How can we determine which translation is more close to the original message? Clearly "the day I was born" vs "mother conceive me" paints a completely different picture - and arguably, a different message. Was "conception" considered the same way back then as now?

Psalm 51:3-5 ESV

For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

Psalm 51:3-5 CEV

I know about my sins, and I cannot forget my terrible guilt.

You are really the one I have sinned against; I have disobeyed you and have done wrong. So it is right and fair for you to correct and punish me.

I have sinned and done wrong since the day I was born.

  • NVL says "from my very beginning". NCV says "gave birth to me". MSG says "conceive a new, true life". ERV "I left my mother’s womb". My question is more does "יחם" mean conceive as we know it today as @H3br3wHamm3r81 mentions. Also, is "יחם" the universal word used? May 10, 2013 at 16:46
  • 1
    Correction to my messed up original comment: For my money, the CEV is a poor translation almost all the way through. If it is just a conflict between the ESV and CEV, I'll go ESV every time. Would be interesting to see what other translations say, particularly some of the more "modern" ones like NLT. I can't look it up right now. Better get back to work. I mess up alot.
    – user2223
    May 10, 2013 at 17:02
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    See also: To what extent is Psalm 51:4 poetic exaggeration? May 10, 2013 at 17:35
  • I'm no scholar, but comparing translations gives a vast majority favoring some variation on "conception." I didn't look at them all, but the only other translation I saw using "birth" was the NCV.
    – user2223
    May 10, 2013 at 19:28
  • A somewhat closely related answer that analyzes Psalm 51:5 via the use of Literature field's literary devices: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/a/43822/19810 Jul 20, 2020 at 11:48

4 Answers 4


"Born" is usually a conjugation of the verb ילד. However, in Hebrew, different words can have an overlap in meaning, and this appears to be the case with יחם. While יחם simply means "to be hot" (cp. Eze. 24:11), it may also be used idiomatically in the realm of sexuality, meaning "to be aroused." This phenomenon is not unlike that which occurs in many other languages. (Compare the English verb "hot" in the phrase, "I'm hot for you," or the Spanish word caliente in Estoy caliente.)

I hate to be graphic, but perhaps this needs to be said. While "arousal" doesn't necessarily mean "conception" to us in the 21st century where contraception exists, it was more likely for arousal to lead to conception in antiquity where there was no contraception.

On another note, in Gen. 30:39, we find the phrase וַיֶּחֱמוּ הַצֹּאן...וַתֵּלַדְןָ, "and the flock [וַיֶּחֱמוּ] and bore..." We often find the verb הרה followed by ילד (cp. Gen. 4:1) to express the series of conception and later delivery, but in Gen. 30:39, we find יחם. This seems to indicate the overlap I mentioned before, where יחם not only means "arousal" but also the "conception" caused by the arousal, a natural case-and-effect, if you will.

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    The idea of heat appears to be somewhat connected with conception even today. Species with an Estrous cycle are said to "go into heat" when they are at the point in the cycle that they are able to conceive.
    – user2027
    Dec 18, 2013 at 19:56

I cannot explain why two different translators would come up with different meanings except to say they had different agendas. One agenda, I'm afraid, is the concept that sex is dirty or wrong, and the second is the Christian concept of "original sin." Neither of these is accepted in a Jewish reading of the Hebrew. With JPS translation, it is as follows:

כִּי פְשָׁעַי אֲנִי אֵדָע וְחַטָּאתִי נֶגְדִּי תָמִיד
5 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.

לְךָ לְבַדְּךָ | חָטָאתִי וְהָרַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ עָשִׂיתִי לְמַעַן תִּצְדַּק בְּדָבְרֶךָ תִּזְכֶּה בְשָׁפְטֶךָ 6 Against You alone have I sinned, and I have done what is evil in Your sight, in order that You be justified in Your conduct, and right in Your judgment. >

הֵן בְּעָווֹן חוֹלָלְתִּי וּבְחֵטְא יֶחֱמַתְנִי אִמִּי

7 Behold, with iniquity I was formed, and with sin my mother conceived me.

Rashi puts verse 7 into context, noting:

Behold, with iniquity I was formed: Now how could I not sin when the main part of my creation was through coitus, the source of many iniquities? Another explanation: The main part of my creation is from a male and a female, both of whom are full of iniquity. There are many midrashim to this verse, but they do not fit the context of the psalm.

conceived me: Heb. יחמתני, an expression of heat, as (Gen. 30:38): “And they came into heat (ויחמנה) when they came to drink.”

Rashi is not saying that sex is bad, but he is saying that, in the wrong context (i.e. outside of marriage and the intent to bring children) it may come from illicit motivations.

Further context is provided by the Mishna at Avot, Ch. 3:1. It quotes Akavia the son of Mahalalel, a rabbi who lived in the first and second centuries, as saying:

"Reflect upon three things and you will not come to the hands of transgression. Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting. From where you came–from a putrid drop [of semen]; where you are going–to a place of dust, maggots and worms; and before whom you are destined to give a judgement and accounting–before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He."

I should add that a child, from a Jewish point of view, who has not yet experienced signs of puberty, cannot be deemed a sinner because he or she is not yet responsible. In fact, the Talmud in Yavamot states that newborn children start in a pure state. As they grow to learn appropriate behavior, they are capable of sin and good deeds, and their parents bear responsibility for both. People, from our viewpoint, aren't inherrently sinful -- they are imperfect, subject to making bad decisions as well as good ones. As people grow learn Torah, their capacity to make more right decisions in enhanced, and achieving virtual perfection (perhaps as explained by David in Psalm 19) should be our goal always, rather than assuming that "Man Is Lost."


The Septuagint gives:

... en anomiais synelempsthen kai en hamartiais ekkisesen me he meter mou

... amidst lawlessness I was conceived and in erroneous expectations my mother longed with burning for me

It is not very likely that David intended to blame his mother for his own fault. With more probability he admitted the shame of one who was hoped for in difficult time and then disappointed so terribly all expectation that was set in him.

However it may have been, impressive is what a son (David) is capable (in holy writing) to say in regards to his mother. Our (or is it just mine?) shyness does not seem to be his.


The more accurate/literal translations follow identically with the ESV:

Translation text
English Standard Version Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.
New King James Version Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.
King James Bible Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.
New American Standard Bible Behold, I was brought forth in guilt, And in sin my mother conceived me.
NASB 1995 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.
NASB 1977 Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.
American Standard Version Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity; And in sin did my mother conceive me.
Revised Standard Version Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.

In all of these translations "in iniquity" is operating on "brought forth" which is an action, a verb. That makes "in iniquity" act as an adverb. The bringing forth is what is described as iniquitous, which is the mother's action. Same with the second half of the verse but the second half is more overt. "in sin" is operating on the verb "conceive" making "in sin" an adverb describing the mother's action. It is not acting as an adjective describing David himself.

It is only when we depart from the realm of literal translations and into the realm of what is called thought for thought that we start to see where the difference arises in relation to your question of the CEV. These are not translations. These are paraphrases. A translation's goal is to accurately convert text in one language into another. If we allow for a translator to not hold to what is on the page to instead translate what they believe the thought of the author was then they inevitably end up changing subtle and important things in the text to fit their preconceptions about what they think the text ought to say. This is what you're seeing in the CEV and paraphrases like the NIV, NLT, and CSB.

Note in these texts how the phrases "in iniquity" and "in sin" have had their functions changed. They no longer operate as adverbs describing the mother's actions. They are now rendered as adjectives describing David himself.

Translation text
Contemporary English Version I have sinned and done wrong since the day I was born.
New International Version Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
New Living Translation For I was born a sinner— yes, from the moment my mother conceived me.
Christian Standard Bible Indeed, I was guilty when I was born; I was sinful when my mother conceived me.

As another answer has mentioned the only reason I can think of a translator warping a passage like this would be to fit their own doctrinal views to make a passage read in favor of original sin when a straightforward translation doesn't support original sin's doctrinal status.

  • I suspect the CEV is trying to distance this verse from arguments about abortion.
    – Dan
    Apr 3 at 5:01
  • While I discourage using tables for biblical quotations, this is the proper use of a table showing the correlation of one piece of data to another. Thank you.
    – agarza
    Apr 3 at 14:08

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