I heard the suggestion recently that Proverbs 22:6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”) can be alternatively translated “…in the way he is bent” or “…in the way he is uniquely inclined”. This immediately sounded unlikely to me.
First, virtually none of the modern English translations render the verse this way. So that’s the first red flag.
Second, the overarching theology of the book of Proverbs doesn’t make this alternative translation likely. Proverbs is a binary book. It is very black and white in its outlook on life. The purpose of the proverbs is to set before the reader a choice–the way of the wise, or the way of the fool. Wisdom is personified as a virtuous woman who is attractive, righteous, and whose ways lead to life. Folly is personified as an adulterous woman who is attractive, seductive, and whose ways lead to death. The traditional understanding of this verse fits well with the storyline of Proverbs, while the proposed alternative has the ring of a modern innovation that discounts the waywardness of children.
Third, the only reason for the alternative translation is because the original Hebrew literally says “his way” instead of “the way”. At first glance, this seems to suggest that “his way” may refer to the unique way God creates each child. In other words, “Train up a child according to his mold; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” But this flies in the face of what all of Scripture teaches about the nature of children. The nature of all people, including children and even babies, is fallen (Gen 8:21). Original sin corrupts every part of man. In reality, to train a child according to “his way, bent, mold, shape” (whatever you want to call it) would inevitably produce sinners bent on sinning according to their individual inclinations and proclivities.
Fourth, the Hebrew word used for “way” is davar. This word is defined as “way, road, journey, conduct”. Obviously in this context davar means “conduct”, so we are to train up a child in “his conduct”. How are we to train him in his conduct? The rest of Proverbs provides the answer: in the way of wisdom set before him by the Teacher, not in the way he is inclined, for that is the way of folly.
Just a couple of observations and then a recommended resource whenever you come across a suggested Bible verse translation that doesn’t sound quite right:
- Keep your Baloney Detector turned on. Be discerning. If hardly any Bible versions translate a verse according to the suggested better translation, then you have good reason to doubt. That doesn’t mean the retranslation is wrong. Perhaps it is a better rendering of the original language and deserves to be accepted and propagated as true. But don’t just accept the alternative. Think about it and check it against other sources.
- Be wary of accepting new translations of verses that go against the traditional way of translation, especially if the new rendering is more appealing to you than the old rendering. Know yourself enough to realize that we are prone to have itchy ears. If we like the sound of something, we are by nature more ready to accept it as true. But that doesn’t make the truth of the claim more likely. Be wise and subject your inclination to scrutiny and verification.
- A great primary resource for translation issues is the NET Bible. The full text of this Study Bible is available for free on the Internet, along with all its translation notes. If you are not able to sufficiently handle the original Hebrew and Greek, turn to the translation notes in the NET for a brief discussion on translation options and the reasoning behind the chosen translation. And if you can navigate Biblical Hebrew and Greek, turn to the NET for the second step. Turn to commentaries third.
Here is what the NET translation notes say about Proverbs 22:6.
The expression in Hebrew is עַל־פִּי דַּרְכּוֹ (’al-pi darko), which can be rendered “according to his way”; NEB “Start a boy on the right road.” The expression “his way” is “the way he should go”; it reflects the point the book of Proverbs is making that there is a standard of life to which he must attain. Saadia, a Jewish scholar who lived a.d. 882-942, first suggested that this could mean the child should be trained according to his inclination or bent of mind. This may have some merit in practice, but it is not likely what the proverb had in mind. In the book of Proverbs there are only two ways that a person can go, the way of the wise or righteousness, and the way of the fool. One takes training, and the other does not. Ralbag, in fact, offered a satirical interpretation: “Train a child according to his evil inclinations (let him have his will) and he will continue in his evil way throughout life” (J. H. Greenstone, Proverbs, 234). C. H. Toy says the expression means “in accordance with the manner of life to which he is destined (Proverbs [ICC], 415). W. McKane says, “There is only one right way – the way of life – and the educational discipline which directs young men along this way is uniform” (Proverbs [OTL], 564). This phrase does not describe the concept perpetuated by a modern psychological interpretation of the verse: Train a child according to his personality trait.