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Questions & Answers

Monday, June 4th, 2007

“Please explain the ESV’s translation of Malachi 2:16.”

Technically speaking, this is the hardest question I’ve ever been asked. In truth, it was asked sometime late last year, and I have put it off until now because I didn’t really know how to answer it.

Since the English Standard Version of the Bible was published in 2001, preachers, elders, and Bible class teachers have been comparing it to their translation of choice. Some, such as myself, have even chosen to make the ESV their default translation for preaching and writing. As it is the case with all translations, the ESV has its strong points and weak points.

But I may never understand why it decided to break from every other major translation in its rendering of Malachi 2:16. Here is the verse, as the ESV translates it, within its context.

…the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by convenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yoruselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. For the man who hates and divorces, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless (emphasis has been added to the wording in question, D.K.).

A comparison with other translations (e.g. KJV, NKJV, ASV, NASB, and NIV) shows that the ESV separated itself from the herd by ascribing hatred to the man who divorces his wife; the rest ascribe hatred to God towards divorce. While this is a significant difference, it should be pointed out that none of the translations casts divorce in a positive light. Thus, I can detect no ulterior motives on the part of the ESV translation committee.

The problem is that Malachi 2:15-16 is very difficult to translate. Without getting too complicated, the subject for the verb “hate” is not named in the original. And it appears to be in the third person, although the statement is attributed to the Lord, making the translation “I hate” grammatically awkward. The ESV was evidently shooting for a clean rendering, complete with subject-verb agreement by assigning the hatred to the man who divorces.

A defense of this wording can be found in the footnotes. The Septuagint, and early Greek translation of the Old Testament, is mentioned. Like the ESV it connects the hatred in Malachi 2:16 to the husband. Rendered in English, it reads, “But if thou shouldest hate thy wife and put her away, saith the Lord God of Israel, then ungodliness shall cover thy thoughts.”

The footnotes also allude to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, the classic Old Testament text on divorce, where Moses permits the Israelites to issue a certificate of divorce (cf. Mt. 19:3-9). In that text “hatred” is used in connection with the husband who divorces his wife.

It appears that the ESV translators felt that these two ancient witnesses built a strong case for making a departure from centuries of English translation. This is strange, because the ESV prides itself as being a word-for-word, literal translation of the inspired Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible. As I have pointed out before on Truth and Repose, there have been times when the ESV has refused to lean on the Septuagint and other biblical passages. Why, then, does it choose to do so here at the expense of breaking a centuries-long translational tradition?

Since most authorities render the passage “I hate divorce,” ascribing the hatred to God, that is the best translation in my judgment. If the concept of hatred seems incompatible with a loving and merciful God to some, they should know that there are many abominations of the Lord (cf. Lev. 18:22; Prov. 6:16-19). The capacity to love deeply necessitates a capacity to hate that which threatens the objects of one’s affection. There are two sides to every coin.

I still prefer the ESV to other English Bibles because of its devotion to a word-for-word translation, its readability, and the dignity of its style. If there is a lesson to be learned out of this discussion, it is that all translations are from man and that we should keep several versions on hand for study, so that we can know we are discerning God’s will for our lives.

KJV to ESV: Why I Made the Switch

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

At the first of this year I made a change that will cause me a great deal of difficulty for the next several months, maybe years. I took my copy of the English Standard Version of the Bible from its place among the works of reference on my desk and switched it with the reliable King James that usually rested next to my notepad and pen. Now I am using the English Standard for all my preaching and teaching, instead of the King James.

I’ve been using the ESV in Bible classes since it was first published in 2001. This way, I could get familiar with the text to see if I really wanted to use it in the pulpit. It was a way of testing the waters before making the plunge. In the meantime I continued to preach from the King James. I had been doing memory work in that translation for several years and was comfortably quoting from it every Sunday.

The problem was, I was constantly stopping in the middle of citing the KJV to say, “That word has changed in English usage. For a better translation, see the ESV.” I was constantly explaining that “conversation” no longer means what it did in 1611, or avoiding the “superfluity of naughtiness” in James 1:21. I had a hard time discussing the afterlife, since the KJV substituted “hell” for “Hades.” A number of other problems confronted me, all of them familiar to anyone who has preached from the KJV for a period of time. I could have put up with them and stayed in my comfort zone, but I was having a hard time justifying this when the ESV came on the scene.

The ESV is not perfect, but in the context of today’s English it is superior to the KJV. Not only does it strive for a word-for-word translation, it also employs beautiful, dignified English in its phrasing and delivery. Also, it is based on the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible, the United Bible Society’s fourth edition of the Greek New Testament, and to the twenty-seventh edition of Nestle and Aland’s Novum Testamentum Graece. These benefit from earlier manuscripts than were available to the KJV translators, who relied upon the Textus Receptus.

The hardest part of making this switch is trying to quote from memory passages that I have cited from the KJV through all my years of preaching. Hopefully, my mind is making an “ESV” file for new quotations, while keeping the old “KJV” file with the memory work I’ve done in the past. With extensive work in two major translations, I should have a better grasp of the text, as I will be able to compare these two translations in my mind while studying.

Elders, ministers, editors, and lectureship directors should consider revising their translation guidelines to include the ESV. The translation has been on the market for six years now and has proven to be as reliable as any other, not to mention that when it comes to beauty and style, it has no rival. Some years ago I wrote a 67 page booklet for an organization using the ESV. Not long afterwards I received a call from the director, saying I would have to rewrite my work. He didn’t feel comfortable with the translation I was using. In another case, I received a letter concerning a speaking appointment. Within the letter was the following guideline: “Use the King James Version, New King James Version, or the American Standard Version for your text.” I don’t want to judge motives, but I wonder how many church leaders have given the ESV a chance. If they did, they would welcome it in their pulpits and classes.

While we may get sentimental about certain versions of the Bible, sentimentality is not the preacher’s job. A preacher’s job is to explain God’s will to the world and persuade people to follow it. By this rationale, the ESV is one of the best translations on the market.