Genesis 3:16, The Song of Women
As I studied my next topic – Genesis 3:16 – I was challenged to understand exactly what it said. Judging from its various biblical translations, I’m the rule, and not the exception!
The NIV, ESV, and NASB seemingly agree that a woman’s lot in life is the physical pain of labor, but are ambiguous about her relationship to her husband, as witnessed by this example:
“To the woman [the LORD] said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”” (Genesis 3:16, NIV)
The reason it’s “ambiguous” is because the phrase “your desire will be for your husband” can mean a) ‘all women will desire to marry a husband’, b) ‘your desire will be for your husband to succeed’ or c) anything you desire will be reserved for your husband’s approval.
This latter point is the trajectory of the KJV family, akin to:
“I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” (KJV)
Note that the KJV versions read that women will experience emotional pain – “sorrow”, as opposed to physical labor pains, as read in the other most popular translations.
However, these translations are mild compared to the NLT or NET Bible:
“I will greatly increase your labor pains; with pain you will give birth to children. You will want to control your husband, but he will dominate you.” (NET Bible)
OK then! This translation paints ALL women with the same strokes appropriate for Jezebel. It’s apparent that the NET Bible took this verse’s ambiguity to a whole new level.
What I’m trying to show is that interpretations of this verse are all over the map. Furthermore, some variations lead the reader down a dangerous path, ultimately portraying an unfair picture of both women and God. Consider the quotes from some of the most popular commentaries:
Matthew Henry: “The woman, for her sin, is condemned to a state of sorrow, and of subjection…”
Gill’s Exposition: “this is to be understood of her being solely at the will and pleasure of her husband; that whatever she desired should be referred to him…”
Ellicott’s Commentary: “Among the heathen the punishment was made very bitter by the degradation to which woman was reduced; among the Jews the wife, though she never sank so low, was nevertheless purchased of her father, was liable to divorce at the husband’s will, and was treated as in all respects his inferior.”
This was a small sample, but as we can see from the example of Ellicott, this verse is dangerous that it can be a pre-textual lens for interpreting other scriptures, which does nothing but produce incorrect assumptions about the role of women.
In such cases as these where translations and interpretations differ so greatly, it is usually due to the murkiness of the Hebrew which can cause confusion in the minds of translators. Upon further review, Genesis 3:16 is such a case. It does contain rare and uncommon words, and there’s even something different about its construction.
The transliterated Hebrew of Genesis 3:16 is:
el-ha-ishah amar har’bah ar’beh itz’vonekh w-heronekh’ b’etzev tel’diy baniym w’el-iyshekh’ t’shuqatekh w-hu yim’shal bakh’
Even those with no experience with Hebrew can hopefully still see the poetic license within this verse. Some phrases rhyme (i.e. “amar har’bah ar’beh”, “itz’vonekh w’heronekh”, “w’el-iyshekh t’shuqatekh”) and when pronounced in its entirety, the words are constructed to flow right off the tongue. Obviously, this is by design, because it’s a song.
Songs are strategically written for ease of memory, a benefit for societies steeped in oral tradition (like ancient Israel). In other words, when God inspires poetic justice within the pages of Scripture, it is because He wanted those words to sink deep into the recesses of Israel’s collective memory.
This is why the Song of Moses (see Exodus 15) – which celebreates the Exodus – appears in poetic form. It is why David put the “Song of the Bow” and the rest of his psalms in poetic form; his songs were designed to teach and commit to memory (2 Kings 1:17-25). Moshe wanted the Children of Israel to remember the horse and rider falling into the sea, while David wanted Saul and Jonathan to have a memorial as Yahudah’s first royal family.
So while there is a benefit to incorporating lessons into a song format for the sake of oral tradition, it does carry a disadvantage for modern cultures relying on a more literal tradition. In the case of Genesis 3:16, we seek literal lessons from a poetic context, which is definitely a problem. We fail to consider that the normal construction of the Hebrew was deliberately altered for the sake of rhyming and flow, and also was constructed with rare and uncommon words for the sake of Semitic poetry.
In short, Genesis 3:16 is a challenge! However, we will investigate it further, Lord willing. But let us go forward with the understanding that this is a loose poem that may not mean what we think it means. At a minimum, we must not make brash judgments about women based on how it reads (or how we think it reads) in English, and use it as a backdrop to judge other scriptures about a woman’s purpose. There is a fair amount of grief in life since the fall of Man, but I believe that God can bring beauty from that grief, and an inheritance for both men and women. Ω