The ESV and Isaiah 1:2 – The Language of Sonship
With the TNIV announcement and the coming NIV 2011, translation and gender is a searing hot topic right now in blogs and news reports. My choice of translation, like many, is the ESV. Their translation philosophy takes seriously verbal plenary inspiration and looks to preserve the language of the biblical writers. They articulate it this way:
Therefore, to the extent that plain English permits and the meaning in each case allows, we have sought to use the same English word for important recurring words in the original; and, as far as grammar and syntax allow, we have rendered Old Testament passages cited in the New in ways that show their correspondence. Thus in each of these areas, as well as throughout the Bible as a whole, we have sought to capture the echoes and overtones of meaning that are so abundantly present in the original texts.
This is a great philosophy for those who desire to see the themes that run throughout Scripture. For example, in the NRSV, instead of using “Son of Man” in the OT (see Daniel 7:13 NRSV), they used “human being.” So then, when you get to Matthew 8:20, Jesus’ words have no Old Testament content to them.
I am very pleased with the translation philosophy of the ESV. However, in my opinion, there needs to be an update in a few passages that fail to align with the above translation philosophy. It seems that Isaiah 1:2 is the most significant:
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
“Children have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.
My problem is with the word “children.” The Hebrew literally reads “sons.” I understand why the translators put children – since both male and female are included in the idea of “sons.” However, I think this fails the Christian reader, not because we miss the masculine form of the word, but because we miss the echoes and overtones of meaning that run through the history of Israel and the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Here is my argument:
Isaiah, in chapter 1, is starting his book by referring back to the Song of Moses (Deut. 32:1).
“Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak
and let the earth hear the words of my mouth”
Deuteronomy 32:6, 10, 15 all refer to God as the Father – one who has reared Israel from Egypt, but they have rebelled against God in idolatry. Israel’s redemption from Egypt and rebellion in idolatry is the context of Isaiah 1:2 and the entire chapter. So far, the translation “children” can work and we will not lose any theological or thematic meaning.
Yet, if we continue throughout Scripture with this same theme, the word “son” is very explicit. See Hosea 11:1 – “When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” According to Hosea, this “son” failed morally, see verse 2, “The more they were called, the more they went away; they kept sacrificing to the Baals and burning offerings to idols.” Again, we have the Exodus and Israel’s rebellion as the theme. Except, sonship is more explicit. Here we see an echo of God’s words in Exodus 4:22, “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son.” Without sonship language, the parallel theme in Isaiah 1 is flattened.
Yet, it becomes most significant when Matthew 2:15, when referring to the Son of God, Jesus Christ, writes, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” The inference, when reading this passage with the history of Israel in mind, is that Matthew can quote Hosea 11:1 and refer to the sonship of Christ fulfilling the sonship of Israel, yet Matthew cannot quote Hosea 11:2, referring to their rebellion in idolatry. Jesus is the Son of God that does not fail. This is the Son out of Egypt that will not, as Isaiah 1:2 puts it, “rebel against me.”
However, if since the ESV translates Isaiah 1:2 with “children” rather than “sons,” then there are no echoes and overtones of meaning. The passage, seemingly, doesn’t look forward to a Son that will not fail. If it, however, is translated as “Sons have I reared and brought up,” then the passage is seen to have the full meaning of sonship that runs through the history of Israel and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.