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The ESV and Isaiah 1:2 – The Language of Sonship

September 4, 2009

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.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 4, 2009 5:48 pm

    How do you explain that the Reformation was possible considering the poor quality of Luther and Tyndale’s Bible.

    And if a Bible uses the terms “sons of God” but “children of Israel” doesn’t it look as if women have lost status in Christianity. Well, I guess that is honest at least.

    Or do you propose a Bible that uses the language “sons of Israel.” The ESV would need a major revision, but it could be done. Perhaps the 30,000 little girls of Numbers 31 could be called honourary “men” to maintain concordance with Adam, their father, And Moses after all did have two fathers.

    • jbstarke permalink*
      September 4, 2009 5:58 pm

      Hey Sue. Good to see you back. I didn’t know if you blacklisted me or not 🙂

      Did you read my whole post? The Son of Man or son of God language is important for christological or christo-centric themes. The Bible is simply not centered around if little girls or boys feel left out or not. Its centered on the work of Christ. If we make everything neutral, then central themes are gone. They are things that hold the Bible together. Its got nothing to do with the gender debate, but everything to do with person of Christ.

      In Isaiah 1, if the translators would just be literal in the translation and translate it “sons” you are including this passage that starts from Exodus and goes until the life of Christ. Jesus is the fulfilled Israel – the Son of God!

      Thats more important than some people feeling left out – I’m sure if those people actually exist, however. Though I’m sure you have a few examples you will list for me

  2. September 4, 2009 6:05 pm

    I didn’t say anything about anyone feeling left out. I said that the 30,000 girls were called adam because they were human. They were probably all raped anyway, so perhaps they would have been happier dead.

  3. September 4, 2009 6:09 pm

    If concordance is such a big deal, why use the term “children of Israel” at all. Surely you want to get rid of it, in favour of the “sons of Israel.”

    Surely you want to get rid of the word propitiation and replace it with atonement. This would only be consistant. I don’t see how anyone can possibly understand the meaning of propitiation since all concordance with the OT is broken. It surprises me that any theological arguemnt can be maintained with a translation that used propitiation instead of atonement.

    • jbstarke permalink*
      September 4, 2009 6:22 pm

      The problem is that atonement doesn’t fully comprehend the meaning of propitiation. If you want to say “the appeasement of the wrath of God” or something that actually explains what happened at the atonement. Paul is explaining what happened at the atonement, not that there was an atonement in Romans 3.

      Sons of Israel over children of Israel is not point. That makes no difference. But we need to be careful to not take out words that Scriptures put in for us to see the storyline of redemption. You can use “brothers and sisters” or “people” (as my ESV does in Num 31), but don’t take out words that have significant meaning to the storyline of redemption. Luther, Calvin, and Tyndale never did that!

  4. September 4, 2009 6:49 pm

    Luther translated adam with Mensch, and ish wih Mann. He did not switch back and forth mid chapter from verse to verse as the ESV does. He was consistent. And he almost always translated huioi as Kinder – children.

    And I am not referring to the supposed meaning of atonement. Oddly atonement was the word coined by Tyndale to translate hilasmos. There is a direct connection with the OT LXX, between the day of atonement and atonement in the NT. But this connection is entirely lost in the ESV.

    This is entirely muddled by the introduction of the word propitiation from Latin, for NT occrences of hilasmos, but not for the OT usage in the LXX.

    Do you think that Paul did not have HYom Kippur in mind when he used the word hilasmos?

    • jbstarke permalink*
      September 4, 2009 6:55 pm

      Paul had atonement in mind when he was explaining the last end of Romans 3. The whole section could be summed in one word, atonement. hilasmos is one aspect of the atonement – wrath appeasement. Atonement alone does not carry the precise meaning. If propitiation isn’t clear to you, thats fine. But don’t flatten the word out with only “atonement”. Its like using the same word to describe itself.

  5. September 4, 2009 7:05 pm

    My point is that the TNIV represents a scholarly choice in every instance. What has happened is despicable. The TNIV is far nearer the tradition of Luther and Tyndale that the ESV will ever be.

    • jbstarke permalink*
      September 4, 2009 7:23 pm

      Yeah, I get your point. We just disagree. There are two important factors – (1) plain reading of the text and (2) faithfulness to the text. Since I believe in verbal plenary inspiration, I think faithfulness to the very words of the text is, fundamentally, more important than plain and clear reading. Though, both are very important. I’m not saying the ESV is perfect (hence my blog post), but if I’m going to rely on the words of God for teaching, preaching, and devotion, then the TNIV fails – I Cor. 15:42-49 (one person or man) is a big deal for me. It is one “man” and that man is either Adam or Jesus Christ.

      TNIV has good scholars (Moo is a hero of mine). Scholarly is no problem. There is a much different and more significant problem than simple linguistics. It is, what do we do with the words in which God reveals himself and his word? Too many tread lightly over this and assume they can simply apply what would or would not make sense in today’s culture. It is God’s mind over man’s.

  6. September 4, 2009 7:37 pm

    So you don’t find the constant switching back and forth on anthorpos being “men” in one part of the chapter, and “people or humans” in the other part of a chapter to be a loss of faithfulness. I consider it to be a loss of faithfulness AND a loss of plain reading.

    In fact, that is why Driscoll and others were so far off in understanding 1 Tim 5:8. While Erasmus and Calvin were easily able to perceive that this verse was predominantly for women, because they read it in Greek, pastors today interpret it as for men, because of the use of the generic masculine in English were there is no masculine in Greek.

    In my view, the TNIV offered a uniquely accurate view of the gender usage of the Greek text. It is a shame tht the public will been deprived of this Bible version. I don’t see why anyone would be proud of being responsible for having this Bible discontinued. I think it is a grave sin to deprive people of a correct translation of the Bible in gender terms. Some women and children may forsake Christianity altogether because they will not understand that the Bible intended to include women.

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