In Part 1 and Part 2, we recounted a story of Wendy interacting with her dad’s doctor when he mistakenly prescribed ibuprofen despite the fact that he was currently taking the blood thinner, Coumadin. The doctor heard Wendy’s concerns because they shared a commitment to the health of her father, her concerns were based on the published research of other respected doctors, and she had intimate knowledge of her father’s health. These reflections are offered in the same spirit.
Wendy Alsup and Hannah Anderson
In this final post, we’ll highlight the potential harm that could come from rendering Genesis 3:16 as “your desire shall be contrary to your husband.” If the Scripture brings life and health, we must also acknowledge that perversions of Scripture bring turmoil and pain. If the recent change to Genesis 3:16 does not accurately represent the text of Scripture, this is not a neutral choice.
In saying this, we recognize that translation is a work in progress. As scholarship grows, so will our ability to understand the original text; as language changes, so will the need to update and revise translations. Our concern is not how the limitations of scholarship and linguistics have affected the translation of Genesis 3:16 but how commentary has. And if it has, then this rendering has the potential to harm men and women the same way any extra-biblical teaching does.
Our reflections in this final post come from our experience of discipling women both privately and publicly for years. Just as Wendy had intimate knowledge of her dad’s health, we have intimate knowledge of how Genesis 3:16 affects women’s spiritual formation. At the same time, we quickly grant that a working knowledge of women’s discipleship does not outweigh Biblical authority or the need for scholarship. In matters of textual criticism, we happily defer to those with more lexical and linguistic knowledge. But our experiences with women do give us knowledge of the implications of this rendering as well as a keen awareness of how high the stakes are.
First, we want to establish the Scriptural context in which this change occurs. Genesis 3:16 is set in the middle of God’s descriptions of a post-Fall world. Instead of a place of flourishing, the world will now be marred by suffering, toil, and futility. (We read God’s words as descriptive of the current state of affairs, not prescriptive.)
But to understand the brokenness, you must first understand Creation’s original state. In Genesis 1, God creates woman and man in His image so that they may reflect and represent Him on the earth. He commands them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Genesis 2 illuminates this account by telling us that God created the man first, but that the man was not sufficient to the task of ruling over the earth on his own. He could not tend and cultivate this new Creation without a partner equal to him as an image bearer. And so God created woman as an ezer/helper to fulfill the call to steward creation. Made in the image of her Creator, the woman was to emulate God Himself as the model ezer/helper to the man.
But while equal, these two image bearers are not the same. By creating them as male and female, God invested their bodies with strengths and weaknesses that would bind them together in mutual dependence as they fulfilled the Creation Mandate. The woman’s body would allow her to cultivate new image bearers, but this would also make her more vulnerable. The man’s body would be unable to bear life, but his physical strength would allow him to protect and provide for the new image bearers. The differences between them were not an end in themselves; they were a means to an end. They were the means by which they would together cultivate the good bounty of the earth and their own bodies. Together they would rule and reign over the new creation as King and Queen.
In Genesis 3, however, we see the image bearers fail. Instead of exercising dominion over the beasts of the field, we see the serpent leading and guiding them. Instead of submitting to the Creator, we see the image bearers submitting to the creation and ultimately denying their own identities. As a result, the entire creation is plunged into brokenness and disarray.
It’s not surprising, then, that when God describes life after the Fall, He does so in terms of the Creation Mandate. The beast of the field is returned to a place of subjection, and the man and woman’s work becomes difficult. The desire to fulfill the Creation Mandate—to be fruitful and multiply and to exercise dominion over the earth—is still present because this is an essential part of what it means to be human in the image of God. What is affected is the man and woman’s ability to accomplish this work.
We believe the most natural reading of Genesis 3:16 honors the parallel (and interdependent) callings of the man and woman. As we noted in Part 2,
Just as the man’s desire to produce fruit from the ground is rewarded with sweat and pain, a woman’s desire to produce children from her own body is rewarded with sweat and pain. Just as the man turns his attention to the earth looking for fruitful relationship, a woman turns toward (not away from) a man seeking fruitful relationship.
The woman’s desire in 3:16 can be understood in terms of her larger calling to bring forth life. Colloquially, we talk about this life-bearing instinct as a woman’s “biological clock.” Not all women are called to bear children, but as a category, a woman’s body has been made to do something different than a man’s body. And her body will naturally move her toward this end. In a broken world, however, this natural and good impulse will be met with frustration, pain, and disappointment. The woman’s desire will be directed toward the man as one means of fulfilling the Creation Mandate, but the man will respond with control and rule.
Some may be uncomfortable with this reading because it seems prejudicial to the man, positing him as a selfish oaf who will only ever abuse his relationship with the woman. Remember that this is describing the state of the world under sin. It is not describing the nature of either the man or woman, but the broken context in which their distinct callings play out. Remember as well that this section of text is directed to the woman to explain how the entrance of sin will make her work more difficult. And it’s all preceded by the foretelling of our rescue through the birth of Jesus.
Uncomfortable or not, in our fallen world, the inherent physiological differences between the sexes result in men ruling over women.* The statement “he shall rule over you” is neither judgment nor command; it is a simple statement of fact about the post-Fall world. Because women are the physically “weaker vessel,” women as a category cannot rule over men as a category. This does not mean that women are not equally sinful to men or try to harm them. It simply means that they do not have the physical capacity to impose their will on men as a general category. Remember Genesis 3:16 is addressed to the woman, explaining to her the challenges she will face. Because of her physical weakness and her desire to bear children, she will become subject to the control of unregenerate men.
*It’s important to distinguish between the concept of headship and rule. In the beginning, God made human beings to rule over the Creation, not each other. We understand headship to be the responsibility to provide and protect for the more vulnerable member of a relationship. Headship includes the authority necessary to fulfill this responsibility, but headship itself should not be understood solely as hierarchical rule. (see Thomas Jefferson and Headship for a longer explanation.)
Our first concern about the latest rendering of Genesis 3:16 is that it does not fit the larger rhetorical frame of the passage. It implies a sinful motivation for the woman’s desire rather than describing the broken context in which she finds herself. It also disrupts the parallelism of the text. God speaks to the woman about how the Fall affects her. He then speaks to the man about how the Fall affects him. Rendering 3:16 as “your desire shall be contrary to your husband” injects a statement about the woman’s nature when there is no corresponding statement about the man’s nature in terms of his work. We believe there is no parallel statement because Genesis 3:16 should not be read as an indictment of the woman’s desire.
As we discussed in Part 2, you can only arrive at a negative reading of the woman’s desire if you read negativity back into the passage from Genesis 4:7-8. But such a reading is highly prejudicial because it implies that the woman’s desires by their very existence are contrary to her husband. Because the rest of the passage is read as a statement of fact about this post-Fall world, the sentence “your desires shall be contrary to your husband” will also be read as a statement of fact. The rhetorical affect is to create suspicion around every desire that a woman has.
What if a woman wants red curtains but her husband wants blue? Is this “contrary” opinion a result of the Fall and her sinful inclination to resist her husband? Should she give up her desire for red curtains? Based on the current rendering of Genesis 3:16, yes, she should. She should give up her contrary desire because to hold it would be to participate in the brokenness of the Fall. This may seem like a ridiculous illustration, but the logic is intact.
A regenerate woman seeking to live beyond her fallen state will relinquish all desires that run contrary to her husband because this rendering teaches her that it is her sinfulness that puts her in opposition to her husband. Not her expertise in design, not the validity of her own preferences, but her sinfulness. And such a paradigm cuts to the heart of a woman’s imago Dei identity.
Part of being made in God’s image is the capacity to think, to choose, to desire. It is true that our human desires have been corrupted by sin—the heart is desperately wicked, after all. But the corruption is not horizontal; it is vertical. We are not in sin because our desires are contrary to another human being’s. We are in sin when they run contrary to God’s; or we assume God’s place and force our desires upon another human being.
For a woman to have a different, or contrary, opinion to her husband is not sin. In fact, sometimes it would be sin for her NOT to have a difference of opinion, especially if he himself is in sin (consider Abigail and Sapphira). But rendering Genesis 3:16 as “your desires shall be contrary to your husband” places a woman’s desires in context of the Fall and positions them forever as suspect.
Practically speaking, this paralyzes women. We have seen this in our own lives as well as the lives of the women we disciple. When women are told that their very desires are sinful in a way that men’s desires are not, godly women end up doubting everything they think or do or say. Rather than risk the possibility of imposing her “contrary” desires on to her husband or the men around her, she will stop desiring entirely.
Ironically, this does not fulfill the Biblical concept of submission; it actually undermines it. When a woman abandons her own opinions, she is not submitting. She is abdicating her imago Dei identity. Submission only happens when two conflicting desires meet and one defers. A woman can only submit when she holds an opinion in the first place and then chooses to defer out of her own agency. She does not defer because her desires are corrupt, but because she loves her husband and the Scripture. Anything less is co-dependency.
Further, the ESV’s current rendering can lead a woman to doubt the work of God in her heart. When the Holy Spirit moves her to take action, she will question whether it is truly God or the deceitfulness of her own contrary desires. Having lost a category for goodness of her desires, she will freeze and become subject to the control of those around her. She will be led by the desires of her husband, her children, her friends, and her community. Rather than being led by the Spirit, she will be led by other human beings.
Finally, this rendering will cause men to mistrust women. Not only will women doubt their own opinions and the Holy Spirit’s leading, men will begin to doubt the validity of women’s voices. If women’s desires are de facto “contrary,” when a woman speaks up or offers an alternative view, men will naturally be suspicious. Is she simply trying to undermine the men around her? What’s her hidden agenda? And when she rightly challenges evil men for evil behavior, her words will be neutralized entirely. Because after all, the woman’s “desire shall be contrary.” She’s unsubmissive and not to be trusted.
This is how women become trapped in abusive relationships even within the church. One of the criticisms of complementarianism is that it can lead to the physical and spiritual abuse of women. We do not believe that all streams of complementarian thought lead to abuse. But we are concerned that this rendering of Genesis 3:16 would. At the very least, it puts a woman constantly on the defensive, forcing her to justify the validity of her complaints, concerns, or mere different desires.
When William Tyndale translated the English New Testament, he did so, in part, to break the power of spiritual abuse. He wanted to give the most vulnerable members of the Church the power to defend themselves through truth. We believe the straightforward translation of Genesis 3:16 as “your desire shall be for your husband” honors both the original Hebrew text, as well as the larger context of Genesis 1-3. Such a reading helps pastors, lay leaders, and women themselves to understand the larger context in which women find themselves in this broken world. This in turn, aids in promoting the spiritual growth that is necessary to break the bonds of emotional, physical, and spiritual abuse. In many cases, only when a woman grows in her understanding of her God-given agency and identity as an image bearer can she finally step away from such abuse. As well, only when the godly men around her have a healthy understanding of her God-given agency and identity can they help free her from abuse.
For some reading this, it may feel like we are suggesting a major paradigm shift. We are simply suggesting that you consider the natural, straightforward reading of Genesis 1-3 as it relates to this text. We are asking you to listen to women who have been actively engaged in the work of discipleship; if you do, we hope you hear, not simply our voices, but the Scripture itself. And ultimately, we hope that these posts will aid you in discerning the root issues underlying a woman’s struggles in a post-Fall world. She may choose sinful responses to the challenges—she may choose either abdication or manipulation—but she does not do so because her desires are inherently “contrary.”
After Wendy’s conversation with the doctor, he prescribed a pain killer for her dad that didn’t interfere with Coumadin. It was a similar pain killer but just different enough to relieve the pain of the pinched nerve without causing new complications. Just as Wendy and the doctor mutually cared for her dad, we hope that the ESV translators will hear our concerns about this change to Genesis 3:16 and consider reversing their decision so that no further harm comes to either women or men.
Together we wait and hope for the day when all God’s image bearers—both male and female—are restored to His likeness through Christ.