What is the woman’s desire? How Susan Foh’s interpretation of Genesis 3:16 fed steroids to abusers. (Pt 1 of 2)
The idea that the woman’s desire for her husband is a desire to usurp authority over him was put forward by Susan Foh, who in 1975 advanced a novel interpretation of Genesis 3:16.
Related posts: Part 2 of this series, coda to this series
The change of Genesis 3:16, ESS, the colonial code of relationship, and a call to bystanders
In 1975, second-wave feminism was just getting off the ground. Conservative Christians were aghast. How could they stop feminism gaining ground in the church? In their minds, feminism and liberal theology were close cousins. Conservative Christians were keen to find arguments that would prevent feminism infecting the church. And readers of this blog can easily imagine how male pharisees in influential positions wanted to fix a triple-security lock onto the portcullis of their castle.
Susan Foh’s paper What is the Woman’s Desire? was published in 1975 in the Westminster Theological Journal. In the first sentence of the paper, she referred to the rise of feminism and the concern it raised for the church:
The current issue of feminism in the church has provoked the reexamination of the scriptural passages that deal with the relationship of the man and the woman.
She noted the linguistic parallels between Gen. 4:7 and Gen. 3:16 and proposed that therefore the two passages have similar meaning. Here is the core of her argument, with page references to the article as published in the Westminster Theological Journal. (trigger warning)
In Genesis 4:7 sin’s desire is to enslave Cain — to possess or control him, but the Lord commands, urges Cain to overpower sin, to master it. An active struggle between Cain and sin is implied; the victor of the struggle is not determined by the words God speaks to Cain. (p. 380;)
The woman has the same sort of desire for her husband that sin has for Cain, a desire to possess or control him. This desire disputes the headship of the husband. As the Lord tells Cain what he should do, i.e., master or rule sin, the Lord also states what the husband should do, rule over his wife. The words of the Lord in Genesis 3:16b, as in the case of the battle between sin and Cain, do not determine the victor of the conflict between husband and wife. These words mark the beginning of the battle of the sexes. As a result of the fall, man no longer rules easily; he must fight for his headship. Sin has corrupted both the willing submission of the wife and the loving headship of the husband. The woman’s desire is to control her husband (to usurp his divinely appointed headship), and he must master her, if he can. So the rule of love founded in paradise is replaced by struggle, tyranny and domination. (pp. 381-2)
… the desire of the woman in Genesis 3:16b does not make the wife (more) submissive to her husband so that he may rule over her. Her desire is to contend with him for leadership in their relationship. This desire is a result of and a just punishment for sin, but it is not God’s decretive will for the woman. Consequently, the man must actively seek to rule his wife. …it is judgment for sin that the relation between man and woman is made difficult. God’s words in Genesis 3:16b destroy the harmony of marriage, for the rule of the husband, part of God’s original intent for marriage, is not made more tolerable by the wife’s desire for her husband, but less tolerable, because she rebels against his leadership and tries to usurp it. (p. 383)
Foh’s argument hinged on her novel proposition that the woman’s desire for her husband is the same kind of desire that the devil (sin) had for Cain. Just as sin crouched on the threshold craving control over Cain, and Cain was told he must master this temptation, so the wife desires to control her husband by usurping his divinely appointed authority and the husband must master her if he can.
What a bonanza for abusive husbands! Foh’s interpretation dovetailed perfectly into an abusive man’s lying claim that he isn’t being abusive, he is only trying to exercise biblical headship, but his wife is trying to usurp his authority!
Susan Foh’s interpretation provided the perfect theological excuse for abusive men to shift the blame for their evildoing to their wives.
Since 1975, many evangelical Christians have swallowed and passed on Foh’s notion. Many conservative theologians gladly took it up when Foh’s paper was published and have been disseminating it ever since. In book after book, you will find it referred to (or presented as a fact, without Foh even being cited). Since it has been recycled so often it has now acquired, in complementarian circles, the lustre of orthodox, age-old doctrine.
Only if you accept Susan Foh’s aberrant interpretation do you swallow notions such as these:
- Because woman usurped man’s headship in the temptation, God hands her over to the misery of competition with her rightful head. This is justice, a measure for measure response to her sin.
- The woman wants to control her husband, but he must not allow his wife to have her way with him: he must rule over her.
- God gave the woman up to her insubordinate desire, and penalized her with domination by her husband.
Note: each of the above bullet points are close paraphrases from page 109 of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood which is the core text of the complementarian movement.¹
A second example of the women-blaming, misogyny-enabling beliefs which have been fed steroids as a result of Foh’s interpretation:
In these words [Gen. 3:16b] God is indicating that as a result of sin, rather than exercising a caring headship and leadership, men will seek to “rule” in an autocratic, unloving way. And He is indicating with reference to women that rather than being submissive helpers, they will “desire” to have mastery over their husbands. We are understanding the word “desire” here in the same sense as that of its next occurrence (Genesis 4:7), where sin has the “desire” to master Cain.)²
And a third example. Affirmation 4 from The Danvers Statement (CBMW, 2007) [boldface mine] :
The Fall introduced distortions into the relationships between men and women (Gen 3:1-7, 12, 16).
In the home, the husband’s loving, humble headship tends to be replaced by domination or passivity; the wife’s intelligent, willing submission tends to be replaced by usurpation or servility.
In the church, sin inclines men toward a worldly love of power or an abdication of spiritual responsibility, and inclines women to resist limitations on their roles or to neglect the use of their gifts in appropriate ministries.
A dose of sanity after all that triggering!
Significant differences between Genesis 3:6 and 4:7
Here is an excerpt from Margaret Mowczko’s article Teshuqah: The Woman’s “Desire” in Genesis 3:16 —
There are some significant differences between Genesis 3:16 and 4:7. In Genesis 4:7, sin is unmistakably depicted as Cain’s adversary, crouching at the door; and Cain is told that he must master sin and that this is the right thing to do. Foh believes Eve is similarly presented in Genesis 3:16 as Adam’s adversary, even though this is not explicit in the Hebrew text.
Another difference is that, while Cain is directly told by God to master or rule sin, Adam is nowhere told by God to master or rule Eve. God never tells men to rule women. The [husband’s] “rule” spoken of in Genesis 3:16 is a consequence of sin. It is not divinely commanded, as in 4:7, nor does it refer to a beneficial rule.
The contexts of 3:16 and 4:7 are different, even though they share two keywords [“desire” and “rule”].
Early Translations of Teshuqah
In Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 in the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek Old Testament, teshuqah is translated as apostrophē. The etymology of apostrophē gives the meaning “a turning away”, but it is has a broader range of meanings, some of which are conflicting.
Liddell, Scott and Jones (LSJ), arguably one of the best lexicons of Ancient Greek, has several definitions for apostrophē. Most don’t fit the context of Genesis 3:16 at all. For definition III, however, the LSJ says that apostrophē is used rhetorically when one turns away from all others to one person and addresses him specifically. This meaning makes good sense in the contexts of Genesis 3:16 and 4:7.
Since the preposition pros (“towards”) also occurs in Genesis 3:16 (“your turning (apostrophē) will be towards (pros) your husband”), I think the meaning of a woman turning away from others to turn towards, or even long for, her husband may well be what is intended here.
Skip Moen believes that teshuqah may not mean “desire” and he looks to the early Greek, Syriac, and Coptic translations, for insight. He writes,
“But there is another translation stream arising through the LXX, the Syriac Peshitta and Coptic translations. This stream views the rare Hebrew word teshuqah as “turning,” not “lust.” If this stream is correct, then the word in Genesis 3:16 is about Eve’s mistake of “turning” her principle devotion toward Adam rather than God. Eve makes Adam her priority . . . .”
Walter Kaiser likewise states that teshuqah should be understood as “turning”.
The Hebrew word teshuqah, now almost universally translated as ‘desire,’ was previously rendered as ‘turning.’ The word appears in the Hebrew Old Testament only three times: here in Genesis 3:16, in Genesis 4:7 and in Song of Songs 7:10. Of the twelve known ancient versions (the Greek Septuagint, the Syriac Peshitta, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Old Latin, the Sahidic, the Bohairic, the Ethiopic, the Arabic, Aquila’s Greek, Symmachus’s Greek, Theodotion’s Greek and the Latin Vulgate), almost every one (twenty-one out of twenty-eight times) renders these three instances of teshuqah as “turning,” not “desire.” Likewise, the church fathers (Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Epiphanius and Jerome, along with Philo, a Jew who died about A.D. 50) seem to be ignorant of any other sense for this word teshuqah than the translation of “turning.” Furthermore, the Latin rendering was conversio and the Greek was apostrophē or epistrophē, words all meaning “a turning”.
While Susan Foh, and a few others, see a power struggle implied in Genesis 3:16b, women turning towards their husbands, rather than having a desire to control them, fits better with what we see in the world at large.
… The precise meaning of teshuqah is not certain. It may mean “desire”. It may mean “turning”. But context, as well as the evidence from history and the present day, seems to rule out that it means “a desire to control”.
[Mowczko’s article has many citations to original sources which I have omitted here. I have added a few paragraph breaks.]
¹ Page 109 of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (ch 3,”Male-Female Equality and Male Headship,” by Raymond C Ortlund Jr.; in the endnotes Ortlund acknowledges his indebtedness to Susan Foh’s article)
² George W Knight III, in ch 20 of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, p.346
My experience with abuser-enabling misogyny in the church
by Jeff Crippen
Connecting genesis 3 and 4 through the most obscure verse
by Martin Shields
Suzanne McCarthy’s post Kevin DeYoung and the subordination of women: cont. gives helpful quotes from a few Reformers’ comments on Genesis 3:16.
[Added March 6th 2017] THE DESIRE OF THE WOMAN: A RESPONSE TO SUSAN FOH’S INTERPRETATION by Rachel Miller