Genesis 3:16 and what that implies for women, marriage, and relationships between men and women


(Jennifer Judson) #1

In the post The value of women in the bible, a discussion has begun concerning the translation of Genesis 3:16 and how this has affected women throughout history. That was a little bit of a side-track to the initial question in the topic, so I wanted to start a new one. To get a sense of the discussion thus far please check the previous posts.

I am showing Genesis 3:16 from various translations and transliterations. I thought seeing some comparatively might be useful.

NIV: Genesis 3:16
To the woman he said,
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”

ESV: Genesis 3:16
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.”

KJV: Genesis 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.

Amplified Bible: Genesis 3:16
To the woman He said,
“I will greatly multiply
Your pain in childbirth;
In pain you will give birth to children;
Yet your desire and longing will be for your husband,
And he will rule [with authority] over you and be responsible for you.”

The Living Bible: Genesis 3:16
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.”

The Message: Genesis 3:16
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.”


(SeanO) #2

@Jennifer_Judson I think there are two translations of this passage that appeal most to me and they are a bit at odds with each other.

Katherine Bushnell translated it as: The correct rendering of the next phrase of Genesis 3:16 is this: “Thou art turning away to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee,”—not as it has been rendered, “Thy desire shall be to thy husband." She was a pretty awesome woman if you have never encountered her story.

The NET Bible translates it as: 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.”

So, when a woman translates it the problem is that she looks to her husband rather than to God. When a man translates it the problem is the woman wants to control her husband. I find this amusing.

But the explanation in the NET Bible as to why ‘desire’ is not the right English word here is very helpful:

48 tn Heb “and toward your husband [will be] your desire.” The nominal sentence does not have a verb; a future verb must be supplied, because the focus of the oracle is on the future struggle. The precise meaning of the noun תְּשׁוּקָה (tÿshuqah, “desire”) is debated. Many interpreters conclude that it refers to sexual desire here, because the subject of the passage is the relationship between a wife and her husband, and because the word is used in a romantic sense in Song 7:11 HT (7:10 ET). However, this interpretation makes little sense in Gen 3:16. First, it does not fit well with the assertion “he will dominate you.” Second, it implies that sexual desire was not part of the original creation, even though the man and the woman were told to multiply. And third, it ignores the usage of the word in Gen 4:7 where it refers to sin’s desire to control and dominate Cain. (Even in Song of Songs it carries the basic idea of “control,” for it describes the young man’s desire to “have his way sexually” with the young woman.) In Gen 3:16 the Lord announces a struggle, a conflict between the man and the woman. She will desire to control him, but he will dominate her instead. This interpretation also fits the tone of the passage, which is a judgment oracle. See further Susan T. Foh, “What is the Woman’s Desire?” WTJ 37 (1975): 376-83.


(Jennifer Judson) #3

Jolene and I have been having a discussion on the curse from the fall and how that has shaped the culture in which women have lived. As I mentioned above, check out the discussion thus far in The value of women in the bible.

Jolene, I’ll be honest. I don’t recall previously hearing in teaching, preaching, or other means of learning, that Genesis 3:16 meant women would desire to dominate their husbands. (My background is Methodist and relative to other denominations they have always been liberal about women’s issues – we have women pastors and bishops, I am a Sunday School teacher, etc. So my experience will certainly reflect that. I’ve never felt “less” in the eyes of the church.)

I don’t really read that an any of the translations either. I do see that the ESV text has the word “contrary,” but I don’t interpret that as an equivalent to dominate. As a matter of fact, until I saw this variety of versed side by side, I don’t think I even caught that the word “contrary” was there. It’s the translation I use most, thus it’s what I copied from when I initially mentioned it in my post. Inclusion of that word does seem to add different shading to the meaning of the verses, but I’m assuming there are nuances in the hebrew that they are trying to reflect here.

The understanding I’ve always had may certainly be wrong, but I always connected “your desire will be for your husband” more to the previous clause “with painful labor you will give birth to children,” than the one after “and he will rule over you.” Much more like the everyday language I see in The Living Bible transliteration I’ve shown. Basically, bearing children–the outcome of sexual relations–is gonna hurt, but you’ll still desire those relations with your husband.

When I included the Gen 3:16 (ESV) verse in my initial post, it was mainly to illustrate where a hierarchy entered the story. And I think it clearly does.

I also think there are other passages that give context to the Christian model in families. In I Peter 3, Peter instructs wives to be submissive to their husbands, but then goes on to say in verse 7:
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.

The marriage passages in 1 Peter 3 are clearly a subset on the topic of submission that begins in chapter 2 (submission concerning authorities, servants, etc). We should keep in mind that Peter was speaking to both the reality of his day and the culture from which he came.

1 Peter 2:17
Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Submission is quite connected with honor and being a servant to one another. There is a hierarchy, but the bottom line is we are all to love and honor one another as we love God.

Has Christian authority extrapolated power against women that they never should have? You bet. But many of the Christian traditions that devalued women began in the dark ages, and they weren’t called the dark ages for nothing.

You are right, we should certainly seek to have the church follow a godly path, and not necessarily follow traditions that may have been wrong. Gratefully with each generation anointed readers and earnest scholars are seeking to more accurately interpret God’s word.


(Jennifer Judson) #4

Thanks Sean. I hope when we get to heaven will get to read all of God’s word with complete understanding of what he intended for us to get out of it. There will be lots of “aha” moments. Not to mention quite a few “oops” moments.


(Jolene Laughlin) #5

Too funny, Sean. Made me laugh out loud!

I am putting a link to the blog post that got me started thinking about it. I posted it in the other discussion, but am reposting it here. I’m also posting a link to his follow up, since this post created an internet explosion of sorts, and he felt the need to clarify.

He has posted a lot about women in the Bible and I’ve found his posts refreshing. His post on Debra and Barak was intriguing, as were two of his posts on the “Billy Graham Rule” and VP Pence. It was the first time I’d ever heard a Christian man standing up for women in this way.


(Jolene Laughlin) #6

I have always heard it like this because it is compared to Genesis 4:7 (6 So the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.”)

The word translated “desire” is only used three times in the OT. In these two verses, and in the verse Sean referenced in the Song of Solomon. Because of the use of the same word, and the similar phrasing, the two verses have been tied together, and have been interpreted, at least in my much more conservative circles to be parallel and have the same meaning. Sin’s desire is “against” or “contrary” to Cain, and his duty is to rule over it - so it follows that the same thing was meant when it says that his wife’s desire would be for her husband, but that he should rule over her. These two verses were first tied together by the work “What is the Woman’s Desire?” by Susan T Foh.

@SeanO I am copying part of my comment from the other discussion board so that you don’t have to switch back and forth, should you want to comment. :slight_smile:

"I am not an expert on the original languages of the Bible and cannot speak from that respect, to the accuracy of the translation of Genesis 3:16. My own marriage has certainly had its share of ups and downs and failures and growths, and I am no expert on that subject either. But I do think that the way we view the curse, and the way it’s worded here, have real-life implications today. We can shrug our shoulders and say “I don’t know why it happened. It just did. It just was. It just is.” But what we think about it, and the way we teach about it, affect us on all levels - from how we see ourselves as children of God, to the way we operate our homes and raise our families, to the way we structure our communities, and ultimately, the way we address these issues on a national level.

If Genesis 3:16 tells men that their wives will desire to dominate them and that they must subdue, or rule over her (because this interpretation pairs the wording used in chapter 4, when God tells Cain that sin will crouch at the door and desire him, and he must rule over it, with this verse describing women) it prescribes an atmosphere of enmity within the marital relationship. This understanding of the text implies that women will strive against men as part of the curse, and men’s ordained role is to subdue her, conquer her, and rule over her. In this interpretation, a man dominating his wife is a God-ordained mandate.

In the other interpretation - where the curse states that women will desire, or long for, their husband, but he will instead be inclined to rule over her, we have an explanation for the way things are in the world today, and a warning that the curse will result in loneliness and suffering for both parties. It is also something that we, as Christians working to roll back the curse and help grow the kingdom of God, can feel free to battle against. We can support and work toward unity and oneness in our marriages, because Jesus conquered sin and the curse and we are not entirely in bondage to it any longer. In other words, we can stop teaching that women are by nature inclined to rise up and usurp authority over men and that men, in return, have been given a divine calling to dominate and conquer these troublesome women. We are free to teach mutual submission and to esteem each better than ourselves.

To me, the second view lines up better with both the character of God and with reality and human nature as we know it. Most women naturally delve into the deeper waters of emotions and relationship on a regular basis. Men tend to draw back from the messy depths and are not worried much about emotions, emotional health, and relationships. Studies indicate this, cultural jokes indicate this, entire seasons of sit coms in the US have been successful due to their portrayal (and mis-portrayal) of this common source of conflict and lack of understanding regarding emotional dynamics between men and women (A silly, but telling example:http://weknowmemes.com/2011/10/his-her-diary-on-the-same-day/ ). And this all applies even before we mention the dynamics of sexual intimacy in marriage, and the problems created in the relationship because of vastly different expectations and hopes in that area as well. I agree that both men and women want to be loved unconditionally, wholly, and fully - but their understanding of what that kind of love looks like is often quite different.

When we look at the differences in men and women in the world at large - beyond the realm of Christianity, the problem is even more pronounced. The common cry from women is that "he only sees me as my body - my thoughts, my mind, my identity as a person don’t matter. " For example, look at the vulgar jokes and crude language that dominates “shop talk” - anywhere men congregate and women are not typically present. Look at the culture-wide objectification of the female body; consider the pornography that nearly always includes acts that are specifically humiliating, degrading, and dehumanizing to the women involved. Prostitution, sex trafficking, domestic violence. In almost all of these cases, the victims are largely women and girls, (boys, men, and transgender people are also victims, but at a much lower percentage than girls and women). And in many cases of abuse and prostitution - the women being used won’t leave, or press charges, or defend themselves, because they “love” their traffickers and abusers. Women are not, in general, “using” the men in the same way that the men are using them. I don’t think men need encouragement to resist, rule, or dominate women. I think Genesis 3:16 is very descriptive and provides a perfect explanation for why this is so. I maintain that this is what the curse refers to.


(Jennifer Judson) #7

Jolene and I have discovered that we come from very different church backgrounds. In my Methodist roots, I as a female was allowed to flourish. In the fundamentalist church of her youth, Jolene felt constrained.

Knowing we are shaped in our Christian thinking/views can be valuable in all our discussions. Even more so, knowing how non-believers are shaped can help guide how we communicate the gospel to them.


(SeanO) #8

@Jolene_Laughlin I tend to agree that the man ruling over the woman in this context is a result of the fall - not a commission by God for men to dominate women. God was not addressing Adam when he said this - he was describing to Eve the consequences of her actions.

She was meant to be a helper alongside Adam who would build a fruitful, abundant world with culture, the arts and language. But after sin both her fruitfulness in bearing children and her relationship with her partner in world building would become hard. The man with more physical strength would be able to assert his will rather than respecting his wife’s equal role in ruling over God’s creation.

I think we see a beautiful correction of the tendency for men to dominate women in I Peter 3:7 - Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.


(Jennifer Judson) #9

Well said, Sean. I know the context of serving and honoring others (in 1 Peter) because we are to love and be obedient to God is so beautiful in it’s fullness.


(Jolene Laughlin) #10

Thanks for the reply, Shawn. I agree with you about 1 Peter, and think that there are many other verses that present healing and balance as well. I found the video by NT Wright that was posted in the group about resources for women in the church to be quite fascinating, especially his claims that women are a vital part of the leadership of the early church (my wording, not his). I haven’t yet had time to study his theories and claims as much as I would like to, but I hope to soon. There is other material there that I haven’t yet had a chance to look at. I appreciate everyone’s contributions and look forward to researching more thoroughly.

Have you seen evidence of Genesis 3 being, perhaps inadvertently, assumed to be prescriptive instead of descriptive, or is that unique to the very conservative circles I am most familiar with?


(SeanO) #11

In my limited experience, it is fairly common for those who hold that the male has authority over the wife to root their belief in Genesis 3:16 being a prescriptive creation ordinance and they point to I Corinthians 11:8- 9: “For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels.”

They conveniently leave out verse 12 - “For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God” and verse 16 “If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God”.

It is not clear at all what issue Paul is trying to address in this passage from I Cor 11 and Paul seems to retract his entire argument at the end, so I think it is poor form to use a confusing passage to justify a doctrine with such far reaching consequences.

The IVP Women’s Bible Commentary has a good line in keeping with your mentioning prescriptive and descriptive:

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