Genesis 3:16

…And thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee (Gen 3:16 KJV)

The publishers of the ESV recently announced that they have changed their translation of Genesis 3:16 to this:

…Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.

I believe this translation to be in error. In this brief post, I shall attempt to explain my reasons.

First, a confession. At one point not too long ago in the past, I also succumbed to the same faulty reasoning. In the paper “Promoting a Biblical Sexual Morality”, of which I was the primary author, I wrote the following:

Second, the curse was on her relationship with her husband. “Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Gen. 3:16). Her intense longing would be directed towards her husband. The preposition translated “to” primarily indicates motion towards or into. Metaphorically it is used for “against”. Her longing, instead of a covenantal opening herself completely to the love of her husband, would now be directed towards domineering, manipulating, and refusing to be truly loved. (Reformed Church in the United States: Promoting a Biblical Sexual Morality. 2013, page 41)

In this paragraph, I referenced Tremper Longman’s book on the Song of Songs (page 65). Longman, in turn,  referenced an article by Susan Foh, entitled “What is the woman’s desire” (WTJ 37 (1974-75) 376-83.

This article by Foh seems to have influenced quite a lot of thinking (including mine). And now its influence is felt even in the ESV translation of Genesis 3:16. The question is this: is this proper exegesis?

I have to admit that the section that I wrote is somewhat embarrassing. To say that the curse upon the woman involves her domineering, manipulating and refusing to truly be loved by her husband seems a bit much  to read into one preposition.

This exegesis makes much of the similarity between Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7. In Genesis 4:7, we read that God, speaking to Cain of sin, says,

And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him. (Gen 4:7 KJV)

The connection is then made that sin seeks to have dominion over a man. Since the words and the grammar are identical to 3:16, the meaning of 3:16 is that the woman also seeks to have dominion over the man.

But both texts simply speak of “desire”. Why is the desire of the woman assumed to be the same as the desire of sin? This was an uncomfortable niggling that I buried deeply until I recently dug it up and thought about it.

My embarrassing admission is that I wanted to make an assumption, and I manipulated the grammar to do so.

It seems to me that using Genesis 4:7 to interpret Genesis 3:16 is rather sketchy exegesis. It would be similar to saying that God spoke against Baasha (1 Kings 16:12 – the preposition is ‘el) and God spoke unto Moses (Ex. 3:14 – the preposition is the same) therefore, God was against Moses just as he was against Baasha. It’s really bad exegesis. It seems to me that the meaning of the phrases must be determined in the context.

The fact is “sin” and women are not the same thing, and their desires are not the same thing. I wonder why we make the assumption that women’s desires are always for domination and manipulation even when the text doesn’t say so. Simply saying “Sin desires to manipulate and dominate and since the same preposition is used this applies to the woman as well” simply will not cut it. That’s not how language works.

The phrase in question is the one translated “and your desire shall be toward your husband.”

The second part, “And he shall rule over you” isn’t in dispute. Those words are simple and bear only one translation. The connecting copulative “and” is attached to a redundant personal pronoun “he” which indicates a disjunctive phrase. In other words, the second phrase is set in contrast to the first – BUT he shall rule over you.

So what does the first phrase mean? Looking at the words, it begins with a prepositional phrase introduced by the copulative vav (and). The prepositional phrase is simply two words: the preposition ‘el and the word for man, or husband, with the pronoun “your”.  After this prepositional phrase is the noun “your longing”. There is no verb. The complete phrase is this “And to your husband, your longing; but he shall rule over you.”

The question is whether the preposition ‘el ever has the meaning “contrary to”, as the ESV revision committee, following the lead of Susan Foh, claims.

The simple answer is no. If you wish to do a very technical study, you may look at Bruce Waltke and M. O’Conner, Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns) 1990. 11.2.2. A helpful summary of that massive work is the work by Bill T. Arnold and John H. Choi (A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2003). Hebrew prepositions generally have a primary spatial meaning, with metaphorical secondary meaning. The primary spatial meaning is terminative (to, unto, towards).

I know, very technical. Let me break it down. The preposition ‘el means to, unto, or towards. It is a preposition indicating the termination of movement. That is its primary meaning. If I leave my office and walk to my house, I would use the preposition ‘el. Towards. Most commonly, it is used with the verb “to say” to indicate to whom the words are said. In the phrase, “And God said unto Moses”, the preposition ‘el would be used. God designed his words to terminate in the ears of Moses. I hope this makes sense.

In the lexicon by Brown, Driver and Briggs (somewhat archaic and disputed by modern scholarship) they indicate that “against” is a valid translation, and give many quotations, primarily by the prophet Ezekiel. For example,

Son of man, set thy face against Gog (Eze 38:2 KJV)

I would assume that since ‘el here has the translation “against”, the ESV revisers took that as their cue to translate it “contrary to” in Genesis 3:16. But in Ezekiel, the meaning of “to, or towards” is still latent in the word “against”. When a man’s face is “set” towards someone, hostility can certainly be assumed from the context, without changing the meaning of the preposition.

Even Brown, Driver and Briggs add this caveat to the translation “against”:

Where the motion or direction implied appears from the context to be of a hostile character, ‘el = “against”

No such hostility is expressed or implied in Genesis 3:16.

In another standard reference, The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, by Laird Harris, Gleason Archer, and Bruce Waltke, we read

Finally, the preposition can also mean “against,” although motion toward is evident, as in Gen 4:8, where Cain “rose up against Abel.” Here °el no doubt retains something of the original sense of both physical and mental motion toward. J.B.S.

In none of these statements by the universally recognized resources can the word ‘el be made to mean “contrary to”. There is no enmity stated or implied. There is no hostility inherent in the context.

The most widely recognized lexicon does not even admit the metaphorical use of “against” (Koehler-Baumgartner, Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament “HALOT”).

To summarize this rather complicated  survey, the basic meaning of the word is to, or towards. Sometimes, if the context and the verb used are hostile, “against” would be a proper meaning. But this does not mean that we can pick and choose whatever meaning we want. “Contrary to”, in the context of Genesis 3:16 or 4:7, cannot be justified. Only if we make the assumption that the word “longing” indicates hostility can we make this phrase mean “against her husband”.

The word “longing” only appears three times in all known Hebrew literature. In Genesis 3:16, Genesis 4:7, and Song of Songs 7:10:

I am my beloved’s, and his desire is toward me. (Sol 7:10 KJV)

In the Song of Songs, the preposition is ‘al, rather than ‘el. Formerly, I made much of this, but I was mistaken. the two prepositions have overlapping semantic fields and are used interchangeably, much like the English “to” and “towards”. The difference is not great enough to warrant new doctrines.

The word “longing” in all  three passages admits the same meaning: a great desire, a longing. It isn’t the same word as “covetousness”, and it isn’t the same word as “wanting something”. It is a rare word and “longing” is a good translation of it. I would be hesitant to go any deeper than that; that isn’t how language works.

So the simple reading of the text is this: “To your husband your longing”. In English, we would have to supply the verb “will be”. To your husband will be your longing. In other words, “your longing will terminate on your husband”, or, “your longing will be to your husband”.

So what does it mean? What is the longing of the woman? In the context, God is pronouncing the curse upon creation, the serpent, the man and the woman. He has already promised that one would come who would crush the head of the serpent (3:15), and he now moves on to the consequences of Eve’s sin.

How would she have heard those words? Let’s take it with the second part of the phrase, “But he shall rule over thee”, which is set in contrast to the first phrase. It’s a disjunctive clause. The word “rule” (mashal) can be good rule, benevolent rule, tyrannical rule or any other kind of rule. It’s a common word. It means to have dominion over. It is something that was not there in the relationship before the fall. It is something new. If it were there before the fall, then the curse on the woman would be that everything would be the same, which is ludicrous. The context implies that this is something new. The serpent will crawl on its belly; the ground will bring thistles, and your husband will rule over you.

Before, Adam and Eve were one flesh. There is no hint of hierarchy in the garden. (I explain this more fully here). It is beyond the scope of this article to go into the meaning of “help meet”, but suffice it to say that hierarchy, authority and submission are not inherent in the Hebrew word ‘ezer (help). It is the name most often given to God, Israel’s help.

Instead, the relationship of the man and the woman was a relationship of unity and love. They were one flesh, committed, loving, fleeing all others, cleaving to one another.

I believe in that context, 3:16 can only mean one thing. Eve will still long for that. Her longing will terminate on her husband. She will long for that which was lost in Eden. But instead, her husband will rule over her.

The one flesh relationship would be a broken and corrupted remnant of what it was supposed to be.

This fits the context, does no violence to the grammar, and opens up wonderful insights into the marriage relationship.

Remember that God had promised already to crush the head of the serpent. The curse would one day be overcome. This was foretold in the Song of Songs:

I am my beloved’s, and his desire is toward me. (Sol 7:10 KJV)

The Song is a picture of redeemed relationship. One that could not happen apart from the gospel of Christ. His longing to her and her longing to him are mutual. Instead of him ruling over her, he desires her. When the word is only used three times, it cannot be an accident that Solomon is referring to the curse on the woman and looking forward to the time when that is taken away.

Paul, in Ephesians 5 speaks of the same thing. Love your wife. Don’t rule over her.

Since we live in a cursed world and all are tainted by sin, the desire of the wife towards her husband can and does easily become an idolatrous desire. The husband can never give to the wife what only Christ can give.

But as Redeemed creatures, we can certainly live as pictures of the life-giving water of Christ. So the husband is not to be worshiped as Christ, nor is he a mediator between God and his wife. But he can imitate Christ in one area: Love. The marriage is to be a picture of what was lost in the fall. The problem with the woman under the curse is not that she manipulates and dominates. It’s that she longs for what was lost and that longing is to her husband.

How Leah longed for a husband! How Rachel longed for a husband! Look at the harems of David and Solomon, and these were God’s people! How much worse would it have been in Persia or Assyria! Look at Elkanah, Hannah and Penninah; Look at what happened to Esther.

The woman longs for the one flesh relationship that she was created to have. But men have ruled over her. Does she turn to manipulation and resistance? Perhaps. Every human resists domination and subjugation. But this is not what 3:16 says.

Now that Christ has come, we as men are called, not to rule over our wives (whether benevolently or not) but to love our wives, and thus reflect to the world the love of our great savior, who gave himself for us.

See my follow-up post here.

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Filed under Marriage

110 responses to “Genesis 3:16

  1. Pingback: Rachel Held Evans Reflections ( & on Warren Wiersbe, Bonhoeffer, and the Crisis of “Big Tent” Evangelicalism) | Veracity

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