Tag Archives: sex

What Does “One Flesh” Mean?

What does the Bible mean when it says a husband and wife become “one flesh”? This phrase describing marriage is variously understood, leading to different conclusions in debates about divorce and remarriage.

Here are some conclusions I’m drawing about what the phrase “one flesh” means:

  1. It expresses the reality that woman and man are “made of the same stuff.” This is clear from the context where the phrase first occurs in Genesis 2:22-24:

    And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

    “This at last is bone of my bones
        and flesh of my flesh;
    she shall be called Woman,
        because she was taken out of Man.”

    Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

    The basic sequence is clear: (1) God makes woman from man’s body; (2) the man recognizes that the woman was “taken out of” his body and therefore in some way belongs to him; (3) it is because of this same-source likeness that a man and a woman become “one flesh” today.

  2. But it also hints of a compatible difference. Since Eve was taken out of Adam, they fit back together a little like a single two-piece puzzle picture. God did not present Adam with someone identical to him, but rather someone who fit him–who completed him–who was compatible because she was different-yet-same. None of these descriptions are sufficient and every one of them can be abused, but the basic duality of gender difference is everywhere in the original context of our “one flesh” phrase: man/woman, Adam/Eve, father/mother, husband/wife.
  3. It refers to physical oneness, especially sexual union. This is clear from the original context, which emphasizes the physicality of Adam (his body) and his wife (made from his body). The language of “bones” and “flesh” underscores this physical emphasis, as does Paul’s use of the term “one flesh” to show that “he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her” (1 Cor. 6:16). Some commentators point out that Genesis doesn’t say Adam “knew” his wife until chapter 2, after the comment about being one flesh. Therefore, they say, the term refers to something that was real before (and therefore apart from) any sexual union. But that is an invalid argument. First, surely the patriarchs “knew” their wives far more often than the Bible mentions! Second, the term “one flesh” is first used not to refer directly to Adam and Eve, but to how men and women ever since have become one flesh in marriage. Therefore, whether or not Adam and Eve “knew” each other immediately upon first meeting each other is irrelevant to the definition of “one flesh.”
  4. But it probably also refers to other kinds of oneness that unified bodies embody. This is suggested by how the Hebrew term for “flesh” is sometimes used elsewhere. Commentator Westermann says “the Hebrew בשׂר [flesh] does not stand in opposition to spirit or soul, like the Greek σάρξ [sarx, flesh], but describes human existence as a whole under the aspect of corporality [body-ness].”1 In other words, the word “flesh,” though explicitly referring to bodies, can implicitly refer to humans (or even animals) as whole beings. Consider how the term “all flesh” is used throughout the OT: God talks about destroying “all flesh” in the flood (Gen. 6:13); he is described as “the God of the spirits of all flesh” (Num. 27:16); and “all flesh” will see God’s glory and worship him (Isa. 40:6; 66:23). In these passages “all flesh” is roughly equivalent to “all humanity,” and flesh is described as having spirits and being capable of worship. This suggests the possibility that becoming “one flesh” could mean becoming “one human.”
  5. It is probably related to traditional Jewish language that expresses blood relationships and family ties. Adam says Eve is “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Similarly, the phrase “my bone and my flesh” was used by Laban to describe his nephew Jacob (Gen. 29:14) and by others in similar situations (Judg. 9:2; 2Sam. 5:1; 19:12-13). If someone is flesh of my flesh they are part of my family; if someone becomes one flesh with me, it might mean that we have formed a new family. This possibility is reinforced by the language of “leaving” and “cleaving” in the Genesis passage; the man leaves his birth family and forms a new family bond. Commentator Wenham emphasizes that the “one flesh” language means that “just as blood relations are one’s flesh and bone…, so marriage creates a similar kinship relation between man and wife. They become related to each other as brother and sister are.”2
  6. But it actually expresses a relationship that is closer than any blood relationship. Here Wenham’s emphasis seems imbalanced. He acknowledges that becoming one flesh involves sexual union, shared children, and a spiritual and emotional relationship, but he emphasizes that it refers to a kinship tie formed in marriage. He even points to this one flesh relationship of a husband and wife as the reason for Deuteronomy 24’s prohibition on a divorced couples remarrying each other: “A man may not remarry his wife because his first marriage to her made her into one of his closest relatives… The partners to a marriage become one flesh.” Thus, to restore the marriage would be “a type of incest.”3 If this is true, then why is it not incest for any married couple to continue to have sexual relations with each other after their initial union has made them one flesh?

(Update: Wenham has now abandoned this interpretation of Deuteronomy 24 as guarding against incest, saying it is not “plausible.” He now says the command was designed to prevent the original husband from charging his wife with “some indecency” as “a ploy to acquire her dowry” that she would later receive from her second husband.4)

Apparently a one flesh union is not the same thing as a kinship bond, despite some similarities. I suggest that the difference is not that a husband and wife remain distant enough that sexual union is permissible, but that sexual union is permissible because they are closer than any other kinship bond. When Paul talks about a man and a woman becoming one flesh, he says that a man who loves his wife “loves himself”; he should care for her as for his own body and cherish her as “his own flesh” (Eph. 5:28-33). In fact, the one flesh union of a man and woman (even a prostitute) is compared to how we are “members” of Christ’s body–actually part of the same body as him (1 Cor. 6:15; Eph. 5:30). Jesus said that a married couple are so unified that “they are no longer two but one flesh” (Matt. 19:6).

In summary, my current best understanding of the Bible’s “one flesh” language is that it indicates the formation of a new two-in-one human being. One flesh union is possible because men and women are “made of the same stuff” and designed to fit each other. Our sexual union embodies and enables a more general profound oneness. This union is intended for marriage but can be experienced (contrary to God’s intent) outside of marriage. In one flesh union a new family bond is produced, but the union goes beyond mere kinship so that the best way to describe a one flesh couple is to say “they are no longer two.”

Commentator Provain paints a similar picture:

Adam is cut in half, so that there come into existence two ‘sides’. One becomes male and the other female. These are now separate beings, who nonetheless exist in the closest possible relationship; she is, as the male affirms, ‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’ (2.23). Elsewhere in the OT, this combination of ‘bone’ and ‘flesh’ refers to a member of one’s family (e.g. Gen. 29.14). In Genesis 2 the language has an even more intimate significance, for the male and the female are destined to become again ‘one flesh’ in marriage (Genesis 2.24) – to ‘return’, as it were, to their original condition as the inhabitants of one body.5

Different understandings of the “one flesh” language of Genesis 2 can lead to different conclusions about divorce and remarriage today.

Here are two examples:

  1. Gordon Wenham, in part because of what he believes [Update: “believed”] about a “one flesh” marriage union producing a permanent kinship relationship, feels that even today “it would seem wisest” for a divorced and remarried person “to adhere to the Deuteronomic” regulation and not return to their first spouse.6
  2. Warren Wiersbe, who believes that the “one flesh” language implies that “marriage is basically a physical relationship,” concludes that “the phrase ‘one flesh’ implies that anything that breaks the physical bond in marriage can also break the marriage itself.”7

I am not sure either of those applications are essential conclusions of those specific understandings of the term “one flesh.”  I am also not sure what all practical conclusions should be drawn from this phrase. This one phrase cannot bear the weight of all our divorce and remarriage questions–particularly questions about what should happen next after God’s original design has been marred.

This phrase does, however, suggest very practical implications: If the “one flesh” summary statement means that God intends to form new two-in-one human beings, then monogamous, life-long marriage is clearly the creation norm. Why would you want to experience the personal fragmentation of sexual union with more than one partner? Why not rather invest “selfishly” in the health of your marriage and the good of your marriage partner (“yourself”) for as long as you both live?


What do you think the term “one flesh” means? What understandings have you heard of? What conclusions have you seen people make based on their understanding of this term? Please let me know if I’m missing something. Share your thoughts in the comments below. Thanks for reading!


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  1. Claus Westermann, A Continental Commentary: Genesis 1–11 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1994), 233.
  2. Gordan J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15, Vol. 1. (Dallas, TX: Word, 1987), 71.
  3. Gordon J. Wenham and William E. Heth, Jesus and Divorce, updated edition (Carlisle, CA: Paternoster Press, 2002), 109-10. This interpretation is attributed here to Wenham.
  4. Gordan Wenham, Jesus, Divorce, and Remarriage: In Their Historical Setting (Bellingham, WA, Lexham Press, 2019), 29. Wenham does not clarify in this new book whether he still thinks it is wrong for Christians today to return to a first spouse after a subsequent marriage.
  5. Ian Provan, Discovering Genesis: Content, Interpretation, Reception, Discovering Biblical Texts (DBT) (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), 78. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added.
  6. Wenham and Heth, 201.
  7. Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Basic (Genesis 1-11): Believing the Simple Truth of God’s Word, The BE Series Commentary (David C. Cook), 49-50. Kindle Edition. Wiersbe also believes that “marriage is a civil relationship, regulated by law, and should be a spiritual relationship and a heart relationship, governed by the Word of God and motivated by love.”

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Notes While Reading the Christian Standard Bible (CSB)

I set a goal this year to read through the Bible in the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) translation. I’m far behind schedule but don’t regret my choice.

The CSB, you may recall, is the new version of the now-retired Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB). There are many differences between the two, though both aim(ed) to provide a translation that falls somewhere between the formal equivalence (NASB, KJV, ESV) and functional equivalence (NIV, NET, NLT) ends of the translation spectrum.

You can easily find more information online about all such things, including my own advice about Bible translations. Here I’ll simply share a few translation choices that have stood out to me so far in the CSB. Let’s talk about Adam, sex, and cubits.

“ADAM” or “THE MAN”?

The Hebrew word for the name of the first man, “Adam,” simply means “the man” or, in a generic sense, “human beings.” Translators need to use context when deciding how ‘adam should be translated.

This creates special challenges in the early chapters of Genesis. The first occurrence of ‘adam is in Genesis 1:26, where God says, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. They will rule…” (I’ll use CSB in this post unless otherwise stated). Here both the theological emphasis on all humanity being created in God’s image and the plural “they” make it clear that a translation such as “man” or “human beings” (CSB footnote) is necessary. “Let us make Adam” would not work.

By the time we get to Genesis 5:3, it is very clear that ‘adam references not merely “human beings” in general nor even a generic “man,” but a specific individual: “Adam was 130 years old when he fathered a son in his likeness… and named him Seth.”

But the Genesis creation narrative flows quite seamlessly from a general description of the creation of humanity in general to a more specific discussion of Adam and Eve as individuals. When should we start thinking of ‘adam as a specific man?

It is always interesting to see when translations make this transition.

The KJV first mentions “Adam” at Genesis 2:19:

And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.

The ESV makes the transition one verse later, at Genesis 2:20:

The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.

The NASB and the NIV do the same as the ESV, but the NIV tips the reader off as early as  Genesis 2:4 by providing a heading that reads “Adam and Eve.”

The NLT waits until Genesis 3:20 to make the transition, translating a single Hebrew word twice to help the reader along:

Then the manAdam—named his wife Eve, because she would be the mother of all who live.

But the CSB waits even longer. “Adam” doesn’t appear until Genesis 4:25:

Adam was intimate with his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth…

Which option is best? I give NLT top points for clarity. And it is ingenious to provide Adam’s name in the same verse where Eve is first named! But its double translation implies that two terms are present in Hebrew where there is only one.

Overall, I like the choice of the NASB, NIV, and ESV best. Including both “the man” and “Adam” in the same verse somewhat eases the transition, helping the reader know both terms refer to the same person.

And I like the CSB the least of the options shown above. When “Adam” first appears in Genesis 4:25, the man named “Adam” has not been discussed since Genesis 4:1—twenty-four verses earlier—where we read, “The man was intimate with his wife Eve…” The intervening verses have been about other characters named Cain, Abel, Lamech, and more. Advanced readers will notice that “Adam” who is “intimate with his wife” in 4:25 is “the man” who was “intimate with his wife” in 4:1.  But many beginning Bible readers (and there are increasing numbers in North America) will be left wondering who this “Adam” is that they are hearing about the first time, and why he is mentioned “again” if he has not been named before.

“KNEW,” “MADE LOVE TO,”
or “WAS INTIMATE WITH”?

But if the CSB strikes out with “Adam,” it hits a home run with its translation for the act of sexual intercourse, also mentioned in the verses above.

Translating sexual language brings many potential pitfalls. First, there are our modern preoccupations with sex, ranging from undue sexual embarrassment (especially when reading the Bible aloud in church!) to the anything-goes flaunting of sexual provocation in North American media and fashion.

The ancient biblical conceptions of sexuality also bring translation challenges. When the Old Testament talks about sexual intercourse, it often uses the word yada, often translated “know”/”knowledge.” Here is how Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology begins its discussion of this word:

Yada… appears almost 950 times in the Hebrew Bible. It has a wider sweep than our English word “know, ” including perceiving,learning, understanding, willing, performing, and experiencing. To know is not to be intellectually informed about some abstract principle, but to apprehend and experience reality.

This word yada is used of all sorts of situations, including humanity’s knowledge of God, God’s knowledge of humanity, personal skills, moral awareness, and treaty relationships.

And sex.

Formal modern language about sexual union rarely expresses this concept of knowing another person. “Sexual intercourse” and “coitus” sound too scientific. “Had sex” is too dryly factual and sounds like we are talking about consumer goods. “Consummation” and “sexual relations” come closer, but still do not emphasize knowing above other possible connotations. Informal language such as “make love with” and “go to bed with” also often misses the boat.

Given these ancient and modern challenges, what is a translator to do?

The KJV famously simply opts for “knew.” Formally, this is a perfect translation choice, retaining links to other places where yada is found. And functionally, it points the reader directly to a primary significance that the ancient Hebrews saw in the sexual act. That said, it leaves some modern readers clueless as to what Adam actually did. (Did he take Eve on a date? Exchange family histories with her? Ask her about her favorite flavor of ice cream?) Now, this has its advantages in church Bible readings, when children are present, right? But nobody today uses “knew” in this way unless they are deliberately parroting the KJV.

That is what the NKJV does, and so do others like the NRSV and the ESV. It works, but it needs some explanation from time to time.

The NASB uses “had relations with.” That’s closer to modern usage, though usually today one would specify that it is sexual relations under discussion. And again, the modern idiom “relations” does not quite emphasize the idea of knowing in a way that matches the Hebrew yada.

The NIV lets modern usage lead the way, so it says Adam “made love to” his wife. This translation mercifully lets readers know what actually happened. But it totally misses the boat with its connotation of loving another person rather than knowing them. It carries too much baggage from medieval notions of romance and modern chick flicks.

The CSB, it seems to me, gets it about as good as modern English can: “Adam was intimate with his wife.” First, this clearly conveys what actually happened between Adam and his wife. Dictionaries define this phrase as “to have sexual relations with” or have “sex” or “sexual intercourse” with someone. Second, the word “intimate” very accurately expresses the sort of experiential knowledge conveyed by the Hebrew yada. And third, the phrase is an idiom, which appears to be how the term yada functioned when used to refer to sexual activity.

Well, done, CSB!

“CUBITS” or “INCHES”?

Today while reading through Exodus in the CSB, I was surprised to read this:

They are to make an ark of acacia wood, forty-five inches long, twenty-seven inches wide, and twenty-seven inches high. (Exodus 25:10)

What surprised me was the appearance of “inches,” along with other modern units such as “feet,” “yards,” and “pounds.”

Metric units would be so much better, right? Actually, what I was expecting was “cubits,” as I grew up reading about in the KJV:

And they shall make an ark of shittim wood: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof, and a cubit and a half the height thereof.

A cubit was the length from a man’s elbow to his fingertips—about 18 inches. So, when you do the conversions, the CSB lengths remain accurate.

But every other translation I’ve commonly used retains the ancient Hebrew units. This includes the NKJV, the NASB, the ESV, and—surprisingly—even the NIV. I say surprisingly because usually the NIV is seen as more quick than the CSB to prioritize modern language over the formal patterns of the original text. (We saw a hint of this above with the NIV’s “made love to” vs. the CSB’s still-modern-but-less-widely-used “was intimate with.”) Generally, if no significant meaning will be lost by using modern terminology, the NIV will use it. So why didn’t they here?

Roughly twenty of the approximately fifty English translations on www.Biblegateway.com use modern units.  I am somewhat surprised that so many do. Most recent translations opt for English units. But there are some exceptions: for example, the Lexham English Bible, International Standard Version, and even the Amplified Bible still retain Hebrew units. (None offer metric units. And the ESVUK retains biblical units in sensible British fashion.)

I don’t know what I think about this choice. I have been familiar long enough with cubits to have little trouble picturing the size of objects measured with this unit. But other ancient units (shekel, hin, etc.) still leave me searching for footnotes. So I appreciate the assistance that using modern units gives to readers.

On the other hand, an ark that is “twenty-seven inches wide” (not 24″ or 36″) sounds less natural than one that is “one and a half cubits wide.” The same is true of:

  • an altar that is “7 ½ feet” long and wide (not 8 feet) versus one that is “five cubits” long and wide (Ex. 27:1), or
  • hangings that are “22 ½ feet” long (not 20 feet or 25 feet) versus “15 cubits” long (Ex. 27:14).

It is clear that God used measurements that were ordinary sizes in the culture of ancient Israel, but using modern unit conversions doesn’t convey this.

A second potential concern is that some biblical measurements have symbolic meaning that can be lost in conversion. That said, I am not aware of any such symbolism in the measurements of the tabernacle, apart from ratios of length which are not lost in conversion. The dimensions of the Most Holy Place form a cube in feet just as well as in cubits, thus preserving the link to the cube-shaped New Jerusalem in Revelation. And in Revelation, where the units measuring the New Jerusalem do indeed have symbolic significance (being multiples of 12), the CSB does use the biblical units, excluding modern units to footnotes:

He measured the city with the rod at 12,000 stadia. Its length, width, and height are equal. Then he measured its wall, 144 cubits according to human measurement, which the angel used. (Rev. 21:16-17)

I would need to examine this further to see how well the CSB handles this balance. But what I see so far suggests that in their handling of units of measurement the CSB translators have achieved the “optimal equivalence” they aimed for between faithfulness to the original text and readability for the modern ear.


Every translation philosophy has trade-offs. I enjoy reading multiple translations to help me better ponder and understand God’s words.

Have you read from the CSB? Do you have any most- or least-favorite translation choices from the CSB? Share them in the comments below. And keep reading…


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On Translation Choices and Pastoral Concerns

This morning I noticed an example of the NIV being very politically correct–or, to be kinder, very pastorally aware:

The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. (1 Cor. 7:4)

The Greek text for this verse has no word that corresponds to the NIV word “yields.” The ESV translates the end of each sentence well: “but the husband/wife does.” This translation supplies the implied verb, “does.” The KJV does not supply any implied verb. So it is less clear but mirrors the Greek even more closely: “but the husband/wife.”

On Translation Choices…

In the NIV Paul sounds like he is urging voluntary mutual submission in this verse, rather than providing a reason why such submission is important. It is more likely, I think, that Paul is urging mutual submission in the previous verse (“The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband” 1 Cor. 7:3.) and then adding a reason why in this verse. In other words, I think verse verse 3 says what married people should do–give each other their conjugal rights–and verse 4 says why–because married people don’t possess autonomous authority over their own bodies.

There, I find myself being PC, too! There is no word “autonomous” in the Greek to soften the force of Paul’s assertion.

The ESV, interestingly, shows it agrees with my understanding of how verses 3 and 4 are related by adding a “for” at the start of verse 4, even though none is present in the Greek.

So is there any linguistic basis for the NIV’s choice here? There probably is, for the NIV is usually very intentional. I’m speculating here, because I don’t know what discussion the translation committee had on this verse. But I suspect the textual basis for their choice is found in the verb “have authority over.” They may understand this as “keep authority over,” concluding, therefore, that the opposite idea is to yield. But it seems odd to me, if this is really what Paul was thinking, that he would end his sentence with “but the husband/wife.” Rather, it would be more natural, if he understood the verb this way, to end, “but yields it.” This, of course, is how the NIV translates the end of the sentence. So the NIV provides what Paul should have said if their understanding of the verb is correct, not what Paul actually said!

At least, that’s my best guess at what’s happening linguistically here with the NIV.

Let me contrast the NIV and ESV translations another way. In the ESV, Paul is contrasting persons: Who has authority over the husband’s body? Not the husband but the wife. In the NIV, Paul is contrasting actions: What does the husband do with his body? Not rule it himself but yield it to his wife. I think the ESV reflects the Greek more accurately.

I quickly surveyed all 50 translations on Bible Gateway. If I counted correctly, only the Phillips, the Message, the NLT, and VOICE translations agree with the NIV here. That’s not proof that the NIV is wrong, but neither is it a ringing endorsement.

A few translations find other ways of “softening the blow,” such as EXB’s “The wife does not have full rights over her own body; her husband shares them…” This translation softens the blow at two points: by adding the word “full” before “rights” (but they add a note after “full rights” that provides a literal translation: “authority”) and by providing the word “shares” in the final clause, where the Greek gives no suggestion of anything being mutual.

Probably little real damage is done by NIV’s choice, and it may prevent some dangerous misapplication. But it’s yet another reminder of (a) how pastoral concerns can shape translation choices, and (b) the importance of comparing translations when we can.

And Pastoral Concerns

The pastoral concern that probably motivated the NIV translators is legitimate: We do not want to encourage abusive spouses to demand sexual rights from their spouses. Just as slave owners have pointed to texts commanding slaves to obey their masters, so abusive husbands have pointed to texts like this to convince their spouses that they must submit to abuse.

The pastoral problem is very real. So is there another way to address the problem besides rewriting Paul’s thoughts (as I think the NIV is doing)?

I think there is. I think the answer is to preach and teach “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). We need to constantly discourage people from building theologies and practices on isolated proof-texts. I believe proof-texting can be legitimate and even important; the NT authors do it regularly as they quote the OT. But we must not use isolated proof-texts. Our proof-texts must reflect the whole counsel of God. We can do this by choosing proof-texts that are balanced within themselves. We can also do this by providing multiple proof-texts. And we can avoid proof-text problems by remembering that, according to Scripture, Scripture often requires explanation, not mere quotation (see Neh. 8:7-8).

Here is an example that parallels the problem in our text: The question of relating to civil authorities. Paul says some very hard-to-swallow things about this question, too:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Rom. 13:1-2)

Taken in isolation, this can be a dangerous proof text. But we don’t solve this problem by rewriting Paul. We don’t translate Paul like this: “Let every person be subject to those governing authorities which have been instituted by God.” (At least, I hope we don’t.) Rather, we recognize that Paul is stating a foundational principle. We quote this principle and feel its full force. Then we pull in other Scriptural data and recognized that there are exceptions. For example, the apostles said “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) and Jesus even commanded his disciples to flee authorities who tried to persecute them (Matt. 10:23).

If we apply these parallels to the question of conjugal rights and sexual submission in marriage, then several conclusions are suggested: (1) There are times when one spouse will need to tell the other, “I must obey God rather than you.” (2) There are times when a spouse will need to flee abuse.

Other passages could enrich our observations here. My point is that I think this kind of theological and expositional legwork is a good way to address the pastoral concerns of a text like 1 Corinthians 7:4. I appreciate when translations try to avoid leaving misimpressions. But I don’t appreciate when they do this by changing what the text actually says. So, in this case, I prefer the ESV over the NIV.

What do you think? Leave a comment and share your perspective.


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