when ‘desire’ is wrong

Genesis 3 recounts the undoing of the intimate relationships established in the previous chapter between humans and God, between the man and the ground, between the woman and the man. In recent decades most of the discussion seems to have been over what God says to the woman, traditionally translated something like:

[Yhwh Elohim] said to the woman:

I will intensify your labor pains;
you will bear children in anguish.
Your desire will be for your husband,
yet he will rule over you. (HCSB)

Of most interest is the syntax of the second half of the verse and the meaning of the word translated “desire.” While most studies have sought to clarify the nature of this desire, I want to suggest that perhaps the word “desire” is not the best way to render the Hebrew at all. Read on for more.

Genesis 3:16 has prompted some quite horrendous interpretations. Delitzsch, for example, remarked:

The God-offending independence with which the woman acts in her encounter with the tempter and then sinfully overcomes her husband is punished in what is next declared to her. Her reward for this is the almost morbid and continual desire she should experience towards the man in spite of the perils and pains of child-birth, that natural attraction which will not let her free herself from him, that weak dependence which impels her to lean upon the man, and to let herself be sheltered and completed by him. (Genesis, pp. 165–166)

I don’t think this sort of interpretation is warranted at all, and a good hard look at the word תשוקה tĕšûqâh, which is translated “desire,” makes this clear. So what can we say about this word?

  • The term תשוקה tĕšûqâh occurs only three times in the Hebrew Bible: Gen 3:16; 4:7; Song 7:11 [v. 10 in English].

  • There are a number of less obscure Hebrew terms which can be used to express ‘desire’ in the sense many attribute to this term here.

  • Greek translations of these verses translate it with the words ἀποστροφή (apostrophē, ‘return, turn back’, Gen 3:16; 4:7) and ἐπιστροφή (epistrophē, ‘return, turning’, Song 7:10). These Greek words are elsewhere used to render Hebrew words derived from the root שוב (šûḇ) such as תשובה (tĕšûḇâh). This suggests that either the Vorlage of the Greek had a different Hebrew word or, more likely, that the translators had difficulty understanding the term תשוקה and so treated it as if it were תשובה. Hence the Greek versions shed little light on the meaning of this term.

  • It would appear that etymological considerations may have played some part in assigning the meaning ‘desire’ to this word. These discussions generally appeal to cognates in Arabic. BDB, for example, notes a proposed Arabic cognate ٔشَوْق ‘desire’. It goes on to correctly note that the association for Arabic שׁ = ش is doubtful (and this is backed up by comparative semitic linguistics); and so proposes َسَاق ‘drive, impel’. This later connection is made more fully by Susan Foh and is doubtless the more correct etymology for the Hebrew.1 In light of this a possible English gloss would be ‘control’.

  • In spite of the etymology of the term, the overriding consideration is that it makes sense in the contexts in which it appears. To work out whether the gloss ‘control’ works we need to determine whether it fits in the various contexts in which this word appears. In brief:

    • Gen 3:16 The parallel line in the poetic couplet refers to the husband ruling (משל, māšal). This doesn’t prove that the term is close in meaning to “rule” but does indicate that such a meaning would fit the context.
    • Gen 4:7 Here the תשוקה tĕšûqâh belongs to the ‘crouching sin’ at the doorway. Contextually it makes better sense if we understand this verse to say that this sin wishes to control Cain but that Cain must master it. Hence ‘control’ makes good sense in this context.
    • Song 7:11 [E 10] Initially it might appear that the traditional understanding of the noun תשוקה tĕšûqâh might fit better in the context of love poetry. However, a closer inspection shows this isn’t necessarily true. The first clause here is an expression of possession or ownership: “I am my beloved’s.” This could easily be paralleled by something like “and his control is over me.” Furthermore, within the context of love poetry, harsh language is sometimes used to express intensity. Consider, for example, Song 7:6 [English v. 5] where the term אסר ʾāsar ‘tie, bind, imprison’ — a term used almost exclusively of harsh captivity — is used to refer to the king’s infatuation for a woman. Consequently, the idea of ‘control’ fits well in this context.

    Thus the proposed meaning ‘control’ fits in all the contexts in which this term appears in biblical Hebrew.

  • The word appears as part of a verbless clause in Gen 3:16 (and 4:7). Generally, verbless clauses preserve the deictic centre of the preceding context (this assertion is based on observation and probably warrants formal study if such has not already been carried out). Since the preceding clauses have yiqtol verbs and are modal/future (depending on what you want to do with the verbs in Hebrew), it is natural to read this clause along similar lines, hence (to the wife): “your control will (try to?) be to your husband.”

Consequently it is probably best to dispense with the notion of “desire” in Genesis 3:16 except as a means to express the modality of the expression. If that sense is considered appropriate for this clause, there seems little reason not to read the subsequent clause in the same way. Hence we might translate this portion of Gen 3:16 as follows:

You will seek to control your husband,
and he will seek to rule over you.2

The upshot of all of this is that the best understanding of these words to the woman in Genesis 3 is that they reflect a breakdown of the intimate relationship established between the man and woman in chapter 2 where both wife and husband vie for control within the marriage relationship.

addendum i: the esv(2016) update

Just days after publishing the above it came to my attention that the ESV has updated its translation of the verse which now reads:

Your desire shall be contrary to your husband,
but he shall rule over you.

As others have pointed out, this makes the verse prescriptive rather than descriptive, as if to say that women will inevitably and invariably behave this way. While I think “desire shall be contrary” is an attempt to render תשוקה correctly, it seems a rather poor attempt. As noted above, I think rather that it depicts conflict between husband and wife, just as there is conflict between serpent and the woman’s seed.

addendum ii: evaluation of andrew macintosh, “the meaning of hebrew תשׁוקה”

Shortly after writing the above the latest edition of the Journal of Semitic Studies appeared with an article by Andrew Macintosh discussing this issue.3 He begins with Song 7:11 (v. 10 in English versions), I think that’s a mistake given the genre of that text. Just think about English songs about love and you’ll hear lyrics telling us that we’re a “slave to love,” “addicted to love,” and equally harsh things about love. Well Song of Songs is a Hebrew love song, and it says some harsh things too, using language about being held captive and so on. Macintosh makes some assumptions about what Song 7:11 says based on a failure to adequately account for the nature of the genre. It just isn’t the right place to start. At the end of his article he uses Song as the decisive factor in favouring his interpretation over that of Joüon (p. 384–385). On p. 385 he writes “The case [Joüon] makes has some force in respect of the two verses from Genesis and their respective contexts, but it seems somewhat contrived in the case of Cant., where radical equality, rather than domination, is celebrated.” I think the reverse is true: Macintosh places too much weight on his understanding of Song 7:11.

Other problems I have with Macintosh’s article are his failure to note that the Greek frequently translates Hebrew words from the root שוב with στρεφω/στροφη words. Furthermore, the paleo forms of ב and ק are more easily confused than they are in the square (Aramaic) script. All this lends credence to Ch. Rabin’s claim that the later meaning of “desire” was unknown at the time Gen and Song were composed and Rösel’s view (cf. Macintosh, pp. 374–375) that the Greek translator did not understand the Hebrew. As I’ve said above, I think there’s a good case to be made that the Greek translator misread the Hebrew as being תשובה.

Finally, I was surprised that Macintosh didn’t interact at all with Foh.

In the end, Joüon’s and Foh’s understanding fits better with the context of Gen 3:16 and 4:7, so I’m sticking with the understanding that Gen 3:16 depicts the rise of enmity in the relationship between the husband and wife.

  1. Foh, S. T., “What is the Woman’s Desire?” WTJ 37 (1974–75) 376–383.
  2. This understanding is now reflected in a very few modern English translations of the text: the EXB (Expanded Bible), the NET, and the NLT.
  3. Andrew Macintosh, “The Meaning of Hebrew תשׁוקה,” Journal of Semitic Studies LXI/2 (2016) 365–387.

2 thoughts on “when ‘desire’ is wrong

  1. Something that the Greek translation does is highlight the conceptual parallels between the judgment on the woman and the judgment on the adam. The woman’s ‘returning’ shall be to the man (verse 16) and the man shall ‘return’ to the earth (verse 19). Both are frustrated in their relationship with their source. Considering the substantial parallels between the two judgments, I am surprised that more isn’t generally said about this. Even if the linguistic parallel doesn’t exist, shouldn’t we expect some degree of a conceptual parallel?

  2. Thanks for that observation Alastair. Of course I might say that the Greek introduces the concept rather than highlight it, given that this doesn’t appear to be present in the Hebrew (at least on my understanding).

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