Australia and America aren’t too far apart culturally; both are Western, educated, and English-speaking. Even so, I learned a new word at The Gospel Coalition national women’s conference: “sidebar.”
Fortunately, I could work out what it meant. Not only did I hear it used three or four times, from several different speakers, but each time it was accompanied by an explanatory hand movement. And, of course, it helped that I was familiar with its two component words: “side” and “bar.”
My experience was nothing special. What we are conscious of doing with unfamiliar words we do less consciously whenever we read or listen to another person. We work out the meaning of their words by observing things like context, genre, subject matter, author intent, use of the same word elsewhere, and so on.
We do a similar thing when we read the Bible. Of course, we are further removed from its language and culture, and thus may have to work a little harder, but the principles are the same.
How then are we to understand God’s written Word, spoken to the woman in Genesis 3:16b: “your desire will be for your husband”?
The word translated desire here occurs only three times in the Hebrew Bible: Genesis 3:16 and 4:7, and Song of Solomon 7:10. In the last of these it refers to proper sexual desire between a man and a woman, although its use with personified sin in Genesis 4:7 suggests this sexual meaning is a connotation of the word rather than what it denotes. The Song of Solomon reference is also less helpful to us than the Genesis references, as it was written considerably later and differs in author, genre, and discourse context.
Many commentators understand its use in Genesis 3:16 to have the sense of “control” or “dominate,” in that the woman’s “desire” is to possess or control her husband.1 In the history of Jewish and Christian interpretation, this same word in Genesis 3:16 has also been understood to mean “returning” or “turning away”; “longing” (in terms of healthy sexual desire and/or emotional yearning); or the unhealthy longing of idolatry.
So which best captures the intended meaning in Genesis 3?
In the first instance, the interpretations that view the woman’s “desire” favorably (e.g., healthy sexual desire or emotional longing) can be ruled out, since they overlook the sinful inclination of all human hearts (Gen. 6:5) and the disharmony introduced to all human relationships as a result of God’s judgment on a rebellious humanity.
Second, we can’t decide on the meaning of “desire” without also considering the meaning of “rule,” especially as the man’s “rule” appears to be a response, a reciprocal action, to the woman’s “desire.”2 This word is used throughout the Old Testament for “rule,” “dominion,” or “reign,” whether by God, human agents, or even the sun and the moon (e.g., Gen. 24:2; 45:8; Isa. 63:19; Gen. 1:18). But if we interpret the woman’s desire as “idolatrous/unhealthy longing,” the reciprocal action of “rule” makes less sense than it does if her prior action was a desire to possess or control her husband.
Third, the “idolatrous longing” interpretation requires reading God into the text: “your longing will be for your husband [when it should be for me, God], but he [your husband] will rule over you.” However, there’s no indication in this text that this inference should be made; rather, the focus of the verse is on the effect of the Fall and God’s judgment on the woman’s human relationships, both in childbearing and with her husband. More broadly, too, the discourse is about the rejection of God’s rule and order of relationships within his creation, and the frustration of that order as a consequence. Idolatry is not obviously on display as it is, for example, in Romans 1:18-27.
Fourth, and fortunately, like the hand movements with “sidebar,” the author has provided a crucial interpretative clue by using the word again in the very next chapter of the Bible. In fact, it occurs in a closely parallel construction. In Genesis 3:16b, God says to the woman: “Your desire shall be for your husband and he shall rule over you.” And, in Genesis 4:7b, God says to Cain: “Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
The links between the two are clear with the repetition of sentence structure and the words translated “desire” and “rule.” That one text is about a human relationship, and the other involves a personification of sin should not concern us. Their proximity and similarity, written as they are by the same author in the same discourse, are enough indication of their utility as interpretative clues for each other, and suggest the meanings of both “desire” and “rule” are similar in both texts.
And so while it might make sense of our experience to understand “desire” as an idolatrous longing that causes some women look to their husbands for that approval and self-identity only God can provide, it fails to make sense of the parallel statement in 4:7. Sin might long for Cain (and us all), but it does so with a malevolent purpose—-not to worship Cain or us, but to have its way with us, to control us (cf. Rom. 6:12-17; 7:8, 11).
However, all these problems are avoided if we take “desire” to have the sense of “possess,” “control,” “direct,” or “dominate.”
This meaning of “desire” in Genesis 3:16 fits with the sentence as a whole—-as the woman’s action finds a reciprocal action from her husband. She desires to possess or control him, and he instead will rule over her.
It fits with the theme of conflict running through God’s judgment, as the different parts of his creation wrestle for control (Gen. 3:14-19). The serpent seeks dominance over humanity, but will be crushed by the woman’s seed. The man seeks to master the ground, but the ground will eventually reclaim him. The woman seeks to control her husband, but will instead be ruled (rather than led) by him. It also fits with the rejection of the roles and responsibilities of the man and the woman in Genesis 3, where the woman acts independently of her husband and leads him into sin, and he follows (cf. 3:1-6, 17).
It fits because it is a distortion of the roles and responsibilities of women and men in Genesis 2 (2:7-24), where the man is the firstborn, is given the law, and has ultimate responsibility in the garden. The woman, on the other hand, is created from the man, and for him (1 Cor. 11:8-9). She is his helper, not his leader. She is lovingly named by him, and joins him in the new family he initiates. Instead of helper, she will seek control. Instead of loving head, he will rule.
It fits with the closely parallel reference to sin and Cain (Gen. 4:7). There, and more generally, sin’s desire is not to worship Cain, nor to give Cain power, but to take it away, having its way with Cain and leading him so that he would follow. Cain is to master sin, not listen to it as the man did his wife (Gen. 3:17). He is to put sin in its place (cf. 1 Pet. 5:9).
And finally, it fits with the different gender roles and responsibilities found in the New Testament, where God’s Word focuses on wives respectfully submitting themselves to their husbands, and husbands sacrificially leading their wives, and women willingly entrusting the teaching leadership of the Christian community to duly appointed men (1 Cor. 14:33-35; Eph. 5:21-33; Col. 3:18-19; 1 Pet. 3:1-8; 1 Tim. 2:11-15; Tit. 2:3-5). That is, the transforming work of the Spirit in this regard is directed toward restoring God’s original order of relationships, not a woman’s inclination to put her husband, or men generally, in the place of God.
Idolatry as Control
Besides all this, I am not convinced the notion of control is foreign to idolatry. It’s clear from the biblical testimony and from forms of idolatry in the modern world that this kind of worship is not offered freely, but in order to ensure things go well for us. It’s an attempt to please or appease the “gods,” to control the thing that’s worshiped, to possess that which is coveted (cf. Col. 3:5). Indeed, relationship experts would tell us that the cloying dependency that appears to idolize another often arises from a desire to gain from that person what we want for ourselves. It is an attempt at control, however covert or passive it might seem.
And so whether we examine Genesis 3:16b up close or zoom out to embrace the whole Bible, the meaning of “desire” as “possess” or “control” makes best sense of what we find. It fits. We might also add that it makes sense of much of our experience, but, of course, that’s a secondary matter.
It may be this view represents something of a new understanding of this text, but that does not mean it is wrong. God is able to give new insights to the meaning of his written Word; indeed, much good biblical scholarship is directed to just this end. Our responsibility is to use the best resources available, sound exegetical methods, and biblically informed, gospel-shaped hermeneutics to study and sit under his Word.
It may be too that our reading of Genesis 3:16—-the woman’s “desire” as “control” or “possess” (like sin’s “desire” in 4:7)—-has come to the fore in the context of the feminist challenge, but that doesn’t make it wrong either. Not only does it accurately describe a universal human experience that long predates feminism—-the conflict of men and women going back to the Fall—-but it also, as we have seen, best reflects the linguistic, literary, and theological considerations of this part of God’s Word.
1 E.g., Foh, “What is the Woman’s Desire?” WTJ 37 (1974/75), 376-83; Wenham, Genesis 1-15. WBC (Waco, TX: Word, 1987), 81-82; Vogels, ‘The Power Struggle between Man and Woman’. Biblica 77 (1996), 197-209. In A New Translation of the Bible (1924), James Moffatt translates the parallel text of 4:7: “[sin is] eager to be at you, but you ought to master it.”
2 The correspondence between these actions is even more likely given the similar construction in Genesis 4:7. In both texts, someone/thing desires, and someone rules.