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It does not say “intent on”

September 15, 2011

I often do a double take when I encounter another example of the circular nature of exegesis. It goes something like this. Step one, a word is translated in a certain manner. Step two, that manner is discovered to be heresy and a new translation is proposed. Step three, translators experience collective amnesia and the original translation is rediscovered as if it were entirely new, and this is touted as the new orthodoxy. But here is the catch. The step three translators are in the opposite camp doctrinally to the step one translators.

Here is the example I stumbled on today. In the Latin Vulgate, Genesis 8:21 was translated in this way,

sensus enim et cogitatio humani cordis in malum prona sunt ab adolescentia sua (Vulgate)

for the imagination and thought of man’s heart are prone to evil from his youth: (Douay-Rheims)

Erasmus defended the free will of humans in the face of evil, arguing, in On the Freedom of the Will, (De Libero Arbitrio)

The proneness to evil which is in most men does not take away free choice altogether,

to which Luther responded, in On the Bondage of the Will, (De Servo Arbitrio)

It does not say “intent on” or “prone to” evil, but “altogether evil,” and that nothing but evil is thought and imagined all his life.

Luther’s Bible and the King James Version, both based on Pagninus had,

denn das Dichten des menschlichen Herzens ist böse von Jugend auf (Luther)

for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth (KJV)

cogitatio cordis hominis mala est a pueritia sua (Pagninus)

Of course, Pagninus offers a stripped down, more literal and accurate translation and this underlies the Bibles of the Reformation. This is the translation tradition which supports the doctrine of total depravity.

But what about protestant Bibles today? Don’t they remain within the Reformation tradition? That is not at all obvious! Here is what I found,

every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood (NIV)

for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth (ESV)

This sounds more like Erasmus arguing from the Vulgate! I am wondering if Luther and Calvin would disapprove of current Bibles in the protestant tradition. Is there an effective different between “the imagination of man’s heart is intent on evil” and “the intention of man’s heart is evil?” That is what I am trying to figure out. What do you think? Has the difference between Catholic and Protestant interpretation of the Bible been greatly exaggerated? It seems like it. Certainly, Erasmus and Luther had different doctinal positions, but was their understanding of the actual words of scripture all that different, after all, or is this apparent exegetical difference merely the product of their skill at rhetoric?  That is,  they only make it appear as if there are two opposing interpretations for Gen. 8:21.

The image shows the passage in question, Gen. 8:21, underlined in the Pagninus Bible found in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library in Toronto.

Another translation matter in this passage which cannot be ignored is that the Latin translations vary in translating “from childhood,” “from infancy” and “from adolescence.” Those translators who focused on “adolescence,” often put emphasis on sexual sin, as the one which is most frequently in the imagination or thoughts of man.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2011 5:41 am

    Surely what matters here is not what any Latin or modern language translation says, but what the original Hebrew says, in this case כִּ֠י יֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֛ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו . So rather than criticise modern translations based on whether or not “they remain within the Reformation tradition”, we should be discussing the meaning of the Hebrew yetzer lev, and whether the modern translations’ “inclination” or “intention” is more accurate than “imagination”. And there is even a Wikipedia article on the Hebrew expression which implies at least that in Judaism yetzer is understood as “inclination”.

    Another factor here is that the meaning of “imagination” has I think changed subtly since Douay-Rheims and KJV used the word.

  2. September 15, 2011 9:29 am

    The Wikipedia article that Peter cites is a bit misleading since the expression yetzer hara has taken on a life of its own, particularly within Jewish mysticism — and the article is about that understanding.

    “Imagination” in the KJV quote appears to mean “the inner operations of the mind in general, thinking; thought, opinion” (OED), this is the same sense as when Shakespeare wrote: “I haue forgott him. My imagination Carries no fauour in’t but Bertrams.” (All’s Well That Ends Well 1.1.81). Thus here the KJV is compatible with the Pagninus and Luther, as you correctly state.

    Note, however that the KJV backs away slightly from the more extreme position of the Geneva Bible, which interjects a word here:

    for the imagination of mans heart is euill, euen from his youth

    with “euen” in italics (indicating that the Geneva translators considered it to be an interpolated term.)

  3. September 15, 2011 10:42 am

    Thank you, Theophrastus. But, apart from Jewish mysticism, what does yetser mean? BDB glosses “imagination, device, purpose”, but I think those first two words are not being used in their primary modern sense. And BDB may well be influenced by the Reformation translation tradition. But “purpose” sounds more like “intention”, which would tend to justify ESV if not NIV.

  4. September 15, 2011 11:07 am

    Shouldn’t the LXX be in the mix here?

    ὅτι ἔγκειται ἡ διάνοια τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐπιμελῶς ἐπὶ τὰ πονηρὰ ἐκ νεότητος

    because the imagination of man is intently bent upon evil things from his youth – Brenton (translating the LXX)

    for the mind of humankind applies itself attentively to evil things from youth – Hiebert (NETS)

    (It’s surprising to see here διάνοια instead of ἐνθύμημα. The latter is used, for example, in 1Chr 28:9 for the same Hebrew phrase:

    ὅτι πάσας καρδίας ἐτάζει κύριος καὶ πᾶν ἐνθύμημα γιγνώσκει

    Before LXX, Aristotle, or his students transcribing his lectures, spilled a good amount of ink using these two phrases as critical for rhetoric and epistemology. Enthymema is probably the most disputed term among our contemporary rhetoricians because of Aristotle’s undefined and yet focal emphases on it.

    I suppose the Greek translator was not trying to lose the wordplay, the contrastive repetitions, in the Hebrew, and had already decided that καὶ εἶπεν κύριος ὁ θεὸς διανοηθείς was a safe Hellene description for the deity.

    In other words, the semantic link is marked and preserved by διανοηθείς and διάνοια. Is something similar going on in either Latin translation?)

    Does Pagninus or the Vulgate consider the LXX? I know Robert Alter does, and his English rendering of the Hebrew goes like this:

    . . . and the Lord said in His heart . . .

    For the devisings of the human heart are evil from youth.

  5. September 15, 2011 3:24 pm


    I did look at the entries in two Hebrew lexicons, Genesius and HALOT. But lexicon entries often simply reflect past translation practice. I am not really concerned that any of the translations are innacurate. What puzzles me is the intensity of the debate, when the translations themselves do not vary so much.

    I have been looking for some time for examples of where the Vulgate needed to be corrected and find that apart from a few cases where the Vulgate has made a different vocabulary choice, there is not that much difference. I feel that the rhetoric of the Reformation exaggerated the inadequacies of the Vulgate.

  6. September 15, 2011 7:24 pm

    יֵ֣צֶר derives from יָצַר which means “to form” or “to fashion.” So I think יֵ֣צֶר is much more about intent — a concept that one frames in the mind — rather than the way we usually use the word “imagination.” Lev, the heart, is used here pretty much the way we use it: both the physical heart as well as the center of a person, where one finds feelings and will and sometimes even thoughts. So everything that the heart forms, everything that we conceive and intend to carry out, is evil. Bad. רַ֖ע. comes from רָעַע which means to break something in pieces so that it’s completely spoiled for any other use: to be destructive and ruin nice things for everyone else.

    This passage always makes me laugh. God has destroyed the world, Noah builds an altar and immediately sacrifices a few of the animals he rescued from the flood, and God likes the smell and “says in his heart” (which implies that it was not said out loud, so one wonders how Noah heard him), “Never again will I curse the ground because of ha-Adam (humankind), EVEN THOUGH the intent of the human heart is evil from its youth….” It’s like YHWH can’t help but grumble despite the fact that he’s just rescued the remnant of humanity AND has been pleased with the sacrifice AND has vowed not to curse the ground again. We’re destructive. Not destructive like flooding the world and drowning all life, of course. That’s different.

    As for the question of מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו, almost everywhere the phrase is used elsewhere, it is a wide age range indeed, from actual childhood to one’s early childbearing years, the way we say, “when I was young,” so whether or not YHWH here meant “the lusts of adolescence” is difficult to suss out. Perhaps it’s the age at which human females start taking up with — or, more likely, being raped by — “sons of [the] God[s].” (By the way, I don’t buy this as indicating that the offspring of Seth were mingling with the daughters of Cain; I think we’re definitely in gods-or-angels mythic territory as a means of explaining the existence of giants, or at least big and brawny warrior types.)

    Now, the passage is very cunning. It says, “The Nephilim [“fallen ones”] were on the earth in those days, and also after that,” when the male gods and the human women started getting their groove on and had offspring. “These were the powerful ones of old, the men of renown.” Note that it doesn’t say explicitly that the Nephilim were the offspring, just that they were around in those days and also around the time the women were giving birth. It’s almost as if the writer were saying, “Now, I ain’t sayin’ yup, and I ain’t sayin’ nope. I’m sayin’ mebbe!”

    Because it was immediately after this—after these great and powerful men of renown, the Nephilim, started being great and powerful—that God saw that “the evil of ha-Adam was great on the earth, and every intent of the thoughts of his heart are only evil all day long.” Sounds like it’s the fault of these offspring to me, and God decided to kill all of humankind because these Nephilim were spoiling everything by smashing things to bits.

    Wait. God sees that every intent of our heart is evil and so wants to wipe us off the face of the earth, then sends the flood to do so, but then, post-flood and in the midst of a burnt-sacrifice reverie, acknowledges that every intent of our heart is STILL evil? So what was this worldwide destruction all about?

    Maybe it’s because the mass drowning didn’t really kill everyone, since Numbers 13 reports that Hebrew scouts saw Nephilim in Canaan, the gigantic descendants of Anak. Hmm. The very people God wanted most to kill, still there several generations later. Bad form, YHWH, bad form.

  7. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 16, 2011 10:46 am


    I seem to have given the false impression that I was equating yetser with the present day meaning of “imagination” which I wasn’t. Yetser was also the word for “creation” or “formation” and is found again in the Sefer Yetsira, The Book of Creation/Formation. In this book, the world is created from the alphabet. It seems that the different elements of the world needed to be conceived as language or thought first and then as matter.

    Maybe Gen. 8 is saying that the creations/inventions of human beings are evil. God creates, and considers everything that God creates as good, but in contrast, God considers everything humans create to be bad. Is this passage counterpoint to Gen. 1. If God creates it is good, if humans create, it is bad. Just like the carved idols, they are also bad. Creating images is considered bad. I am trying to think of what this meant in the culture at the time.

  8. September 16, 2011 9:41 pm

    Oh dear. I really didn’t mean to imply that you had meant yetser in that way—just that some translators have done so. I was just going off on a riff on the implications of the text, which seem to paint YHWH in a particularly fractious and capricious light.

  9. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 16, 2011 10:09 pm

    That’s okay. Your riff was very interesting. I had never before connected the yetser of this verse with yatsar in Gen:2:7 as this post does,

    There isn’t any translation that I can think of that relates yetser of the human heart back to what God has formed.

  10. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    September 16, 2011 10:20 pm

    Here is another take on the yetser ha-ra,

    “If not for the evil impulse,” says the midrash, “no one would build a house, marry, have children, nor engage in trade.”

    So maybe the evil inclination isn’t so bad after all.

    Far from a demonic force that needs to be destroyed, yetzer hara represents creativity, ambition and will. It is more morally neutral than its name suggests.

    “Yetzer hara is not necessarily evil,” says Jeffrey Salkin, a Reform rabbi in New York and author of “Being God’s Partner.” “It has been called the selfish inclination, and yetzer hatov the selfless piece of us.”

    Rabbi Steven Lebow, of Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta, Georgia, describes yetzer hara as a person’s “dark well of energy. It would be better if we understood it in the Freudian sense of the id,” he says.

    The trick, according to Judaism, is what you do with what you’ve got.

    “Balance is an integral part of a Jewish lifestyle,” Rabbi Salkin says. “Judaism doesn’t believe in getting rid of the body, in getting rid of desire. The focus is sanctifying what you do. That’s a profoundly humanistic way of looking at the world.”

  11. September 17, 2011 5:09 am

    This all sounds rather like what Paul calls sarx “flesh”, with the same disagreement about whether it is intrinsically evil or just human nature.

  12. September 21, 2011 12:10 am

    every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood (NIV)

    for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth (ESV)

    Regardless of how you translate it, your Augustinian types clearly ignore what comes next “therefore I will not longer destroy the whole world with a flood.” In other words, because God recognizes that “man is but flesh” and that man is prone to evil from his youth, therefore God doesn’t deal with him in an absolutist strict way. But Augustinian theology maintains that God deals with man as a sort of tyrannical judge who insists on the perfect performance of the letter of the law with no mercy whatsoever. And that essentially, because of this strict absolutism, God cannot possibly esteem our works at all even in a synergistic sense, and therefore salvation must be by monergism. This is a total denial of what is being said in the Old Testament. The Old Testament itself, for all its severity, contains more mercy than Augustinianism which clearly appears like a doctrine describing Satan as God and not the God of the Old Testament at all. The God who cannot even accept human repentance without controlling it himself is not the God of Ezekiel 18, not is the God of the doctrine of original sin the God who recognizes in the flood narrative that man’s thoughts are continually evil AND THEREFORE I WILL deal more patiently with him rather than AND THEREFORE I WILL entrench myself and refuse to accept any of his works.

  13. September 21, 2011 12:18 am

    I dare throw in Eccl 9:7 “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God hath already accepted thy works.” Solomon does not know the God of Augustinianism. His God accepts people’s works.

  14. September 21, 2011 12:19 am

    That was the ASV btw.

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