How One Word Mistranslated & Misunderstood
Can Lead to Erroneous & Damaging Doctrines
Can Lead to Erroneous & Damaging Doctrines
I’ll be as gone as a wild goose in winter
Then you’ll understand your man
- Johnny Cash (1964)
As I drove along the highway I tuned the radio to a Christian station and listened as a well-known pastor waxed eloquent on Genesis 1:26-31, exhorting the wives in his audience to understand that their man was created by God for conquest—to have dominion. They needed to realize, he said, that their man sees sex as a conquest. That extra marital affair he had, therefore, was not about love but about his God-given need for adventure and conquest. By understanding their man’s God-given need for conquest and dominion, they would be better able to function in the supportive role for which God had created them.
This pastor’s message, of course, was based on the fallacious assumption that the word “man” in Genesis 1:26 is referring to a male. The passage reads,
And God said, “Let us make man in our image and after our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (NKJV).
As I listened to this pastor I thought how sad that he had built this entire message on a false premise. He did not understand that “man” in this passage is referring to the creation of the human species, not the creation of the first male. His message was no more helpful to women understanding their “man” than was Johnny Cash’s 1964 hit single in which a disgruntled, irresponsible “man” warns his “woman” that after he is gone, “then you’ll understand your man.”
The word “man” in Genesis 1:26 is translated from the Hebrew word adam, which is gender inclusive and means person, people, or humanity. The Hebrew word that is gender specific for man as male is ish, and it is nowhere to be found in this account. That Genesis 1:26 is about the creation of the human species is confirmed by the fact that the Septuagint (an early Greek translation of the O.T. Hebrew) translates the word adam in this passage with anthropoi, the Greek word for people or humanity. Both the original Hebrew and the earliest Greek translation (which is quoted by New Testament writers) make it clear that Genesis 1:26-31 to be about the creation of humanity—both male and female. In addition, the pronouns used of this “man” in the succeeding verses are all plural, clearly indicating that this account of creation is about “them,” not “him.”
Some modern translations are carrying the more accurate gender-inclusive meaning of Genesis 1:26. For example, the NRSV has Genesis 1:26 saying, And God said, Let us make humankind in our image. The NLT says, And God said, Let us make people in our image. The TNIV reads, And God said, Let us make human beings in our image.
Even though these translations are more accurate, there has been an outcry of protest because they have not used the word “man” in this passage and others. One well-known evangelical scholar, Wayne Grudem, lamented,
The majestic, noble name which God gave us as humans at the beginning of creation—the great and wonderful name of “man”—is no longer our name in the Bible. Feminist pressure has renamed us. We are now to be called “humankind” instead of the name God gave us.
At a meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Dr. Mark Straus, who is not an egalitarian, nonetheless, took Grudem to task for his abuse of the language and the text. He said,
Grudem here appears to be confused about what language he is speaking. God did not give humans the wonderful (English) name “man,” he gave them the Hebrew name adam, which is a different lexeme in a different language with a different semantic range. The problem is that if the English word “man” does not carry the same inclusive sense that the Hebrew term adam had, then it would convey the wrong sense for the passage for many readers.
Strauss is absolutely right. The English word “man” in Genesis 1:26-27 has conveyed the wrong sense to generations of readers. It has undergirded the erroneous assumption that the man (male) was created first and given authority over creation, with the woman being created later as his subordinate “helper.” But when we understand our “man” of Genesis 1:26, we know that this passage is about the creation of the human species which included both male and female, and that both were blessed, and that both were given equal authority and responsibility to steward the creation.
As we understand our “man” of Genesis 1:26 and other passages in both the Old and New Testaments we realize that the writers of Scripture often used gender-inclusive language that has been obscured by our biased English translations. We will also realize that the original pristine state between the sexes became marred and distorted as a result of the fall (Genesis 3), but is being restored through the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the “full gospel” that we are called to preach to this generation—that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).