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 to your husband, And he shall rule over you. [Genesis 3:16]*
The key to understanding this passage lies in correctly understanding the Hebrew phrase “Your desire shall be to your husband.” More to the point, the key words are the words “desire shall be to.” What does the phrase mean?
The New King James Version is pretty straightforward in translating the passage with no interpretation whatsoever. Other translations which simply translate the phrase without adding an interpretation or coloring the meaning are the Christian Standard Bible, the Complete Jewish Bible, the Holman Christian Standard Bible, the Modern English Version, the New American Standard Bible, the New International Version, and the New Revised Standard Bible.
Some translations interpret the phrase rather than simply translate the phrase. The interpretations fall into two basic categories. The first, and more prevalent category follows the interpretation that the phrase means the woman will have affectionate desire for her husband. Translations/paraphrases which follow this interpretation are: the Amplified Bible [both the original edition and the 2015 update], the Contemporary English Version, the Good News Translation, the Living Bible, the Message, the New Century Version, and the Voice.
The second interpretation only appears in two translations, but those translations actually are the ones to capture the meaning of the idiom. Those two translations are the English Standard Version and the New Living Translation. What these translations indicate in rendering the passage is that the phrase means the woman would desire to dominate, control and oppose her husband.
“But wait a minute! How do you derive that meaning from the text? It seems pretty straightforward.” I hear some say.
In the first place, let’s look at the clause which immediately follows: “But§ he shall rule over you.” This is a contrast to the clause immediately preceding, not a coordinative. Had the woman now possessed a natural desire to be obedient to her husband, this would have been unnecessary.
The fact of the matter is that in the Fall, the relationship of the woman to the man was turned on its head. The woman was created to be a helper for man, not the other way around. But after Eve ate the forbidden fruit, she usurped a position of dominance in the relationship. She ordered Adam to eat the fruit also and he complied.†
The part of the curse then is that women would strive for dominance over men in their relationships, but that God has ordained headship of families to be invested in the husbands.
Still questioning that interpretation? Look at Genesis 4:7. In this passage, God told Cain that sin was crouching at his door, and its [sin’s] desire was for him. The construction of the Hebrew phrase is identical to that found in Genesis 3:16 in which God said the woman’s desire would be for her husband. Moreover, this Hebrew phrase is found nowhere else in the Old Testament. Every commentary is agreed that in the context of Genesis 4:7, the phrase means that sin desires to control, dominate, and enslave Cain. Therefore, it stretches credulity to suggest that the phrase has the opposite meaning in Genesis 3:16—that woman will desire to please men rather than control them.
Further evidence that this is indeed the case is seen in the New Testament. If women are inclined by nature to seek to please a husband rather than control him, it would not have been necessary for Paul to write on two separate occasions, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. [Ephesians 5:22. See also Colossians 3:18.]
And again, if the natural inclination of women is to submit to male authority and leadership, it would not have been necessary for Paul to instruct Timothy, And I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over man, but to be in silence. [1 Timothy 2:12]
Some commentators claim, based on a flawed interpretation of Galatians 3:28, that because there is no male or female in Christ, there is no distinction between male and female in either authority or function in either the family or the church. The flaw in such an interpretation is that it ignores both the immediate context of the passage within the letter to the Galatians, as well as the broader context of the entire Bible. The immediate context speaks of justification by faith and that God does not make distinctions based on gender, national origin, socio-economic status, or ethnicity as to whom may be a recipient of God’s salvific grace. The passage speaks not a word concerning one’s authority within the family or the church.
Using Scripture to interpret Scripture, relying on the fuller revelation based on passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:3-13 and 1 Timothy 2:9-15, which were written after Galatians‡, clearly sets forth distinctions between the functions and roles of men and women in society, families, and the church which have not been set aside or annulled by the cross.
* Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
§ Some translations render the conjunction as “and.” However, rendering the conjunction as “but” is not merely linguistically acceptable, it makes perfect sense in the context. See William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1988), pp. 84-85.
† Note the wording in Genesis 3:17, when God is then speaking to Adam, He states that the ground is to be cursed because Adam had “heeded” the voice of Eve. Other translations render the Hebrew word um^v* [pronounced “shaw-MAH”] as a milder verb “listened” — but the word denotes obedience to a command from a superior to an inferior. In other words, Eve usurped the role of God and demanded that Adam join her. Adam willfully elevated Eve to the status of God in obeying her, so his sin was not merely disobeying the command of God, but was an act of idolatry by placing his wife in the position of God.
‡ Most commentators date the epistle to the Galatians between AD 49 – 52. First Corinthians is dated between AD 55 – 57. First Timothy is dated between AD 62 – 64. See C. I. Scofield, et al, Scofield Study Bible, NKJV edition (New York: Oxford University, 2002), pp. 1574, 1609, 1648; John MacArthur, MacArthur Study Bible, NKJV edition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), pp. 1726, 1786, 1857; John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (general editors), The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament Edition (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1983), pp. 506, 588, 729.