Daughters and sons are a heritage from the LORD

Sons are a heritage from the LORD …
4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are sons born in one’s youth.
5 Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.

… your sons will be like olive shoots
around your table.
4 Thus is the man blessed
who fears the LORD.

Psalm 127:3-5, 128:3-4 (NIV)

I know these psalms well in NIV and have always semi-consciously understood them as meaning that sons are more of a blessing than daughters, at least in the mind of the psalmist. But is this what was intended?

It was no surprise to me that the TNIV translators thought differently:

Children are a heritage from the LORD …
4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are children born in one’s youth.
5 Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.

… your children will be like olive shoots
round your table.
4 Yes, this will be the blessing
for the man who fears the LORD.

Psalm 127:3-5, 128:3-4 (TNIV)

(By the way, TNIV retains “man” in both these psalms for the explicitly masculine Hebrew word geber, while using “those” for the more ambiguous Hebrew ish in Psalm 1:1, in a formula otherwise identical to the one in 127:5.)

What came as more of a surprise was that the ESV translators have made almost the same translation choices:

Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord …
4 Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
are the children of one’s youth.
5 Blessed is the man
who fills his quiver with them!

… your children will be like olive shoots
around your table.
4 Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
who fears the Lord.

Psalm 127:3-5, 128:3-4 (ESV)

There is a footnote on “children” in 127:4: “Or sons“. This ESV rendering is even more odd because NRSV, following RSV, has “sons” in 127:3,4, but “children” in 128:3. But perhaps the ESV translators have looked back to KJV:

Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD …
4 As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth.
5 Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them …

… thy children like olive plants round about thy table.
4 Behold, that thus shall the man be blessed that feareth the LORD.

Psalm 127:3-5, 128:3-4 (KJV)

Coverdale (1535, as found in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer), ERV (1885) and ASV (1901) all have “children” consistently, although Wycliffe (1380s) has “sones”.

So what is the issue here? In each case (127:3,4, 128:3) the Hebrew is banim. This word is technically the plural of ben “son”. But, as was well known even to the KJV translators (compare their regular rendering “children of Israel” for beney Yisrael) and to Coverdale’s sources (compare Luther’s (1545) rendering “Kinder”), in the plural the word normally has a gender generic meaning, referring to daughters as well as sons. Even the drafters of the infamous Colorado Springs Guidelines accepted this when they wrote:

(However, Hebrew banim often means “children.”)

And it was presumably on this basis that the ESV translators, who followed these guidelines, translated “children” in these psalms.

It seems to me that this is a case of the RSV (1952) and NIV (1978) translators (and, more surprisingly, those of NRSV (1989)) introducing and perpetuating an innovative rendering suggesting extremely damaging teaching, that sons are more of a blessing from God than daughters. This may be what is believed in some countries, e.g. China where, according to a 2004 report, nearly 20% more boys than girls are born because of selective abortion – a statistic which is becoming a threat to that country’s future prosperity. But this preference for sons was never taught in the Bible, at least not in Hebrew, and not in modern English until 1952.

It really is well past time for some of these misleading translations to be retired. There are similar issues with how they use the word “man” – see for example how “man” has been introduced into Romans 4:4,5, 1 Corinthians 3:8,12 etc NIV. RSV is already obsolescent, barely still in print. But this example shows that NRSV, still widely used in “mainline” denominations and in academic circles, now needs revisions. It also demonstrates clearly that it is time for NIV to be retired, and replaced by TNIV.

30 thoughts on “Daughters and sons are a heritage from the LORD

  1. But Peter, surely the Psalm is teaching that boys were of more value than girls? They were the ones who would be able to contend at the gate most effectively. What’s more, it seems only sons born while the father was still young were a blessing, at least according to verse 4. So perhaps the real problem lies in simply lifting the Psalm from its historical context and thinking it can be applied today with no real effort at understanding the transition!

  2. Indeed, Terry.

    Martin, if the psalmist had intended to teach “that boys were of more value than girls”, then surely he would have used less ambiguous wording than banim. After all, he chose geber in 127:5 rather than ish as in 1:1 to make the application to males explicit.

    So I don’t think it is fair to suggest that the KJV and ESV as well as TNIV translators (but not the NRSV ones?) are “lifting the Psalm from its historical context”. Yes, maybe the ancient Hebrews did value boys more than girls. But these psalms were not clearly teaching that to their original audience, and so should not be used to teach that to readers today.

  3. The HCSB is another “CSG-compliant” translation, so it’s interesting to compare what it makes of Ps 127:3-4

    “Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord,
    children, a reward.
    Like arrows in the hand of a warrior
    are the sons born in one’s youth.”

    and Ps 127:3

    “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
    within your house,
    your sons, like young olive trees
    around your table”

  4. Whatever the rights and wrongs of translation, as the father of 2 daughters, both grown up and married, for practical purposes at least, the ESV, TNIV and dear old KJV say it for me. I have no regrets!

    It is my 2 brothers who have continued the Heath family name anther generation, each with sons as well as daughters. (1 of each for one and 2 of each for the other).

  5. Peter, all terms have some degree of ambiguity, and ambiguity is resolved by context. In this case the immediate context of the psalm itself points to activities open primarily — if not exclusively — to men in the ancient world. Beyond that, it can be argued that the historical and cultural context further disambiguates the use of בנים in the psalm. Given the cultural and literary context, the natural inference would be to understand the term as a reference to “boys” and had the author wanted to be more inclusive an expression such as the common “sons and daughters” would have appropriately disambiguated the text. The note in the NET Bible on the use of “sons” in verse 3 is quite correct in this case.

    Consequently this psalm presents a number of assertions which probably don’t quite make it as politically correct as we’d like. It isn’t the blanket affirmation that all children are a blessing that it is usually made out to be — it confines that blessing to boys born while the father is young because of their value in defending the family in judicial matters (v. 5b).

    Finally, it is difficult to conceive of a translation of ancient texts which do not lift them from their historical context. Failing to recognise this leads to misinterpretation of the text and misapplication in the modern context. This is not to say that the psalm is irrelevant, just that it is easily and regularly misunderstood.

  6. Martin, thanks for your comment.

    There is certainly nothing in the immediate context in Psalm 128 pointing to males – indeed the opposite, as the parallel line refers to a woman, “Your wife”. I accept that in Psalm 127 there is more masculine imagery in the warrior of verse 4, but this refers to the man, geber, not to the children. The only hint might be that men were more likely than women to “contend with their opponents in court”. But if you read this in the context of the ideal woman of Proverbs 31 there is nothing here reserved for males.

    I accept that in Psalm 127 there is a special blessing on children born to a man who is young.

    Thanks for drawing my attention to the NET Bible notes. It is interesting how they defend different renderings in 127:3 and 128:3. But I certainly don’t accept their ““sons” are plainly in view here” at 127:3. Nothing is plain (except perhaps to through the patriarchal blinders of Dallas Theological Seminary), as women also had an important part in providing for men in their old age – although perhaps more likely their fathers-in-law than their fathers.

    PS apologies that your comments were being moderated. That was because your URL includes the string “-online”, which in WordPress by default causes a comment to be moderated, presumably because it a characteristic of spam. I have changed this default in my own installation. But if you have problems with other WordPress blogs, that may be why.

  7. Peter, we may need to agree to disagree (or even disagree to disagree). It is at least pretty clear that Ps 128 is addressed to men since it makes reference to the reader’s wife! Thus the expression אשרי כל ירא יהוה implicitly refers to men because they are the ones with wives. Those who are blessed in Ps 128:1 are the men. בנים may be translated “children” in Ps 128:3 because they’re only referenced indirectly, not ascribed a particular task.

    However, wrt Ps 127, according to Prov 31:23 the wife is not the one at the city gate, that is the husband. It doesn’t support your contention, in fact it highlights the fact that this was considered an activity reserved for males. Against that cultural framework, I think “sons” remains the correct referent and in order to overcome that inference the author would have needed to explicitly refer to daughters.

    I found an article by Susan Lanser quite helpful on the role of inference in reading. See S. S. Lanser, “(Feminist) Criticism in the Garden: Inferring Genesis 2–3,” Semeia 41 (1988) 67–84.

    P.S. I hadn’t noticed that I was moderated!

  8. Thanks, Martin.

    I agree that Psalm 128 is addressed to men, not least because of geber in verse 4. But that does not imply that all the participants in the psalm are male – not least because one, the wife, is explicitly female.

    I accept that Psalm 127 is more debatable. I would still hold that to refer clearly to sons only the psalmist would have had to use an explicitly masculine word. But let’s agree to disagree on that.

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  10. Ignoring the context for a moment, and focusing only on the word, the meaning is ambiguous between sons and children. I find the hyperbole with which the politically correct faction approaches this issue as disturbing. I might be perfectly comfortable with either children or sons as a rendering, perhaps with an appropriate footnote, but people who suggest that bibles that render it in anything other than the most full blown feminist politically correct fashion are “misleading” and “extremely damaging”, really are perpetuating schismatic tendencies, and make a mildly interesting interpretational question into a full blown war, that nobody can in fact win.

    The African Church got into a major dispute with Jerome over the rendering of… of all things, the identification of a type of tree. Every time Biblica tries to revise the NIV, they start a confrontation on a far grander scale, because the audience of the NIV is in large part conservative. The other crowd already left 3 or 4 times over for the LB, NLT, TNIV, CEV and various things. Why Biblica would see hay in reopening the battle I can’t imagine.

  11. John, I consider it psychologically and spiritually extremely damaging to girls to be given to understand that they are of less value in God’s sight than boys, when the Bible nowhere clearly teaches that. That is not a matter of political correctness, but of the justice which God has said he wants to roll like a river (Amos 5:24). Nor is it a trivial matter like that of the tree. This is one of a significant number of clear errors in NIV, most of which have been corrected in TNIV. Do you really want people to be scarred for life because of inaccurate Bible translations just to placate a small group of diehards who will anyway never be won back to the NIV camp? Yes, it is sad that this is a war, but the only alternative is total surrender to the people who want women to be deprived of justice and made to submit almost like slaves to their masters.

  12. John, I consider it psychologically and spiritually extremely damaging to girls to be given to understand that they are of less value in God’s sight than boys, when the Bible nowhere clearly teaches that.

    How can you say that when, according to Leviticus 27, Yhwh explicitly tells Moses that females are worth about half of what males are?

    Lev 27.1+:
    And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
    Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When a man shall make a singular vow, the persons [shall be] for the LORD by thy estimation.
    And thy estimation shall be of the male from twenty years old even unto sixty years old, even thy estimation shall be fifty shekels of silver, after the shekel of the sanctuary.
    And if it [be] a female, then thy estimation shall be thirty shekels.
    And if [it be] from five years old even unto twenty years old, then thy estimation shall be of the male twenty shekels, and for the female ten shekels.
    And if [it be] from a month old even unto five years old, then thy estimation shall be of the male five shekels of silver, and for the female thy estimation [shall be] three shekels of silver.
    And if [it be] from sixty years old and above; if [it be] a male, then thy estimation shall be fifteen shekels, and for the female ten shekels.

    This, in conjunction with the NT where a husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the husband?

    -Rusty (found this thread through the Better Bibles Blog, and that comment just stands out in stark contrast to Leviticus)

  13. -Rusty, thanks for pointing out to me that Leviticus passage. What I should have said is that the New Testament nowhere clearly teaches that girls are of less value than boys – nor do Psalms 127 and 128.

    I’m not quite sure what to make of the Leviticus 27 passage. I suspect that the values given are based on the prices of slaves at that time, which would have been greater for a boy than for a girl. They are thus conditioned by a particular culture, a patriarchal one, which is not ours and not that of the New Testament. I realise that this raises issues about how this passage is to be understood as inspired by God and authoritative for believers today, but I don’t want to go into these issues now.

  14. Hi Peter,

    “I realise that this raises issues about how this passage is to be understood as inspired by God and authoritative for believers today, but I don’t want to go into these issues now.”

    I understand. But Psalms, including whether 127 & 128 teach the valuation of gender, have to be understood in the context of the Pentateuch as background, wouldn’t you agree? And it’s not only Leviticus 27, but also Leviticus 12, where a woman’s holy impurity after childbirth depends on the sex of the child. Having a male child yields 7 & 33 days impurity, whereas having a female child yields 14 & 66 days impurity. This would have a huge social impact of understanding Psalms because these requirements, especially regarding childbirth, would be visible to the entire society. I think you would agree (since you already understand the source as having been in a patriarchical society).

    But the question then becomes, Should the Psalms be translated based on 21st century culture in light of the New Testament? Or should they be translated based on the cultural understanding which they were written in?

    It’s a thorny problem, and it raises its ugly head because of the cultural clash between societies thousands of years apart.

    Anyway, it’ll be interesting to see how the NIV2011 comes out.



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  16. Henry Neufeld has also posted on this issue in Psalm 127:3.

    Also I can now reveal why I blogged about this issue in August, and why I consider it important. As I noted in my comment on Henry’s blog, Psalm 128 was the reading at my wedding last month, and my bride and I wanted a version which didn’t imply that we would welcome only sons, not daughters, as a blessing from God.

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  18. I don’t see any women on here commenting and only one man understanding how reading such things would feel for a girl. That really frightens me.

    FYI, it does hurt. A lot. And quite disheartening for someone who already struggles with her faith.

  19. Being female and older I like to read this blog to understand how North Americans like to translate texts. The need to comment seems moot when readers do not first agree on the criterion by which comments could lead to a resolution.

    For fun though let us see why woman would choose not to comment ….(1) If I have my husband sitting at the”Gates”, then logically I am the one listening to my child’s complaints. Of course my husband could as easily be surfing the web and be unavailable.

    (2) Why write a comment when I can already affirm my worth in my existing relationship with God. Looking outside that relationship forces many woman into societies where woman are not accepted as equally capable. Sadly true for one country in particular. Do the math of when Nordic and US woman got the vote, started attending University, received equal wages and saw the first woman voted President or Prime Minister.

    Perhaps Jesus was actually talking to the men when he spoke to Mary and Martha about the value of leaving their preparations for the guests to learn from him. If they both had done so, the apostles would have realized they needed to serve themselves and the other guests :)))

  20. Hope you realized I was using a bit of dry humour in my comment. With regards to the female reader….I don’t at middle age worry too much about interpretations that contradict my calling from God. After all….God appreciates a female missionary as well as a male missionary equally…..after all the workers are few.

    For all of us in reading scripture to take into account the historical and cultural context by developing exegesis skills. Trust knowing God will be a positive experience.

  21. Girl babies are killed and abandoned everyday because of the belief that sons are superior. I am a woman. I am a Christian. How could God, the same God who died for women and men equally find me a woman of less value. I want to ask all men, are you saying God values me (a woman) less than he values you? Are you as a man are worth more to God than I am? Is a daughter of less value than a son to a father and a mother? How horrible would a daughter feel to know that she has less value in her parents eyes and in the Lords?

  22. K, thank you for your comment. I hope you understand my position. I am certainly NOT saying that God values you less than me, or more generally women less than men. I’m not sure if anyone commenting here is actually saying that, although they are suggesting that some biblical authors valued women less than men. But I will let others speak for themselves – although they might be wiser to keep silent.

  23. Peter, I do not believe that you think women are valued less, from everything that you have said on this site it seems that you value women very much and support them and their worth.

    Rusty in the comments above said:

    “How can you say that when, according to Leviticus 27, Yhwh explicitly tells Moses that females are worth about half of what males are?”

    Martin said in the comments above:

    “surely the Psalm is teaching that boys were of more value than girls?”

    The bible is the inspired word of God, I don’t believe that God would have let anything be written in the original bible if he didn’t want it in there. However I do believe that things can get lost in translation.

    How could biblical authors put their own beliefs in the bible? The bible is God’s word, God “breathed” or it is not.

    The view that son’s are more of a blessing from God is something that some Christian men believe, and they quote it directly from the bible.

    I do not believe this is what God meant nor do I think that you (Peter) think this is what God meant. I am just saying that it appears that men who have posted on this site believe that is what God is saying. And this belief is sadly prevalent among men, of all religions.

  24. K, don’t jump to conclusions. It may be hat Rusty and Martin don’t agree with you and me that the Bible is inspired by God, but consider it at least in part the fallible words of ancient men and perhaps women.

    Meanwhile how do you understand Leviticus 27, as the inspired word of God? Don’t blame translations, I can vouch for them being almost accurate here, that at least in one context God puts a higher value on men than on women.

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