Contrary Women: Genesis 3:16b in the (now non-)Permanent ESV —by Matthew Lynch (a partial reblog)
“A more appropriate translation of Gen 3:16b would be, Your devotion will be toward your husband; Yet he will rule over you.” — Matthew Lynch, Dean of Studies and Lecturer in Old Testament at Westminster Theological Centre.
Matthew has very kindly permitted us to republish a condensed version of this article. The full text can be found at theologicalmisc.net [Internet Archive link]. We urge readers, especially pastors and scholars, to go to this link you will find full citations and footnotes. Here is our condensed version.
The most controversial translation change in the now non-Permanent 2016 ESV edition is Gen 3:16b, which reads as follows:
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.”
A footnote after ‘shall be contrary to’ gives the alternative, ‘Or shall be toward.’ The original of 3:16b read thus:
“Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”
… Problems with the ESV Gen 3:16
There are several stylistic, grammatical, and literary problems with this  translation.
- Stylistic Problems: What does it mean for the one’s (singular) desire to be contrary to another person? The ESV appears to use the word ‘contrary’ as an adverb, equivalent to: ‘Your desire will be in opposition to’ But at a purely stylistic level, this is really awkward. It’s like saying, ‘Your faithfulness is opposed to him.’ … If ‘desire’ were… ‘desires,’ then the sentence would make more sense… : ‘Your desires will be in opposition to him.’ But as it stands, the ESV leaves us with this: The woman has a singular desire. For what? We don’t know, but it’s in opposition to her husband. …
- Grammatical Problems: … The ESV translation ‘contrary to’ hangs on a VERY thin grammatical thread, and depends on a rare adversative (by which I mean a word expressing opposition) meaning for the Hebrew preposition ’el, so ‘contrary to.’
…the Hebrew preposition ’el needs a clear contextual clue to render it hostile, but it always designates ‘movement toward a person or thing.’ …
- Literary Problems: …The strongest argument for adopting an adversative translation of ’el is the striking similarity between Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 (here in the 2016 ESV):
“And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.” [4:7]
“Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” [3:16]
Obviously, these texts resonate with each other, but how? Should Gen 4:7 play a determinative role for interpreting (and translating!) Gen 3:16? If it should, one could argue that the woman, like sin, possesses a desire to harm her husband: ‘Her desire is against him,’ taking the adversative sense. Like Cain, the husband must ‘rule over,’ or better, ‘master’ (Heb. mašal) the woman. In this reading, the woman’s ‘desire’ (tešūqâ) is deliberately antagonistic to—and even harmful to—her husband, but it is the woman herself, like sin, that becomes the object of the husband’s mastery. The expectation that ‘he shall rule over you’ becomes a solution to a sinful threat, and not a statement of sin’s awful consequences. Because of the woman’s antagonism, the man will (necessarily) dominate. Rather than a malfunction from ‘the fall,’ male dominance becomes an urgent necessity.
However, this interpretation runs into serious problems. It assumes that the literary resonance between the text implies equivalence (desire = bad in both texts). Yet surely the man is not to ‘rule’ (Heb. mašal) the woman like Cain is supposed to ‘rule’ (Heb. mašal) sin? That would imply her destruction, removal, and obliteration.
Thus, one cannot say that because Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 resonate, desire must be bad in each text, unless one is also willing to argue for another equivalency wherein (a) the woman is the one in whom sin resides, and therefore (b) the man’s response ought to be uncompromising rule or domination.
Instead, there are important similarities and differences between the context of 3:16 and 4:7. Notice that only 4:7 includes a divine word that one ought to ‘master’: ‘If you do well, will you not be accepted?’ By contrast, Gen 3:16 simply states what will happen in the future, not what should happen. …
… a better translation will not foreclose on the text’s own ambiguity. …
But before settling on an interpretation of the verse, it’s important to address one more translation issue. What does tešūqâ (usually translated ‘desire’) even mean in Hebrew?
A Better Translation of 3:16b?
It is probably just an accident of history that the ESV made a permanent and significant change to Genesis 3:16 right around the time that Andrew Macintosh, one of the world’s leading scholars of biblical Hebrew, published an article proposing a new translation for a key term (Heb. tešūqâ) in the same verse.* Macintosh’s article is the most comprehensive and up-to-date academic treatment of this term to date, and deserves attention.
His argument proceeds … along the following lines:
- While translators almost universally render the Hebrew term tešūqâ ‘desire.’ Unfortunately, the term only occurs 3x in the Hebrew Bible (Gen 3:16; 4:7; Song 7:10), so it’s very difficult to translate. This is why the Dead Sea Scrolls and the ancient Greek translation prove helpful. They provide (a) a wider semantic data set and (b) the earliest translations.
- Based on Gen 3:16 and Song 7:10 and instances of the term in the Dead Sea Scrolls, it seems that tešūqâ is a personal term, and that the abstract use in Gen 4:7 is dependent upon that personal sense.
- The early Greek and Hebrew (Dead Sea Scrolls) translations and interpretations of the Hebrew tešūqâ are basically correct. It means ‘focused attention’ or ‘devotion,’ and refers in personal contexts to ‘an aspect of the love and commitment’ that a man or woman expresses for their mate.
- tešūqâ is predicated of both the man (Song 7:10) and woman (Gen 3:16), but is not referring to sexual desire, or desire as such. Instead, it refers to the relational devotion or preoccupation of one lover for another.
- Applied to Gen 4:7, the term takes on an abstract sense whereby sin, lying like a coiled serpent, ‘rests at Cain’s door waiting for an opportunity to entrap him and bring about his downfall.’ He continues, ‘the subtlety and insidious craftiness of the serpent’s aims are served with the same single-minded concentration as is the loving care and devotion shown by Eve for her husband and by the lover of Canticles for his inamorata.’ [Matt Lynch’s boldface]
Macintosh’s insistence that the term refers to ‘single-minded devotion’ is convincing … His … analysis raises a further problem for the ESV rendering of Gen 3:16b. If tešūqâ means ‘single-minded devotion,’ as Macintosh maintains, then what is the object of her single-mindedness? Is she single-mindedly devoted to not being devoted, or to not being subordinate? Or is it more insidious, that she devotes herself entirely to opposing or harming her husband? Both are unlikely in context, and as suggested above, cannot be inferred by appeal to Genesis 4:7.
The problem for the ESV of Gen 3:16b is that ‘single-minded devotion’ is not hostile on its own, and so ’el cannot perform that contrary function. On the contrary (!), tešūqâ is decidedly loyal. A more appropriate translation of Gen 3:16b would be the following:
‘Your devotion will be toward your husband;
Yet he will rule over you.’
* Andrew Macintosh’s article is titled ‘The Meaning of Hebrew תשׁוקה,’ Journal of Semitic Studies LXI/2 (2016):365-87.
For further reading
Toward a Better Reading: Reflections on the Permanent Changes to the Text of Genesis 3:16 in the ESV Part 3 by Wendy Alsup and Hannah Anderson
Why the ESV’s “contrary to” in Gen 3:16 Matters by Scot McKnight
Genesis 3:16 and the ESV by Claude Mariottini
On the New ESV Translation of Genesis 3:16 by hebrewsdnt