This entry is part 3 of 96 in the series: Troublesome texts
- Genesis 1:26 – Why a plural name for God?
- Genesis 3 – traditional and revisionist readings
- Genesis 3:16b – ‘Your desire shall be for your husband’
- Genesis 5 – the ages of the antedeluvians
- Genesis 6:1f – ‘The sons of God’
- Genesis 6-8 – A worldwide flood?
- Genesis 12:3 – ‘I will bless those who bless you’
- Genesis 22 – “Abraham, kill your son”
- Exodus – Who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?
- Exodus 12:37 – How many Israelites left Egypt?
- Leviticus 19:18 “Love your neighbour as yourself”
- Joshua 6 – the fall of Jericho
- Joshua 10 – Joshua’s ‘long day’
- Judges 19:11-28 – The priest and the concubine
- 2 Sam 24:1, 1 Chron 21:1 – Who incited David?
- 1 Kings 20:30 – ‘The wall collapsed on 27,000 of them’
- Psalm 105:15 – ‘Touch not my anointed’
- Psalm 137:8f – ‘Happy is he who dashes your infants against the rocks’
- Isaiah 7:14/Matthew 1:23 – “The virgin will conceive”
- Daniel 7:13 – ‘Coming with the clouds of heaven’
- Jonah – history or fiction?
- Mt 1:1-17 and Lk 3:23-38 – the genealogies of Jesus
- Matthew 2:1 – ‘Magi from the east’
- Matthew 2:2 – The star of Bethlehem
- Matthew 2:8f – Can God speak through astrology?
- Matthew 2:23 – ‘Jesus would be called a Nazarene’
- Matthew 5:21f – Did Jesus reject the Old Testament?
- Matthew 7:16,20 – ‘You will recognise them by their fruit’
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:3 – Who asked Jesus to help?
- Matthew 8:5/Luke 7:7 – son? servant? male lover?
- Matthew 8:28 – Gadara or Gerasa?
- Matthew 10:23 – ‘Before the Son of Man comes’
- Matthew 11:12 – Forceful entry, or violent opposition, to the kingdom?
- Matthew 12:40 – Three days and three nights
- The Parable of the Sower – return from exile?
- Mt 15:21-28/Mk 7:24-30 – Jesus and the Canaanite woman
- Matthew 18:10 – What about ‘guardian angels’?
- Matthew 18:20 – ‘Where two or three are gathered…’
- Matthew 16:18 – Peter the rock?
- Matthew 21:7 – One animal or two?
- Matthew 24:34 – This generation will not pass away?
- Matthew 25:40 – ‘These brothers of mine’
- Matthew 27:46/Mark 15:34 – Jesus’ cry of dereliction
- Matthew 27:52f – Many bodies raised?
- Mark 1:41 – ‘Compassion’, or ‘anger/indignation’?
- Mark 2:25f – ‘When Abiathar was high priest’
- Mark 4:31 – ‘The smallest of all the seeds’?
- Mark 6:45 – ‘To Bethsaida’
- Mark 12:41-44/Luke 21:1-4 – ‘The widow’s mite’
- Luke 2:1f – Quirinius and ‘the first registration’
- Luke 2:7 – ‘No room at the inn’
- Luke 2:8 – Shepherds: a despised class?
- Luke 4:16-19 – An incomplete quotation?
- Luke 7:2 – ‘Highly valued servant’ or ‘gay lover’?
- John 1:1 – ‘The Word was God’
- John 2:6 – symbol or history?
- John 2:12 – Did Mary bear other children?
- When did Jesus cleanse the Temple?
- John 3:16f – What is meant by ‘the world’?
- John 4:44 – ‘His own country’
- John 7:40-44 – Did John know about Jesus’ birthplace?
- John 7:53-8:11 – The woman caught in adultery
- John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me”
- John 14:12 – ‘Greater deeds’
- John 20:21 – “Just as the Father has sent me, I also send you.”
- John 21:11 – One hundred and fifty three fish
- Acts 5:1-11 – Ananias and Sapphira
- Acts 5:34-37 – a (minor) historical inaccuracy?
- Romans 1:5 – ‘The obedience of faith’
- Romans 1:18 – Wrath: personal or impersonal?
- Rom 3:22; Gal 2:16 – faith in, or faithfulness of Christ?
- Romans 5:18 – ‘Life for all?’
- Rom 7:24 – Who is the ‘wretched man’?
- Romans 11:26a – ‘And so all Israel will be saved’
- 1 Corinthians 14:34 – ‘Women should be silent in the churches’
- 1 Corinthians 15:29 – ‘Baptized for the dead’
- 1 Corinthians 15:44 – ‘Raised a spiritual body’
- 2 Corinthians 5:21 – ‘God made Christ to be sin for us’
- Galatians 3:17 – How much later?
- Galatians 3:28 – ‘Neither male nor female’
- Galatians 6:2 – ‘The law of Christ’
- Galatians 6:16 – The Israel of God
- Ephesians 1:10 – ‘The fullness of the times’
- Ephesians 5:23- ‘The head of a wife is her husband’
- Colossians 1:19f – Universal reconciliation?
- 1 Thessalonians 2:14f – ‘The Jews, who killed Jesus’
- 1 Timothy 2:4 – ‘God wants all people to be saved’
- 1 Timothy 2:15 – ‘Saved through child-bearing’
- 1 Timothy 4:10 – ‘The Saviour of all people’
- Hebrews 6:4-6 – Who are these people?
- Hebrews 12:1 – Who are these witnesses?
- 1 Peter 3:18-20 – Christ and the spirits in prison
- 2 Peter 3:9 – ‘The Lord wishes all to come to repentance’
- Jude 7 – ‘Unnatural desire’
- Revelation 7:4 – The 144,000
- Revelation 14:11 – ‘No rest day or night’
Gen 3:16 To the woman he said,
“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”
The rare word translated ‘desire’ in many translations can have both positive and negative connotations. Some (e.g. Walton, Giles, Steinmann) interpret the present verse in the light of Song 7:10, where the word refers to sexual desire. Others (e.g. Sailhamer, Kostenberger & Kostenberger) interpret in the light of Gen 4:7 (“sin is crouching at the door. It desires to dominate you, but you must subdue it”).
In his 2019 commentary (TOTC), Steinmann interprets as follows: ‘despite the difficulty of labour, the woman will continue to desire the love, companionship and intimacy of marriage to her husband. In recent times some have understood this desire to be a desire of the woman to dominate her husband, based on the use of the same word at 4:7. However, 4:7 contains very difficult Hebrew and is not a reliable guide to understanding this term.’
Kevin Giles (What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women) claims that until about 1980 ‘all commentators’ understood this ‘desire’ to be a desire for sexual intimacy with her husband. The idea that it refers to a ‘desire’ to control her husband, dates only as far back as 1975, in an article by Susan Foh.
In the light of this rather bold claim, here is a sampling from older commentators:
Calvin: ‘This form of speech, “Your desire shall be for your husband,” is of the same force as if he had said that she would not be free and at her own command, but subject to her husband’s authority and dependent upon his will—as if he had said, “You shall desire nothing but what your husband wishes,” even as Genesis 4:7 reads, “Its desire shall be for you.” Thus the woman, who had recklessly exceeded her proper bounds, is brought back into line. To be sure, she was previously subject to her husband, but that was a gentle and honorable subjection; now, however, she is cast into servitude.’
Matthew Poole (about 1685) says that the expressions that ‘thy desires shall be referred or submitted to thy husband’s will and pleasure to grant or deny them, as he sees fit. Which sense is confirmed from Genesis 4:7, where the same phrase is used in the same sense.’
Keil & Delitzsch (1866): ‘[The woman] was punished with a desire bordering upon disease (תּשׁוּקה from שׁוּק to run, to have a violent craving for a thing), and with subjection to the man. “And he shall rule over thee.”‘
R.S. Candlish (1868): ‘She is to be subject to her husband; for such is the import of the phrase, “Unto him shall be thy desire, and he shall rule over thee” (ver. 16); it denotes the dependence of affection or of helplessness on the one hand, and the assertion of authority and power on the other.’
James Murphy (Barnes’ Notes, 1873): ‘“Desire” does not refer to sexual desire in particular. (Gen. 4:7). It means, in general, turn, determination of the will. “The determination of thy will shall be yielded to thy husband, and accordingly he shall rule over thee.”’
Skinner (ICC, 1910) ‘It is not…implied that the woman’s sexual desire is stronger than the man’s; the point rather is that by the instincts of her nature she shall be bound to the hard conditions of her lot, both the ever-recurring pains of child-bearing, and subjection to the man. —while he (on his part) shall rule over thee. The idea of tyrannous exercise of power does not lie in the vb.; but it means that the woman is wholly subject to the man, and so liable to the arbitrary treatment sanctioned by the marriage customs of the East.’
H.E. Ryle (1921, in the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges) ‘Doubtless, there is a reference to the never ending romance of daily life, presented by the passionate attachment of a wife to her husband, however domineering, unsympathetic, or selfish he may be. But the primary reference will be to the condition of subservience which woman occupied, and still occupies, in the East; and to the position of man, as head of the family, and carrying the responsibility, as well as the authority, of “rule.”’
Kidner (1967): ‘The phrase your desire shall be for your husband (RSV), with the reciprocating he shall rule over you, portrays a marriage relation in which control has slipped from the fully personal realm to that of instinctive urges passive and active. ‘To love and to cherish’ becomes ‘To desire and to dominate’. While even pagan marriage can rise far above this, the pull of sin is always towards it.’
Giles, having dismissed the view of the Kostenbergers as ‘novel’, seems to favour the conclusion of Janson Condren, in a 2017 JETS paper. Giles writes:
Until the rise of the complementarian movement all commentators took the “desire” of the woman for her husband mentioned in Gen 3:16b to be a desire for intimacy and/or a sexual relationship with her husband. The Köstenbergers adopt a post-1970s novel complementarian interpretation of this word. They take the Hebrew teshuqah (“desire”) to be speaking of a “desire to control.” They thus interpret Gen 3:16 to be teaching that following the fall the woman will “desire” to control her husband and as a consequence the husband and the wife will be caught up in a never-ending struggle. The pernicious logic of this argument is that all or most conflict in marriages arises because women will not submit to the godly rule of their husbands; they struggle against it as sinners. This novel understanding of the woman’s desire, so popular among complementarians, has had many critics and recently suffered a death blow. Janson Condren, an Australian evangelical Old Testament scholar, in a compelling journal article, shows that this argument is “fundamentally misguided.” It is his conclusion that the Hebrew word teshuqah should not be translated as “desire.” It speaks rather of “a returning to.” Genesis 3:16 is saying, despite the man’s rule over her and the pain of childbirth, the woman wants to return to her husband, seeking the perfect intimacy she enjoyed with him before the fall.
Kaiser (Hard Sayings of the Bible) thinks that the words translated ‘desire’ and ‘will rule’ have been the subject of ‘a most amazing translation history’. He asks, ‘Is it true that due to the Fall women naturally exhibit overpowering sexual desires for their husbands? And if this is so, did God simultaneously order husbands to exercise authority over their wives?’
According to Kaiser, in the ancient versions (including the LXX and the Vulgate) the word teshuqah, in all three instances in which it occurs in the OT, was usually translated, not as ‘desire’, but as ‘turning’. The same applies to the church fathers (Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Epiphanius and Jerome), and also Philo. The Latin rendering was ‘conversio and the Greek was apostrophē or epistrophē, words all meaning “a turning.”’
So how did the word ‘desire’ intrude? Drawing on the research of Katherine C. Bushnell, this translation can be traced back to an Italian monk named Pagnino, whose translation of the OT appeared in Lyons in 1528. ‘Now except for Wycliffe’s 1380 English version and the Douay Bible of 1609, both of which were made from the Latin Vulgate, every English version from the time of Pagnino up to the present day has adopted Pagnino’s rendering for Genesis 3:16.’ But, according to Bushnell, the only place where the meaning of ‘sexual desire’ can be found is in the “Ten Curses of Eve” in the Talmud.
For Kaiser, then, the literal meaning is, “You are turning away [from God!] to your husband, and [as a result] he will rule over you [take advantage of you].” In other words, ‘the sense of Genesis 3:16 is simply this: As a result of her sin, Eve would turn away from her sole dependence on God and turn now to her husband. The results would not at all be pleasant, warned God, as he announced this curse.’
Kaiser adds that there is no sense of any command that husbands ought to rule over their wives. The verb contains ‘a simple statement of futurity.’
Kaiser says that the rather similar text in Gen 4:17 does not imply a command, but rather is in the form of a question, ‘Will you be its master?’ And when Paul says in 1 Cor 14:34 that women must be in subjection ‘as the law says’ he is quoting from the Corinthians themselves (not stating his own view) and ‘the law’ referred to must be the Talmud and the Mishnah, for no command for women to be silent can be found in the OT.
Kaiser concludes: ‘Later on in God’s revelation, our Lord will affirm a job subordination within the marriage relationship, and the husband will be answerable to God for the well-being of his wife and family. However, Genesis 3:16 does not carry any of those meanings.’
Janson Condren (in the JETS article referenced above) considers Kaiser’s own translation of ‘turning away’ as ‘turning away [from God] to your husband, and [as a result] he will rule over you [take advantage of you]’ to be ‘less than satisfactory. Condren argues that there is no hint in the Hebrew word of turning away from. For him, this is ‘ best viewed as only the culminating aspect of her return for the relational harmony and naked vulnerability forfeited
by disobedience (3:1–6).’
The Lexham Research Commentary: ‘Given the limited usage of teshuqah elsewhere, its precise meaning in Gen 3:16 is uncertain. Some understand it to mean sexual desire. In this understanding, the phrase “your desire shall be for your husband” could mean that women will desire childbearing despite the pain they will experience. Others point to Gen 4:7 and note that the phrase “you must rule (mashal) over it” corresponds with “and he shall rule (mashal) over you” in Gen 3:16. They argue that the parallel use of teshuqah and mashal indicates that teshuqah in Gen 3:16 refers to a struggle for control.’
Walke & Fredriks: ‘The chiastic structure of the phrase pairs the terms “desire” and “rule over,” suggesting that her desire will be to dominate. This interpretation of an ambiguous passage is validated by the same pairing in the unambiguous context of 4:7.’
Mathews: ‘The “desire” of the woman is her attempt to control her husband, but she will fail because God has ordained that the man exercise his leadership function.’
Ryken agrees that this phrase, together with the next, ‘is a prophecy about the battle of the sexes and the struggle for power in all human relationships.’
‘The loving harmony that prevailed before the fall will be replaced by a pattern of struggle in which the woman will seek to exert control over her husband (interpreting “desire” as “desire for control,” cf. Gen. 4: 7), who will respond by asserting his authority. In failing to exercise his God-given leadership role, he might exhibit passivity, as he did when Satan tempted the woman in the garden and he failed to protect her. Or the man might harshly dominate his wife. In either event, following the fall the male-female relationship is mired in a perennial struggle for control.’ (Kostenberger & Kostenberger, God’s Design for Man and Woman)
‘The Lord’s pronouncement predicts the future rivalry between the sexes for dominance, a rivalry resulting from the sinful condition of the man and woman. These words are not an exhortation directed to the man to dominate his wife. Hebrew law recognized the vulnerability of women and required special deference to them (Ex 22:22; Dt 25:5–10). The NT explicitly commands husbands to love and honor their wives (Eph 5:25; Col 3:19; 1 Pt 3:7), and Christian husbands and wives observe their spiritual equality (Gl 3:28) while carrying out their respective God-given roles.’ (Apologetics Study Bible)
This verse ‘indicates that there will be an ongoing struggle between the woman and the man for leadership in the marriage relationship. . . . Eve will have the sinful ‘desire’ to oppose Adam and assert leadership over him.’ (Alexander, ESV Study Bible)