The translation of the noun teshuqa in Hebrew from “turning” in the Greek Septuagint (and other early non-Hebrew translations) to “desire” in today’s English translations is a bit of an enigma. (Read the history of this change.) In the Old Testament, teshuqa is rarely used. In fact, it is used only three times.
Genesis 3:16: [to Eve] … your teshuqa to your man…
Genesis 4:7 [to Cain]…sin’s (or Abel’s) teshuqa toward you…
Song of Songs 7:10 [about lover]…his teshuqa at me…
I list the three occurrences not to show you the similarities or differences, but simply to illustrate how narrow the use of teshuqa is. It is tempting to start at one verse and argue backward to a definition in another verse, but that is generally considered poor exegesis. Each verse carries its own context, and even though the meaning of the word may be consistent, it’s place within the sentence often lends a nuance leading to differing translation. So, my BIG caution is to be wary of interpretations that rely fundamentally (and that word is key) on how another verse uses the word in question.
But, the fact is, the interpretations of these other two verses HAVE influenced the translation of the word teshuqa in Genesis 3:16. The context of Genesis 4:7 is anger that leads to jealous murder. Naturally, we see overtones of dominance and control. Song of Songs 7:10 is smack in the middle of euphemistic poetry describing intimacy, so of course we feel the undercurrent of sensual desire. But can either of those connotations be accurately overlaid on teshuqa in Genesis 3:16?
In the new ESV-unchangeable-so-shall-it-forever-be-version (I just can’t help myself), we witness the culmination of decades of scholarship interpreting Genesis 3:16 from a starting point in Genesis 4:7. In 4:7, it is sin’s teshuqa to Cain that certain scholars believe parallels the woman’s teshuqa to man in 3:16. The context of 4:7 is set in the midst of conflict as God warns Cain that if he does not follow the right way, sin would be at his door and it’s teshuqa toward him. Cain is instructed to resist sin by controlling or ruling over it. There is an apparent enmity, and rightly so, between sin and Cain.
(It is a newer trend, for the last hundred years or so, to interpret Genesis 4:7 as referring to sin. Older theologians believed it was referencing Abel. If it is Abel’s teshuqa, then the heightened sense of domination disappears.It could also be interpreted as referring to Cain’s sin offering. The Hebrew does not have a clear meaning, which should caution basing a foundation theological point on it.)
As a result, many on the ESV Oversight Committee read enmity between the principle players in the context of 3:16. See what John Piper wrote about Genesis 3:16.
But what is really being said here? …
The key comes from recognizing the connection between the last words of this verse (3:16b) and the last words of Genesis 4:7…
…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.
Eve wants to control Adam, but Adam will rule over her. The play for power in Genesis 4:7 is overlaid onto 3:16, and as a result, we begin to hear popular speakers and preachers discussing the “curse” on Eve as wives desiring to manipulate and have dominance over their husbands, just like sin did to Cain. The ESV inserts this desire for dominance into 3:16 with the words, “your teshuqa (desire in ESV) shall be contrary to your husband.” Enmity achieved.
As stated previously, I believe relying solely on a word as it is used in another context is poor exegetical practice. And in this case, it results in a number of problems.
- There is a major linguistic complication in 4:7 that is not present in 3:16. The presence of a conditional phrase as introduction. God warns with the word “if,” and introduces two possible outcomes. This conditional element is not found in 3:16 and it complicates a straight parallel comparison with presumptions.
- Where do we draw the line at a straight parallel between the two verses? Woman has a teshuqa and sin has a teshuqa. Are they the same thing? Sin and women are both “ruled.” I hope we all get uncomfortable with the direction this could go in likening women to sin…and tragically you and I both know that religious scholars have delved deeply in these comparisons over the years resulting in millennia of subjugation and rotten theology.
- The parallel breaks down even further when we proceed to the second phrase found in both 3:16 and 4:7: “he/you will rule over you/it.” Cain did not succeed in ruling sin. Indeed no man anywhere (except Jesus) has subjugated sin. Too bad we couldn’t apply Cain’s same halfhearted effort to man’s rule over women! The contextual parallels of the two phrases just don’t match up without back flips and stretches.
- This mismatch of logical fallacies should warn us against translating teshuqa in 3:16 on the basis of the context in 4:7.
The most widely used English translation for teshuqa today is “desire.” How did this definition make its way to our English page? Katharine Bushnell initiated the search for the roots of “desire” from teshuqa in the early 1900s, but continued study has not gained much momentum in the last hundred years outside egalitarian circles. Why was the meaning of teshuqa changed to desire? I like Bushnell’s explanation.
It must, then, impress reasoning minds that the interpretation of Genesis 3:16 has had a history something like this: Men of old found a phrase here that seemed to have to do with woman’s relation to her husband, but it was beyond their comprehension. Unconsciously these men of olden time have consulted their own ideas of what a wife should be, in relation to her husband, and inserted those ideas into their interpretation. The interpretation has been accepted by other men, without challenge, because it conformed to their unsanctified wishes, and handed on from generation to generation, until it became weighty through “tradition.” No effort, scarcely has been put forth to reconcile such teaching with the spirit of Jesus Christ. (para. 112)
Bushnell suspects the definition was changed because the of male bias in the translation process. This charge deserves a post of its own along with the origin of lust/desire to Genesis 3:16.
But, what about the influence of Song of Songs (Songs) 7:10 on Genesis 3:16? Interestingly, all early English versions (15th-16th centuries) retain “turning” as the meaning of teshuqa in Songs 7:10, but translate teshuqa as “lust” or “power” or “appetite” in Genesis 3:16. So, the original meaning of teshuqa was not lost on the early English translators. Though, by the end of the 1700s, all three verses were unified in their translation to “desire.” And the turning of teshuqa‘s meaning in English was complete. So historically, the influence of “desire” did not originate in Songs 7:10, but the other way around with “desire” in Genesis 3:16 taking the lead.
I close with the three uses of teshuqa translated with its original meaning.
Genesis 3:16 You are turning to your husband, and he will rule over you.
Genesis 4:7 But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it is turning to you, but you must rule over it.
Songs 7:10 I belong to my beloved and he is turning to me!
Read more on Teshuqa’s roots: