The woman’s desire in Genesis 3:16 — let’s be consistent with the context and with actual life. (Pt 2 of 2)
[April 17, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]
Genesis 3:16 (ESV prior to August 2016) —
To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire [Hebrew: teshuqah] shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
Genesis 3:16 (ESV August 2016 onwards) —
To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”
Andrew A. Macintosh has done a thorough study of the word תְּשׁוּקָה (teshûqâ). He came to an interesting conclusion. In his 2016 article “The Meaning of Hebrew תשׁוקה,” (Journal of Semitic Studies 61 (2016): pp 365-387) he said (red emphasis added by me) —
In summary, I conclude that ‘desire’ is not a proper rendering of the Hebrew word תְּשׁוּקָה in the Hebrew Bible or in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Rather, on the evidence of comparative philology and of the ancient versions, ‘concern, preoccupation, (single-minded) devotion, focus’, appears to be more likely. (2016: p 385).
[End of Update]
Let us consider the context of the word desire (teshuquah) in Genesis 3:16
Sin has consequences. When Adam and Eve fell, God announced to them certain tragic consequences that would thenceforward make life difficult.
The announcements God made in Genesis 3 are often referred to as the Curse, but that is just shorthand. God cursed the snake and the ground, but in His announcements to Adam and Eve, He didn’t use the word ‘curse’. God’s announcements to Adam and Eve have the character of judicial sentences tempered with compassion, empathy and merciful grace.
The condemnations fall, but not like the blades of a guillotine. They retain a very personal tone and are shaped to fit the personal situation of each of the three guilty parties. (In The Beginning, Henri Blocher, p 179)
In interpreting God’s announcements, we need to take care that our interpretation doesn’t clash with the rest of Scripture. One way we can check if our interpretation is valid is to see whether it is consistent with
- the immediate context: Genesis 3
- the big picture:
(a) what the Bible tells us about God’s character
(b) what the Bible teaches elsewhere about relationships between men and women.
Furthermore, if our interpretation is not authenticated (found) in the big patterns in human history and culture, we need to pencil a big question mark on it. Scripture interprets Scripture (the world doesn’t interpret Scripture); but it is foolish to ignore general knowledge, common sense, and broad patterns in human experience. In fact, the book of Proverbs repeatedly points us to common sense and patterns in human experience!
Susan Foh’s interpretation (see part one of this series) asks us to imagine that when God told Eve in the garden, “Your desire will be for your husband and he shall rule over you”, the meaning of God’s statement only became certain years later, when somehow Eve either heard or read the words that God had spoken to Cain when Cain was nursing resentment against his brother.
Can you picture Eve hearing about how God had said to Cain “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it,” and thinking to herself —”Ah! Now I get it! When God told me that my desire would be for my husband, He was saying that I would desire to control my husband like sin desired to control Cain! Thank heavens that’s become clear; I’d been puzzling over it for years, since before Cain and Abel were even born.”
That is pretty far fetched, is it not? But in a theological climate where word studies, comparative textual analysis and the linguistic minutiae of grammar and syntax have often predominated in the halls of academia, it is not altogether surprising that such a far fetched theory was received pretty favourably. Especially when it conveniently helped the church put up a thorny hedge against ‘the evils of feminism’.
As one pastor has said, many or most conservative Christians have been so determined to avoid doctrinal heresy that they have slipped over the fence into ethical heresy. And in this instance, as is so often the case, the primary victims of the ethical heresy were women. So it didn’t matter much, eh?
Or if it did matter, the women kept quiet, swallowing their discomfort, suppressing their sense that something was not right, because they were walking on eggshells in order not to be seen to be usurping male authority. Catch 22.
My interpretation of Genesis 3:16
Woman would desire to be cherished by her husband.
Eve would want Adam’s forgiveness and abiding love, to comfort her in her shame for having made that grievous mistake about the forbidden fruit. And more broadly, women in general would yearn for loving husbands, for cherishing and protection from their men.
Woman would long for closeness and companionship with that one special man, a closeness which would have a sexual component but it wouldn’t be limited to just sexual desire.
The sexual aspect of the woman’s longing for her husband would be conducive to the ongoing procreation of the human race. It would help counteract the post-Fall potential for women to prefer to avoid sexual intercourse in order to avoid the pains of childbirth and the arduous work involved with childrearing in this fallen world. In this ‘judicial sentence,’ God was either accentuating and increasing the woman’s desire for her husband, or putting a firm retaining wall on the intensity of desire Eve had felt for Adam prior to the Fall. But whatever the case, it was part of God’s long-range plan of mercy for the race. God was going to ensure continued procreation of the race so that He could bring Himself to earth in the person of His Son the Redeemer, the seed who gave the sure promise of mercy for all humankind.
But rather than cherishing and comforting his wife, the husband would be inclined to rule harshly over her.
Adam ate the same fruit that Eve ate. He disobeyed God like she did. After they had sinned, they both felt shame, they both wanted to hide from God. Eve would surely have wanted Adam to forgive her for having offered him the fruit. She would have wanted his comfort in their shared state of shame and mortification for having sinned against God.
When God confronted them, they both confessed their sin. But their confessions took slightly different tones.
God confronted Adam first. When Adam confessed, he cast indirect aspersions on both God and Eve — “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Despite their shared newly-fallen nature and their shared mortification as fallen creatures, Adam’s reply to God didn’t show that he was feeling any empathy, compassion or loving-kindness towards Eve. Instead, Adam seems to have indulged in a bit of subtle blame-shifting, sliding some blame onto Eve and some onto God before rounding off with his own confession, “I ate.”
God then confronted Eve, who had just heard Adam’s reply to God. Eve didn’t covertly cast any aspersions on Adam (or on God) when she made her confession. If she had wanted to go that way, she could have said, “The rule you told Adam which he passed on to me, the serpent twisted, and I ate.” But she simply “the serpent deceived me, and I ate.” If she blame-shifted at all, it was only to the Serpent, and she seems to have taken responsibility for allowing herself to be deceived.¹
All this exactly fits with God’s declarative announcement to Eve. From now on, Eve’s desire for Adam’s empathy, compassion, forgiveness, and loving-kindness would often be sorely unrequited. Adam would tend to rule her, not love her. He would tend to resist taking full responsibility for his sins, and would tend to blame his wife or other people. Man would tend to treat woman unkindly. Man would be inclined to disregard woman, or to dominate and coercively control her. Husbands would tend to treat their wives distantly, harshly, as objects to be used rather than fellow-creatures and companions to be cared for.
And woman’s longing to bond with man, her longing for man’s love, companionship and protection, would mean she would be particularly vulnerable to man’s sinful tendency to mistreat her.
This is what we see all around the world
Male abuse and violence against women. Epidemic levels of male violence against women and girls. Men finding it easy to charm women into their net so they can abuse them. Men joining with other men in the oppression and silencing of women and children. In the broad arc of history we have only recently begun to acknowledge the extent of this abuse.
And yes; not all men oppress women.
And yes; sometimes women abuse men; and sometimes women abuse other women.
But you only have to look at the news to see how frequently males are the perpetrators and / or the beneficiaries of the oppression of women. Think not only of coercive control by married men over their wives, but also sex trafficking, pornography, men taking slave wives and child brides, men casting off women when they become ‘inconveniences’, family court orders that compel abused women to let abusive men have contact with or custody of their children, men trolling women on the internet, men offering seminars to teach other men how to con women into giving them sex, men keeping control of decision-making, dowry-related violence, ‘honor’ killings, foot-binding, stoning of rape victims, female genital mutilation, women and girls being denied education and liberty and human rights, especially in parts of the third world.
The gravitational pull woman feels towards her man can easily make her vulnerable to his mistreatment.
Woman’s longing for a loving, empathetic, caring bond with man as husband, man as partner, has contributed to her overlooking red flags of abuse. Why does an abused woman go back to her abuser? Could it be partly because ever since the Fall woman feels a gravitational pull towards her man? Could it be that woman desires the man of her dreams who will
- have compassion on her weaknesses and failures
- share his vulnerabilities with her so she can help and support him
- help her in her reasonable needs
- respect, and if need be, guide or moderate her yearnings
- and honor and help her fulfil her good aspirations?
But rather than understanding and mitigating this post-Fall tendency of women — this gravitational pull woman feels towards her man which easily makes her vulnerable to his mistreatment — the complementarian church has made it far far worse with its legalism about female submission and its theory that women want to usurp their husbands.
This theory has maligned all women by default. It has given abusive men a justification to blame their wives. It has taught pastors and Elders to instruct abused women, “You need to be more submissive to your husband.” It has taught Christians to pressure abused women to go back to their abusers. It has also mistrusted any woman who wants to debate doctrine or practice in the church. Those women are automatically suspect: as soon as they step out of the prescribed zone of what is deemed ‘permitted’ action for godly femaleness, it is assumed they could be ‘trying to usurp male authority’.
And of course, that prescribed zone can been variously defined, which keeps those who want to haggle over its boundaries very busy….and this keeps many women walking on eggshells in case they get deemed to be crossing the line.
New Testament precepts confirm this interpretation
Paul tells Christian husbands not be harsh with their wives, but to self-sacrificially love them, to honor them as fellow heirs of Christ, and to bear in mind that woman is a weaker vessel than man. Common experience shows that women are generally physically weaker and emotionally more tender than men. And those who are emotionally tender are easy to wound. Why would Paul repeatedly remind men of these things if men did not have a tendency to selfishly ignore the needs and feelings of their wives, to be too harsh with their wives, to dishonor their wives and treat them like work horses?
Susan Foh’s interpretation begs the question: If Genesis 3:16 implied that men must master their wives because wives would perennially desire to usurp their husbands’ leadership, why didn’t Paul exhort husbands to take care lest their wives usurp their authority? But Paul did the exact opposite: he repeatedly exhorted men not to be harsh with their wives and to self-sacrificially love their wives like Christ sacrificially loved the church.
Hierarchical complementarians have interpreted Ephesians 5 as God’s Rules for Gender Roles in Marriage, and they have heavily emphasized wives submit to your husbands. They see Ephesians 5:22, 24, and Col 3:18 as confirming their theory that woman has desired to usurp man’s authority ever since the Fall. But they have overlooked Paul’s main point in Ephesians 5:22-33.
Margaret Mowczko convincingly makes the case that Ephesians 5 is not about hierarchy or roles; instead it’s about unity, nurture, love, and respect. Here is her summation, from her article Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-23.
I cannot see any implication of a gender hierarchy in the following statements, only unity, equality, affinity and love:
- … husbands ought even to love their own wives as their own bodies …
- … the two shall become one flesh …
- … each individual among you [should] also love his own wife even as himself.
Because many Christians have missed Paul’s main point, they believe that Paul used marriage to illustrate the close relationship between Jesus Christ and the Church. Actually, it is the other way round: The unity between Jesus Christ and his Church is a profound model for marriage. As followers of Jesus, both husbands and wives should be building unity, nurture, love, and respect in their marriages.
There is only one place in the NT where Christians are warned about not letting a woman take authority over a man (1 Tim 2:12) and the context is not about the marital relationships. If anything, it is addressing a particular situation in a local church (see here and here). And the other difficult passage, 1 Cor 14:34-35 (women should keep silent in the churches), was probably either given for a particular local cultural situation, or it is a scribal interpolation and not inspired scripture (see here).
So, can we infer anything from the resemblance between Gen 3:16 and Gen 4:7?
What about this?
….the mysterious word to Cain: ‘sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it’ (Gen 4:7). The end of that verse takes up the language of Gen. 3:16 exactly, where God described the wretched fate of woman after the Fall, under the tyrannical authority of her husband. God seems to invite Cain to treat sin as a hard dominating man treats his wife.
(Henri Blocher, In The Beginning, footnote 23, p 145)
As Margaret Mowczko argues, women turning towards their husbands, rather than having a desire to control them, fits better with what we see in the world at large.
Henri Blocher’s interpretation of Genesis 3:16 is one of the best I have encountered. Here is how he sums it up:
The destiny of woman as help-meet and companion will not cease to make itself felt. But, because of sin, this blessing too will turn into a caricature of itself. The man will abuse his status, take advantage of his position and exploit the desire that drives the woman towards him, turning it into the chains of slavery. He will dominate the woman who seeks his love. How can we contradict the precision of this description, if we consider the relationship between man and woman, both on a global scale and throughout history?
The sentence pronounced defines the logical ‘harvest’ of the offence, and it must not be confused with a precept. Male tyranny and the corruption of the harmony that existed between the sexes at creation are all part of the funeral procession. God says so, but He does not command that people should act in this way. On the contrary, throughout the Bible He summons us to combat the consequences of evil. It is possible, if not to suppress them, at least to mitigate them. (Blocher, ibid, p 182)
And here is the take-home message in less than 50 words:
After the Fall, woman would desire to be cherished by her husband; but rather than cherishing and comforting his wife, the husband would be inclined to rule harshly over her.
The gravitational pull woman feels towards her man can easily make her vulnerable to his mistreatment.
¹ To a female victim of domestic abuse, the type of confession Adam gave (confession-while-blaming-shifting) is very familiar: it is like the ‘admissions’ she has heard from her husband. The Fall seems to have instantly given man a deft hand in responsibility avoidance and plausible deniability.
Was Eve shocked by Adam’s response to God? Was she thrown off balance when she heard Adam putting the spotlight on her for giving him the fruit? Was she confused, taken aback? Was she put into a fog by Adam’s words? Did she later endlessly ruminate on how bad she’d been for giving him the fruit? Did that lead her onto on a mouse-wheel of self-doubt and self-blame — the kind which is characteristic of victims of abuse until they come out of the fog? Did she later come to realise how much Adam’s words had stung her? The Bible doesn’t tell us, so we can’t be sure. But it’s interesting to think about.
[April 17, 2022: Editors’ notes:
—For some comments made prior to April 17, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to April 17, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to April 17, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (April 17, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]
Related items on this site
Further reading from other sites on the interpretation of the woman’s desire in Genesis 3:16. Note: By giving the following list, I am not necessarily indicating that I agree with every conclusion or nuance in the authors’ interpretations. However, I believe these authors are worth considering as we all seek to understand Genesis 3:16 under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
In The Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis, by Henri Blocher (Leicester and Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984) (no online version available)
Things that undermine the complementarian position — by Wendy Alsup (Feb 18, 2012)
a short quote from this article:
It [Genesis 3:16b] says she has a desire (the word indicates a strong craving or longing) for her husband. It’s straightforward, and women know exactly what I’m talking about. Apart from Christ, we are predisposed to looking to men to fulfill in us things that only God Himself can fill. We look to men for affirmation emotionally, spiritually, and physically, and for the most part, its [sic] only when they disappoint us that we push them aside and try to do it for ourselves independent of them.
A (Somewhat) Scholarly Analysis of Genesis 3:16 — by Wendy Alsup (April 13, 2012)
a short quote from the above article:
Authoritarian pastors unchecked by their peers and accountability structures who hold to Foh’s views have contributed to feminism in the church as much as anything. Holding on to Foh’s views on Genesis 3:16 sets a tone of suspicion of women when we talk about gender issues in the church, and that tone is not helpful.
And a comment by a husband in the thread of the above article [boldface of the last paragraph added by me]:
Chris April 19, 2012 at 12:00 PM
Wendy, While I have no doubt that you are correct in your exegesis of the word for “desire,” I’m a little more foggy on your interpretation of it as a tendency toward idolatry. From a theological standpoint, it seems suspect to me to imagine God cursing woman with a temptation to sin. He is not the source of temptation, of course.
It seems more likely to me that the curse is the intensified pain of childbirth, but despite it, Eve still wants Adam (as Solomon wants his bride). That’s not a sin, it’s just a tough spot to be in (similar to Adam’s curse of the resistance of nature to his work).
I do want you to know that your explanation of the temptation to look to your husband as the ultimate “need-meeter,” seconded by so many of the commenters all across your blog, has really helped me understand the women in my life much better, including my own wife. You cleared up something that has baffled me throughout my 30-year marriage and my 30-year ministry. It came home to me when I read a comment that referred to it as “the gravitational pull of my husband.” I’ve seen that gravitational pull in action, and wondered what it was. I don’t know if it truly is a result of the Curse, but it sure sounds as if it’s a near-universal phenomenon.
Because you all have courageously exposed this to me, I have immediately and spontaneously felt a greater sympathy and gentleness for my wife. I have found myself re-interpreted women’s “control issues” (I didn’t blame it on Gen 3.16, but I “saw” it often nevertheless) as not being a desire for control at all — it’s opened my mind to other explanations and motivations. Bottom line, it has been liberating to me, as is always the case with the truth. It’s been edifying to my marriage and other friendships.
Problems with a New Reading of an Old Verse — by Wendy Alsup (Sept 17, 2012)
A New Wave of Complementarianism — by Wendy Alsup (April 16, 2013)
a quote from this article:
The view that a woman’s root problem is that she desires to control the men in her life is painful to hear, in part because it is confusing from our real-life experience. I know of no better word to describe it than dissonance – the simple inconsistency between this belief we’ve been taught and the reality of our experience and the experience of those around us leaves us uncomfortable, feeling that something isn’t sitting right and is unresolved. ….
(Note: in the comments thread of the above article, there is some discussion of whether Foh was the first to articulate her view or whether others before her had articulated it, or shades of it.)
Comment by Hannah Anderson from that thread:
Certainly, women can try to usurp authority and men can become passive, but those seem to be secondary sins that stem from original abuse of authority. To me, documentaries like Half the Sky prove that female dominance is not the prevailing issue — in cultures devoid of Judeo-Christian framework, you see the exact opposite. You see men routinely abusing their power and women and children suffering for it.
Toward a Better Reading: Reflections on the Permanent Changes to the Text of Genesis 3:16 in the ESV — by Wendy Alsup and Hannah Anderson (Sept 26, 2016)
Genesis 3:16 – Desiring and Ruling — by David T Lamb (Oct 8, 2013)
Genesis 3:16 The Pronouncement on Eve — by Les Galicinski. (April 2008) This article includes a helpful chart which sets out different theologians’ interpretations of Gen 3:16.
Here is a quote from the above article. Galicinski is dealing with Susan Foh’s belief that Genesis 3:16 should be interpreted by mapping Genesis 4:7 onto it.
….it is tempting to embrace a psychological lesson in this verse and use it to explain the tendency that women have to control their husbands. However, it is worth noting that to have one’s own way with one’s fellow is a general tendency that every human being has to some extent. We all want our own way. The desire to control others is not limited to women controlling men, but is a general consequence of sin in relationships. (p 9)
Womans’s desire for man: Genesis 3:6 reconsidered — by Irvin A Busenitz, 1986. The synopsis of his article says:
Lexical and etymological studies of the words of Gen 3:16b yield little help for interpreting the meaning of the woman’s desire for man. Contextual evidence, however, indicates that the woman’s desire for the man and his rule over her are not the punishment but the conditions in which the woman will suffer punishment. Although there are linguistic and thematic parallels
between Gen 3:16b and Gen 4:7, contextual differences and interpretive problems indicate that Gen 4:7 cannot be used to interpret the meaning of “desire” in Gen 3:16. The Song of Solomon 7:10 provides a better context for understanding the word. It may be concluded that, in spite of the Fall, the woman will have a longing for intimacy with man involving more than sexual intimacy.
Critique of CBMS’s Statement on Abuse — In this post (first published in 2010) I, that is Barbara Roberts, made some comments on Susan Foh’s interpretation of Gen. 3:16.
Genesis 3:16 and the ESV — by Dr Claude Mariottini (Oct 4 2016) An excerpt:
In a recent article, “The Meaning of Hebrew תשׁוקה,” Journal of Semitic Studies 61 (2016): 365-387, Andrew A. Macintosh did a thorough study of the word תְּשׁוּקָה (teshûqâ) and came to an interesting conclusion. ….
…. He wrote: “In summary, I conclude that ‘desire’ is not a proper rendering of the Hebrew word תְּשׁוּקָה in the Hebrew Bible or in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Rather, on the evidence of comparative philology and of the ancient versions, ‘concern, preoccupation, (single-minded) devotion, focus’, appears to be more likely” (2016: 385).
Quite Contrary — by Janie Cheaney (World Magazine. Post date: Jan 6, 2017. Issue date: Jan 21, 2017.)