Problems with a New Reading of an Old Verse
Editors' note: Today we're publishing two views on the meaning of Genesis 3:16, when God curses the woman and says, "Your desire will be for your husband." You can also read Claire Smith's countering perspective.
When discussing gender issues in the church, it's crucial to understand the various interpretations of the curse on women from Genesis 3:16. After all, only an accurate assessment of the root issues resulting from the Fall will position us to fully appreciate the gospel's answer. In what follows I will particularly consider the phrase "her desire will be for her husband" (Gen. 3:16).
There are several historic interpretations of this phrase. Some have believed it represents sexual desire. John Calvin claimed this part of the curse was simply subjection, that all of a woman's desires will be subject to her husband who rules over her.1 John Wesley held a similar view. In response to feminism in 1975, Susan Foh was the first to formally suggest that the "desire" in view is a woman's desire against her husband to dominate him, a view now commonly accepted among complementarians.2
I am convinced, however, that this phrase reflects an idolatrous longing for something from the man that the woman was created to receive from God alone. As I researched this topic, however, it became clear that my view is in the minority. Foh's is widely accepted today, though mine precedes her's, which she acknowledges in her work:
It is that "immense, clinging, psychological dependence on man." Seeing no reason to limit the scope of "desire" to sexual appetite, Clarence J. Vos would not exclude from it the woman's desire for the man's protection. Keil and Delitzsch see "desire" as a morbid yearning; the woman "was punished with a desire bordering upon disease."3
The same Hebrew word for "desire," teshuqah, is used two other times in the Old Testament:
And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it (Gen. 4:7).
I am my beloved's, and his desire is for me (Song of Sol. 7:10).
Of the three verses using teshuqah, Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 reflect the most similar wording. Foh primarily uses 4:7 to come to her conclusions about 3:16: "In Genesis 4:7 sin's desire is to enslave Cain---to possess or control him, but the Lord commands, urges Cain to overpower sin, to master it."4 According to Foh, it therefore follows that the woman wants to enslave her husband, to possess or control him, but that he must rule over her. John Collins employs a similar argument in his commentary on Genesis 1-4, as does Bruce Waltke. However, this interpretation projects something onto 4:7 as much as it does 3:16. Neither verse in Hebrew includes any type of word for "enslave," "possess," or "control." In both 3:16 and 4:7, the idea of control is a projection onto the meaning of teshuqah that isn't inherent in the text. If you don't project the idea of control onto 4:7, the verse still makes sense. Sin just wants Cain---in a big way. And Cain must master it. The views referenced earlier of this "desire" being an immense, clinging, morbid yearning fit well with Genesis 4:7.
Good and Bad
There are good and bad points to using Genesis 4:7 to understand 3:16. On the good side, both verses contain similar wording and are written by the same author. It's helpful when an author uses an obscure word multiple times, as each of his uses helps to illumine what he means when he uses the word. It seems likely that the author of Genesis used the word with a slightly different connotation than Solomon. A bad point is that, in Genesis 4:7, the suffix of the word for "desire" is masculine, but the word for "sin" is feminine. Because of this discrepancy in gender, it's unclear whether teshuqah in Genesis 4:7 reflects on sin at all. Most likely it does, though Calvin understood the "desire" in view to be Abel's, not sin's.5
The other negative point is that Genesis 4:7 represents the personification of something without actual desires. In other words, Genesis 4:7 is figurative while Genesis 3:16 is literal. According to some (though not all), the best hermeneutical practice is to proceed from the literal usage of a word to the figurative one, not vice versa.6 Certainly, we should allow the clear to interpret the obscure. For that reason, while the wording of Song of Solomon 7:10 is a little different, it's an important text for determining the meaning of the Hebrew for "desire." If we use the clear meaning of Song of Solomon 7:10 to shed light on the two obscure uses in Genesis, a straightforward understanding of all three emerges. As The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament defines it, the Hebrew simply means "desire or longing." The author of Genesis, then, uses it in an intense, unhealthy way (a morbid clinging and yearning), while Solomon uses it in a healthy way (a strong longing for his beloved).
Some argue that the word "for" in Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 could be translated "against," though I haven't been able to find discussion of this in formal arguments. As far as I'm aware, no Bible translation team from the most conservative to the most liberal has chosen "against" as the primary rendering of the preposition in Genesis 3:16 and 4:7. It doesn't, after all, even make sense in English to say "desire against." The problem with our desires is that they are either for the wrong thing or for the right thing in a wrong way. The Septuagint uses a word that could mean "turning away" in its translation of Gen. 3:16 and 4:7. However, that meaning doesn't fit Genesis 4:7, which makes no sense if sin (or Abel) is turning away from Cain. In sum, I find the arguments claiming that Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 reflect a "desire against to dominate" to be unconvincing.
According to Foh, her new interpretation of Genesis 3:16 in 1975 was in response to feminism. "The current issue of feminism in the church has provoked the reexamination of the scriptural passages that deal with the relationship of the man and the woman."7 If you examine the history of feminism, Foh wasn't reacting against the idea of feminism generally, though she uses the broad term. Frankly, I'm grateful for the first wave of feminism of the late 1800s to early 1900s in particular, for it helped women gain the right to vote, the right to inherit land, the ability to go to college, and so forth. It was God's common grace at work. Foh was reacting specifically to the second wave of feminism (the third wave began in the 90s, so it wasn't an issue at the time). It is odd that such a new interpretation of Scripture for a reason that surfaced in the last 0.08 percent of human history (and that's generous) keeps popping up in modern writing among Reformed conservatives who are known for their love of church history.
If we read Genesis 3:16 in the straightforward way translators write it---"her desire/craving/longing will be for her husband"---it requires no hermeneutical backflips. As a result of the Fall, even though childbirth is painful and the man rules her, the woman still has a morbid craving for him, looking to him in unhealthy ways that do not reflect her status as an image-bearer of God. The woman wants something from the man that he was never intended to provide, that even on his best day he is not equipped to provide. He becomes an idol.
In Psalm 73:25-26, however, we see this desire as it should be:
Whom have I in heaven but you [God]?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Women often perceive weakness or strength among each other by how they react when men fail them. The perceived strong woman doesn't need men. The perceived weak woman continues to follow loser men around like a whipped puppy. In Christ, however, we have a new and different way altogether. The woman bought by Christ and set up as God's honored child with full access to the King of kings has her needs met in him. God pours into her. God equips her. God satisfies her emotional, spiritual, and physical needs. Then and only then can she let go of her perceived rights and be the helper to her male counterpart that God created her to be.
This older interpretation of Genesis 3:16 certainly doesn't undermine a complementarian understanding of Scripture. But it does shed light on why authoritarian views that mask themselves as complementarian are so prevalent. That's the curse playing out. In fact, views on husbands as heads of their homes, wives helping and submitting to their husbands, and male eldership in churches will each be well-served by embracing a straightforward interpretation of Genesis 3:16.
Finally, note that even as God spoke the curse in Genesis 3, he alludes to the breaking of that same curse in verse 15:
And I will put enmity you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel. (NASB)
God has made a way for believers to no longer be dominated and defined by the results of the Fall of man. In Christ, women can choose a different response altogether than either our morbid longing for something from the man or our Christless coping mechanisms for dealing with it. To the praise of his glorious grace.
1 "For this form of speech, thy desire shall be unto thy husband, is of the same force as if he had said that she should not be free and at her own command, but subject to the authority of her husband and dependent upon his will; or as if he had said, thou shalt desire nothing but what thy husband wishes." Calvin, Commentary on Genesis (vol. 1), Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 88.
2 Susan Foh, "What is the Woman's Desire?" Westminster Theological Journal (1974-75), 383.
3 Ibid., 376-77. While I agree with Keil and Delitzsch's view of the desire in view, I'm not convinced this idolatrous longing is part of God's punishment. In Genesis 3:16, only pain in childbirth seems directly initiated by God. Desire for her husband and his rule over her read more as descriptions of life after sin enters the world than direct punishments handed down by God.
4 Foh, 380.
5 Irvin Busenitz, "Woman's Desire for a Man: Genesis 3:16 Revisited." Grace Theological Journal (1986), 210.
6 Ibid., 204-205.
7 Foh, 376.