Friday, 18 March 2011

The Fall: Woman

The curse on the woman is the shortest of the 3 curses containing 4 lines. God says to the woman,
I will greatly multiply your pain in conception;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you. (Genesis 3)
The words for "pain" here are not identical, though they derive from the same root. Pain (`itstsabown) in conception; pain (`etseb) in bearing. I am not certain anything can be made of this difference, rather they are synonyms used in a poetic parallelism. Conception is not generally painful so we have a synecdoche for pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing. Translators frequently replace conception with childbirth, though it may be preferable to consider the more expansive inclusion suggested here.

There is much debate over the meaning of the second half of this curse. Much of the meaning is dependant on the semantics of the word "for." Does it mean "toward" or "against"? The meanings are quite different in themselves and the implication of the last line of the curse is dependant on which meaning is chosen.
  • Your desire shall be toward your husband
  • Your desire shall be against your husband
Both meanings are apparently linguistically possible. Because of this it is best to leave the translation with the ambiguity, ie. use the word "for". The only slight problem with this is that in English "for" tends to favour the positive interpretation, ie. toward. A footnote is therefore helpful with the mention of both interpretations.

Advocates for the first interpretation note that "desire" in Song of Solomon is a positive noun.
I am my beloved's,
and his desire is for me. (Song of Solomon 7)
Thus it is viewed that the woman has a positive, probably sexual, desire toward her husband.

There are a couple of difficulties with this view.

Firstly, how is positive desire or sexual desire a curse?

Prior to the Fall the woman would have had both a positive desire toward her husband as well as a sexual desire. So these are neither new phenomena nor curses.

Secondly, the comment that the man will rule over her does not seem to fit this reading.

To maintain this interpretation one must regard the 3rd line as merely descriptive in order to introduce the curse of the last line: the man ruling over the woman.
You will still desire your husband [status quo] but he will now rule over you [curse].
Advocates of the alternative interpretation—that "for" means "against"—point to the other use of "desire" in Genesis 4. In its favour is the fact that the 2 phrases share a similar construction. Cain is angry that God doesn't accept his offering. God says to Cain,
Why are you angry,/
and why has your face fallen?/
If you do well, will you not be accepted?/
And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door./
Its desire is for you,/
but you must rule over it.
Here the word "for" clearly has a negative connotation. Sin's desire is not positively toward Cain, rather it is negatively against Cain; sin desires to have or dominate Cain. The command to Cain is that he must rule over sin. This is not a negative command to Cain, it is stating the right response to the problem.

Thus some commentators would see the curse on the woman as a desire to control her husband. The comment that the man will rule over her is not necessarily part of the curse; rather paralleling Genesis 4 it would be the appropriate corrective.
Your desire is against your husband [curse] but he is to lead you [right action].
One may suggest that because the word for "rule" can mean "dominate", there may be a tendency for men to dominate as part of this curse.
Your desire will be against your husband [curse] and he will dominate you [curse]
A minor quibble with this last interpretation is that the curse is directed at the woman not the man. However one could argue that the curse on the man at the end (death) also applies to the woman, though this is perhaps indirectly thru his federal headship.


  1. That the relationship between husband and wife was affected from either's perspective was part of the curse. The result, which you skillfully exegeted from the passage, was a competitive rather than complementary relationship.

  2. Hi SLW. I agree the original relationship was complementary. Both were given the dominion mandate:

    Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." (Gen 1)

    Which suggests they were joint rulers over creation, though complimentary to each other and not necessarily in the same relationship to each other.

    The question is whether post Fall it is one of competitiveness between each other (both trying to master/ dominate) as per the last option, or the woman trying to master, frequently with the husband abdicating his role as leader?

  3. It's a good question, and one that's sloughed over too readily by some, to the effect that what is clearly presented as a cursed state in Genesis 3 is proposed as blessed state though what is IMO a misapplication of Ephesians 5 (for one). It seems to me the blessed state would be something reclaiming the uncursed state wherein a woman does not try to dominate the man, nor does the man callously reign over the woman.

    More directly to your point, I think the Fall put the woman in a weaker position from which she views the relationship competitively, and the man, not needing to compete, presumes and assumes authority, frustrating the woman.

  4. "Your desire will be to master your husband and he will seek to master you" is a position that is taken by someone I greatly respect. He would also apply "submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ" to both the husband and wife (Eph 5). Thus I would classify him as egalitarian, though he would see that the husband has an aspect of leadership in the marriage that differs from the wife.

    I am not convinced and lean complimentarian. I think that the translation "Your desire is against your husband but he is to lead you" is preferable, and certain passages suggest a hierarchy or function (but not nature) prior to the Fall which suggests that post-Fall this is marred, but redemption seeks to correct this. Thus I view "submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ" applying to categories rather than everyone to everyone. Thus such a comment is a prelude to husband/wife rather than a summary of husband and wife.

  5. I agree with your preference in the translation of the curse, though I am a committed egalitarian (I was not always). Is 1 Corinthians 11 one of those passages that you see implying something hierarchical prior to the Fall?

    I see the ideal of Christ as being "neither male nor female," and I see complementarianism (especially the more heirarchical variety) as "curse-bound." To my understanding, Jesus came to lift the curse, not reinforce its imposition in any way (though aspects of it are still in force, like physical death). By faith we embrace the resurrection and live differently in this life until we die as a result. I think that a new wine/new wineskin principle would thereby apply to the Christian practice of marriage.

    I do not see Ephesians 5 as reinforcing the curse, but addressing marriage from the perspective of the redeemed applying Christ’s redemption from the curse. I do see the submission clause in v. 21 as the broadest general principle, which every Christian is expected to practice toward every other Christian (which is well attested in the NT) with the verses that follow applying that principle to different relationships in which the Christian would be tempted to act fleshly.

    Natural wives would be tend to struggle to control their husbands, redeemed wives should submit to their husbands as to Christ. Natural husbands would tend to thoughtlessly direct their wives out of privilege, redeemed husbands should lay down their privilege, and love their wives as Christ does the church. The result is mutual submission and a partnership in which authority as such is not lorded one over the other.

  6. SLW, sorry for the delay. To your questions.

    While 1 Cor 11 would be consistent with my perspective I don't think it strongly influences me. I find passages like 1 Tim 2 more forceful.

    I agree about the curse. But it matters what the curse was. I don't think the hierarchy as a concept is intrinsically post-Fall, or related to the curse. Thus I can believe that male/ female hierarchy in function (or role) is not by necessity a cursed situation, though if in fact we have an egalitarian situation pre-Fall then hierarchy (leader/ follower) may well be post curse. I am not certain this would make it intrinsically bad, though likely temporal.

    I am familiar with you take on Eph 5. Both submit, messages to men and women differ as they are given where they naturally (tend to) struggle in this. The person I mentioned above says this also.

    I go to an egalitarian church. And my wife is predominantly egalitarian. But my reason for being complementarian is that I can fit all of Scripture into a complementarian perspective, but I cannot do this with egalitarianism. I realise that many passages can be read in ways that support both sides. But I don't think all can. And the suggestions that some have given for various egalitarian passages I find stretched.



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