An Alternative Interpretation of Woman’s “Desire” in Genesis 3:16

A skirmish has opened up in Evangelical blogosphere concerning what has been termed a New Wave of Complementarianism, to which Kevin DeYoung (Gospel Coalition) has deemed it necessary to give pre-emptive response. I am a complementarian; opposing evangelical egalitarianism because structurally, it lends to schism, acrimony, paralysis, disorder and chaos as I have experienced. There are egalitarians, whose character and/or commonality of perspective can overcome the endemic proclivities of an egalitarian regime towards disorder. Equal voice in decision-making lends itself to a battle of wills, war of attrition. Political arrangements throughout history can be cited that proffer evidence of this kind of acrimony and paralytic deadlock (i.e. dual-monarchy in Sparta, dual consulship in Roman Republic, pre-Confederation Upper/Lower Canada).

However, I have found myself much at odds with elements of The Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. And outside of John Piper’s careful handling of Scriptures and understanding in the opening chapter of “Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood”, I find most of the other perspectives demonstrating a superficial understanding and prejudicially masculine tilt.

Distinctions in masculine and feminine roles are ordained by God as part of the created order, and should find an echo in every human heart

Article 2 of the Danvers Statement pursues a superficial interpretative corruption of Biblical text. The term of role or roles appears a scant 9 times in all standard versions of Scriptures found on the web site and never in the context of male/female relations. In the Old Testament, especially in deconstructing The Wife of Noble Character (Proverbs 31); it is evident that the so-called males roles, supposedly cast in rigid iron by old line complementarians, were very often performed by women, perhaps to lesser degree; by this hypothetical wife, who the Bible deemed noble.

Rather than there being a complementarianism of roles between the genders, there is a complementarianism of natural proclivities, to which certain functions in marriage are better performed based on those natural proclivities of the respective genders.

Adam’s headship in marriage was established by God before the Fall, and was not a result of sin

Article 3 is simply goes beyond what is written and may even hermeneutically false. The verses cited to justify the assertion hardly lead to that conclusion. As part of Eve’s ‘punishment’ after the Fall, man would have dominion over woman. The scrupulous narrative logic implies that prior to that point; this paradigm was not in existence; in similar fashion as Adam’s scratching a living from a hostile ground differed from reaping what God had sown in the Garden of Eden. To accentuate the point; Naming the animals sent to Adam in Genesis 2 was demonstration of Adam’s authority over them. Eve was not named by Adam until after the Fall (Genesis 3:20).

But even if it were true that Adam was given headship before the Fall, it would have been a moot authority since Adam and Eve would be in general concordance with each other. Sin, amongst its many consequences, brings division and schism. The inherent pre-existing physiological superiority of strength in males (women as physically weaker vessels) would naturally lend to domination by the more powerful in a sinfully selfish and divisive cosmos.

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However, the purpose of this blog entry involves interpretation of another element of the post-Fall Edenic curse in reference to the woman.

Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. (Genesis 3:16b – NIV)

In my youth, I had understood this desire to mean desire to rule the roost; to control the husband. Perhaps, because of personal circumstances, this rendering, acquired from some unknown external source, held resonance in my heart. And Wendy Alsup (A (Somewhat) Scholarly Analysis of Genesis 3:16) fingers the modern source of this interpretation as emanating from Susan T. Foh in an article in the Westminster Theological Journal (1975).

However, when I revisited the Edenic Fall last year, an honest and scrupulous rendering of that verse persuaded me that such interpretation was going beyond what was written. There exists a psychological dynamic will females aim to rule the roost. Scriptures, Scriptural logic, rational logic and empirical reality clearly demonstrate that fact. However, this is not what this particular verse is declaring!

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28)

The desire to govern and control the earth was given to both male and female at the creation. And like Martin Luther (Estate of Marriage – 1522), I perceive this divine edict as more an ordinance than a command. That is, just as Luther suggests that sexual impulses are innately placed in humanity to impel him/her toward sexual desire; which no ascetic regime can repress without causing those impulses to re-emerge, often in more perverse and pathological directions; that divine edict to govern the earth is likewise an inherent impulse.

The inability for a male, in particular, to control his realm results in emasculation. And humanity’s material and psychic sense of safety and security impels it to control all elements of existence. Of course, that would lead to a boring and mundane monotony, if it were ever to be realized in the manner that humanity conceives it.

This divine edict was jointly given to male and female. Nothing in the Edenic curse and aftermath suggests that the desire of woman to control their environs and existence has been diminished. Nothing in history disputes this dynamic. One can cite recent events whereby women attempted to control their men through a sex embargo to advance sociopolitical causes; even as trivial as getting their men to lobby the government for a road to be built (Columbia – 2011) or fireworks to be stopped (Naples – 2008).

More than ever before, humanity does rule over the fish, birds and beasts. It is attributed to Pastor Conrad Mbewe (Spurgeon of Africa) to have said, “In Africa we no longer fear of beasts. We don’t run from beasts. We fear men and run from men.”

One of the natural consequences of sin is division into multiple opinions and interests. First Corinthians 1 and 3 speaks of such sectarian factionalism even in the Church. I would suggest that, whereas there was a unity of thought and motivation in the Garden between Adam and his wife, sin developed into disunity. And the universality of selfishness and arrogance in humanity invariably lends to the seeking of control of one faction over the other, of one interest over the other, including control of one’s spouse, regardless of gender.

But the relatively recent innovation of interpreting Genesis 3:16 as an urge to control, in order to confront the threat of feminism in the 1970s, is disingenuous and wrong-headed hermeneutics, which has leaked into corrupting some English translations of the Scriptures. “And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.” (New Living Translation – 2007) “You will want to control your husband, but he will dominate you.” (Net Bible -2006) But for the most part, the above NIV/AKJV translation represents most translations.

The Hebrew term for desire is teshuqah, which is used on two other occasions. It is referenced with regard to Cain “sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). Foh and others will claim that the etymological use of desire in reference to Cain; that of control and dominance; should govern its interpretation with the Edenic curses associated with the woman. However, desire is also used in a different context; “I belong to my beloved, and his desire is for me” (Song of Solomon 7:10). Only a man-o-sphere misogynist could possible stretch the interpretation in Songs to inference conquest and domination. It is therefore, disingenuous Jesuitry, to interpret the meaning by selective proof-texts that promote a singular understanding to fit one’s agenda.

Furthermore, the desire is for or to one’s husband. The Hebrew wə·’el is generally referenced in other locations of Scriptures as to or toward; and only rarely as against; never as over.

Wendy Alsup notes that Calvin conceived the passage as a woman’s desires being frustrated or circumscribed by the domineering wishes of the husband.

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.’ As it is declared afterwards, Unto thee shall be his desire, (Genesis 4:7.) Thus the woman, who had perversely exceeded her proper bounds, is forced back to her own position. She had, indeed, previously been subject to her husband, but that was a liberal and gentle subjection; now, however, she is cast into servitude.

        (Commentary on Genesis – Volume 1 –

Other interpretations include sexual desire, despite the resulting agony of childbearing. However, sexual desire was already innately ordained at Creation. How does this become something new? Another understanding suggests that the woman’s desire for the husband would be pathologically and morbidly clingy. One wonders whether those scholars’ understandings were skewered by a desire for autonomous escape in their own personal experience.

Wendy Alsup’s own perception is to suggest that the wife’s desire for the husband would become idolatrous; an extension of that morbid, pathological possessiveness.

The woman’s root problem is that, even though child birth is painful and the man rules her, she still has a morbid craving for him, looking to him in completely unhealthy ways that do not reflect her status as image bearer of God. The woman wants something from the man that he was never intended to provide her, that he even on his best day is not equipped to provide. He becomes her idol.

But if husband and wife are supposed to become one flesh, with the King James suggesting that husbands cleave to their wives (“Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” Genesis 2:24), how is this desire a bad thing, so long as that desire does not exceed the trust and love of God.

I will not totally disown this idea that spouses place their significant Other on pedestals that should be reserved for God alone. Adam’s sin involved deliberately casting his lot with his wife over his God. However, I am inclined to suggest that this supposedly pathological and morbid clinginess is, short of idolatry, neither sinful nor pathological. It is but a God-given and God-desired aspiration for husbands and wives from the Beginning, and one to which the Song of Solomon exalts. “My beloved is mine and I am his.” (Song of Solomon 2:16) A mutually jealous possessive love is that which is divinely sought between spouses. Jealousy only becomes problematic in the presence of distrust, particularly the unwarranted kind. That supposedly pathological and morbid clinginess might indicate the very problem that the woman now faces as consequence of the Edenic fall.

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I will acknowledge, up front, that my own experience partially guides my own understanding of the passage. Honest and scrupulous insight into the motions of my heart as well as the hearts of others cannot but humbly admit that our experience and social and cultural milieu insidiously slants our perspective. Pretensions to dispassionate objectivity by theological scholars ought to be rightly disparaged. However, I think that my understanding will stand up to Scriptural and empirical scrutiny.

The Hebrew teshuqah also speaks of longing as an alternative to desire. What if this normal longing desire will become now unsatisfied as consequence of the Fall; as the husband now, because of sin, turns away from the wife? Perhaps, Your desire will be for your husband might be better understood as You will long for your husband; although I am taking translation liberties here. But this would certainly fit with the common experience of women throughout history.

The notoriously reductionist Four Spiritual Laws notes that sin alienates and separates man from God. But sin also alienates and separates man from his neighbour, including his wife, in a very real sense.

Before the fall, “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame”. (Genesis 2:25) However, after the Fall, Adam and Eve hide their nakedness, their exposure, their vulnerability. From whom? Was it only from God or also from each Other? Becoming aware that the Other was capable of sinning that causes injury, are their own exposed vulnerabilities not now potentially subject to being violated by the Other? Thus they and we cloak ourselves (Genesis 3:7), hide behind masks, to self-protect from the evil, the scorn or exploitation of the other. And woe to the gullible and green naïf who readily exposes their nakedness to the sight of others to which he/she has no reason to trust. Amanda Michelle Todd comes to mind.

Sin breeds distrust. Distrust breeds distance and alienation for self-protection.

A woman’s moralist propensity toward stab-the-corpse chastisement of her husband’s failings will push him away. Or in retaining desires, fantasies, fears and anxieties, that the husband feels would cause undue alarm, opprobrium or scorn in his spouse, the husband hereby closes himself off in varying degrees to total vulnerable intimacy. Or the material demands of the high-maintenance Princess might even physically draw a husband away in order to satisfy. There are countless means by which sin not only divides, it psychologically distances.

One of a male’s propensities is to make his mark (legacy) in the world; to accomplish; going on extraordinary tangents in order to succeed. The usual response is for the female in conjugal relationship to seek to pull the husband back down from such tangents. Another male proclivity is to break free from all external obligations and duties. Instead of perceiving self-actualization through a uniquely personalizing fulfillment of one’s obligations, the male often seeks his self-actualization apart from responsibility.

Thus, what if the correct reading of the curse on the woman is that henceforth after the Fall, she and her descendents would experience unsatisfied longing that was not present in the Garden of constant companionship? This interpretation seems to resonate more faithfully with the actual passage and with historical reality.

© Copyright John Hutchinson

5 thoughts on “An Alternative Interpretation of Woman’s “Desire” in Genesis 3:16”

  1. “after the Fall, [the woman] and her descendents would experience unsatisfied longing that was not present in the Garden of constant companionship”

    I agree wholeheartedly that this is the correct reading.
    And I like the way you reasoned and explained gave examples to support your view.

    I would like to take it one step further.

    The curse-pronouncement in verse 16b has two parts:
    (a) your desire will be for (or to) your husband
    (b) and he will rule over you

    Many interpreters seem to scrabble around trying to find a negative meaning for the woman’s desire, because, since it is a curse, it cannot have a positive meaning. They assume that because it’s a curse, it cannot mean ‘You will desire your husband with unfeigned affectionate love and loyal devotion.”

    But we don’t have to discover and nail down the negative quality of this curse in the woman’s desire clause alone. We can read the two clauses together and find the negative portent, the curse-aspect, in them as a whole. Here is my proposal:

    The woman’s desire will be for and towards her husband, she will long for his protection, his love, his comforting affection, his loyal devotion, his affirmation of her beauty and worth, and his forgiveness when she errs or sins — Eve was feeling terribly guilty and ashamed for just having messed up big time! — but her desire will be unmet and she will suffer unrequited longing because her husband will rule over her. Whether his rule be be domineering and contemptuous, or simply emotionally or physically distant or cold, he will not love and cherish the way she longs for.

    Of course, there are many variations: sometimes the female’s desire become toxic, grasping, jealous, materialistic and controlling. Sometimes the male’s rule is not harsh in an overt sense but he indulges his own enjoyments at the neglect of loving his wife — a rule or pattern of life chosen by the male which the female who longs for love finds difficult to live with.

    I have studied this passage long and hard for years. Like you, I find Foh’s interpretation unconvincing. I also find it incredibly harsh towards women. It appears to me that the complementarians grabbed Foh’s idea without really weighing and testing it, they delighted in it and promoted it so widely that it has become the ‘traditional view’ — a tradition that is only 40 years old!

    I like the way you acknowledge that our personal experience partially guides your understanding of the passage. I wish that the ‘traditional’ complementarians would be equally honest about how much their personal experience — in this case, I suggest it was their antipathy to feminism — has partially guided their ready adoption of Foh’s proposal.

    I am not a historian of hermeneutics or doctrine, but I would imagine that rarely in the history of doctrinal development there has been such a rapid and virtually unanimous adoption of a one person’s interpretation of a particular bible text. To my mind, something is very fishy when one person proposes a new idea and it is so readily taken up and gains hegemony. Personally, I suspect they took it up and ran with it because it suited their predetermined framework and agenda, and gave them an ace up their sleeve by which they could always cut down any woman whom they wished to silence. Susan Foh was a woman whose idea they embraced (because it suited them) but any woman who proposes an idea they don’t like can be dismissed and trip-wired into the nettles by subtly implying that she is ‘trying to usurp authority and dominate over man.’

    I speak as a more-or-less complementarian woman who feels much dismissed by the core leaders of complementarianism. And of course, in saying that, I disclose too much and expose my underbelly, for in the traditional complementarian’s framework, any woman who complains at being marginalized and ignored can be denigrated and dismissed for making her complaint. She’s just an insubmissive woman. Catch 22.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. Actually Darwinism and Social Darwinism was taken up by the upper crust even faster than this Foh idea. There had been a longing since the late 18th Century for a breakthrough which Darwin appeared to have given to them.

      I have heard many women complain of this neglecting in the churches. But this also might be part of a drift toward hierarchical governance of churches in general, which I disapprove of and I think is reflection of the decline of the spiritual vitality and health of Evangelical churches. It might not be a woman thing.

      I have made comments in later entries on the second half of that ‘curse’ upon Eve. Although not by any long shot, ungenerous, I am not inclined to speak anything but what I understand, regardless of opinion.

      I actually think that almost of the Edenic curses are natural consequences of sin, rather than ‘positivist’ punishments by God. Although not included here, I see Adam/Eve as getting what they desired. They wanted to use their own subjective faculties to decide what is true and good, rather than depend on God’s say so (reason v faith is a simplistic way of putting it). The Tree represented wisdom to be able to use their own wits. As punishment, God allowed them to draw their own bread (both physically and intellectually, psychologically and spiritual) in Adam’s curse. History is the record of the satisfaction of that desire. It is not that the desire to use one’s own wits was wrong; but in trying to acquire that ability apart from God.

  2. the right brain is femanine and the the desire to control is right brain. satan inters through the female .

  3. Excellent. Thank you for not going beyond what is written and therefore you honor God’s Word.

    For your consideration:

    These are the best, most accurate translations:

    Genesis 4:7 – “Will you not, if you do the right thing, be uplifted? And if you don’t do the right thing, there at the entryway lies (a male goat), a sin offering. He is turning towards you, so rule over him.”

    Genesis 3:16 – “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pain in pregnancy. In painful toil you will bear children but your turning will be towards your husband (like a sheep turns toward its shepherd); therefore he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16)

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