males' and 'men'). Rather, the problem is with the English translation which creates strange English for those of us who understand the word "men" in this verse to refer to adult males. It may not have been strange English in 1611 A.D. But English changes, like every other language. And, for some, but not all, of us, the wording of Gen. 17:23 is strange today.

 

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home