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.