Adam Knew His Wife

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The ESV Bible Blog discusses the literal rendering of the term for knowledge in sexual contexts. Some contemporary translations treat this as a mere euphemism for the physical act of sex. Since we don't use the word 'know' in English in this way, he argument goes, we should use an expression that says what really took place, a physical act of sex. I think this loses not just a connotation of what the original expression says. I think it loses the very reason that word was used to begin with. I do note that the ESV doesn't always keep the original word, as the post admits. It just treats this argument as presumptive, as I think it should be treated. Other factors might turn out to be more important in any given passage. I don't know if I'd always agree in particular cases, but I think that's the right approach.

However, I think one argument the post discusses but does not endorse seems to me to be too far, and I think what it shows is a deeper problem in translation to begin with. The argument is that translating the Hebrew word for knowledge in these contexts as "have relations with" is banal and does not capture the element of knowing in the original. Is this true? Maybe so, but if so then I wish it were not true. Has the sense of relationship and relating to someone completely gone out of expression "to have sexual relations"? If so, this is a further slide down a path we've already seen in the past. Intercourse was once a close sharing, of human interaction on a deep level. Now it's sex, and it's used in he clinical, banal way that "have relations with" is claimed to be used. Consider also the word 'intimacy'. We can say that two people were intimate, and we might just mean that they did the nasty in exactly the sense of performing the physical act, with no sense that they were close in any other way.

I wonder if the problem is partly just an avoidance mechanism. In a culture that really wants sex to be nothing more than a physical act, one that seeks to remove moral notions, including shame and guilt, from the mere physical enjoyment of the act. The easiest long-term way to do that is to use the terms that signify more than that in a way that doesn't signify more than that. I don't know if anyone is actively seeking to change the language the way feminists in the 60s deliberately did with gender-neutral masculines, but I have to wonder if there's some sort of unconscious resistance to a certain way of thinking going on here.

I saw Equilibrium a couple weeks ago, and it provides such a vivid portrayal of exactly this sort of thing. It was a future society that had removed their own emotions via drugs in order to remove the potential of conflict. It was a very peaceful society in the sense of lack of conflict, but it wasn't Hebrew shalom, which signifies wholeness and health. It wasn't really no emotion at all. It was just no emotion besides very run-of-the-mill, low-level emotion like Spock's fascination with certain facts despite his Vulcan disavowal and suppression of emotions. The drugs didn't cut emotion off completely, just anything beyond he minimal level required for portraying people in a movie and not ending up with something really boring. People had different personalities, and they had preferences and so on. What they didn't have is admiration or appreciation of truly beautiful things or disgust or regret over unfortunate circumstance.

One character was asked what he felt about his wife being taken away for having committed a sense crime. His response was, "I don't know what you mean," and he was being fully honest. He didn't have any idea what an answer to that question was supposed to be like. Many people don't know what to say to questions like that, but he didn't even have a concept of what the question was getting at. Characters who stopped taking their emotion-suppressing drugs had these epiphanies just from hearing music or reading poetry, and a member of the equivalent of their police who had been rounding up sense offenders all his life suddently realized what killing was when he missed a couple doses of his drugs, and he could barely contain himself.

The reason I bring this up is that the characters readily use emotion-language. They talk about things they don't understand, things they've never experienced. Well, they don't really talk about those things. They just use the words for them. The things those words are supposed to refer to are the sort of thing that you can't really talk about unless you have some acquaintance with them. This was a deliberate feature of the script, according to the interviews in the DVD extras. They wanted the viewer to see the retention of language that no longer meant anything more than something much less than what it means to people now. I don't know if they saw that this happens already in natural language, without the inverse Brave New World elements of the world they were putting together, but they captured that fact of contemporary English very nicely.

This is just an extreme form of what has been happening in contemporary English, and it's not just a fact about English. Any term used to capture that sex is more than just a romp in the sack will over time simply end up giving little sense besides the physicality of it. This is why the Greek 'phileo' is so rare in the New Testament, even though it had been virtually synonymous with 'agapeo'. The popular usage of the term had become associated with kissing. I guess it's a good thing the reference to Amnon's rape as agape in the Septuagint didn't have a similar effect, or the New Testament authors wouldn't have had any word to use for love.

So how do you translate this term? Do you insist on capturing the element of knowing by translating with an expression that ensures that will get through, or do you use a term that people reading it will know has to do with sex? Is there a way to do both? I don't know what my answer would be, but this is just a general symptom of a larger problem in translation to begin with. This comes up over and over again in translation, and those who generally insist on literal translation tend to have grown up hearing words used in a way that most people wouldn't understand, while those who insist on capturing the sense of the terms that wouldn't be captured in a more literal rendering seem to ignore the fact that key elements of what it means does get lost when you focus on one element of the sense and not another.

That's the problem in this case. This is actually one of those places where the so-called literal translation just isn't, as Wayne Leman points out in his response to the ESV Blog's post. What's being called a literal translation is really just a dynamic translation focusing on a different element of the sense of the original. It captures one component of the sense but not another. But I'm not sure the one usually thought of as the dynamic translation is better, because that also captures one element but not another. Which element is more important? One is more important for signifying what actually takes place, but the other is more important for signifying a crucial element of what that means, one with ethical and theological significance enough for me not to like either sort of translation. I'd like to see a way to capture both elements.

Update: Kenny Pearce considers another aspect of this with respect to Mary's use of this idiom in Luke. In that case, at least, it's a Hebrew idiom being used in Greek that we want to translate into English. Since it wasn't a Greek idiom, it would have sounded funny already in Greek. So if it sounds funny in English, that just conveys more of how the original would have sounded. I think this is right, but that's not the only issue. It's not just that it sounds funny. It also isn't understandable to large numbers of English speakers, particularly those who didn't grow up knowing anything about the Bible or this use of 'know'. If the majority of college students don't even know the difference between what Christians call the Old Testament and the New Testament, then why expect them to know details like this?


Jeremy, you are raising very, very important issues. They apply not only to translation of biblical references to the sex act, but to any figurative language of the Bible.

I, for one, very much wish I knew what was in the mind of speakers and writers of Biblical Hebrew when they used their word for "know" for the sex act. I don't know (!) if they had all the ideas that can come to our minds today, as analysts and/or theologians, when we think about the word "know." Maybe it was just their euphemism for sex, just was we have some in English, such as "make love," "sleep with," etc.

In other words, I'd like a more sure objective linguistic (and literary) foundation upon which to build up discussion about translation of Hebrew "know" as well as other biblical language figures of speech.

My guess is that there is a lot of speculation going on among preachers, theologians, and others who comment on what the literal wordings of the biblical texts might have connoted beyond what they simply referenced.

If you have any ideas of where else we might turn to for such information, information which is not so speculative as much of the discussion seems to be (at least to me), please share it. It would make another great post on your blog.

Have a good weekend.

I wish I had my resources handy to see if the original Hebrew phrase here (and throughout Genesis)and research some of those things Wayne mentioned in his comment. Interesting point (and Equilibrium was great)

There are several things I found when looking through the commentaries that I think shed some light on the term and potentially on its use in these contexts. It's generally used of knowledge of acquaintance rather than propositional knowledge. Some scholars prefer to translate it "experience" rather than "know". It usually involves relationship, whether sexual or otherwise. Covenant treaty relationships between kings would involve the term, and it's regularly used for knowing God. The last is a connection that's especially unfortunate to lose if we go with translating it in a way that conveys nothing more than a mere sexual act.

It's not used for animals' sex, though it is occasionally used of illicit sex, I believe once each of homosexual sex and incest. Usually other terms (such as the Hebrew for "lie with") occur in those contexts. Its standard use is of sex between a husband and a wife.

The one thing about its use in Genesis 4:1 that makes me hesitant to use the knowing or experiencing element is its connection with two earlier references, the tree of knowledge, and Adam and Eve's knowledge that they were naked (3:7). Many scholars think there's a deliberate connection between the use of this term in 4:1 and its use there, though there are differences of opinion about exactly what the connection is supposed to be. Given the careful attention to every word by the author of Genesis, I think it's unfortunate if we obscure the use of the same term in different settings by removing these connections.

I'll share what I've been taught about the word 'know'.

And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord. (Genesis 4:1)

I'll relate that verse with this one:

And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. (Matthew 7:23)

Now why would Christ say this when:

But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, (John 2:24)

In my view, the word 'know' means in Gen. 4:1 and Matt. 7:23 is about the INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP while the one in John 2:24 is about KNOWLEDGE.

Thus, I might translate Gen 4:2 as "Adam had an intimate relationship with his wife and bear Cain..."

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