Rachel Held Evans and “Really Bad Translations”

Popular blogger and author, Rachel Held Evans, spoke at Mars Hill Bible Church this past Sunday for their Lenten series on the book of Ruth. The main emphasis in her teaching corresponds to her forthcoming book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, namely that there really isn’t a “biblical” anything, let alone biblical womanhood. Her contention was that Ruth “broke all the rules” of biblical womanhood, especially those of the “Proverbs 31 woman,” a reference to the last chapter of the book of Proverbs. This perspective aligns with a theme of her blog regarding the Bible, namely her oft-repeated caution: “loving the Bible for what it is and not what I want it to be.”

Although there is much more that could be said regarding her sermon, I do wish to focus on some issues related to her exposition of Scripture that formed the basis behind the assertions in her message. She claims that in her research she discovered some significant issues with our English Bible translations of Proverbs 31. I add her quote for context:

“I did a little more research and I found out that we’ve kinda been mistranslating Proverbs 31. The poem is just really infused with this strong militaristic language that we miss in our English translation. So where we read, ‘she brings food to her family,’ the best translation is actually, ‘she brings home spoils of war.’ Where we read, ‘she can laugh at the days to come,’ the best translation is, ‘she laughs in victory.’ And the line that carries the poem is usually translated, ‘a virtuous wife who can find?’ And that’s a really bad translation. The more fitting translation based on the language is, ‘a woman of valor who can find?’ And the phrase that’s used is ‘eshet chayil’…”

Her proposed translation of Proverbs 31:25, “she laughs in victory,” is simply false. The Hebrew is וַתִּשְׂחַק לְיוֹם אַחֲרוֹן (Proverbs 31:25). No Hebrew dictionary or lexicon I consulted has “victory” or any synonym as a possible translation of אַחֲרוֹן. It means “behind, western, later, future, last.” When used with יוֹם (“day”), as it is here, it means “last or later days” or more dynamically, “the future.” The phrase pretty clearly means “she laughs at time/days to come” (ESV, HCSB, NIV, NRSV, etc.) or “she smiles at the future” (NASB), indicating a postive and optimistic outlook of the woman in Proverbs 31. It seems that nearly all the English translations have missed Mrs. Evan’s observation about a militaristic “victory” motif in this verse.

Additionally, her rendering “she brings home spoils of war,” for verse 15 also seems fabricated. The Hebrew is וַתִּתֵּן טֶרֶף לְבֵיתָהּ (Proverbs 31:15). The term for war (מִלְחָמָה) does not appear anywhere in the entire chapter. The key term, בַּיִת, means “house, dwelling, building, family.” There isn’t a term for war that even remotely resembles בַּיִת. The term טֶרֶף can refer to food derived from animals (i.e. “prey”) or from grain (i.e. “freshly plucked”) and likely refers to “food” in general. The imagery is the industrious and generous service to her family: “This woman does not spare herself in supplying provisions for the household” (Roland E. Murphy, Proverbs [Waco: Word Books, 1998], 247). It is very, very difficult to see how she derived “spoils for war” from this verse, let alone how it would be possibly be regarded as “the best translation.”

Lastly, Mrs. Evans placed an emphasis on revealing a major conceptual distinction between “virtuous wife” and a “woman of valor” in verse 10, even labelling the former “a really bad translation.” This distinction was vital to the main point of her message, since this phrase is applied to Ruth in Ruth 3:11 (it also occurs in Prov 12:4). It seemed at first that she was objecting to “wife” over the term “woman.” If that were the case, she evidently is unaware that the Hebrew, אִשָּׁה can mean “woman” or “wife” or “female” in general depending on the context. Perhaps her emphasis was directed more so on the difference between “virtuous” and “valor.” However, both are legitimate renderings of the Hebrew חַיִל, whose basic meaning is “strength.” Again the idea conveyed is “excellent” (ESV, NASB), “capable” (HCSB, NLT), or “noble character” (NIV11, TNIV, NET) and demonstrates the incalculable value of the woman. One wonders if the distinction between “virtuous” and “valor” that Evans stresses is really so great as to induce her to suggest that one or the other constitutes “a really bad translation.”

I am uncertain just how much instruction Mrs. Evans has had in Hebrew, or why she was inspired to make such pronouncements that our English Bibles are so grieviously mistranslated to such a broad audience. I am also unclear on exactly what resources she consulted in her research that led to such clearly inaccurate renderings. I, for one, appreciate Evans’ desire to honor the Bible “for what it is, not what we want it to be.” What is a little more difficult to appreciate, however, is how her erroneous translations of Hebrew isn’t an attempt for her make the Bible what she wants it to be.

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5 thoughts on “Rachel Held Evans and “Really Bad Translations”

  1. I like the word strength, but my role model is Jesus, as with all christian women.

    I shall never put the word biblical in front of a noun again though. Rachel Held Evans has done a thorough job of helping us to avoid fooling ourselves about that!

    I wonder how the hebrew would be translated if we thought the woman in proverbs was a male? But it doesnt matter because, in the same way as Paul is a model for me as an evangelist, The woman in proverbs is a great model for the guys!

  2. Thanks Aaron, for this thoughtful response. Looking back, I probably didn’t explain what I meant by “militaristic imagery” very well.

    In my research, I found that scholars seem to think that the Hebrew eshet chayil is best translated “valorous woman,” for the structure and diction employed in the poem closely resembles that of a heroic poem celebrating the exploits of a warrior. Lost to English readers are the militaristic nuances found in the original language (emphasis added): “she provides food for her family” ( literally, “prey,” v. 15); “her husband . . . lacks nothing of value” (literally, “booty,” v. 11); “she watches over the affairs of the household” (literally, “spies,” v. 27); “she girds herself with strength” (literally, “she girds her loins,” v. 17 KJV); “she can laugh at the days to come” (literally “laugh in victory,” v. 15). According to Erika Moore, “the valorous wife is a heroic figure used by God to do good for His people, just as the ancient judges and kings did good for God’s people by their martial exploits.”1

    I got this from Bruce Waltke, The Book of Proverbs: Chapters 15–31(Grand Rapids:Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005), 517. The quote from Erika Moore comes from an unpublished paper titled “The Domestic Warrior” submitted for OT 813, Proverbs, to Brucke Waltke, Westminister Theological Seminary, 1994 (p. 18).

    Hope that helps.

    1. Rachel,
      Thanks for the comment.
      To be clear, my main contentions in the post are not innocent mistakes or the presence or lack of a militaristic motif. My contentions are:
      1. The claim to a superior translation capability than the hundreds of doctorally prepared scholars who specialize in biblical languages and who have contributed to the dozens of English translations.
      2. The implication that the English translations (or the translators themselves!) are untrustworthy, or worse, intentionally deceptive.
      3. The employment of a teaching style that presents the teacher as having some sort of secret insight that is beyond the grasp of English Bible readers.
      4. The cumulative effect of undermining people’s confidence in the reading of their English Bibles.
      Care should be taken to avoid making sweeping indictments of English translations.

  3. I love the debate here! Aaron, you did an excellent job of explaining your viewpoint and concerns with the “new” translation of Proverbs 31. Thank you for that.

    As a lay person, I have to say that the balance for me comes in doing the research, praying, pondering…and yet respecting what centuries of scholarship have concluded. While respecting traditional interpretations doesn’t mean we are to blindly accept all spiritual food without chewing it, I worry that the insistence that we are reading “a bad translation” ends up confusing believers rather than adding depth to their belief.

    My mind returns to 2 Tim 4 and I start to think we’re just a generation of itching ears. It also underscores our society’s level of Biblical literacy if we are so easily blown about by every new wind and new voice on the scene.

  4. I have finally now had the chance to listen to this message given by Rachel Evans at Mars Hill Bible Church. (One wonders if after her message they will drop the Bible from their name…)

    First, thank you Aaron, for the post. Very thoughtful. Very helpful.

    Second, I am encouraged that Mrs. Evans sought to reply. I fear that too many feel themselves above and beyond such critique and response.

    I would like to offer another critique, however, of the message. I come from a camp (Lutheran) that asks something particular of its preachers and their proclamation. It asks not simply that Jesus be mentioned in a message, but that he matter. Furthermore, it asks that the Jesus on the Road to Emmaus with the 2 disciples, the Jesus whom Thomas touched, the Jesus who ate meals with his disciples matters. In short, it asks that the Jesus who was crucified, died, buried, and resurrected on the third day matter.

    This Resurrected Jesus:

    1. Taught his disciples how to correctly read the Old Testament through his Incarnation, Life, Death, Resurrection, and promised Second Coming. Put simply, this Jesus taught the disciples to see that all the scriptures point to him and his work, and to conversely look through him and all of his word to see and read and know scripture rightly.

    2. Understood his disciples as individuals, and yet gave them a common way to follow him, or more to the point, he sent them out with a common task; Go and make disciples, Baptizing and Teaching! (Matthew 28).

    3. This Jesus is the very one who on his way to the cross cut through the red tape and showed the law in all of its severity (I tell you that if a man looks at a woman with lustful intent, he has already committed adultery…), that he might then bring to bear the cleansing blood of the spotless lamb – his own!

    This Jesus matters. This Jesus is the lens of all of scripture. This Jesus predominates in all of scripture. This Jesus is he who was before the foundations of the world. This Jesus is he who will come again in glory. Furthermore, we would ask our preachers to have this Jesus be present in their messages as well. Using this list of 3 and listening to Mrs. Evans message I would suggest that:

    1. There was no attempt to see Old Testament scriptures through the lens of the Resurrected Jesus and his works! Luke 24 tells us that Jesus taught them from all the Old Testament all those things concerning himself! Acts 1 declared that Jesus stayed with them for 40 more days prior to his Ascension. And what was he doing? Teaching them more of the same and preparing them for the ministry ahead!

    2. As much as I am all for the unique ways in which the Lord has made us, and the unique ways in which he uses us and calls us, it does not follow that each person is free to follow Jesus as he/she chooses or sees fit. This is dangerous talk. It makes light of how these uniquenesses are talked about in such texts as 1 Cor. 12. Furthermore, he has called us collectively to be about a common task – see Matthew 28, Acts 1.

    3. Mrs. Evans was concerned about how Evangelicals take the scriptures and turn them into a list of ‘To-Do’s’. I will share her concern, and do share it. We should indeed be concerned about Pharisaical Christianity that begins with the Grace of Jesus and then adds to it law (see Galatians for one). And yet as much as Mrs. Evans looks little like such folks – freely setting aside long lists of how to be a Biblical whatever, and prompting folks to follow Jesus as only they can – still she seemed to offer her own list right near the end of her message – “As you have done to the least of these you have done to me.” She too offers up a ‘To-Do’. Hers is just shorter.

    Furthermore, it is odd to me that this seemed to be her defining ethical principal of what it is to follow Jesus. Why? Because this is a quote from Matthew 25 where the ‘Son of Man’ is praising those on ‘his right’ for the good works they have done ‘for the least of these’ and yet these people on ‘his right’ have no clue as to what they are being praise for – neither what they have done nor when they did these things! It would seem that they have done these things as a byproduct (or fruit?) of who they are, and not as a guiding principal who they feel they ought to be.

    In short, Jesus – the one who shed his blood for the world, the one who lives and still bears those scars, the one who sends his church out to make known the good news through his blood, the one is with us always to the end of the age, and the one who will come again to inaugurate the incredible age to come – this Jesus was not proclaimed. That is truly sad.

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