A (Somewhat) Scholarly Analysis of Genesis 3:16

After last week’s book review of God’s Design, I decided to research the issue of various interpretations of the curse for women in Genesis 3:16 since it seems foundational to conservative approaches on women’s issues in Scripture over the last 20 years or so. Here is what I found in my research.

Most important in my view, the interpretation of Gen. 3:16 by some complementarians that the woman will desire against her husband to dominate him is a very recent development in church history. I am certainly open to correction on this, but as best as I can tell, Susan Foh in 1975 was the first to formalize the idea in the Westminster Theological Journal in a response to, you guessed it, 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. A proper understanding of Genesis 3:16 is crucial to this reconsideration of the Biblical view of the woman.” Susan Foh, The Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1974/75) 376-83

According to Foh, none of the historical views of Genesis 3:16 at the time of her writing involved interpreting the desire of the woman as a desire to control or dominate her husband. Matthew Henry coasts over the phrase in his commentary with no mention of “desire” at all. John Calvin says this part of the curse is simply subjection, that all of the woman’s desires will be subject to her husband who rules over her.

“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.” http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom01.ix.i.html

The same Hebrew word for desire is used two other times in the Old Testament.

Genesis 4:7 … And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Song of Solomon 7:10  “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.

Some have interpreted the Hebrew word for desire to mean sexual desire. It may include that, but it’s use in Genesis 4:7 seems to contradict that. Foh interprets it as a desire to contend with her husband for leadership in their relationship. I believe it means an idolatrous longing for something from the man that she was created to receive from God alone. My view was prevalent at the time Foh put forth hers, which she acknowledges in her work.

“the desire that makes her the willing slave of man.” 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 (hqvwt from qvw to run, to have a violent craving for a thing) . . .”

Conservative translations read the Hebrew similarly. Only the KJV seems to continue along John Calvin’s vein, that the actual desires of the woman will be subservient to her husband.

Amplified Bible – Yet your desire and craving will be for your husband,

ESV – Your desire shall be for your husband,

NASB – Yet your desire will be for your husband,

KJV – thy desire shall be to thy husband,

Genesis 4:7 reflects the wording of Genesis 3:16 more closely than SoS 7:10. Gen. 3:16 and 4:7 use a different Hebrew word for the preposition “for” than SoS 7:10. In defending her new view, Foh primarily uses Genesis 4:7 to come to her conclusions about Genesis 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.”

Therefore, according to Foh, it follows that the woman wants to enslave her husband, to possess or control him, but he must rule over her.

There are several problems with her analysis of Genesis 4:7. Primarily there is an issue of gender – the suffix of desire in 4:7 is masculine, but the word for sin is feminine. Because of the discrepancy in gender, does desire in Gen. 4:7 even reflect on sin? According to Foh, John Calvin had a different view of Genesis 4:7, that the desire wasn’t sin’s but Abel’s.

“Calvin (p. 203-4) explains the desire of Abel for Cain as that of an inferior for the superior, in this case the first born Cain. “Moreover, this form of speech is common [?] among the Hebrews, that the desire of the inferior should be towards him to whose will he is subject; thus Moses speaks of the woman (iii.16) that her desire should be to her husband.”

Also, as I noted when I first started studying this 2 years ago, Genesis 4:7 is a personification of something that doesn’t actually have desires.  Sin is not a person or entity with feelings or emotions. Genesis 4:7 is figurative while 3:16 is literal.

“Hermeneutically, one should proceed from the literal usage to the figurative usage if one’s exegesis is to have validity.” http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/Ted_Hildebrandt/OTeSources/01-Genesis/Text/Articles-Books/Busenitz-Gen3-GTJ.htm

The problems with Gen. 4:7 make using it to translate Gen. 3:16 a weird choice. You don’t use the figurative to interpret the literal, and you don’t use the obscure to interpret the clear. Correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding of hermeneutics is you always use the clear to interpret the obscure. In light of that, though the wording of SoS 7:10 is a little different than the other two, the meaning of the Hebrew for desire is clear there.

If you use the clear meaning of SoS 7:10 to give clarity to the obscure ones in Genesis, it makes sense. As Strong’s simply defines the Hebrew for desire, it just means desire, longing, or craving. This would fit Genesis 4:7 (if you ignore the gender differences and assume sin is the antecedent). Foh projects onto 4:7 the idea of domination or control, but the verse doesn’t actually say that sin wants to dominate Cain any more than Genesis 3:16 says it about women.  Domination and control are neither explicitly stated or subtly implied in either text.  Sin just wants Cain, according to this verse, in a big way.  And Cain needs to master it.

Some argue that the word for in Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 could be translated against. However, no Bible translation anywhere (that I could find) says her desire is against her husband.  They all say her desire is for her husband.  Apparently, no translation team thought against was the best meaning of that term.  It doesn’t make sense to say desire against.  The problem with our desires is always that they are either FOR the wrong thing or FOR the right thing but out of proportion to what is appropriate.

The Septuagint uses a word that could mean turning away for Gen. 3:16 and 4:7. However, as this article points out, that doesn’t fit Genesis 4:7, which makes no sense if sin is turning away from Cain. In noun form, the difference in the meanings turning away and turning toward in the Greek (the Septuagint is an early Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament) become virtually nonexistent. All that to say, the arguments that the prepositions of Gen. 3:16 and 4:7 mean a desire against to dominate are unconvincing linguistically.

In Conclusion

According to Foh herself, her presentation in 1975 that first introduced the currently accepted complementarian interpretation of Genesis 3:16’s “your desire will be for your husband” as a “desire against your husband to dominate him” is a RE-examination and RE-consideration of the Biblical view of women. I am Reformed and generally hang with Reformed conservatives. It strikes me as odd that such a new view keeps popping up in modern writing among those who are known for loving their church fathers and church history.

Also according to Foh, she presented her new view of Genesis 3:16 as a response to feminism. It’s important to note that the term feminism does not represent a monolithic movement. Carolyn McCulley has some helpful information of the various waves of feminism in her book, Radical Womanhood. If you examine the history of feminism, Foh wasn’t reacting against the broad, general idea of feminism though she uses the broad term. Frankly, I’m grateful for the 1st wave of feminism in particular, and you should be too, for it helped women get the right to vote, the right to inherit land, the ability to go to college, property rights, and so forth. It was God’s common grace at work. In her article, Foh was reacting specifically to the 2nd wave of feminism (the 3rd wave of feminism is thought to have begun in the 90’s, so it wasn’t an issue yet). So 3 millennia after Genesis 3:16 was written, there appears on the blip of human history a movement for women’s rights in the 1960’s that seems to justify a new interpretation of the curse. Really, folks, changing our interpretation of Scripture for a reason that surfaced in the last 0.08% of human history should trouble conservative theologians.

What if we read Genesis 3:16 in the straightforward way translators write it—her desire (strong craving/longing) will be for her husband—a way that was among the common views of it, according to Foh, before she put out her new view in reaction to the 2nd wave of feminism?

Clarence J. Vos would not exclude from it the woman’s desire for the man’s protection.5 Keil and Delitzsch see “desire” as a morbid yearning . . .”

A straightforward reading such as Vos’, Keil’s, and Delitzsch’s, requires no theological backflips. 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.

2nd and 3rd wave feminism aren’t the problem on gender. They are at worst ineffective, Christless coping mechanisms that involve a different sin to address an old one. But I also know Christian feminists who have no desire to take over control of their church or home. They just want to contribute to social justice issues—ending female mutilation and sexual slavery, securing voting rights, and so forth—in 3rd world nations. Whatever form it takes in various cultures among various women, it is a mistake to set up feminism as a monolithic system of thought and then combat it as the source of all ills on gender issues.

No, feminism isn’t the ultimate problem. The problem didn’t start as women wanting control over the men in their lives. Women set up men as idols and looked to them to provide emotionally, spiritually, physically what only God can provide. Apart from Christ, men oppressed them in return, hence the modern coping mechanisms of independence, self-sufficiency, and control (often ineffective) for dealing with that oppression. The curse read at face value reflects the real issue, and the gospel is the clear answer. The gospel gives the woman sufficiency in Him that allows her to stay engaged as a helper after God’s own example. And when a man oppresses her to the point of abusing her or her children, that same gospel equips her to stand strong and remove herself and her children, for she is no longer so needy of the man that she has to subject her children to his sin. No, God, not her husband, is her Savior.

This older interpretation of Genesis 3:16 which I embrace certainly does not undermine a complementarian understanding of Scripture. It does give clarity on why authoritarian views that mask themselves as complementarian are so prevalent. That’s the curse playing out. But views (that are correct in my opinion) on husbands as heads of homes, wives helping their husbands, and male eldership in churches will be well served by putting off Foh’s new interpretation. Authoritarian pastors unchecked by their peers and accountability structures who hold to Foh’s views have contributed to feminism in the church as much as anything.  Holding on to Foh’s views on Genesis 3:16 sets a tone of suspicion of women when we talk about gender issues in the church, and that tone is not helpful.

Finally, note that even as God handed down the curse in Genesis 3, He alludes to the breaking of that same curse.

Genesis 3 NASB 15 And I will put enmity Between 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.”

The curse for all of us is reality, but it is the very reality that Christ came to redeem. His kingdom is at hand, and we will see it in fullness and perfection one day soon.  Oh, I look forward to that day.


Grace Theological Journal article from 1986.

Westminster Theological Journal article by Susan Foh.

Edited August 2017 to reflect where I’ve landed after further research.  Quote from Is the Bible Good for Women?  Seeking Clarity and Confidence through a Jesus-centered Understanding of Scripture:

In the 1970s, some first suggested that this desire referred to a woman’s longing to dominate her husband. Although that use of the word might fit Genesis 4:7, it does not fit Song of Solomon 7:10. The standard definition of this word in Hebrew lexicons and concordances is “longing” or “craving,” which, again, fits all three of the instances in the Old Testament. Viewed in this light, the phrase in Genesis 3:16 reflects a desire for the man that now results in frustration and even abuse. Just as the man was created to work the ground but is now frustrated in his attempts, the woman was created to help the man but is frustrated in her attempts. How do both men and women respond apart from Christ to such frustration? For women, this desire can turn into an inappropriate craving bordering on idolatry for something from the man that only God can now provide her. The issue may be best understood by making the simple substitution of God for her husband. Her desire must be for her God. She should turn toward Him in her need. Instead, her longings are frustrated as she turns toward one who cannot satisfy the needs of her soul that resulted from the fall of man.

Alsup, Wendy. Is the Bible Good for Women?: Seeking Clarity and Confidence Through a Jesus-Centered Understanding of Scripture (pp. 65-66).

46 Responses to A (Somewhat) Scholarly Analysis of Genesis 3:16

  1. Anonymous April 14, 2012 at 4:43 am #

    Later, when God throws Adam out of the Garden (Gen 3:23-24), Eve’s expulsion is not mentioned. Egals claim Eve was not required to leave (because she was deceived), but she chose to join Adam over God’s; an indication God’s prophecy is already being fulfilled. She is turning toward Adam and away from God.(http://godswordtowomen.org/desire.htm)


  2. Anna April 14, 2012 at 12:44 pm #

    Thank you, Wendy, for putting the time in to investigate this issue. I appreciate you going back to the text! You've spurred me on to look at these things more closely. And I was very happy to read the hope in your last few sentences. Gender issues are such a flash-point in western Christianity that it's easy to lose our heads. The rock solid truth is that Jesus made a way not only for us to be reconciled with God, but with each other. As we behold him we're being changed – freed! – to shed more and more of our sinful, suspicious, undermining nature and live in unity with the rest of God's children – whatever gender.

  3. Victoria April 14, 2012 at 8:44 pm #

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Marg April 14, 2012 at 10:40 pm #

    This is such an excellent post. Your work is a blessing to me, and I hope to many others also.

  5. Becky April 15, 2012 at 2:46 am #

    Always love reading your thoughts on this topic. I've been reading Slaves, Women & Homosexuality by William Webb which has also been helpful as I study this issue.

  6. Anonymous April 15, 2012 at 3:38 am #

    Oh Wendy –

    May the good Lord bless you and keep you and make His face to shine upon you!

    Thank you so very much. Please keep writing and teaching. This is a very important subject that touches the lives and self image of women. When a woman understands that she is to turn to God instead of her husband, that can free her to grow and mature and become all that she was created to be.

    I'm pretty sure we all still want the book, though. You didn't think this post would get you off the hook for that, did you?


  7. Wendy April 15, 2012 at 4:03 am #

    Dana, thank you for that encouragement. The book is #1 on my TO DO list during Spring Break this week (yes we have it quite late here in Seattle). 🙂

  8. Jessica April 15, 2012 at 9:52 pm #

    Thank you for this article, Wendy! I am always skeptical of newer interpretations of verses! C.S. Lewis writes that we need “the soft sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” so that we avoid the blind spots of our day and age.

  9. Marg April 16, 2012 at 1:36 am #

    The New Living Translation (2007) of Genesis 3:16b is “And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.”

    I have major problems with the gender bias in the NLT, which is, in most other regards, an excellent paraphrase.


  10. Wendy April 16, 2012 at 1:46 am #

    Wow. I never knew it said that. Very interesting. Makes me wonder about the NLT in a way I hadn't before.

  11. Rachael Starke April 17, 2012 at 3:46 am #


    If ever you were to write another book, I hope it's on this. This is not some kind of brand new (and thus suspect) argument. In fact, your research indicates that perhaps the reverse might be the case – that the “women want to control men, and thus must be controlled” approach is “newer”, and thus suspect.

    I move in circles where the IFB/FIC/VisionForum influences are strong and loud, and the consequences have been hard. It's such a wretched irony that the extremes of this movement (exhibit A – Debi Pearl and the Created to Be His Helpmeet crowd) model the very kind of idolatry you describe. Closer to home, what you describe has been at the heart of some recent, very large struggle in my own marriage. It's at least helped me focus on the root cause, and now an incredibly wonderful pastor is helping us work to the solution – helping me be willing to look to Jesus for what I've desperately craved from “ordinary” men, and God in His sovereignty has kept me from having, even when it's legitimate.

    Long way of saying – write more and write often about this, Wendy. It's that important.

  12. Wendy April 17, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    Thanks, Rachael. Your encouragement is helpful. 🙂

  13. Pia April 18, 2012 at 4:28 am #

    Thank you Wendy for your academic work. With careful reading I was able to follow your line of reasoning. Moving from the academic to the practical, I do struggle the most in my marriage when I look to my husband to be meet needs that only Jesus can.

  14. Anonymous April 18, 2012 at 9:45 pm #

    Thank you Wendy! I feel like dancing! No longer will I feel guilty for having a different opinion to my husband – I'm not trying to control him after all. Just using my mind and being who God created me to be. And I can now see more clearly where I do need God's transforming power to free me from desiring my husband to meet needs only God can. Thank you – and please write the book.

  15. Karen April 19, 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    Thank you for this helpful post. It's a subtle problem that feeds into the whole idea of our purpose as female Christians. The idea that our husbands are some kind of substitute for us directly relating to Christ is very pervasive in conservative churches (at least in my experience). I'm struggling mightily in my marriage to an unfaithful husband and remembering that my standing with Christ has nothing to do with my husband's choices has been very encouraging to me and is helping me to reconcile with him.

  16. Chris April 19, 2012 at 7:00 pm #

    Wendy, While I have no doubt that you are correct in your exegesis of the word for “desire,” I'm a little more foggy on your interpretation of it as a tendency toward idolatry. From a theological standpoint, it seems suspect to me to imagine God cursing woman with a temptation to sin. He is not the source of temptation, of course.

    It seems more likely to me that the curse is the intensified pain of childbirth, but despite it, Eve still wants Adam (as Solomon wants his bride). That's not a sin, it's just a tough spot to be in (similar to Adam's curse of the resistance of nature to his work).

    I do want you to know that your explanation of the temptation to look to your husband as the ultimate “need-meeter,” seconded by so many of the commenters all across your blog, has really helped me understand the women in my life much better, including my own wife. You cleared up something that has baffled me throughout my 30-year marriage and my 30-year ministry. It came home to me when I read a comment that referred to it as “the gravitational pull of my husband.” I've seen that gravitational pull in action, and wondered what it was. I don't know if it truly is a result of the Curse, but it sure sounds as if it's a near-universal phenomenon.

    Because you all have courageously exposed this to me, I have immediately and spontaneously felt a greater sympathy and gentleness for my wife. I have found myself re-interpreted women's “control issues” (I didn't blame it on Gen 3.16, but I “saw” it often nevertheless) as not being a desire for control at all — it's opened my mind to other explanations and motivations. Bottom line, it has been liberating to me, as is always the case with the truth. It's been edifying to my marriage and other friendships. So I thank you very deeply and sincerely for your efforts!

  17. JosieJo April 19, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

    This is so interesting and I completely agree with what you've said Wendy, I've always thought a face-value reading is more like “You'll have pain in childbirth, but despite this you'll continue to desire your husband and he will rule over you”, but I haven't seen anyone else put it that way before. Only other thing I hoped you'd address – in Genesis, it's not a stretch to read Eve's sin as seeking dominion over her husband by encouraging him to eat the apple against God's command, do you think this lends any weight to the 'seeking dominion over her husband' reading?

  18. Wendy April 20, 2012 at 12:27 am #

    Thank you, Chris! That encourages me.

    Also, I think you raise a good point about God not cursing the woman to sin. The verse only directly attributes the first part, pain in childbirth, to God. The other two read more as observations — more descriptions of the fallen world for women than a declaration by God of how He's going to make their lives. That is an important distinction. Thanks for bringing it up.

  19. Wendy April 20, 2012 at 12:31 am #

    I don't think so personally, JosieJo. I think Eve's sin is first and foremost not believing God's instructions.

  20. kathryn April 20, 2012 at 7:04 pm #

    This is a great article.. so thought provoking and very well written. Thank you Wendy for loving to see women study theology and for helping us do so. Also – I really like the new look of the blog!

  21. Wendy April 20, 2012 at 9:50 pm #

    Thank you, Kathryn. And I too am thankful for the new look of the blog, a gift from a reader with great talent.

  22. Luma Simms April 21, 2012 at 12:48 am #

    Hey Wendy,

    I'm just getting around to finishing up reading this today. Well done! Very well done!

    The more theologically settled I become and the more I see Genesis 3:16 this way, the more stable of a wife I become for my husband. This is because Jesus has become my hope, Jesus is my provider, Jesus is my advocate, Jesus is my sanctifier. It has also helped me understand my daughters better, thus guiding them with greater wisdom.

    (In certain theological circles listed above by one of the readers, Ephesians 5:26 in particular is applied to the men as they are encouraged to “sanctify” their wives. The men are taught that they are responsible for the sanctification of the wife and that it's part of their duty and role as “the head” to “sanctify their wives.”)

    Work hard on that book, Wendy. I know the Lord will use it to grow his daughters further into the image of Christ! 🙂

    I like the new look of the blog also!!! 🙂

  23. Anonymous April 21, 2012 at 7:34 am #


    There are sources, historical, artistic, and scientific, that apart from the church and it's theologians have had much to say on the topics emanating and inferred in Genesis 3:16. Obviously these sources don't warrant the same epistemological validity that scripture does, but they sure an make you wonder what they were looking at that influenced their observations.

    Let me suggest one that you might want to look at for it's complex ontological take on the nature of males and females of many species, of men and women specifically, and the dynamics and delemnas that predictably follow.

    Look up Rudyard Kipling on poetryloverspage.com, and check out his 1911 poem “The Female of the Species.”

  24. Wendy April 21, 2012 at 7:42 am #

    I looked it up. Like you said, “these sources don't warrant the same epistemological validity that Scripture does.”

    Who knows what woman hurt Rudyard Kipling, what exactly she did, or what her motivations were. Nevertheless, I find it interesting to contemplate.

  25. Anonymous April 24, 2012 at 7:54 am #

    Thanks Wendy for this post. It is so helpfull and informative. I thank God for the abilities He's given you and your generosity in sharing with other women. I needed to know the other side of this argument and don't have knowledge to research it myself. Although I'd buy and read any book you wrote on this subject, this post is sufficient for me now.

  26. Prasti April 25, 2012 at 1:03 am #

    thank you for this. i actually have only heard and understood genesis 3:16 as a woman's desire to have leadership/headship over the man/husband. after reading your post and re-reading the verse again, your analysis makes so much more sense than the way i had understood the verse before. thank you for your godly wisdom, and really appreciate that you are sharing your thoughts on this blog.

  27. Wendy April 25, 2012 at 1:08 am #

    Thanks for commenting, Prasti!

  28. Anonymous April 26, 2012 at 6:30 am #


    I find it very, very curious that you would think there was anything at all in what Kipling said that suggested “singularity” (his own personal experience as the prime inspiration) rather than his commentary as a “generalizable construct” primarily independent of his own experience. His would seem to be an ontological treatise in verse, saying much about man as well as woman.

    Note carefully if you will the broad gender dimensioning across time, the animal kingdom, the domain of different nations, religious efforts, that fuels his brush stroke. I find him interesting because as one with a psycho/social/political background and interest, as well as Christian and spiritual, there are many other “scientific” and “artistic” sources that support his spiked humor.

    Your choice to individuate his commentary might say more about your, can I call it (without offending you) your presuppositional bias than it does a “fair, clear reading” of Kipling.

  29. Nick W May 1, 2012 at 8:18 pm #

    Wendy, thanks for an interesting post – it has certainly given me pause for thought as to whether I was right to read this as competing for control.

    If I'm honest, I rather felt that your case for women going as far as idolising their husbands (i.e. replacing Christ with their husbands) in the face of their abusive ruling is in danger of being as stretched. Not least from scant biblical data – think more work is needed for you to really prove that point. Not least in that normal loving desire of a wife for husband or visa versa does not seem especially bad back in Genesis 2 but now you're saying its pushed to idolatry.

    Only other concern I have before I sign up strongly to what you're saying here is that it seems to me that in the three judgments, each is followed by a note of conflict. So there will be enmity between the woman's offspring and the serpent's; man will toil for food from an earth that doesn't seem to want to produce it (if you'll forgive the personification) instead of working in harmony with the earth as was man's mandate. If these two are right then it doesn't seem unnatural to read the desire and ruling to be conflicts.

    I take your point as read that this is a new idea (I haven't done the research properly, just skimmed the internet on this) but would note that this should rightly have very limited strength as an argument given that your position seems to be at odds with other historical positions (such as Calvin's as espoused in the KJV). The whole basis of the reformation cry of “sola scriptura” is that arguments stand or fall on scripture alone, if we think our historical forebears are wrong, then we should say so!

    Not sure it's as crystal clear as we might hope but I may be wrong, of course. Anyway, thank you again for a thought-provoking piece. If nothing else it has helpfully highlighted to me how dangerous idolisation of husbands can be!

  30. moderator May 4, 2012 at 7:46 pm #

    I simply don't understand why the idea of women idolizing men/husbands would appear unrealistic when it happens all the time. It's a very natural propensity due to Genesis 3:16, and it's also nurtured by society.

    Some people want a Biblical illustration, and that's reasonable.

    Many would agree that women desire to be loved, while men desire to be respected. Jacob married sisters Leah and Rachel. Although he treated Leah kindly, he never loved her. Leah desired Jacob's love more than anything. Leah's desire was to be joined/connected/bonded with Jacob in love. Leah was in sexual relationship with Jacob, but that simply wasn't enough. She wanted a connection with Jacob that went beyond just sexual relationship and kindness. This desire that many women have for their husbands often leads to idolatry and obsession, when this desires becomes more important to them than their desire for God. I've seen it a hundred times from women in my life and community. Took me a while to grasp what I was witnessing. Leah always struggled with this. She praised God when her son Judah was born. However, she always longed for that connection to her husband, which she never got.

    Long story short, I believe Leah represents many wives. They desire to be loved by their husbands and bonded to them. Because of Genesis 3:16 and the fall of mankind, many wives will never ever know that love and connection with their husbands, although they so desire it. That longing/desire will lead many women to idolatry and obsession. I think if we are honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that we have known or heard of modern day women with this mentality.

    Men desire to rule and control women. Women desire to be loved/connected/bonded to their men.

    However, I think David best illustrates the type of desire that men and women should have and did have prior to Genesis 3:16.

    Whom have I in heaven but you? I desire you more than anything on earth. PS 73:25

  31. Bridget May 11, 2012 at 2:33 pm #

    Moderator –

    I see your point. That concept can also lead to abuse by men, women continuing to stay in abusive relationships because they continue to desire the man, fear of the man, and not valuing self as God values us. The desire for the man's love also results in divorce as a woman looks to have the desire filled by a different man . . . instead of by God.

    Thanks Wendy.

  32. Anonymous May 12, 2012 at 6:26 am #

    I’m in a men’s Discipleship class recently at a very “complementarian” and conservative church. We’re studying the man in a marriage relationship. We break up into small discussion groups of about 7 guys, all Christian, all married, ranging in age from 20+ to 60 (good sampling). All these guys believe they have “Godly” wives. During the review we read and discuss Eph. 5:26 and everything seems fine until … Here’s a commentary:
    These two aspects of sanctification are important to understand because when one reads the evangelical commentaries on Ephesians 5:26, some authorities interpret “might sanctify her” as a past, completed event (synonymous with positional sanctification). Other authorities interpret this passage as Christ's progressive (ongoing) sanctification and cleansing …
    The present work of sanctification (Ed note: “Progressive Sanctification” as discussed above) described in Ephesians 5:26 will culminate in a future work revealed in Ephesians 5:27 where it is said that Christ has the goal:
    “that he might present the church to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish.”
    Then the moment of truth dawned on someone and he said, “Hey, if the man’s role is to sanctify her, then that must mean that she needs to change and he is that change agent—she isn’t right in some serious and significant way. Maybe even dirty, contaminated, twisted, or something, and she needs something he is supposed to give her. According to this the man has no option even if she fights him. He’s got to deeply examine and analyze her and figure out what is wrong with her and work to improve it.” … SHORT AND EXTREMELY TENSE MONENT LATER. Hesitantly, haltingly and very nervously this discussion followed, “If something is clean already, you don’t wash it again.” “If something isn’t broken, you don’t go fix it.” “If a car is running right, you don’t monkey with it.” Etc., Etc., Etc.
    The pressure was building to an uncomfortable breaking point … Why? RAW NAKED FEAR. NO ONE WANTED TO OBEY GOD.
    About then the pastor asked for any questions, comments, and was going to close in prayer. Once again a voice from the table said, “Someone bring this up with the pastor and ask him about it right now.” More nervous laughter. No one moved, no one talked, no one dared say anything because they knew the pastor and what would happen … the pastor would have gone apoplectic. This is a pastor big time into the authority of God and doing His will—no matter what. But in real life we know he’s whipped. He’s strong on preaching the word straight up and making direct application, in every area except one. Survival Rule #1 is to mollify and placate his wife and never on pain of death suggest she should be anything other than reinforced, rewarded, validated and all that—just the way she is. He knows how bad things would be if he did anything else and how very capably she can AND WILL MAKE HIM SUFFER.
    I guess all the rest of us “supposedly” God seeking men, with “supposedly” Godly wives are just as much a pathetic compromising joke as the pastor is. When push comes to shove, not one man was planning to go home and in even the smallest, kindest, gentlest voice tell his wife what was discussed and suggest that they look into it and study it before trying it. All 7 of us opted for a survival strategy.
    Now we didn’t discuss Geneses 3:16 but I guarantee, our life experiences caused us to vote an interpretation. Guess which one.

  33. Wendy May 12, 2012 at 3:38 pm #

    Rest, anonymous male friend. It's not your job to “sanctify” your wife. It's Christ. The operative word in Ephesians 5 analogy of husbands and wives as Christ and the church is “AS.” It's a simile. You are to be like Christ, specifically in your love for your wife AS Christ loves the Church. Then the purpose of Christ's love for the church is explained–that He (Christ) might sanctify her and present her spotless. His job for His Church (which includes your wife), not yours.

    That is not to say that you shouldn't all go home and sacrificially, lovingly point your wives to things they should seek to conform to Christ. Just last night, my husband and I had such a conversation. Faithful are the wounds of a friend, and my husband is my best friend. He can confront me and I can receive it because I know he loves me sacrificially as Christ loves the Church. But it's not my husband's job to sanctify me. It's Christ, who sometimes uses my husband and much more often uses my kids to root out my sin and unbelief and replace it with ways that reflect Him.

  34. Victoria May 12, 2012 at 3:57 pm #

    Thank you so much for clarifying what anonymous had to say-I cringed when I read his comment as I imagined the untold abuse that would result from such a diabolical view.

  35. Natalie Thomas July 12, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

    Wow… I realize I am late to the party, but I'm so glad you posted this. I noticed the link in the post on defining complementarian theology. I am not a scholar, and I'm just now learning how to study Scripture for myself. But just from a counseling perspective, I would think that this interpretation actually makes more sense. And it also would make the texts in the NT on submission to husbands a little more understandable.

    We tend to want to control, manage, and exercise authority over what we worship–our emotions are the give away, whether you're a man or a woman. (David Powlison's x-ray questions have been instrumental in showing how to identify a functional savior.) I've also heard John Henderson of ABC say that, “We worship what we fear and we fear what we worship.” I believe when a woman chafes against the idea of submission, it's often out of fear that she won't get what she wants or believes she “needs” from a man–whether married or single. Men are viewed as functional saviors, rather than looking to Christ in the Gospel, who is meant to be our only hope. Hence going to all those coping mechanisms. For me personally, when I look on Christ and remember that He is the strength of my heart and my portion forever, I know I can let my husband off the hook, so to speak. That has enabled me to submit and to serve him, not expecting anything in return. I can do what is good without giving way to any fear. See 1 Peter 3:6. When my eyes are off Jesus and I cave to my strong “desire” for him, looking to him to meet my needs… I fail. I think I see this with women I serve, too. Am I off?

    I think you're on to something, Wendy! And I think if your interpretation is correct, it would bring about more freedom for women and obedience to the Gospel implication of submission… not less!

  36. Tamie August 14, 2012 at 4:11 am #

    Hi Wendy

    I've been reflecting on this recently so I've returned to your post.

    I'm persuaded by your hermeneutical point that desire is best read as straight desire rather than a desire to dominate. And I think you're spot on about feminism. Now I've been thinking about the relationship between the desire and the ruling – trying to work out the logical link between them.

    As far as I can work out, the post-1975 version comes down to: she will want to rule but he will.

    In your version: she will want things from him that only God can give and he will rule. Is that correct? Have I understood your argument?

    Do you think his rule is positive or negative here? i.e. is it good rule but she's trying to get something from it he could never give; or is it bad rule – she's looking to him for something he can't give and it becomes a destructive cycle because he is also abusive? Does the question make sense?

  37. Wendy August 14, 2012 at 4:37 am #

    I think it's a bad rule. I wrote a little more about it here. I'm too lazy to look up the html code to make the link work, but if you copy and paste it, it should come up. Sorry for my fatigue. 🙂


  38. Tamie August 14, 2012 at 7:16 am #

    Oh good, thanks! I had some memory of you having written on this but couldn't remember the name of the post!

    So then, just following this through, is the curse double-barrelled here? i.e. first, that she will look to the wrong person; second, that his treatment of her will be destructive? (I understand that looking to the wrong person is in and of itself destructive but theoretically, you could look to the wrong person – the first part of the curse – and they could still point you to someone better.)

  39. Wendy August 14, 2012 at 2:36 pm #

    I think the curse is just the pain in childbirth, and these last two are descriptions of tendencies among the genders once sin enters the world. Women look to men for something they should only look to God. And men oppress them in return. One is needy. The other is abusive. While not uniformly accurate among all people according to gender, I think it's a good summary of the issues between men and women apart from Christ.

  40. geoffchapmanth September 18, 2012 at 1:47 pm #

    Reading this article was like putting on a pair of glasses for the first time. It seems to Genesis 3:16 very clear and lots of other things suddenly come into focus too. Much to think about!

    Thank you!

  41. Anonymous February 8, 2013 at 2:33 pm #

    This is an excellent interpretation. Growing up, I did believe it was sexual desire. Then just last year, I was told it was the same as Genesis 4:7, and just went with it. But now, I am writing a paper on God's interaction with Eve and I am so thankful I came across your post. Thank you for making an argument full of grace and truth!

  42. Barbara Roberts May 2, 2013 at 9:47 am #

    Wendy I totally agree with your words:
    ” these last two ['your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you'] are descriptions of tendencies among the genders once sin enters the world. Women look to men for something they should only look to God. And men oppress them in return. One is needy. The other is abusive. While not uniformly accurate among all people according to gender, I think it's a good summary of the issues between men and women apart from Christ.”

    I have researched Susan Foh's interpretation at length, some years ago, and totally agree with your take on it.

    What is remarkable is that so many male theologians in complementarian circles we so eager to pick up on Foh's interpretation. They declaim against a women teaching doctrine, but when Foh taught this abberant doctrine on Genesis 3:16 they all lapped it up. It suited their agenda, so I believe they were more than willing to overlook the fact that it had come from a woman.

    Ironic, when so many of them teach that women are more easily decieved and that's why we shouldn't let them teach doctrine. . .

    I would love to email in depth with you on this topic as I can share more of what I found out from my research.

    I work in the area of domestic abuse and Christianity, and I see these tendencies of woman's desire for man and man abusing woman. The teaching that women ought to submit to any and every maltreatment that their husbands dish out makes this far far worse, because women are taught they have no right to set boundaries or leave abusive relationships, and that if they don't submit to their husband theyr are not submitting to God and are fall over the cliff into (Yikes!) feminism.

    That produces idolatry on steroids, a very toxic situation which the devil takes full advantage of.

  43. Barbara Roberts May 2, 2013 at 10:54 am #

    I researched the whole issue of what the woman’s desire in Genesis 3:16 means some years ago, but have not yet had time to publish my conclusions. As part of that research I had email contact with J. Alan Groves Center (now deceased) who was head of Advanced Biblical Research at Westminster Theological Seminary. He sent me a very in depth response to my questions including a linguistic and grammatical analysis of the Hebrew of Genesis 3:16 which was incredibly detailed. I will happily forward you his letter if you email me. barbara@notunderbondage.com

    Here is a brief quote from his letter:

    “Bottom-line: it seems to me that teshuqah is neutral in connotation, that is, it means simply ‘desire’ without having negative or positive connotations. Depending on a particular context, teshuqah can mean sexual desire, or desire to master, or simply to wish for something. Context determines the nuance, and the word itself can be used as a given context warrants.”

  44. John Hutchinson May 8, 2013 at 6:55 am #

    I had been taught the Foh interpretation; although I didn't know where it came from. However, in revisiting the Fall last year, on an unrelated matter, I concluded that this Foh interpretation was going beyond what was written and not a right handling of the truth.

    This is well done and consistent with old line Biblical criticism that has been lost.

  45. Valerie June 21, 2015 at 6:38 pm #

    This is jumping in VERY late to the topic, but i just found this.
    Excellent, well-stated and substantiated points, Wendy. Thank you.
    Moderator, i believe we also see this desire in Rachel. She told Jacob, “Give me children or I die! ” and he responded, “Am I God, to open or close your womb?” (not quoted from a specific translation, but just the gist.)

  46. Don May 5, 2016 at 12:35 am #

    I think the first thing to see is that Gen 3:16 does not have any curse associated with it. The serpent gets cursed because of his actions and the ground (adamah) gets cursed because of the man's (adam) actions (wordplay in parentheses), but there are no other curses. This frees up Gen 3:16 to possibly include things that are not bad; that is, each of the 5 things mentioned might be good or bad. Bruce Fleming explains this, I can send you a pdf if you wish.