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929 Project: Genesis 18 – menopausal language

August 7, 2018

Genesis 18:11-12:

ואברהם ושרה זקנים באים בימים חדל להיות לשרה ארח כנשים

ותצחק שרה בקרבה לאמר אחרי בלתי היתה לי עדנה ואדני זקן

In Biblical Hebrew, this is fairly explicit language about the effects of menopause on a woman’s anatomy.  Consider how various English translations have tackled it:

Now Abraham and Sarah were old and well stricken in age; and it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.  Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?  (KJV)

Now they were both old, and far advanced in years, and it had ceased to be with Sara after the manner of women.  And she laughed secretly, saying: After I am grown old and my lord is an old man, shall I give myself to pleasure?  (DRC)

Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” (NRSV)

Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods of women.  And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?” (NJPS)

Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years, and Sarah had stopped having her menstrual periods. So Sarah laughed to herself and said, “Now that I am worn out and my husband is old, am I still to have sexual pleasure?”  (NABRE)

And Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years, Sarah no longer had her woman’s flow.  And Sarah laughed inwardly, saying “After being shriveled, shall I have pleasure, and my husband is old?” (HB-A) [see also extended note below]

And Avraham and Sara were old, advanced in days,
the way of women
[footnote:  the menstrual period] had ceased for Sara.
Sara laughed within herself, saying:
After I have become worn, is there to be pleasure
[footnote:  sexual]  for me? And my lord is old!  (Shoc)

Abraham and Sarah were old by this time, very old. Sarah was far past the age for having babies. Sarah laughed within herself, “An old woman like me? Get pregnant? With this old man of a husband?” (MSG)

Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”  (NIV11)

Abraham and Sarah were both very old by this time, and Sarah was long past the age of having children. So she laughed silently to herself and said, “How could a worn-out woman like me enjoy such pleasure, especially when my master—my husband—is also so old?” (NLT15)

Notice how recent Evangelical translations (MSG, NIV11, NLT15)  try to clean up the text by removing the explicit reference to menstrual periods and downplay (or in the case of MSG, eliminate) the reference to sexual pleasure (as opposed to the pleasure of having a child.)

And look at the erudite and frank note that Robert Alter includes in his HB-A translation:

[Verses] 11-13.  This sequence of three utterances is a brilliant example of how much fine definition of position and character can be achieved in biblical narrative through variation in repetition.  First, the narrator informs us, objectively and neutrally, of Abraham’s and Sarah’s advanced age, stating the fact, repeating it with the emphasis of a synonym, and reserving for last Sarah’s postmenopausal condition, which would appear to make conception a biological impossibility.  When Sarah repeats this information in her interior monologue, it is given new meaning from her bodily perspective as an old and barren woman:  her flesh is shriveled, she cannot imagin having pleasure again (the term ‘ednah is cognate with Eden probably suggests sexual pleasure, or perhaps sexual moistness), and besides – her husband is old.  The dangling third clause hangs on the verge of a conjugal complaint:  how could she expect pleasure, or a child, when her husband is so old? […]

I simply find it hard to understand why recent Evangelical translations such as MSG, NIV11, NLT15 are so widely used when there are so many clear examples of mistranslation.

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

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