Genesis 3:16: Desiring and Ruling

Recently, I was teaching on the “Curses” of Genesis (immediately after the two humans in the garden ate the fruit–I don’t call it the Fall, because that’s not what the text calls it).  I got an email from Debbie who asked about what the woman’s desire for her husband meant in Gen. 3:16.  When asked about it in class, I responded that I thought the woman’s desire was for relational and sexual intimacy.  In her email, Debbie said had been always been taught that the woman’s desire was to rule her husband, but he was supposed to rule her as the curse explains.

To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16 ESV).

In addition to affirming her question, here is how I replied:

adam-and-eve-no-clothesI think it’s possible that her desire might involve rule since God goes on to say “he will rule over you.”  I’ve heard that perspective also, I’m just not convinced by it since I don’t think it takes the text seriously.  The text doesn’t say “your desire will be to rule over your husband”, it just says “your desire will be for your husband.”  So to come to that conclusion you have to add a bunch of words to the text, which I don’t feel comfortable doing.

The problem is the Hebrew word translated as “desire” only appears a three times in the OT, so it’s difficult to be conclusive.  In Gen. 4:17, God tells Cain that sin’s “desire is for you, but you must master” it, which could be used to argue that “desire” is an attempt to rule.  But the parallel isn’t great since we’re talking about the relationship of sin to a person in Gen. 4, versus the relationship of a person to another person in Gen. 3.  So, making the first woman parallel to sin in 4:17 is problematic on several levels.

Against the view that her desire was to rule him are two things.  First, the same word is also used in Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon): 7:11: “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me.”—which is clearly in the context of romance and sexual desire, not rule/authority.  While Gen. 4:17 is closer in context to Gen. 3:16, I think the Song of Songs parallel is more similar since it speaks of a relationship between a man and woman which is exactly what Gen. 3:16 is talking about.  In Genesis, it’s a woman for a man, in Song of Songs, it’s a man for a woman.

Second, the text says that the object of the desire is her husband full stop, not his position or his authority.  So, to interpret it as a desire to rule over him means you have to change the meaning of the words.

So, instead of adding words to make it seem like she was trying to rule him, I see more reasons to conclude that she’ll desire intimacy with him, despite the fact that birth is painful and that he will try to rule over her.

Good question, Debbie.  – Dave

I love it when students challenge me, disagree and ask questions.  (Well, done, Debbie!)

The only other thing to add is that Genesis 3 shows us how male rule came only as a result of sin, that’s not how God set it up in Genesis 2.

So, what do you think?  


  1. Dave, I like to build on the passage to observe that it is not just man who experiences toil, but women do too. And, in fact, it is not just women who experience relational brokenness but men do too. Both men and women experience toil in work and brokenness in intimate relationships, but the focus or the source of greatest pain for each tends to be in the areas mentioned in the fall. But, as women are not immune to toil, men are (clearly) not immune to the results of the fallenness in human relationships and intimacy.

  2. Rich, yes. Tragic consequences all around. Pain for women in childbirth, for men in labor. But there’s a sign of hope. The woman’s seed will bruise the serpent’s seed. Although, from the perspective of Genesis, it’s still rather cryptic.

  3. Dave, I think the point I’m trying to make is that it isn’t so cleanly paracelled out: pain for women in childbirth, pain for men in labor. Women also experience toil–that much is obvious, so the assignment of pain to men in labor isn’t exclusive. Yes, men don’t experience childbirth (directly), but they do experience relational brokenness, pain, and the results of that pain directly. It is not only women who do. Both suffer both, but for men, often though not always, the pain of fruitless labor is more stinging, while for women, often though not always, the pain of frustrated relationship and broken intimacy is more stinging. But neither is immune to both.

  4. Rich, that’s a helpful clarification. Thanks. Yes, Another example of what you’re saying (I think), is that for the man (and men generally), he’ll return to dust (i.e., die), and that same fate awaits the woman (and women generally), not just the man.

  5. But what if the author of Genesis IS trying to make a connection between the two? It seems intentional that the same two phrases, desire and mastery, show up so close to each other.

    One is the result of sin, it screws up relationships. The other is a reality check and the antidote(?), sin is desiring you but you have to master it. Maybe as a result of the curse, we are mastering the wrong things.

    Or maybe the consequences of eating the fruit mean that men start to view women like they are sin embodied. Men end up treating women the way they ought to be treating sin.

    1. Ben, good points. Yes, it might be significant both are there in Gen. 3 and 4. I’m not sure about the connection. I don’t think it means she wants to rule him. Sin definitely needs to be mastered and it does want to take over, I just don’t think that’s what the woman is doing. She says, “Here try this.” and he says, “OK.” Thanks for engaging. How’s parenthood?

  6. David,

    It’s also possible that the word “desire” in these passages refers to the impulse to possess. In a positive and romantic sense, it results in striving for an exclusive relationship with somone (Song of Solomon). In a negative sense, it results in a striving for control over somone (Genesis).

  7. I like JJ’s comment about “desire” as the impulse to possess (or desire to control) better than the interpretation that Genesis 3:16 refers to the desire for relational and sexual intimacy for four reasons:
    1. It fits the future application of all the other verbs in these consequences. Indeed the future sense seems to be required in context since it has the identical verb form as all the other future consequences. All the other consequences are new, not in the original creation. The original man’s “Wow!” response to woman indicates that sexual attraction was part of the original creation, not to mention the command to fill the earth. Consequently, the “desire for relational and sexual intimacy” interpretation refers to something that that does not begin after their disobedience and so is out of place here. Even if one were to make a case that “desire for relational and sexual intimacy” was not in God’s original creation, it would be odd punishment, indeed, if desire for relational and sexual intimacy began as a result of humankind’s disobedience.
    2. It fits all the other consequences of humankind’s disobedience of God’s command in being negative. All the other consequences are negative distortions of God’s original creation plan. But the “desire for relational and sexual intimacy” interpretation is positive, as Song of Solomon 7:10 shows, and so is out of place here.
    3. Genesis 4:7 is not only separated from 3:16 by just fourteen verses, their wording is identical at five points, and desire to control or possess fits both.
    4. It fits all three instances of the word in the OT. The “desire for relational and sexual intimacy” interpretation does not fit Genesis 4:7.
    “Relational and sexual intimacy” is no more in the text than “to possess” or “to control,” which has the added benefit of being conceptually parallel with “but he will rule over you.”
    Philip B. Payne

  8. JJ and Phil, Thanks for your comments. Yes, it’s possible it means to possess, but I’ll reiterate some of what I said above. The Hebrew word teshuqah used here is only used 3 places in the Hebrew Bible, so we can all speculate, but we need to hold onto these speculations loosely. Second, Holliday defines it as “urge, craving, impulse” which could perhaps go either way, but BDB (the classic Hebrew lexicon) goes with “longing” – which sounds more like sexual/relational. My understanding of childbearing is that sex is usually involved. So, pain in childbearing should cause her to not desire to have sex with him, but she will desire him anyway. The NAS (one of the most literal translations) inserts a “yet” before your “your desire” which expresses this dilemma well.

    1. You write, “The Hebrew verb teshuqah used here…,” but this is not a verb. It is a noun, a feminine singular noun with a second person singular feminine suffix “your desire” (cf. Davidson’s Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon of the OT, 779). You wrote in your initial post, “the text says that the object of the desire is her husband full stop.” This is not true. The text says, “your desire will be ‘towards’ or ‘against’ (HALOT 1:50) your husband. The same preposition is used in Gen 4:7 of sin’s desire being “towards” or “against” you. It is also used in Job 40:23, “he [behemoth] is secure, though the Jordan should surge ‘against’ his mouth.” This preposition fits perfectly with either “your desire to possess will be towards your husband” or “your desire to control will be towards your husband.” The former has the advantage of also fitting with Song of Solomon reference. The latter has the advantage of matching the meaning of both this noun and preposition in Genesis 4:7 and in highlighting the reversal in “but he will rule over you” [understanding vav as contrasting like the NAS]. The elliptical verb “will be” is required by the context. Its future sense is established by the context. You are correct to understand this as indicating a future reference, “your desire will be….” My earlier reference to the “form” of the verb is to the form of the elliptical verb required by its context. Since this statement is about a new future reality caused by humankind’s disobedience, it goes against the context of negative consequences of their sin to interpret it to refer to something that was part of the original creation and positive, namely “the desire for relational and sexual intimacy.”

  9. Philip, sorry, thanks for pointing out my error–I corrected my comment. If you’d look above in the main comment I said “word” not “verb” there. I was heading out to church this morning, and didn’t have time to double check. The Hebrew preposition used can be translated as “towards” or “against” as you say, but I think you’ll be hard pressed to find an English translation rendering it that way. Please don’t accuse me of lying, as you say: “This is not true.” Feel free to disagree, but do it with grace, otherwise your comments will be deleted. I haven’t found an English translation rendering this phrase as “against your husband”. You can argue for that, but you’ll be in a small minority if you insist on “against” for the preposition in Gen. 3:16.

    1. I did not intend to accuse you of lying, nor do I believe that my statement implies anything about lying. I simply pointed out that your assertion, “the text says that the object of the desire is her husband full stop” is not true to the Hebrew text. I highlight that the preposition used in Hebrew before “her husband” can mean either “towards” or “against” to show that missing it has the potential of causing one to miss the Hebrew meaning. The ESV has “or against” as a footnote in both Genesis 3:16 and 4:17. The ESV xii states, “The footnotes included in the ESV Bible are an integral part of the text and provide important information concerning the understanding and translation of the text.” My comment, however, did not advocate “against” as the best translation here. Both times I used “against,” I included it after “towards.” Twice I gave translations with just “towards.” There are many ways to express the common human experience since humankind’s disobedience of wives desiring to control their husbands.

  10. Ron, thanks for the link to the TGC post. Obviously, a lively discussion ensued over there. Yes, Martin’s comments were good, but so were many before him.

    Philip, when you say someone else is saying something that is “This is not true” that sounds like you are making an accusation of deception. It’s very different to saying someone is wrong, or that you disagree, both of which are fine.

    I also think you made my point that “towards” or “against” are possibilities for the Hebrew preposition here, but “for” is a preferable translation. None of the main ET’s (ESV, NAS, NIV, NRSV) render it that way. The fact that only one ESV even lists it in a footnote would suggest, as I said above, it’s a possibility, but a minority view at best. I’ll make other comments offline.

  11. I always took this as referring to Eve ruling over Adam but I admit it is not lock tight. I don’t know Hebrew but it is interesting that the conjuction “and” is used between the desire and ruling statements as opposed to “but” which would more clearly connect them making it more obvious that it is speaking of the desire to rule.

    In defense of the ruling view, the context of the verse is clearly negative with the curses. So, if the desire is sexual, how is it to be viewed negatively without seeing sex as a negative thing? The Song of Solomon passage is clearly good. Seems to be more problematic if it is taken as referring to sexual desire.


  12. For your consideration:

    These are the best, most accurate translations:

    Genesis 4:7 – “Will you not, if you do the right thing, be uplifted? And if you don’t do the right thing, there at the entryway lies a (male goat), a sin offering. He is turning towards you, so rule over him.”

    Genesis 3:16 – “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pain in pregnancy. In painful toil you will bear children but your turning will be towards your husband (like a sheep turns toward its shepherd); therefore he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16)

  13. That’s creative, Jennifer. I never would have dreamed of that translation.

    Never would have dreamed of sheep. Much less goats.

    But I just don’t see them in the picture at all. And I have to read way ahead in this book in order to understand the symbolism involved. Serious anachronism issues there.

    Instead, I see a continuation of the hostility in play between the man and the woman.
    Of the man claiming subterfuge from the woman. And of God saying,’Get used to it. Since that tendency is now intrinsic (as sin and death now is)’.

    Of Adam complaining that Eve had rebelled against his priestly role in Eden.
    And God saying to Adam, ‘And since you were an accessory in that rebellion, now The Garden will rebel against you as well!’.

    A double whammy for Adam.
    As well as a double whammy for Eve.

    And not just the whammy for Eve of giving birth with serious pain, but also the intrinsic whimsy of being a serious pain to her priest, with her desire to rule over him.

    Strangely, this double whammy for women is seen as the pain in giving birth, as well as the pain in raising children in this instructional video-

    But I don’t find that nearly as clear.

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