A change to a popular translation of the Bible could affect readers’ views on marriage and gender roles

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Aaron Blumer's picture


Whereas the first half of that sentence formerly read “Your desire shall be for your husband,” it now reads, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband.” It appears to suggest that women naturally oppose their husbands’ desires, and thus are responsible for marital conflict.

The objection ultimately doesn't make any sense. God was placing a curse on humanity and Eve. A desire for intimacy would not be a curse.

As for the objection that this blames women for all marital conflict--um, no. The curse comes from God, and it is His response to the couple's sin. It is sin that is to "blame."

But do women "naturally oppose their husbands' desires"? All human beings naturally oppose the desires those in authority over them, so yes.

Fred Moritz's picture

Work done on this a long time ago.  See:  Susan T. Foh, “What is the Woman’s Desire?” in the Westminster Theological Journal, Volume 36, 376. 

If my memory is correct the Hebrew construction at Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 is the same.

Aaron Blumer's picture


p. 383

D. Summary

Contrary to the usual interpretations of commentators, the desire of the woman in Genesis 3:16b does not make the wife (more) submissive to her husband so that he may rule over her. Her desire is to contend with him for leadership in their relationship. This desire is a result of and a just punishment for sin, but it is not God's decretive will for the woman. Consequently, the man must actively seek to rule his wife. The reasons for preferring this interpretation are: ...


Stephen Enjaian's picture

Foh's and others' interpretation of "desire" introduces a meaning that must be read into the text and overcomplicates it. What if we read the last part of the verse not as part of the curse, but as the life setting in which the judgment would be experienced? That would make it consistent with the statements about the other individuals. For example, "dust you will eat" is not a curse on the snake. Snakes don't actually eat dust.Rather, it is the condition (crawling in the dust) in which the curse would be experienced.

Rather than editorialize as the ESV (and other versions such as the NLT), the NASV picks up on an appropriate meaning of the Hebrew conjunction connecting the two parts of 3:16. Pain in childbirth is the woman's judgment, "yet, your desire will be for your husband" (emphasis added). Read this way, the last part of the verse can be understood as a description of the marital relationship in spite of the judgment. Even with the pain of childbirth (even the risk of death), the woman will still desire to be with her husband. Her desire for the blessing of intimacy with her husband, including that associated with procreation, will continue in spite of the pain introduced into childbirth.

Such a reading rises from the grammar of the text, is simpler, is consistent with the reality of the actual dynamics of marital relations.And it sidesteps political wrangling introduced by interpretive grids imposed on the text.


Aaron Blumer's picture


I think I saw that view in Foh's analysis. It's quite thorough.

It's easy to characterize other views as imposing something on the text, but the truth is that nobody is coming to the text from a place of total objectivity.

I don't see much real difference between curse and negative life setting in which the judgment takes place. The nonliteralness of the serpent eating dust doesn't, in my view, diminish the negative implications of his crawling on the ground. Similarly, the difficulty-in-work handed down to Adam is not meant to be seen as a positive thing.

It's all curse. I can almost see a "simpler take on the grammar" argument, but it doesn't seem enough to overcome Foh's (and many others') simpler take on the context.

Stephen Enjaian's picture

You are right. We all have some measure of bias that we should hold loosely. I am simply making the observation that "desire shall be contrary to your husband" and "desire to rule over" have no evident basis in the text itself. As the Oxford scholar observed in The Atlantic ​article, “The Hebrew preposition ‘el means ‘toward’ and not ‘contrary to’—everyone agrees on that.” So, the new ESV rendering looks like a clear error. Compounding the error, there is no attempt to translate the connective conjunction that is in the text, omitting an important potential clue to the meaning. And the lack of contextual basis in Genesis 2 or 3 for the "desire to rule over" idea further reinforces my impression that it is being read into the text.

I don't think the negative implications in the judgments are the issue. Not surprisingly, the experience of all the judgments are generally negative. But do we really want to say everything that Yahweh spoke was all curse? It appears that each individual receives one punishment. The serpent will crawl. The man will no longer labor with ease. Satan will receive a death blow, but even that has a hopeful side for humanity. Why must it suddenly be different in what was spoken of the woman? She receives one punishment: pain in childbirth. Reading "desire" in its ordinary, natural sense suggests that even in the judgment against the woman, there is redemptive grace.

Of course, it's possible to be wrong, so I'll just say that I lean strongly in favor of this view. Genesis 3:16 is a challenging text. I prefer a translation that lets me read the text itself instead of making it more challenging by interpreting it for me.