Genesis 3:16, No Place for a Woman?
In my last post I proposed that Genesis 3:16 is a song designed to recall the lessons of God. This of course proffers the question, ‘what’s important about this word to women that needs remembering?’
I’ve already proposed why Genesis 3:16 can be dangerous – it can cause unfair judgments about a woman’s “place”, and also God, who supposedly “cursed” her. There are also several deviations in this verse’s translations, my fear being that one can make this verse say anything he wants!
However, an accurate understanding can alleviate these concerns.
The first phrase in the song is:
el-ha-ishah amar har’bah ar’beh itz’vonekh w-heronekh
Our focus should be on “itzavon” because it is a common theme of another song. God also says that MEN will experience “itzavon”: “Cursed is the ground because of you, in itzavon will you eat of it all the days of your life… (Gen. 3:17)”
So if we interpret itzavon correctly, we can identify the theme of these poetic songs spoken to both men AND women. We will ALL experience itzavon; these songs merely elaborate HOW we will experience it. In this case of women, itzavon is directly related to how many pregnancies and (therefore) children she will have. In the case of men, itzavon results from hard labor, primarily in the production of food.
The word itzavon only appears three times in the Hebrew Bible, two of them occurring in these two songs. However, it’s its third and final occurrence – seemingly evoked over a millennia later while recalling these songs – that really shapes our interpretation:
This one will console us from our work and from the <itzavon> of our hand. (Gen. 5:29)
Therefore, itzavon is something needing consolation or comfort. It has nothing to do with the physical pain of childbirth. If itzavon is what a tired mother feels, or a farmer worrying if his crop will feed his family, then I understand itzavon as “stress”.
We can also look at itzavon’s close relative, etzev, which comes from the same root and appears in the next line of Chavah’s song:
b’etzev tel’diy baniym
This is simply a poetic parallel to the first line. In the first line God says, “I will multiply your stress and your pregnancies” and then He reiterates in the second, “in <etzev> you will bear sons.” Etzev has multiple meanings (vessel, hard work), but in a negative context, it describes work that keeps one so busy as to cause the loss of sleep:
It is vain for you to rise up early, to stay up late, eating the bread of <etzev>; for so he gives his beloved sleep. (Psa. 127:2)
Therefore, the “bringing forth” of sons is not describing the birth process. It describes a mother’s hard work that causes stress and sleep deprivation! If that were not enough, the song continues to describe how she will inevitably, after a full day of dealing with the children, interact with her husband as he returns from the fields:
w’el-ishekh t’shuqatekh w’hu yim’shal-b’kh
Most of the controversy surrounds the two verbs, t’shuqah and mashal. Most translations render t’shuqah “desire” despite its mere three occurrences in the Hebrew Bible (cf. Gen. 4:7, Songs 7:10). However, t’shuqah comes from a primitive root meaning “stretching out”, as all concordances attest. Fortunately, the Septuagint allows us to see the consensus of 70 Jewish scribes who utilized the Greek word “apostrophe” in place of t’shuqah. Apostrophe means “turning”, which I interpret as a turning of attention that wives and husbands commonly afford each other at day’s end. This translation also fits the Beloved’s attention to the Shulamite in lieu of the fields (Songs 7:10), and sin’s attention toward Qayin (Cain) when he stumbles (Gen. 4:7).
Let’s remember that both the woman’s and man’s day is spent in itzavon. Their only relief from such stress is each other, but the problem is this “attention” (t’shuqatah) leads to… more children! Additionally, many children were required to help in the unforgiving fields “on account of the land which YHVH had cursed” (Gen. 5:29). In those days children weren’t a choice, they were a matter of survival.
Fields can be neglected for other duties (trading, bartering, selling, etc.), but children cannot. Generally speaking, the woman was always the de facto caretaker, because she had to (for breastfeeding and so forth), while the man completed other tasks “in the sweat of his face” – scavenging, plowing, etc. However, because the mother had to be there, the Word says that the husband “will rule among you.” I think “rule over” invites a negative connotation that is NOT present. The –bet (b) proclitic is used; this has a sense of saying “the husband will rule in your presence”.
Additionally, the verb mashal is often used in conjunction with the duties of a ruler – specifically, how he divides and provides the key resources of his kingdom, household, empire, etc. Examples of this include Yosef (Joseph) “ruling” over Egypt (Gen. 45:8), Avraham’s servant Eliezer “ruling” the goods of Avraham’s house (Gen. 24:2), even the sun and the moon “ruling” in the day and night (Gen. 1:17-18). In the context of Genesis 3:16, it appears Adam is put on notice, as he is the one to responsible for the provisions and survival of his wife and children. Thus, man is judged by the real head of the family – God – on how he “ruled” on behalf of his family. This is hardly divine privilege (neither man nor woman gained anything that day – everything was a demotion), it’s another thing to be stressed about, because as everyone knows, life is tougher now.
These words to Chavah are NOT a curse, nor do they condemn women to a lesser state. Men and women were created as equals, but it’s obvious that women are bound to their children for their well-being and survival as a matter of circumstance. Children need breast milk. Families need food. The mother and father had to provide both, respectively, if their families were to survive. And it’s precisely this element of provision that is the X-factor in the post-Eden world. Before the Tree, God provided everything, and humans wanted for nothing. Now, humans must provide everything just to survive! This element of provision is what causes so much itzavon in life – “stressing” about finances, resources, children etc, etc. The stress we carry daily started right here immediately after the incident at the Tree.
We mustn’t denigrate women to a lower state because of what Chavah did or think this a curse. This is only a circumstance within the context of a marriage with many children – a normalcy throughout history. However, throughout the Word of God, many women, such as Devorah (Deborah), Miriam (Moses’s sister), the Queen of Sheva, Anna the prophetess, and Junia the apostle appear to be highly regarded leaders in the company of men.
When the days of childrearing become stressful, and mothers are at wits’ end, they recall this poetic, rhyming and rhythmic song, as a memorial to what she lost in Eden. All the while the fathers sing their own song.
And these are not just songs, they’re actually commandments to follow to remain in the will of God. All will be explained, God willing.
To be continued! Ω