To the woman he [God] said,
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16 ESV)
The beauty and simplicity of the early chapters of Genesis ironically leads to a pitfall when reading these chapters. The story of Adam and Eve is very terse and yet captivating. The details are sparse, but the narrative is engaging, as well as being foundational to Christian theology and practice. The story invites the reader to explore the imagination, going deeper in trying to figure out what it all means. But sometimes, the imagination can take you far away from the text itself, and thereby importing an alien sense of meaning that does not belong there.
For years, I have wrestled with the meaning of the curse given to Eve in Genesis 3:16, subsequent to the Fall. In contemporary Western culture, where concerns about women’s rights flourish, many readers bristle over the idea that Eve might somehow be the one to blame for the Fall of Humanity. After all, she interacted with the serpent and then offered the forbidden fruit to Adam. Does Genesis teach that Eve was truly at fault?
More specifically, by asserting herself so forwardly in her dialogue with the serpent, was she subverting her role as a supportive helpmate to Adam? If one reads the Apostle Paul in one of his letters to Timothy, you might get the idea that Paul really believes that it was all Eve’s fault (1 Timothy 2:13-15).
But even when reading Paul, such a neat conclusion is not so simple. In fact, such a conclusion would be wrong. In his most profound work of theology in his letter to the Romans, Paul squarely places the responsibility for the Fall on Adam’s shoulders (Romans 5:12-17). Eve is not even mentioned.
So, perhaps the wisest conclusion to make is that both Adam and Eve share in the downfall of humanity, though in different ways. You can not pin it all on Eve.
But then there is the whole matter of the curse placed on Eve, specifically, that “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” What is that all about?
This past summer, our church held a Summer Bible Study on Genesis 1-11, and this very question came up. Here is a TableTalk session where Tommy Vereb, our worship leader, poses the question to our lead pastor, Travis Simone:
The Story of Genesis 3:16 in Biblical Interpretation
The history of how Genesis 3:16 (focusing on the last part) has been understood in the church is quite fascinating, to say the least. For most of church history, the lesson of Eve’s curse has been rarely discussed. But within the past several hundred years, as the dominant system of patriarchy has been put to the test by the rise of feminism, Genesis 3:16 has received much more attention.
For many years, the understanding of Eve’s desire for her husband was bound up in the notion of lust. In other words, part of Eve’s curse was that she would have some type of sexual desire for her husband. Borrowing from Song of Solomon 7:10, where the same Hebrew word for desire is found, transliterated into English as teshuqa, the context from Song of Solomon shows more clearly that desire has at least a connotation of sexual intimacy in mind.
But such a crass understanding of Eve craving sexual intimacy as a form of curse for sin is highly problematic. God created sexual intimacy itself in creation as an inherently good thing, not as a curse. So unless you interpret desire in Genesis 3:16 as some sort of abnormal or exaggerated sexual impulse, it is difficult to justify any other interpretation along these lines.
Katherine Bushnell was a missionary to China in the late 19th century, who as a scholar of the biblical languages, took a great interest in this passage of the Bible. As a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Bushnell was greatly concerned how the abuse of alcohol among men led to abuse of women in the home. Bushnell’s research concluded that the traditional interpretation of desire (teshuqa) in Genesis 3:16 as being an exaggerated sexual desire for the husband has only amplified the problem of wife abuse within the home.
Bushnell learned (as summarized in this PDF chart) that the traditional 3rd to 5th century (A.D.) Babylonian Talmud was behind much of the interpretation of teshuqa as sexual desire. However, this understanding inspired by the Babylonian Talmud was not original. If one goes back a few centuries to the Greek Septuagint, the Bible used by the earliest Christians, prior to the development of the New Testament, the meaning of teshuqa is a bit different. In English, we would understand it as “turning” (as did Bushnell) or as “submission“, as in “and thy submission shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” This gives the impression that Eve’s punishment in the curse is that her orientation, or her “turning,” if you will, would be towards her husband instead of towards God. So even though Eve was created with an orientation “turned” towards God, the result of the Fall is that she would now be turned towards her husband. Instead of looking to God for her identity and spiritual strength, as she was originally created, she would be looking to her husband to meet those needs, now in her fallen state. Bushnell’s translation is:
You will turn toward your husband and he will rule over you.
Because Eve is now mis-oriented towards her husband, she now finds herself in subjection towards the man. Bushnell’s bold thesis is that the doctrine of male headship, in terms of the woman as being subordinate towards the man, is a result of the Fall, and therefore it is NOT part of God’s original design in creation. Adam and Eve, before sin, were created to be equal one unto another.
Bushnell goes on to argue that this teshuqa as turning tradition was lost when the first few Bible translations began to show up in English, during the Reformation period, opting instead to use the word desire instead. Bushnell’s claim is that we should go back to the earlier interpretive tradition, that of teshuqa as turning, if we wish to uphold a right view of Scripture. Many Bible interpreters today have taken their queue from Bushnell (see Walter Kaiser here, excerpted from his co-authored treatment in Hard Sayings in the Bible).
I must admit that when I first heard of the teshuqa in Genesis 3:16 as exaggerated sexual desire or lust, I thought it was pretty bizarre, not to mention, misogynist. I first discovered Bushnell’s different line of thinking in Letha Scanzoni and Nancy Hardest’s All We’re Meant to Be, probably one of the best known early works of evangelical feminism (or what some call, “biblical egalitarianism”) of the late 1970s.
Over the years, I have heard some other interpretations of teshuqa in the “lust” tradition, though a bit softened in tone. For example, there is the idea that Eve’s punishment was not so much sexual desire as it was simply a craving for intimacy from her husband (this is the perspective of the question raised in the preceding video). Unfortunately, for Eve and her female, spiritual descendants, this craving for intimacy would go unmet, as men would return the craving with an authoritarian sense of to “rule over” her, thereby squashing her desire for intimacy. It is an interesting way of reading the text, one that I had never heard before it was mentioned in the previous video. I get the point, but I wonder if such an interpretation is informed more by our society’s obsession with romance novels than by the Word of Scripture! (However, for a more nuanced approach, see this technical paper, by Irwin A. Busenitz from the Master’s Seminary).
The Roots Behind the Evangelical Complementarian and Egalitarian Debate
Little did I know that during those early years of biblical egalitarianism that there were some writers who were bothered by what they saw as radical feminism creeping into the church, many of them being women themselves! This new breed of evangelical complementarians were seeking an alternative to traditional patriarchy, the kind of male chauvinism and misogyny that bothered Katherine Bushnell, and the growing feminist movement, which was seen as an unhelpful overreaction towards traditional ways of thinking that has actually been undermining Christian thought.
In 1974, Bible scholar Susan T. Foh wrote an influential paper that challenged Bushnell’s approach. Foh took her queue from Genesis 4:7, the only other place where teshuqa is found in the Bible. There, sin’s desire for Cain, who is just about to kill his brother, is tied to the idea of seeking control. Sin “is crouching at the door,” as the text reads, where sin is ready to pounce on Cain and take over. Since Genesis 4:7 is only a chapter away from Genesis 3, it makes more sense to appeal to the context of Genesis 4:7, written by the same author, than it is to appeal to a completely different book of the Bible by a different author, as others have done with Song of Solomon 7:10 (also known as Song of Songs).
Foh’s primary argument is that teshuqa in Genesis 3:16 is not Bushnell’s turning, nor is it sexual desire. Rather, this Hebrew word is best understood as being desire, but primarily in the sense of being a desire for control. Adam’s response to the desire for control is his corresponding demand to rule over Eve. In other words, the curse applied to Eve is effectively a “power struggle” between the man and the woman.
God created Adam to have authority over Eve, but to do so in a way that would effectively serve and honor her. However, as a result of the Fall, this ordained structure of male headship leads to insubordination for the wife, as well as abusive authoritarianism for the husband against the wife. The purpose then of Christ’s work of redemption, particularly with respect to the restoration of God’s original purpose of marriage, is to reverse the negative impact of the Fall, recovering a true and proper sense of biblical manhood and womanhood.
Evangelical complementarians, like Susan Foh, see that the evangelical egalitarian followers of Katherine Bushnell rightly reject traditional patriarchy, but that they do so at the expense of undermining God’s good order intended in the family, and subsequently the church. We need not abandon the principle of male headship in the home simply because the effect of sin has perverted and abused God’s original design.
The debate over how to best interpret Genesis 3:16 continues as we are well into the 21st century, and it shows no sign of abatement. Busy pastors try to make sense of all of the various nuances and differences and approaches in how to best understand and apply this verse. If this is not all confusing enough so far, just consider the following three views by various Christian women writers on the topic just within the past few years:
- Claire Smith from an evangelical complementarian perspective.
- Wendy Alsup from another evangelical complementarian perspective, with a slightly more egalitarian bend.
- “kbonikowsky” from an evangelical egalitarian perspective.
UPDATE SUMMER 2020:
Five years after publishing this post, I decided to revisit the topic, in lieu of doing a multi-part blog series, in 2019, on the complementarian/egalitarian debate, that has consumed immense amount of energy in the evangelical movement, over at least the past thirty years. In doing more research, I was pleased to see that Wendy Alsup wrote a book on the topic, Is the Bible Good For Women?, a book I was able to review and enthusiastically endorse. Wendy Alsup really stands in the middle of the debate, as she is not an egalitarian (she is not in favor of women serving as elders/overseers in the church), yet she is not a broad complementarian, which means someone who believes that specific roles for women extend beyond marriage and church eldership to include the type of jobs a woman can occupy in the workplace (she affirms, for example, that women can teach in a church, under the authority of male elders). It might be fair to classify Wendy Alsup as a narrow complementarian, as she views the restrictions placed on women in serving in church leadership within a narrow range, thus allowing for plentiful opportunites for women to serve in many other capacities in a local church, for example.
Other views, like the more broad complementarian view of a Susan Foh, tends to lean towards this sense of desire as being a desire to dominate, or control, the male. But such a view of desire is difficult to accept based on the history of how this text has been interpreted across the centuries, and on the limited etymological understanding we have of the original Hebrew word. In other words, all we really have left to determine the exact meaning of desire here is the context, and the context is not sufficient enough to require the meaning of dominate or control.
Nevertheless, egalitarians like “kbonikowsky” (?) tend to make too much of the idea of the man’s rule over the woman as being purely a negative thing. Wendy Alsup affirms the principle of male headship, but just in a less authoritarian-istic way championed by broad complementarians.
I could be wrong here, but in my view, Wendy Alsup has the right view of seeing desire as simply this concept of turning, or longing to look to the man, instead of looking to God, for her source and strength. This creates a disordered situation in the institution of marriage whereby consensus simply can not be reached all of the time. The concept of “desire” here is admittedly ambiguous, but Alsup’s view takes the more simpler approach, instead of front-loading “desire” with a sense of “control” that implies that behind every marriage is a “battle of the sexes,” that Susan Foh’s view tends to encourage.
The practical application of Wendy Alsup’s view, when it comes to the institution of marriage, are modest and yet still very useful. Someone has to make decisions, where consensus can not be obtained, and bear the responsibility for making those decisions. God, in his grace, has therefore provided male headship as a means, not to be overbearing, nor silencing the woman, but rather, to establish in the relationship a sense of order, when consensus can not be obtained.
Granted, some egalitarian couples report that they always are able to work towards consensus. More power to them. I am happy for them. It is just that due to the Fall, not every couple enjoys that type of consensus-achieved order in their lives.