An examination of a woman’s desire towards her husband.
Length: 3,900 words;
Reading Time: 13 minutes;
Guide to Imagery: The Mandelbrot set illustrates the seeming complexity of the issue. The apple represents the sinful desire to usurp authority and to control. The banana represents sexual desire. The pear represents fertility. Bread represents provisioning and earning potential.
The English Standard Version (ESV) is a revision of the 1971 edition of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Christian Bible that employs an “essentially literal” translation philosophy. The senior editor for the Old Testament is C. John Collins, and Wayne Grudem is one of the editors.
I’ve only heard good things about the English Standard Version, that it is elegant, yet accurate. Imagine my surprise when I came across this passage.
To the woman he said,
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;Genesis 3:16 (ESV) See full chapter.
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be contrary to* your husband,
but he shall rule over you.”
There is a footnote attached to the phrase “contrary to”.
How does “shall be toward” translate into “shall be contrary to”?
Approaching the Questions
It would be easy to dismiss this as a confusing passage or even a bad translation, but it would be more difficult to gain a heart understanding of the deeper truth(s) behind these words. If we can apprehend a firm grasp of what this verse is talking about, then we are in a better position to form an opinion about what it means, and the accuracy of the translation.
So here, I pose the following questions to be addressed in the remainder of this essay.
What is the nature of the desire referenced in Genesis 3:16b?
- That women desire their husbands emotionally and/or sexually.
- That women desire to control their husbands.
Another hot question concerning the latter part of verse 16 is this: Is a woman’s desire toward her husband a consequence of the fall, or is God merely affirming that this will remain unchanged? The first half of the verse suggests that it is a consequence.
I have noticed a subtle connotation that has appeared (in Protestantism especially, but maybe in other ordinations too), which is that desire itself is wrong, sinful, or a consequence of the fall.
So the final question is this: Is the ESV’s account of Genesis 3:16 a complete and accurate translation?
Comparison to Other Translations
I compared this to other translations to get a better feel of the meaning. I found that there are actually two different ideas floating around in the majority of these translations. The word desire is translated as either a sexual desire, or a desire to control. This might explain why there is so much discussion and debate about the applied meaning of these verses within Christendom.
Some translations were poignantly obvious about which of these two interpretations was adopted…
The Living Bible suggests a livid sexual desire.
Then God said to the woman, “You shall bear children in intense pain and suffering; yet even so, you shall welcome your husband’s affections, and he shall be your master.”Genesis 3:16 (TLB)
The Contemporary English Version includes the word “still” suggesting that a woman’s desire was present pre-fall.
Then the Lord said to the woman, “You will suffer terribly when you give birth. But you will still desire your husband, and he will rule over you.”Genesis 3:16 (CEV)
The New English Translation specifically uses the word control.
To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your labor pains; with pain you will give birth to children. You will want to control your husband, but he will dominate you.”Genesis 3:16 (NET)
The New Living Translation also uses the word control.
Then he said to the woman, “I will sharpen the pain of your pregnancy, and in pain you will give birth. And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.”Genesis 3:16 (NLT)
The Expanded Bible inserts an inline note to specify that this is a desire for control.
Then God said to the woman, “I will ·cause you to have much trouble [or increase your pain] ·when you are pregnant [in childbearing], and when you give birth to children, you will have great pain. You will greatly desire [C the word implies a desire to control; 4:7] your husband, but he will rule over you.”Genesis 3:16 (EXB)
Interestingly, I found that the older translations are suggestive of a sexual desire, but the newer translations make it out to be a desire to control the husband.
A few translations had a different take altogether.
The Message suggests a joyful submission.
He told the Woman: “I’ll multiply your pains in childbirth; you’ll give birth to your babies in pain. You’ll want to please your husband, but he’ll lord it over you.”Genesis 3:16 (MSG)
The New International Reader’s Version adopts a poetic stance.
The Lord God said to the woman, “I will increase your pain when you give birth. You will be in great pain when you have children. You will long for your husband. And he will rule over you.Genesis 3:16 (NIRV)
Of interesting note, the International Standard Version translates desire as trust!
He told the woman, “I’ll greatly increase the pain of your labor during childbirth. It will be painful for you to bear children, since your trust is turning toward your husband, and he will dominate you.”Genesis 3:16 (ISV)
Aside from the few translations that are unique, most of these translations interpret the word desire as either for sex/affection or for control. But the meaning is totally different. Which one is it? Or is it both?
So after surveying all these translations, we are no closer to the answers. However, I realized that I didn’t understand this passage as well as I had assumed. I realized that Genesis 3:15-17 is a very important verse that serves as a foundational of our conceptual understanding of (1) women, (2) the relationship between men and women, and (3) marriage. Therefore, it is imperative for us to get it right. So this pushed me to dig and study further until I could find the answer.
Answers to Prayer
Because of the obvious variance among the many translations (and because most modern translations are conducted by Protestants), I found that I could no longer trust any English based interpretation of this verse.
Therefore, I turned to the Lord in prayer, and I asked Him these questions. I got three answers.
- First, I got the idea that (whenever I have any question,) if I study the scriptures inside out and it is still not clear, then it’s time to pray about it and find out what it should mean to me personally.
- Second, I realized that both interpretations have real world validity, so maybe the interpretation could be open to either meaning.
- Third, I got the idea that the word desire may not be limited to be a transitive verb, but may simply be an intransitive verb or even a noun describing a generalized state of neediness and insecurity. As such, this desire could be expressed in many ways, not just the two I identified. All humans have desire at the root of our nature, but women much more so.
Examination of the Original Hebrew
In the other two places, it shows up with a contextual meaning that suggests one each of the two meanings. In Genesis 4:7 it clearly refers to sin as a being or a force that desires to control us. In the Song of Solomon 7:10 it is obvious that it refers to a sexual/marital desire.
Several Bible commentators, as well as Grudem, have explored the analogy between Genesis 3:16 and 4:7. One commenter at Dalrock, RPC, summed up this analogy quite succinctly [emphasis mine].
“Grudem’s comments point out something I never realized before. The parallel between Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7 is striking:
3:16: Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
4:7: If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.
Fascinating. The logical parallel is between the woman and sin. The woman is not the victim, she is the usurper.
Now, if only we could get a pastor to preach this passage in front of a congregation, instead of making arguments behind closed doors…”
“I’ve read some interpretations of Genesis 3:16 that agree that “desire” suggests the woman will be tempted to usurp her husband. However, some go on to say that “he shall rule over thee” means that the husband will be similarly tempted to take his authority to the extreme and become oppressive. In other words, they try to spin the verse so it’s not just focused on the woman’s rebellion. It also creates an opening for the “sin of being a doormat” theology.
The parallel with 4:7 creates some problems with this interpretation. In 4:7 the desire that sin has for Cain is clearly negative, a desire to conquer and subdue him. But, is Cain “ruling over” sin also negative? Is it wrong for Cain to exercise authority over sin, even in an extreme or oppressive way? Clearly the intent in 4:7 is to describe Cain’s rule as being positive, not a result of his sinful nature. The aspiration of that rule is TOTAL.
So, 4:7 seems to reinforce the idea that the main problem described in 3:16 is the wife’s rebellious heart, not the husband’s oppressive leadership.
Also, if husbands ruling their wives oppressively is such an important sin, why do Jesus, Paul, or any of the early church fathers fail to mention it? Why don’t they warn husbands to be careful not to oppress their wives? Instead, we have the opposite. The emphasis is on extreme submission on the part of the wife, in everything. Clearly being a “doormat” was not a significant concern for Paul.
Now, dwelling with your wife in love and understanding likely excludes a domineering approach, but this is a problem for such a small percentage of men, it’s not even worth a mention in scripture.”RPC’s comments at Dalrock (2016 November 22)
I think a connection could be made between these three verses (Genesis 3:16; 4:7, and Song of Solomon 7:10): Your sin wants to screw you over just like a woman wants to screw her husband (in every connotation imaginable).
During my study of the Hebrew, I snuck over to Google Translate and entered the Hebrew word for desire (תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ) given in the passage at Biblehub. Lo and behold, look what came up!
The Word of a Jewish Rabbi / Native Speakers of Hebrew
“The word in question here is t’shookatecha, often translated ‘your desire’ or ‘your longing’. It is a word that stems from the root ‘shook’, from which we get the Hebrew words for ‘market’ or ‘thigh’, also the word for a ‘mass movement of horses or locusts’.
And so the idea behind the most basic meaning of this root word for longing or desire, is a ‘strong movement in a certain direction’. Thus t’shookah, in this context, is the direction of feeling toward an objective; in other words, a striving or a longing.
I don’t see anything that would indicate she will necessarily act contrary to him to oppose him. Although that doesn’t mean she won’t, but I am not sure this is a proof text that she is destined to. If anything, Adam is chastised for listening to his wife when it was his duty to oppose her concerning the commandment which was first entrusted to him.
As far as the verse in Genesis 4:7 concerning Cain, a close reading is critical and is helpful in elucidating the meaning of the Genesis 3:16 verse, but not in the way the translators of the ESV are thinking.
According to a number of Jewish commentators, the Hebrew word t’shookah does not denote the passion of hostility, but always denotes exalted yearning; the devoted longing of love. For example, “I belong to my beloved, the devoted longing of my love” (Song of Solomon 7:7), where this same Hebrew word is used.
The meaning (concerning Adam and Eve, man and woman) does not indicate that there is to be a constant state of war between them — as if the woman is lying in wait for her husband to oppose him and act contrary to him, to overcome him…
Rather the sense is of a loving wife, who finds completion of her own existence in submission and devotion to the aspirations and agenda of her husband and in accepting and submitting to his guidance – he shall rule over her. She is not her own. Her will is subsumed by that of another, i.e. her husband”.
“In the example with Cain, Cain is being admonished that sensuality does have the power to rule over him and not to underestimate its power. Nevertheless, the Hebrew sense is that it lies quietly at the door and will not enter uninvited. However, the moment he invites it to sit at his table, as it were, it will begin to feel at home with him and eventually become his master.
The Jewish view is that G-d created the power of sensuality, not so that it should control us, but that we should control it. Its whole desire is that you should master it and guide it. Not to suppress or kill it, but rule over it and guide it. That is the purpose and mission.
The idea is that when you master your sensuality, it achieves its purpose, which is why its longing is towards you. The same idea underlies the woman’s desire and longing for her husband, who in turn is to rule over her and guide her.
No human quality is intrinsically good or bad – moral use is a key consideration. The idea is that the relationship between man [e.g. Cain] and sensuality resembles the relationship between husband and wife… sensuality waits at the door and its longing and desire is towards you THAT YOU SHOULD MASTER IT AND GUIDE IT. Sensuality and woman both achieve their purpose through subordination to man… I think the editors or translators of the ESV might want to do a little more homework…”Rabbi B’s comment at Dalrock (2016 November 23)
אליו means “to him” not “against him”. Wrong is wrong.
ואליו תשוקתך והוא ימשול בך [translated as] “…and to him [your man or husband] will be your desire and he will rule over you” is not ambiguous.
The simple explanation of the verse ואליו תשוקתך “to him will be your desire” has no implication of being against him. Rather it means the desire of the wife will be towards her husband. אליו “to him” is used thousands of times in the OT and it always means “towards him,” never “against him”. This is not a matter of doubt.Avrahan Rosenblum’s comments at Dalrock (2016 November 23)
The Word of a Scholarly Elder
I sent an email to Ed Hurst to ask him two questions.
- What is the original or applied meaning of desire in Genesis 3:16, “Your desire will be for your husband…“? Is it a sexual desire or a desire to control?
- What is the nature of this desire in Genesis 3:16? Is it a troublesome thing that is part of the curse of the fall, or is it a good thing that existed before the fall?
The next day, I found a response from Ed in my inbox. He wrote,
“I didn’t study Hebrew in the standard sense of a translator. I studied Hebrew culture and thinking. My sense is that the word in Genesis 3:16 is ambiguous, and likely means both. That would be typical of Hebrew thinking, in that there is no reason to distinguish between the two. Further, the broader Hebrew outlook on the nature of women seems to support the idea that there is little difference between either kind of desire. When a woman is righteous, it emphasizes the sexual desire she has, but that same desire can be perverted into a desire to control. Either way, she is not capable of simply ignoring men.
Now for the more technical stuff: This particular word [teshuqah] appears only three times in the Hebrew texts of the Bible…”
Ed recounted most of the information I found earlier on BibleHub. Then he adds,
“Because of the word’s rarity in the Hebrew Scripture, there’s no grounds for pinning it down as being itself either good or bad. Rather, I take it as something that was wired in by Creation, but perverted by the Curse. Thus, my suggestion is that it could take a good direction or a bad one. Based on my understanding of psychology, both the academic and clinical background, along with the pastoral experience I’ve had, I doubt it’s easily untangled in women today. A woman with a pure desire is something we understand easily enough, but finding one that doesn’t suffer from the temptation to control is nigh impossible. But that a woman is drawn to manliness is hardly in dispute.”
In addition, Ed wrote a post on this question.
“The Hebrew word for “desire” is translated variously into English, but it seems to go in two different directions: either she will have a sexual lust for him, or a lust to control him.
But that’s not how Hebrew language works. One of the biggest flaws in textual analysis and expository writing about the Bible is the failure of Western scholars to embrace the Hebrew outlook. It tends to be what we call “gestalt” thinking, that the meaning of the instance depends entirely on the broader understanding of the whole. You cannot compartmentalize or slice-n-dice anything in Hebrew Scripture. Hebrew language is inherently parabolic and symbolic by nature, and is meant to provoke your heart-led consciousness. You are supposed to weigh things against your convictions and your broader desire for peace with God.”
This corresponds with the first answer to my prayers.
“Is this a case where Eve, symbolizing all womanhood, will have a sexual desire for her man, or is this a case of her desire to control him? There is a lot hanging on this question, since it arises from a very highly debated point of theology for the entirety of Western Church History. Does this suggest something that surprises no one, in that humans are wired with a sexual desire from Creation itself? Or does this imply that the Curse of the Fall will make her wish to control her man? In Hebrew thinking, both are quite true.”
This corresponds with the second answer to my prayers.
“…the word in Genesis 3:16 is intentionally ambiguous because it means both. Eve’s natural pure desire for Adam had been perverted in the encounter with Satan to become a desire for control. Adam’s failure is part of the gestalt here. His distraction from the fundamental task of moral guardianship encouraged Eve to exercise an authority that was not hers to wield. And her inherent weakness in moral things, being as she is wired to follow and not lead, was part of the whole downfall of both.”Radix Fidem: Lust for Sex or Control? (2020 October 12)
Ed’s post answered my second question very well (i.e. What is the nature of this desire?), and I think this was the aspect that was making me very confused. I had the mindset that it was an either/or answer, but it’s both — desire existed pre-fall, but was corrupted by the fall.
In this post, I’ve discussed several questions. Here, I’ll reiterate these questions and provide brief answers.
Question 1: What is the applied meaning of the word “desire” in Genesis 3:16? “Your desire will be for your husband…” Is this a sexual desire or a desire to control him?
Reviewing the sources of opinions…
- Those supporting the idea that it is a desire to control: Wayne Grudem; Novaseeker;
- Those supporting the idea that it is a sexual desire: Editors of older translations; Rabbinical scholars; Several noteworthy Bible commentators;
- Those supporting the idea that both interpretations are valid: Deep Strength; Ed Hurst;
Short Answer: The scriptures are not specific. It suggests a sexual desire, but it could be interpreted according to a specific context, including a desire to control.
Question 2: What is the ontological nature of this desire in Genesis 3:16? Is it a troublesome thing that is part of the curse of the fall, or is it a good thing that existed before the fall?
Short Answer: Both are true. Desire existed pre-fall, but was corrupted by the fall.
Question 3: Is desire itself wrong, sinful, or a consequence of the fall?
Short Answer: No, desire is an inherent part of human nature that was present before the fall. But the nature and the intention of desire were corrupted as a result of the fall.
Question 4: Is the ESV’s account of Genesis 3:16 a complete and accurate translation?
Short Answer: The ESV’s translation of Genesis 3:16 is extremely specific compared to the original Hebrew, and therefore allows readers to overlook or ignore any other nuances of meaning that might faithfully apply, including the one that native speakers of Hebrew emphatically insist is the correct interpretation.
The specific interpretation used in the ESV paints women as being contentious and disagreeable, and it completely bypasses any suggestion that a woman’s desire for her husband could be (or should be) sexual in nature. It also adumbrates any of the wider possibilities.
Verdict: The ESV’s interpretation of Genesis 3:16 is not entirely wrong, but it is myopic and therefore incomplete. As it is now worded, it should not be made part of the permanent version.
Arguments based on Genesis 3:16 have come up around the blogosphere quite a few times. Here are a few.
- Artisanal Toad’s Hall: The Reason Feminists Don’t Talk About Eve (2016 May 22)
- Practical Theology for Women (Wendy Alsup and Hannah Anderson): Toward a Better Reading: Reflections on the Permanent Changes to the Text of Genesis 3:16 in the ESV – Part 1 (2016 September 26); Part 2 (2016 September 28); Part 3 (2016 September 30);
Note: Blogger/lay theologian Wendy Alsup vehemently opposes the Grudem/Foh/ESV interpretation, contending that the woman’s “desire” in Gen. 3:16 is an idolatrous desire for her husband to meet all her needs which, when he can’t do it, becomes a source of conflict.
- Theological Miscellany (Matt Lynch): Contrary Women: Genesis 3:16b in the (now non-) Permanent ESV (2016 October 3)
- Dalrock: A big win for Grudem. (2016 November 22)
Note: The comments are rich with insights.
- Full Metal Patriarchy: The DWC Files #2: Wilson vs. Genesis 3:16 (2020 September 26)
- Insanity Bytes: Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary (2020 October 19)