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.
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 gives 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.
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).