Isaiah 53:6 … a snapshot in gender accuracy

I’ve been discussing some gender accuracy and Bible translation issues with Gary Zimmerli and, as part of our exchange, he recently sent me a note that included this quote from Isaiah 53:6 (with regards to an image I was using in my blog header):

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (TNIV)

As I dug into my Bible collection this evening, I found that this verse demonstrated a variety of approaches:

All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned away to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him. (NASB)

We had all strayed like sheep,
each of us going his own way,
but the Lord laid on him
the guilt of us all. (REB)

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (NRSV)

We all went astray like sheep;
we all have turned to our own way;
and the Lord has punished him
for the iniquity of us all. (HCSB)

All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.
We have left God’s paths to follow our own.
Yet the Lord laid on him
the sins of us all. (NLTse)

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (ESV)

We all went astray like sheep,
Each going his own way;
And the Lord visited upon him
The guilt of all of us. (Jewish Study Bible)

All of the translations express plurality in the first line: without exception, we *all* have gone astray. The NRSV and ESV have an awkward, Yoda-like “All we like sheep have gone astray”. The HCSB, REB and JSB have the simplest grammar and avoid the rhyming couplet of astray/way, but lack some poetic rhythm. I prefer the NASB, along with the TNIV.

The waters get muddier in the second line. Regardless of gender language, all translations end with a variant of the singular “our own way”. However, there is a separation on whether the plural subject of the first line carries over, “we all have turned” (NRSV, HCSB, NLTse), or there is an immediate switch to the singular, “each of us has turned” (TNIV, NASB, REB, JSB). The ESV is just plain confusing in a Tiny Tim sort of way. I like the translations that switch to the singular – there’s a poetic narrowing down effect where the first line is broad and inclusive – we have all gone astray – and the second line is individual and personal – each of us has gone a different way. It seems to reflect the behavior of sheep without a guiding shepherd, scattering across the land without unity or purpose. If the NASB truly reflects the most literal rendering of the original text, then the singular camp has the advantage in accuracy.

I’ve been most curious about how “gender neutral” translations handle this type of singular vs. plural subject as they avoid generic masculine references. It seems like the critical backlash from traditional translation advocates deals as much with removing the individual sense of a verse as it does removing masculine language. So the translations that shift to “gender neutral” pronouns, but still keep an individual subject seem to me to be “gender accurate” in a way that plural translations don’t manage.

The NASB, ESV, JSB and the REB keep masculine language, “his own way”; the REB ironically so since it was one of the first translations to adopt “gender neutral” language as a translation guideline. I have found many other cases where singulars are kept masculine and plurals are neutered in the REB.

One benefit of the “non-masculine” approach is that it is no longer necessary to capitalize the “him” referring to the suffering servant, the Messiah, in order to distinguish between pronouns. The use of a neutral pronoun at the end of line 2 eliminates any possible reading that the Lord is laying guilt on each of the scattered sheep, especially when this verse is read outside the broader context of Isaiah 53 as a whole.

Only the NASB fails to close the verse with “us all” or “all of us”, missing the opportunity to draw a poetical bookend to the opening “We all” or “All of us”.

So, for me, a preferred reading moves from a plural subject to an individual subject in lines 1 and 2 of the verse, with a non-masculine pronoun at the end of line 2 keeping a grammatical distinction between “Each of us” and the new subject “on him” later in the verse. In the end, the TNIV is the only translation that takes this approach.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted August 15, 2007 at 1:31 AM | Permalink

    No, no, you’ve got it all wrong. The OWJV (Old Wizened Jedi Version reads, “Gone away like sheep, we all have.” 😉

  2. Posted August 15, 2007 at 11:24 AM | Permalink

    Hey I like that version! Yoda’s cool!

    Seriously, I was struck by the similarity of the TNIV rendering to that of the revered NRSV. A “bad” translation isn’t supposed to read like that, is it? 😉

  3. dan tisdale
    Posted August 15, 2007 at 6:21 PM | Permalink

    isaiah 53.6 in esv word for word from rsv

  4. Posted August 16, 2007 at 5:25 AM | Permalink

    Dan, thanks for confirming that the ESV and RSV are identical. I had suspected that, but lack a version of the RSV to confirm. Or rather, I have a copy of the RSV with a few changes; it’s called the “ESV”.

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