The ESV is unlike the other translations in that it seems see "way of the spirit" as a fetal development matter which the author is using as how inscrutable are God's ways. In other translations "way of the spirit" is one mystery and "bone development in the womb" seems to be a second mystery.

ESV Eccl 11:5 As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.

So what I'm wondering is whether or not the ESV reading is correct.

3 Answers 3


A note in The Oxford Jewish Study Bible, which is based on the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh indicates that there is some disagreement between different manuscripts of the Masoretic Text. The JPS Tanakh reads:

Just as you do not know how the lifebreath passes into the limbs within the womb of the pregnant woman ...

which is similar to the ESV reading.

Apparently the Targum, which is older than the Masoretic Text, also includes this reading.

But the OJSB editors acknowledge that most manuscripts read like instead of into, which would be similar, for example, to the KJV:

As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all.

Rashi's medieval Talmudic commentary also preserves this reading.

The Septuagint, also older than the Masoretic Text, also seems to agree with the majority Masoretic reading:

ἐν οἷς οὐκ ἔστιν γινώσκων τίς ἡ ὁδὸς τοῦ πνεύματος. ὡς ὀστᾶ ἐν γαστρὶ τῆς κυοφορούσης, οὕτως οὐ γνώσῃ τὰ ποιήματα τοῦ θεοῦ, ὅσα ποιήσει σὺν τὰ πάντα.

Among whom none knows what is the way of the wind: as the bones are hid in the womb of a pregnant woman, so thou shalt not know the works of God, even all things whatsoever he shall do.


I suggest the following is perhaps the most neutral and conservative translation:

כאשר אינך יודע מה־דרך הרוח כעצמים בבטן המלאה ככה לא תדע את־מעשה האלהים אשר יעשה את־הכל׃

Even as you know not the path of the wind, [no]r how the bones [are knit fast] in the belly of her who is pregnant: even so you do know not the work of God, who made all things.

The context appears to be about not being able to determine how everyday things occur (blowing of the wind, where it is coming from and going specifically, and how a human being is constructed from scratch in the womb), and contrasting that with how much more difficult (or impossible) it is to know the workings of God in general, or how they all connect. I don't see the need to see "spirit" here; and I can't see how it's justifiable, based on the Hebrew, to connect the clause about bones to the clause about the ruaḥ (wind, or spirit) per the ESV, but I could be wrong.

Jesus may or may not be alluding to this here:

John 3:8 (ESV) The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

  • What got me inquiring into this is that I notice that Jesus is interacting with Nicodemus where both child development and the inscrutable path of those born of the spirit/wind/breath are discussed. However, in the ESV it doesn't work. So I wanted to investigate the Minority Report.
    – Ruminator
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 23:20
  • Also, the juxtaposition of pneuma to "bones being knit together" brings to mind Ezek 37 and the valley of dry bones.
    – Ruminator
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 23:23
  • Also, can you see how the ESV might have gotten to that reading?
    – Ruminator
    Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 23:32
  • Not really. I guess the "what is the way of the wind כ bones in womb of the pregnant" (sic.) could be interpreted as "how spirit is joined to bone in the womb of her who is pregnant" but I don't feel it's natural, and spirit coming into bones is not the Scripture motif, but rather spirit coming into a lifeless body. But again, I could be wrong. Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 23:55
  • Cf. 2 Macc. 7:22-23 (DRB) "She said to them: I know not how you were formed in my womb: for I neither gave you breath, nor soul, nor life, neither did I frame the limbs of every one of you. 23 But the Creator of the world, that formed the nativity of man, and that found out the origin of all, he will restore to you again in his mercy, both breath and life, as now you despise yourselves for the sake of his laws. " Commented Feb 20, 2019 at 23:56

In other translations "way of the spirit" is one mystery and "bone development in the womb" seems to be a second mystery.

That is how I read it. As 2 mysteries.

I would translate it:

As you don't know what is the way of the spirit (or wind), how the bones [are] in the womb of the pregnant [woman], so you do not know the doing of God who does all this.

What justification could ESV have to make it one mystery?
Because there is no "and" between the 2 mysteries.
The absence of "and" makes it seem like the 1st mystery and the 2nd are one thing,
like the 2nd mystery is in apposition to the 1st.
But I don't see how the 2 can be the same thing, except in that they are both the doing of God, who works all things together for His purpose.

I object to ESV adding "comes to" between the 2 mysteries, and also ignoring the connector כ, which I translated as "how".

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.