Is Female Desire a Curse?

The tale of male-female interaction in the first few chapters of Genesis is surely a mysterious one. They are rich with new generation, new institution, new foundational stories that will carry on into the New Testament and into our lives. How we read Genesis is absolutely relevant to how we live. Today we look into the enigma of the curse of man and woman: they disobeyed and ate of the tree of life, and thus their plight is ours.

We’ll begin by¬†stating the claim, the issue, and the difficulty.

The claim is sundry, depending on the gender, theology, and many other factors of the claimant. Is he/she inclined toward Complementarianism¬†or Egalitarianism?¬†The claimant might view the curse as an imperative or indicative, as an inevitable outcome. It may reflect his/her understanding of the Edenic (pre-curse) state of relationships; i.e., did Eve before the curse desire to usurp Adam’s role, or was there a discrete role for either of them anyway?

The claim can also be summed simply in a question: Does God condone a patriarchal relationship between husband and wife, or does he not? Or, Is this relationship complementary? Is it Egalitarian, completely equal in role? I invite you to think deeply about this question as we dive into the text.

After God gives the curse to the serpent, he says to the woman:

“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.

Then to Adam he said, ‘Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, “You shall not eat of it”:

Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for dust you are, and to dust you shall return.'” (NKJV)

As you read above, bare before the text, you may have had¬†some thoughts. Maybe you have heard something in a sermon, on television, or¬†from a strand¬†of someone’s conversation. Hold on to that! Let’s talk about the issue.

The serpent, Eve, and Adam were cursed because of the altercation between them: the serpent deceived, Eve ate, Adam ate.¬† As the text seems to evince, in v.16 God says of Eve that her desire will be (while the text lacks a “be” verb, it is sensible to fill it in with a future tense verb, “will/shall be”) for her husband, and her husband will rule over her. Clearly, there will be some semblance of ruling by one and submission by another, whether or not it God intends that relation to be lived out by us today.

Another issue is in the following verse: Adam both listened to his wife and ate from the tree which he forbade, thereby also incurring a curse over man. We wonder, Was it a bad thing that Adam…*gasp*… listened to his wife? Incorrigible! So, is Adam’s curse a consequence of eating from the tree? or was it from listening to Eve? or were both joint reasons?

Further issues may arise as we continue, either from seeing this text with new eyes or, perhaps, from recalling some theological preconceptions about Edenic or post-Edenic relationships.

If the claims about this text are sundry, the difficulties may be ever more. The syntax of v. 16c, d (“Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you”) almost identically parallel Gen. 4:7, when God speaks to Cain–who is on the verge of successfully slaying his brother Abel:

“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.” (NKJV)

It may already be readily apparent to you: the parallel syntax is… not exactly parallel. Well, it is, but it is rendered differently, at least in NKJV translation. (You will likely find them rendered differently in all English translations for quite the reasons you will soon see.)

Why, if the text so clearly mimicking Gen. 3:16, would it be rendered differently in 4:7?

A second difficulty is with the Hebrew waw, which¬†is a primary¬†conjunction. It can be rendered in several ways, but generally means either “and” or “but.” (If you are an acute reader, you have already noticed it.) Compare “and he shall rule over you” to “but you should rule over it.”) Does the intentional parallel syntax mean that the two phrases’ proximity demand an identical rendering? In other words, should the “he shall” versus the “you should” be the same? Likewise, should the waw “and” and the waw “but” be the same? Why or why not?

Let’s begin by analyzing the verse in its context. In the list of the curse for Eve, it says Eve’s “desire” shall be for her husband. The word desire, teshuqah, naturally has a benign connotation. Its three uses are in Gen. 3:16, our main text, Gen. 4:7, our secondary text, and Song of Solomon 7:10.

The verse reads, “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is toward me,” in the context of the Shulamite’s rhapsodic expression toward Solomon, her lover. Solomon’s teshuqah is markedly benign, and it is quite intimate.¬†(Notably, there is no verse here about one ruling over another.)

However, the teshuqah of sin in Gen. 4:7: Is it benign? In its immediate context, it cannot be. Sin, the manifestation of the cunning serpent, is definitely malign and to be avoided. Its desire is to rule over (mashal) Cain, but God is telling him he should overcome it–overcome sin and its desire.

Is Eve’s desire, then, benign?

If 3:16 is rendered, “your desire shall be for your husband, and/but he shall rule over you,” with a teshuqah similar to the Shulamite’s, treating the waw as “and” or as “but” doesn’t really matter. Whether or not Adam rules over her has little to do with her intimate desire for her husband. It is like saying “I love you” and receiving the response, “I am the household leader.” It doesn’t make sense.

Further, it is¬†odd to use an¬†indicative tone in the context of¬†a curse: Is Eve’s¬† intimate desire for her husband an imprecation, a bad thing?¬†Why then would it matter if Adam ruled over her? Again, if the desire is benign, the text becomes unintelligible.

Yet, if 3:16 is rendered, “your desire shall be to overcome your husband,” then God is speaking of a power struggle between the two spouses–the desire is rather¬†malign.¬† If, then, Eve’s teshuqah is malign, it makes little sense to then say, “and he shall rule over you.” Because of the curse, Eve’s usurping desire will not be fulfilled; it will be overturned. Instead–shall we say “but”?–Adam will rule over her.

Rendering the waw as “and” conveys a continuation in the thought, which is why it is called a “consecutive waw.” The waw as an adversative rather than a consecutive (“but” vs. “and”) indicates a reversal in want. Eve may want to overcome her husband, but Adam will rule over here.

This rendering¬†hearkens the¬†Edenic state of the first conjugal relationship. Eve is naturally created to supplement Adam–and it is (was) benign–but because of the curse she sought to overcome him and take his place; and because of the curse Adam will rule over her.

Now, if the syntax of Gen. 3:16 and 4:7 are identical, and if the desires of both Eve and sin were malign, should they be rendered in the exact same way?

Yes, nearly. Let’s review the first verse.

3:16: “Your desire shall be to overcome your husband, but he shall rule over you.”

Instead of, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

The only difference in the rendering of 3:16 and 4:7 should be with… well, the “should.”

4:7: “And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.”

The imperfect of mashal (yimshal) is the future tense conjugation of a verb. This means it can be translated as will/shall or should/must. The first set is entirely future-oriented: some indicative action will occur by mandate or nature. If that were the case, Cain would have succeeded in overcoming sin at his door and would have not killed Abel in the succeeding verse. The second set (should/must), however, is a moral imperative: “you should/must,” even if you are unable. As we can see, he at that time was unable, as he killed Abel.

Therefore, 4:7 should remain rendered thus:

“And its desire is for you (that is, to overcome you), but you should/must rule over it.”

Wait, what about that one time God chastised Adam about listening to his wife? It is not that Adam incurred the imprecation because he listened or heeded Eve; it is because Eve’s request to eat of the fruit was against God’s command. If what Eve requested Adam comported with God’s command, it would be no transgression.

If I chastised my child and told him he was in trouble because he “listened to his brother and jumped off his bunk bed,” I would have qualms with the fact that he did it, whether the idea was born from his thoughts or his brother’s. Likewise, Adam’s sin of disobeying God’s command just so happened to coincide with Eve’s sinful suggestion. They were equally guilty, yet God placed the onus of blame onto Adam.

In sum, because of the covenant couple’s sin, the curse caused Eve now to have a desire to overcome the leadership role of Adam, and now Adam will rule over her. These consequences contrast an Edenic or ideal relationship between spouses: Adam is assumed to be the leader, who is complemented by his helper, Eve.

The post-curse desire for Eve to overcome or usurp Adam is not good, malign. It is the result of the Fall. The Edenic state is one of harmony. Its desire was benign and intimate, not malign and divisive.

The post-Fall relationship between male and female, or rather husband and wife, is doubtless made to be beautiful and honoring. In all relationships, look toward God’s example in the New Testament in Ephesians 5:22-28:

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body.¬†Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her,¬†that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.¬† So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself.” (NKJV)

Do you have different notions of the relationship between Adam and Eve, between contemporary husband and wife? Share your thoughts.