Problem Passages: Genesis 3:16

This post is a part of the series comparing the teaching on various gender passages in the Bible. Read more about the series here.

Genesis 3:16 says,

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.”

Context

God is speaking to the woman after she has eaten the forbidden fruit. This verse is often called the curse of Eve because it is one of the terrible consequences of the fall, which is when perfect man and woman ceased to be perfect. Sin entered the world.

Summary of Different Opinions

The two differences in interpretation for this passage are whether God is describing or prescribing these things to women, and whether male leadership was introduced at this point or earlier, at creation.

Complementarian Interpretations

To understand the Comp interpretation of “Eve’s curse”, first we must look at Comp’s understanding of creation. They believe male headship was established at creation. (I go into great detail on the creation in this series of posts.) So, the premise going into Genesis 3:16 is that woman was created as a perfect complement for man, distinguished from him in form and role; happily content with his perfect, loving leadership. The fall distorted that God-ordained order of complementary roles.

Women no longer willingly follow their husband’s leadership, instead they desire to usurp him. They long to be in charge. To be godly, to live as she was intended, a women must put off her desire to lead and put on a submissive attitude.  

They conclude this because of their interpretation of the key word teshuqa, translated as desire. To understand how they interpret desire, take a look at what God warned Cain as his angry face betrayed him when God rejected his sacrifice.

Genesis 4:7 “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires [teshuqa] to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Notice the wording is near identical to what God said to Eve? “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Because of the parallel words, John Piper makes this parallel conclusion:

When 4:7 says that sin is crouching at the door of Cain’s heart (like a lion, Genesis 49:9) and that it’s desire is for him, it means that sin wants to overpower him. It wants to defeat him and subdue him and make him the slave of sin.

Now when we go back to 3:16 we should probably see the same meaning in the sinful desire of woman. When it says, “Your desire shall be for your husband,” it means that when sin has the upper hand in woman she will desire to overpower or subdue or exploit man. And when sin has the upper hand in man he will respond in like manner and with his strength subdue her, or rule over her. John Piper:  http://www.cbmw.org/Resources/Sermons/Manhood-and-Womanhood-Conflict-and-Confusion-After-the-Fall

Husbands, who were created to lovingly lead, now sinfully dominate the relationship. Or, [not stated in this verse but evidenced by Adam’s passivity in following Eve’s direction to eat] they let the woman take charge. To be godly, a husband must put off his aggressive my-way-or-the-highway attitude or his passive spirit and put on loving leadership.

The Comps believe this consequence of sin is the battle of the sexes. Women want to be in charge now, and men, to keep their God-ordained position, will use any means to dominate. As a result, Christian women should learn to stay in their God-ordained role, and Christian men should learn to control their aggression.

Further reading:

Extreme Interpretation

The modern complementarian interpretation has softened from the historic  interpretation associated with male headship. This verse was interpreted historically as prescriptive, which means men are commanded to rule their wives. Because Eve was the first to sin, she was judged with sinful male domination.

…thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. KJV

He shall rule. Think of the imperative language in The 10 Commandments…Thou Shall Have No Other Gods; Thou Shall Not Kill. The word shall added a level of responsibility to the husband. Sadly, the word shall was added in the English translation.

Even today, there are extreme camps of Patriarchy that use this verse as a requirement in marriage.  They say husbands should rule. It is their responsibility to make the wife follow his lead. This is the core of Domestic Discipline, a fancy name for abuse.  The reasoning goes like this. A husband is responsible for his wife, so to ensure she is her best (submissive), he must use discipline to acquire her best. Discipline can be physical or mental or financial, anything that will change her behavior. Because how can he lead/rule if she won’t follow? He must make her.

Egalitarian Interpretations

At creation, God said both Adam and Eve were to rule over His creation, and both were to participate in raising children. From this, Egals conclude there is no hierarchy established between the genders. Adam and Eve are called to unity; to be one flesh. Egals believe male headship is a result of the fall.

When God told Eve that she would desire her husband and he would rule over her, God was foreseeing the result of sin on marriage… disunity, abuse and idolatry. God is not cursing or judging Eve, but is  predicting what will happen because of sin.

Some Egals disagree with Comps that teshuqa means a desire to control or destroy. They believe the Hebrew word, which is only used one other time outside of Genesis, means a longing for.  Solomon 7:10 says “I am my beloveds and his desire [longing] is for me.” God tells Cain sin is crouching at the door and longs for him. (Gen 4:7) And He tells Eve that she will long for her husband, and her husband will dominate her.

Another prevalent argument is that teshuqa, the Hebrew word translated desire, was originally translated as turning in the Greek Septuagint (app. 300 BC). Some Egals argue the word was corrupted to mean lust or desire by the Jewish rabbi’s influence (who were notorious chauvinists) on Jerome 700 years later in 400 AD. Hence the Latin Vulgate (Jerome’s translation) influences all subsequent translations to render teshuqa as power or desire or lust. A better translation of this verse might be:

“You will turn toward your husband and he will rule over you.”  (http://godswordtowomen.org/desire.htm)

This translation removes the sexual or combative overtones implied with desire.

Later, when God throws Adam out of the Garden (Gen 3:23-24), Eve’s expulsion is not mentioned. Egals claim Eve was not required to leave (because she was deceived), but chose to join Adam over God’s presence; an indication God’s prophecy is already being fulfilled. She is turning toward Adam and away from God.

Egals believe that this verse foretells male oppression upon women; that women, because of this powerful longing or turning, have enabled male oppression throughout history.  This longing is not focused on God, as it was originally created for, but for man. It is misplaced worship; idolatry.

There doesn’t seem to be any argument over what “he will rule over you” means. Sadly, everyone is all too aware of the aggressive nature of man to abuse power. But, because Egals believe woman subordination to man is a horrendous result of sin, they don’t believe it is how a Christian marriage should operate. Christ came to free us from that curse! (Romans 5:12-21)

Further Reading:

Genesis 3:16

Comps Believe… Egals Believe…
The order of creation God established Adam’s headship in marriage and it was not a result of the fall. God established equal rule and unity in marriage.
The results of the fall Introduced distortions in the relationships between men and women. Predicted patriarchy. Wives long for their husbands replacing God as the center of their life, and husbands dominate the relationship.
Teshuqa means
Desire to control Longing for / Turning toward
He will rule over you means
At times, this has been interpreted prescriptively; meaning that husbands should rule their wives. Most Comps today agree this is descriptive of the sinful tendency of husbands to dominate their wives. Men will take over the world. 🙂
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10 thoughts on “Problem Passages: Genesis 3:16

  1. I really enjoyed your summary! Keep up the good work . I am looking forward to the rest of this series! 🙂

    And, Thank you for the link to my recently completed paper where I offer what I think is a “middle of the road” analysis. The Genesis 3 consequences are still around and will be with us as long as we live in this world- sweat, thorns, pain in childbirth, wife desire, and husband rule- BUT, they are used by God for redemptive purposes and need not be understood as “curses”. (Contrary to popular belief, God did not “curse” the man nor the woman. Only the ground and the serpent were “cursed”).

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  2. one giggle I had about John Piper’s theory?

    They claim that the woman’s desire for her husband is a desire to usurp authority over him, and they base this claim solely on one author, ironically a female author, Susan Foh, who in 1975 advanced a totally novel interpretation of Genesis 3:16.

    Can you image? They base their belief off a woman’s theory! Shame on them for giving her such authority! lol kind of against the way of thinking isn’t it?

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    1. LOL. Exactly. I guess they just got tired of trying to push ‘desire’ as ‘lust’ since most women don’t ‘lust’ – but most men do!!! So they had to come up with a new plan. Now desire means ‘control’. Should someone tell John Piper that Susan Foh has managed to contol him – and he, like Adam, just stood back and let it happen!!! LOL

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  3. The really insidious thing about the idea that the woman’s desire is a desire to control, is that the upshot in “hard patriarchy” is that the wife is “guilty until proven innocent.” In other words, anything she says or does that disagrees with her husband in any way– any desire she expresses to be treated like a full adult and allowed to make choices of her own, for instance– is viewed as coming from her desire to control him. This judgment of her heart motives with no evidence, can result in great harm and cruelty to wives, when they are judged unfairly as wanting to control their husbands when all they want is to be free to act on their own volition from time to time.

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  4. There’s another element of that passage that suggests the ‘curse’ is description rather than prescriptive. A more accurate translation [paraphrased] for the phrase about childbearing is “women will experience distress/discomfort through the entire process of reproducing”. That includes worrying about ticking biological clocks, spouses who disagree about having children or aren’t sleeping together, and the actual pregnancy. But early male translators didn’t understand other kinds of discomfort besides passing a large object down the birth canal and phrased it accordingly.

    If God had just added physical pain, we could assume it was active punishment, but the passage is also talking about worry and conflict between spouses. That’s a natural consequence of living in a fallen world where men had huge amounts of control over women’s childbearing.

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  5. here’s an excellent (and very thorough) link to a view that was not represented here. the most poignant part for me was where the author states “Even though the intimacy between the first man and his wife was abrogated, even though the unity with man would bring woman to the threshhold of death itself in the process of childbirth, yet woman would still possess a strong desire to be with man. The broken intimacy and the pain of childbearing would not be allowed to nullify the yearning of woman for man, and the fulfillment of God’s command to populate the earth or to alter the divine order of the headship of man.”

    Also following that is the posit that Eve did not usurp the authority of man because she knew well that God commanded them not to eat of the tree. She decided against God’s will, not over her husband’s.

    Do read this essay – it is well worth it!

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  6. Remember too, that Eve’s DESIRE was for wisdom: that’s what drove her to eat the fruit. So her punishment was instead for her will to be subsumed to the will of Adam; her desire would be for whatever Adam wanted her to do. That’s the root of Paul’s citation using her as an example of why wives should be in submission to their husbands, and Hebrew misogyny rears its ugly head.

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  7. Actually that wasn’t Eve’s punishment, that was a natural effect of the fall. I think many of the misinterpretations people have can be debunked if we all just sought God Himself about it so He can clarify what these things mean. If you have a personal relationship with God, then you know that oppression is not of God because you know He is not like that. You will know that He wants freedom for His children and oppression is not His will, it is what He came to save us from. You will know what is consistent with His nature and what is not if you REALLY know Him. Any intelligent woman who REALLY knows God knows that the only being He intended to be above her is He Himself, not any man, because the man is only human. That passage that you referred to with Paul’s citation using her as an example of why wives should be in submission to their husbands (and all scriptures that are similar to this) are among the most misinterpreted scriptures in the bible. People rarely ever talk about that scripture where St. Peter is warning the men telling them “If you do not submit to your wives, then God will not hear your prayers.”

    That scripture is proof that God never intended submission to be solely the responsibility of the woman (I think it is just how the corrupted human mind naturally perceives women because of the curse, our minds became corrupted too and we’re lucky the translators included this scripture in the bible as well because translations aren’t always entirely correct.) For all the centuries that the church has existed, they have always emphasized one side of the picture more than the other misleading people into believing that God has a “favorite gender.” Paul was an egalitarian and was actually one of the biggest feminists of that era. It took some of the best biblical scholars in the world to point out scriptures in Paul’s letters where he opposed the ideology of male headship. Obviously, nobody else had the guts to do that. He embarrassed men in public in defense of women on several occassions.

    He had female friends who were rich married business-women (few because of the structure of the society at that time) and they were the heads of the their homes, (Chloe, Pheoboe, Priscilla, etc) and Paul was in support. It was the corrupted men in society (in every generation) who had a problem with this, not God. If God really had a problem with women being heads sometimes, then why did He choose to exalt the woman He chose to be His mother above all men for all eternity in His Kingdom, including Joseph her husband? (God chose to exalt many women but the world is biased and sexist and other things because of the curse, so obviously people will never talk about those parts of the bible.) Churches are largely responsible for misleading people into believing that God had a “favorite gender” because the church has always been a patriarchy. I think that should speak for itself…..

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  8. The author is incorrect about the complementarian position, nowhere in Scripture of does is a man required to keep his wife in submission. Submission and headship are separate, the man is protect and care for his wife regardless of whether she submits to him are not. Likewise wives submit to husband despite them being worthy are not. It is a duty to God. of course both men and women can abuse Godly men and women. Look and Gomer who abused her husband in the Old testament and he had to take her back. Neither man nor wife may abuse their husband. If we follow Scripture abuse is wrong. Satan has caused sin and now we seek to remedy the problem of oppressed women by using an Ungodly method. Patriarchy is a feminist theory. Egalitarian theology is based on feminism. Equality of outcome is being pushed by egals for women as pastors. Hardcore egalitarianism is against equality of outcome so. So called christian eagls are a mixture of feminism and egalitarianism. Toss dispensationalist in the mix and we have a stew of seriously bad theology. don’t let me get stated on the abuse of Galatians 3:28.

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