The Curse on Humanity and Woman’s Desire

Pastor Sam Powell (full disclosure:  my brother, in case you didn’t know already!) wrote an article taking issue with the translation that the ESV has adopted of Genesis 3:16 and the nature of the curse God pronounced on the woman.  I have a couple of issues with it, however.  Given that Sam is taking issue with a published position paper of the RCUS, his own denomination, I think an answer is warranted.  The issue he raises has multiple implications, and is one we need to be clear over.  My intention is not specifically to defend the ESV translation, which does perhaps do a bit more interpreting than we like a literal translation to do, but rather to ask some questions about the conclusions Sam reaches in his article.


The question is the nature of the curse God pronounced on Eve in Genesis 3:16. Here is the verse:

16 To the woman He said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children; Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.” (Gen 3:16 NKJ)

This curse has had different interpretations over the history of interpretation.  James Montgomery Boice (Genesis: An Expositional Commentary, Zondervan, 1982, vol. 1, p. 178-179) mentions three common interpretations- intense sexual desire so that she is willing to put up with the consequence, that is, the pain of childbearing; a psychological dependence that makes her willing to put up with his tyranny; and having her desires completely subsumed under his own so that she only desires what he wants.  Boice finds all of these inadequate, and cites instead the view that Sam takes issue with, that popularized by Susan Foh in 1975.  Her view is that the desire the woman is cursed with is a desire for control, for power over him.  He in turn tries to put her down forcefully.  Thus the harmonious relationship known before the garden is cursed to become a struggle for dominion between the two.  It is this second view which is represented by the ESV translation, and it is a view which has become quite popular in the last forty years.  I have not preached through Genesis in a long time, nor taught through it as a Bible study, so I don’t have current commentaries to look at.  I just mention Boice’s just to show the variety in thinking and the direction it’s been going lately.

This view has become popular because it is strong and convincing, and none of the other views really are.  Foh’s view relies heavily on a parallel with Genesis 4:7, in which God tells Cain,  “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.” (Gen 4:7 NKJ)  In the last sentence of that verse, the word “desire” is the same as in Genesis 3:16, and so is the preposition in the prepositional phrase following (“for” or “to” you).  It makes a lot of sense to use a passage just one chapter away to help us understand this passage.


Sam doesn’t think so, though. He says,

It seems to me that using Genesis 4:7 to interpret Genesis 3:16 is rather sketchy exegesis. It would be similar to saying that God spoke against Baasha (1 Kings 16:12 – the preposition is ‘el) and God spoke unto Moses (Ex. 3:14 – the preposition is the same) therefore, God was against Moses just as he was against Baasha. It’s really bad exegesis. It seems to me that the meaning of the phrases must be determined in the context.

The fact is “sin” and women are not the same thing, and their desires are not the same thing. I wonder why we make the assumption that women’s desires are always for domination and manipulation even when the text doesn’t say so. Simply saying “Sin desires to manipulate and dominate and since the same preposition is used this applies to the woman as well” simply will not cut it. That’s not how language works.

But using similar passages and uses to determine meaning is how language works.  It certainly was how I was taught to do translation and exegesis.  If there’s a parallel construction that close, then it certainly should inform how we do that translation.  It’s not absolute proof, of course, and the immediate context is always determinative, but this kind of analysis, looking at how the same author uses the word or phrase in the same book or around the same time is a very strong indication.  It’s called “synchronic analysis.”

Sam spends a bit of time talking about Hebrew prepositions, and he clearly knows his business here.  His explanation of the use of Hebrew prepositions is quite lucid and helpful.  He says,

Hebrew prepositions generally have a primary spatial meaning, with metaphorical secondary meaning. The primary spatial meaning is terminative (to, unto, towards).

I know, very technical. Let me break it down. The preposition ‘el means to, unto, or towards. It is a preposition indicating the termination of movement. That is it’s primary meaning. If I leave my office and walk to my house, I would use the preposition ‘el. Towards. Most commonly, it is used with the verb “to say” to indicate to whom the words are said. In the phrase, “And God said unto Moses”, the preposition ‘el would be used. God designed his words to terminate in the ears of Moses. I hope this makes sense.

That’s a great explanation. It makes perfect sense.  He goes on to state that in that metaphorical sense, ‘el can mean “against,” as it does in Ezekiel 38:2, for example.  But he says, “No such hostility is expressed or implied in Genesis 3:16.”  I believe though that there certainly is the strong implication of hostility in Genesis 3:16 in the overall nature of the curse.

Sam emphasizes that the immediate context is dispositive, and he is correct.  But the context is the curse.  Every aspect of the curse pronounced on all three parties (Satan, Eve, Adam) is negative for that party, and is a change and corruption that is worked.  So far, I think Sam and I would agree.  I would also agree with this:

So the simple reading of the text is this: “To your husband your longing”. In English, we would have to supply the verb “will be”. To your husband will be your longing. In other words, “your longing will terminate on your husband”, or, “your longing will be to your husband”.

So what does it mean? What is the longing of the woman? In the context, God is pronouncing the curse upon creation, the serpent, the man and the woman. He has already promised that one would come who would crush the head of the serpent (3:15), and he now moves on to the consequences of Eve’s sin.

So the great question is, longing for what specifically?  To answer this question, Sam looks at what changes about the man’s relationship, and this is where I think the mistake happens:

How would she have heard those words? Let’s take it with the second part of the phrase, “But he shall rule over thee”, which is set in contrast to the first phrase. It’s a disjunctive clause. The word “rule” (mashal) can be good rule, benevolent rule, tyrannical rule or any other kind of rule. It’s a common word. It means to have dominion over. It is something that was not there in the relationship before the fall. It is something new. If it were there before the fall, then the curse on the woman would be that everything would be the same, which is ludicrous. The context implies that this is something new. The serpent will crawl on its belly; the ground will bring thistles, and your husband will rule over you.

Before, Adam and Eve were one flesh. There is no hint of hierarchy in the garden. It is beyond the scope of this article to go into the meaning of “help meet”, but suffice it to say that hierarchy, authority and submission are not inherent in the Hebrew word ‘ezer (help). It is the name most often given to God, Israel’s help.

Instead, the relationship of the man and the woman was a relationship of unity and love. They were one flesh, committed, loving, fleeing all others, cleaving to one another.

A lot of this obviously I would agree with.  But Sam here appears to be denying that there is any kind of rule or leadership of the man over the woman.  He says, “There is no hint of hierarchy in the garden.”  But is this actually true?  Paul says,

 ” 12 And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.  13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”  (1Ti 2:12-13 NKJ)

Now the extent of Paul’s command is a matter of much debate and is beyond the scope of this article.  But he does teach that the created order itself is part of the reason why a woman is not to hold authority over a man (probably means just within the context of the church).  Now if the creation of Adam before Eve is given as a reason why a woman should not have authority over a man in the church, then there is certainly at least a “hint” of hierarchy in the male-female relationship before sin entered the world.  Paul also says,

 ” 23 For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body.” (Eph 5:23 NKJ)

This is a hotly debated verse of Paul’s.  What exactly does he mean by “head”?  But whatever exactly it means, it is used as the justification for the wife’s requirement to submit to her husband, in the same way that the church submits to Christ (verse 24).  Again, I don’t want to get into the whole question of what exactly that submission involves, but it certainly involves something, and it involves a duty that is not reciprocal, for the church submits to Christ her king and not the other way around.  And that is the parallel that Paul uses to describe the husband-wife relationship.  That is a hierarchy that is clearly intended to be part of the created husband-wife relationship, not something that is due specifically to sin.  Sam’s argument would mean that Christ’s relationship to the church only mirrors the husband-wife relationship in the state of sin, which is absurd.

Another passage from Paul:

 ” 8 For man is not from woman, but woman from man.  9 Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man.”  (1Co 11:8-9 NKJ)

Again, the priority of Adam’s creation is said to be significant, and a reason for order within the creation.  The exact nature of 1 Cor. 11’s teaching is again controversial, but this at least is clear, that the created order of Adam before Eve means something.  And what the church has always taught that it meant, and is borne out by the other passages quoted, is that there is an authority within the home that belongs to the man, and this is the created order, not something that just came into existence after the fall.


This is the traditional teaching of the church on the subject, and much of Sam’s article depends on rejecting this teaching, it seems to me, unless I am badly misunderstanding him.  It appears that he is saying that there is to be no order or rule within a marriage because there was no order or rule within the created order of Adam and Eve.

He ends with this:

Now that Christ has come, we as men are called, not to rule over our wives (whether benevolently or not) but to love our wives, and thus reflect to the world the love of our great savior, who gave himself for us.

Now I am not terribly anxious to say that a man should “rule” over his wife.  He certainly doesn’t “rule” over her in the same sense that he does over the beasts of the field.  But there is certainly leadership and headship.  That is taught in many places in Scripture, and Sam seems to be denying it.  He certainly does not assert any kind of leadership, and in fact seems to say that since “mashal” (or “rule”) in Genesis 3:16 can have a positive or negative connotation, that it is rule in general of the man over the woman that came into being after the fall.

A lot of Sam’s argument hinges on this.  He seems to be arguing that since it is the authority of the man over the woman which is new as a result of sin, that this informs us what it is that she longs for.  She longs for the old state where there was unity and love between them.  He says,

Instead, the relationship of the man and the woman was a relationship of unity and love. They were one flesh, committed, loving, fleeing all others, cleaving to one another.

I believe in that context, 3:16 can only mean one thing. Eve will still long for that. Her longing will terminate on her husband. She will long for that which was lost in Eden. But instead, her husband will rule over her.

But if what has changed instead was that the nature of that rule has changed from a loving leadership to a harsh dominion, then that puts a different spin on her “longing,” especially when we look at the parallel construction in Genesis 4:7 that we mentioned earlier.  In this case, there is certainly the implication of hostility within the passage, which would give the “longing” a very similar feel to the one in Genesis 4:7.

In that passage, the desire is certainly a negative one.  It is the desire that sin has for Cain, to rule and dominate him.  Sam is correct that sin and the woman are not the same, but they certainly are capable of having that same kind of desire.  It’s not impossible, ungrammatical or incoherent that the desire the woman has over the man is the same desire that sin has over Cain.  Not only is it not impossible, it actually fits quite well on the face of it.  Man’s relationship to her has become hostile.  In Sam’s interpretation, man’s relationship to his wife is one of authority, but it isn’t necessarily negative, since authority is never presented as negative of itself in Scripture.  But if that authority is now a negative authority (and it must be, since a positive authority was already there pre-fall) then the context leads us in that direction for the “desire” as well.  The relationship is a combative one, a negative one, on both sides, and in the context of the curse it makes perfect sense.  The rightful leadership that he had before the fall is now corrupted.  He becomes domineering and tyrannical, and she becomes rebellious and manipulative.  Of course there is a hostile context to Genesis 3:16!  A curse is being pronounced, a change in what was once a loving and harmonious relationship.

The Scriptures are full of examples of women trying to use their influence to get what they want from their husbands regardless of the damage it does to them.  Jezebel, Delilah, and Herod’s wife are all easy examples.  Israel was constantly warned not to marry foreign women (meaning idolatrous women) so that they would not lead their husbands astray.  Proverbs warns us constantly of the contentious (meaning argumentative, combative) woman, a trait not unique to her but more characteristic of her than the man in Proverbs, and apart from immorality the single negative trait most associated with women in Proverbs.  So this is not an unscriptural idea, that women have the tendency of using their powers of influence to manipulate, bully, or dominate their men.  It’s quite common in Scripture.

The “‘el” preposition has movement- her desire, metaphorically, is “to” her husband- to extend her power over his, to subvert his rule, to use him for her own benefit, as we see women often doing in Scripture.

Overall, then, I think this attempt to re-read Genesis 3:16 fails.  It fails because it does not deal with the very similar construction in Genesis 4:7 adequately.  It relies on the use of the word “desire” in Song of Songs, written by a different author hundreds of years later and with a different prepositional phrase, rather than a phrase written by the same author, just one chapter later, with an identical preposition.  This is bad hermeneutics.

And it’s bad hermeneutics with dangerous implications.  He seems to be asserting that there is no natural authority of the husband over the wife.  Much of the argument for the authority of men in the church would likewise be in question.  The sin in gender relations would be mainly on the man’s side, instead of on both sides, as Scripture consistently states.  Sam says,

Does she turn to manipulation and resistance? Perhaps. Every human resists domination and subjugation.

He seems to be implying that she has a right to rebel against her husband’s authority, or at least that it’s defensible.

I think this teaching has the real implication of upending much of our understanding of marriage, headship, and male authority in the home and in the church.  I’m sure this is not what Sam intends, but I think some concerns need to be addressed.

5 thoughts on “The Curse on Humanity and Woman’s Desire

  1. Andrea Powell says:

    There’s a lot to think about here. It’s interesting to read the men’s perspective on this.

    I have actually been thinking a lot about the male/female relationships, partly because I have sons who surprised me with how much more emotionally dependent on me they were than my daughters ever have been, and at the same time, I’m spending some time with a young woman preparing to marry. I have begun to pray for Christian wives for my sons who are compassionate toward their emotional vulnerability and see their great needs for help where they are weak (God was not being sweet and romantic when He declared that it was not good for man to be alone. Men are crippled without us.)

    I watched as sons were rejected by their mother as she chose another man over them and their father, and I was horrified at the ensuing anger and violence that was generated in previously happy and healthy boys, boys I loved very much but unable to help the excruciating pain ripping their little hearts apart. Watching the trauma that came into their young lives because they were at the mercy of a woman really made me understand why some men, not wanting to ever be at that kind of risk for that pain again would become controlling bullies toward women. Because God has made them to need women, but their first and most formative experience with women was massively destructive, I can’t blame them (humanly speaking) for the domineering response. I’m NOT saying their response is ever okay, but I am saying, I can see where it might come from.

    But at the same time, I see how much my boys need me. As I’m coming to understand that, I am coming to understand the problems I had with my husband when we were first married. I didn’t appreciate his visceral need for me, for my approval, for my help in connecting him to others. I misinterpreted his need as weakness and I began to become contemptuous of him. I was sabotaging our life and tearing my house down with my own hands. But God, in His great mercy, brought beauty for ashes. Thankfully, He blessed me with a patient and faithful husband who trusted the Lord and didn’t respond with abuse as Genesis says the natural man will do. Instead, he exemplified the man of faith who doesn’t have to put his foolish wife down. He prayed, trusted God, and laid down his life for me, choosing to take poor treatment over returning evil for evil. I expose my own shame because, as one who very much had a desire to rule over my husband, I think it’s important to know that the Gospel really does answer the curse. It really does restore the husband/wife relationship to joyful unity.

    It’s because I believe getting the problem wrong points women to the wrong solution and traps them in the misery of the Fall’s curse that I think this discussion is important. If I thought my problem was that my husband was not meeting my needs like he should, then I would be miserable indeed. As long as my problem is in someone else, then I am relegated to being in permanent victim status. But if my problem is the envy and darkness in my own heart, then the Gospel’s got me covered. I have a Savior for that! I have sweet forgiveness that sets me free. And what can man do to me? And I don’t have to tear my own house down around me as I rail against all those failing to meet MY needs.

  2. Linnea Mintzer says:

    Great points, Andrea! We have to have both examples of sinful responses in marriage by either sex, and recognize that these fall along a continuum of seriousness.

    1. Matt Powell says:

      Hi OKRickety, I did not see any comment from you on this post, and did not delete any comment from you. I approved a comment from you on another post. Sorry if something got eaten!

  3. Ellen S says:

    Thank you, Matt and Andrea both for your thoughts here. We have all girls, no boys, and so I especially benefit from Andrea’s observations.

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