Arguing from the English Translation?

Continuing the discussion from Why were Adam and Eve cast out of Eden?:

To which I responded:

You can’t make arguments like that without looking closely at the original language.

@deuteroKJ @AllenWitmerMiller @jongarvey

I’m pretty annoyed that some people, who would get rightfully annoyed if a layperson made up their own scientific theories without paying any attention to or reading up on the great work already done by previous professional scientists, do the exact same thing with regards to ancient Hebrew texts.


You can if you trust that the translators got it right. Are you arguing that one must always do the translation oneself? Do you have any evidence that the translation was bad?

Isn’t “the great work already done” the translation itself?

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Do you even understand how translation of ancient texts works? (Hint: it’s not just a matter of “good” vs “bad” or “correct” vs “incorrect”.) Do you think the work of biblical scholars like @deuteroKJ is fully expressed in only Bible translations? Not to mention that Faizal quoted a translation from 1611. That’s like a creationist quoting Darwin to argue against evolution.


Yes I do have evidence, and so do you:

As soon as you are picking between translations to make a point, you know that you are relying on nuances that are not consistent across all translations. This is clear flag that there might be something archaic, strange, or loaded in the translations.

The wrong approach is to just arbitrarily pick the translation that suits your reading. Instead, you have to actually look at the original language and the history of interpretation.

It is important also to note that this is a testable hypothesis:

It is testable by look at historical interpretations of Genesis. If @Faizal_Ali was correct, we would see a clear signature in the evidence. If he is so sure this is the clear reading of Genesis, he should provide the evidence.


Is there a translation anywhere that says what George wants it to say? You seem heavy on methodological criticisms and light on actual arguments. Do you have a position on the meaning of the verses in question, or are you just throwing rocks?

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In a sense that’s correct. They are all bad. No translation is a substitute for the original language. They are good enough for some things, but bad for arguments like this.


I do, but this thread has enough amateur interpretations as it stands. I’m not going to be the next guy who confidently comes in claiming that my interpretation is the “only reasonable one based on the text itself” because I know the limits of my own expertise. I know how hard it is to get a PhD and expertise in something. I’m not going to fall into the trap that my decade of experience in atomic physics somehow gives me expertise in interpreting the Hebrew Bible. Instead I’m going to leave it to the experts and hold my own interpretation tentatively.


If all translations are bad for arguments like this, then they’re bloody useless, because this is quite a straightforward statement that always gets translated in the same way (as far as I know). If you can’t rely on that, how can you rely on anything? If you don’t know ancient Hebrew, you have no idea what Genesis says. And I’m thinking that you aren’t a Hebrew scholar.

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Nobody has made any such claim. You have a tendency to attack strawmen. But aren’t the translators experts? Why shouldn’t we leave it to them?

As I said, it’s not that simple. If translators are “experts” and it works as you seem to imply, then there should be broad agreement among all translations and we wouldn’t even need multiple Bible translations in the first place. So why the multitude of versions? Why the constant debates?

The issues with translation are obvious with anybody who has fluency in two very different languages. (I’d be curious to know whether you are multilingual yourself.) As someone who is fluent in Indonesian and English, I’m well aware that there are many words, phrases, idioms, and expressions that cannot be fully translated into English, and can at most be roughly approximated. Even some seemingly readily translated words may have slightly different connotations than its counterpart in its source language. This is not such a problem when we’re just translating a mundane newspaper report. But it’s different if we’re translating a work with heavy philosophical, religious, and literary qualities. Here we have a passage from an ancient culture’s most sacred text, narrating events which form its most foundational myths.

Secondly, we have another layer to the problem that we’re translating from a language (biblical Hebrew) that nobody uses in the same way anymore. Nobody is 100% sure what a certain biblical word means or corresponds to in English. So how is a Biblical Hebrew dictionary made? The answer is context. Scholars take note of all the occurrences of a Hebrew word (or related words, including possibly its cognates in other ancient Semitic languages) in ancient texts and try to decipher its semantic range. Less easily understood words are illuminated by more easily understood words, which in turn might illuminate the latter - a never-ending iterative process.

Most words have no single meaning - there is always a range of acceptable interpretations, due to both uncertainty (we have limited sources) as well as actual variations in the way people used those words. Oftentimes a single English word or phrase isn’t adequate to express this range of interpretation. However, as a translator you are forced to pick a particular interpretation which 1) conforms to the intended translation philosophy of the Bible version you’re working on (dynamic, formal, paraphrase, etc.) 2) conforms to the stylistic preferences of the translation, which may have its own quirks, and 3) still doesn’t stray too far from your own preferred interpretation. Because at the end of the day laypeople who are reading primarily for personal and devotional reasons don’t want to have to deal with this uncertainty.

This hopefully illustrates how only analyzing the Bible in translation is inadequate to resolve arguments about tricky passages with a rich diversity of interpretive history. This is why more specialized scholarly papers and books are published regarding the proper translations of certain Hebrew or Greek words and all professional biblical scholars work with the text in the original languages. To make scholarly claims about a biblical passage without referencing the original language is like criticizing a physical theory based on a popular presentation without knowing the mathematics. (Which is exactly what many creationists do.)

I’m not a Hebrew scholar either, and I’m well aware of my own limitations. But as we like to say, there’s a difference between someone who knows that they don’t know, and someone who doesn’t know that they don’t know. And I know enough to sense that the arguments in this thread are not high quality, because the methodology is all wrong.

In this thread, we see Faizal initially analyzing the KJV and claiming that “I don’t really see any other reasonable interpretation of the bare facts of the story.” And then later, when George is not convinced, he quotes the NIV, which happens to better support his preferred interpretation. This is of course not the proper way to interpret the Bible. Even a first year seminary student (or a reasonably experienced church layman) with limited Hebrew knowledge would know to read the passage in multiple reputable English translations first and then try to triangulate the meaning by comparing them (while being aware of their different translation philosophies), instead of settling down on a preferred interpretation and seeking out translations which happen to support it.

Next, we have this argument based on purely the English language, which is frankly rather embarrassing:

The more proper question here would perhaps be: if the author meant to indicate “lest he continue”, is there actually another Hebrew word corresponding to “continue” that we would expect him to put in there? Or is the Hebrew expression as it is ambiguous enough to accommodate both Faizal’s and George’s translations? What happens if we consider the surrounding context? What happens if we consider other instances in the Hebrew Bible with similar sentence structure and tense as in this verse? These are questions which cannot be simply answered by reading Genesis in the KJV.

Even just taking Gen. 3:23 by itself, there’s a lot of questions here that can’t easily be gleaned by reading the English text. For example what does “us” refer to? Isn’t God just one entity (Deut. 6:4)? Is this some sort of “royal we”, does it actually refer to multiple gods, angels, or what? And before you accuse me of “not being faithful to the text” by bringing in other texts, as I said above, none of these texts were meant to be read in isolation from other relevant texts. Even the very fact that Genesis 2-3 is part of Genesis which is in turn part of the Pentateuch which is in turn part of the Hebrew Bible was the result of a centuries-long series of deliberate editorial and authorial decisions.

How would the original audience of Genesis have understood the “tree of life”? How would Second Temple Jews have understood it? Are there references to it in other texts, including extra-biblical ones? (Hint: there are actually some other references to it even in the Hebrew Bible itself, not to mention the NT.) How do we know from this verse (as Faizal argues) that eating from the tree of life once instantly gives you permanent eternal life? Would the Hebrew text be different if the author intended to say that one needed to eat continuously from it? Same sort of questions for the phrase “good and evil”.

Conclusion: translators are indeed experts, but you’re not really “listening” to them if you’re only reading the Bible in a single translation. “Listen” to them by reading professional commentaries on the passage, reading and comparing multiple translations and doing a proper literary analysis in context before settling on an interpretation.


As well as one from 1978 that even more explicitly confirms my understanding. But why quibble about details?

Except both translations are saying the same thing.

My hypothesis is that the reading I am suggesting here is the one that would be arrived at by someone not encumbered by Christian theology that arose centuries after the story was written.

How does the fact that Christian theologians came up with a different interpretation refute that hypothesis?

Indeed I am not. I just chose the most popular translation (ironically enough to avoid accusations of cherry-picking) , which is also the one that I most enjoy reading. I could have chosen any other.

Here’s the English Standard Version:

22 Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” 23 therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. 24 He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.

American Standard Version:

22 And Jehovah God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever— 23 therefore Jehovah God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken. 24 So he drove out the man; and he placed at the east of the garden of Eden the Cherubim, and the flame of a sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

Good News Version:

22 Then the Lord God said, “Now these human beings have become like one of us and have knowledge of what is good and what is bad.[f] They must not be allowed to take fruit from the tree that gives life, eat it, and live forever.” 23 So the Lord God sent them out of the Garden of Eden and made them cultivate the soil from which they had been formed. 24 Then at the east side of the garden he put living creatures[g] and a flaming sword which turned in all directions. This was to keep anyone from coming near the tree that gives life.

21st Century KJV:

22 And the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become as one of Us, to know good and evil. And now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat and live for ever”— 23 therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the Garden of Eden to till the ground from whence he was taken. 24 So He drove out the man; and He placed at the east of the Garden of Eden cherubims and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the tree of life.

Living Bible:

22 Then the Lord said, “Now that the man has become as we are, knowing good from bad, what if he eats the fruit of the Tree of Life and lives forever?” 23 So the Lord God banished him forever from the Garden of Eden, and sent him out to farm the ground from which he had been taken. 24 Thus God expelled him, and placed mighty angels at the east of the Garden of Eden, with a flaming sword to guard the entrance to the Tree of Life.

International Children’s Bible:

22 Then the Lord God said, “Look, the man has become like one of us. He knows good and evil. And now we must keep him from eating some of the fruit from the tree of life. If he does, he will live forever.” 23 So the Lord God forced the man out of the garden of Eden. He had to work the ground he was taken from. 24 God forced the man out of the garden. Then God put angels on the east side of the garden. He also put a sword of fire there. It flashed around in every direction. This kept people from getting to the tree of life.

Shall I go on?

It is becoming apparent that, if we continue the analogy to a scientific hypothesis, the relevant concept here is “consilience between multiple lines of evidence.”

Good questions. Maybe someone has an answer. Until someone does, we are stuck with the fact that every translation, as far as I can, from over 400 years has arrived at the same meaning. Is it more likely that they all got it wrong, than that this is exactly what the words in the original Hebrew say? I doubt it.

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I don’t think this is at all a good response for two reasons. First is that one wonders why God would have dictated, or otherwise “inspired” a book that can only be properly understood by somehow obtaining knowledge of a different and dead language, and the sociological and cultural contexts in which it was written.

The second is that even if we really could reliably reconstruct such knowledge, we still have no idea whether the original authors took any of that context or intention with them into writing some specific passage.

The more you insist on the relevance of these contextual and linguistic nuances, the more merely human does the document and it’s message become.


There does not appear to be disagreement among translations on the verses we’re talking about here. Let’s focus a bit. All your points about translation may be correct in general, but this is about a particular passage.

That isn’t true. He merely quoted the NIV as a second example of the same thing.

If it is, why hasn’t anyone translated it that way?

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Because translators don’t randomly sample the space of possible translations. If the Hebrew for “lest he take and eat” is ambiguous between that and “lest he continue to take and eat”, without a clear grammatical indication it makes sense to choose the less marked form.

The fact is, even the English is more ambiguous than @Faizal_Ali is suggesting. His assertion,

just isn’t grammatically required. Such aspectual markers would make it less ambiguous, but “I ate cereal for breakfast” can be a valid alternative to “I used to eat cereal for breakfast”, with the habitual aspect left implicit from the context of the utterance, rather than explicitly marked.


I don’t agree. The translator should choose the form that most fits what the translator thinks is the intended meaning, whether it’s more or less marked. And if we examine the context, there is clearly urgency in the situation, more than would be expected if the expulsion could happen any time with no effective difference. The translation isn’t ambiguous at all, and the uniformity of translation suggests that the Hebrew isn’t either, in context.

So what is your non-expert opinion on the reading of the verse? Are you willing to say?

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That’s not how it works. There’s a difference between dynamic and formal equivalence translation philosophies, and that limits how much the translator is allowed to inject his preferred interpretation in to the translated text. Given that you don’t seem to be aware of the issues involved in Bible translation, your personal disagreement about how translators operate is not convincing.

Given how biblical Hebrew has only two main tenses, I’m not sure the situation is as simple as you make it out to be. Furthermore, as @structureoftruth demonstrated, even in English the situation isn’t non-ambiguous.

Sorry @Rumraket, but this reply just evinces a misunderstanding of how Christians understand the perspicuity and inspiration of Scripture. It’s just not how we approach debates like these.