Desire and Rule – handling a difficult and controversial text

Aimee Byrd, author of Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood has caused some further controversy with the release of her latest book “Sexual Reformation.” As with her previous book, at least part of the focus is on challenging some of the presuppositions behind the Biblical manhood movement. 

Her most recent target is how Genesis 3:16 has been interpreted by some to suggest that women are at odds with men.   For example, the ESV translates the verse:

16 To the woman he said,

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be contrary to[f] your husband,
    but he shall rule over you.”

Now, not to put a fine point on it, this is a terrible example of over interpretation on the part of translators.  They’ve gone well beyond a formal literal translation which would have simply said

“Your desire shall be to your husband and he shall rule over you.”

Notice first of all, that the ESV appears to turn the text to end up saying the opposite to what the text says.  How has it ended up doing this?  Well, here’s a footnote from my E-Book “Marriage at work” which might shed some light on the matter.

There has been significant discussion on this point because on the one hand, the idea of “desire” or “urge” is portrayed as positive in Song of Songs 7:11, but has negative connotations in Genesis 4:16. Genesis 4:16 most closely parallels Genesis 3 in structure. There the parallel is between sin’s desire for Cain and his need to “rule” or “master”( it.  Thus, rule in Genesis 4 has a positive connotation. Some commentators therefore see Genesis 3 as showing a struggle between men and women, with each attempting to control the other. In other words, God describes a negative consequence of The Fall (whether he is describing a consequence of prescribing a punishment is itself a  moot point). Others consider this to be an act of grace. Even in the consequence of God’s punishment and the painful consequences of sin, God ensures that the creation order continues. See particularly, Susan T Foh, Women and the Word of God. A Response to Biblical Feminism (Phil.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979), 67-69, Henri Blocher, In the Beginning: The Opening Chapters of Genesis (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984),182 and Gordon J Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (WBC 1. Dallas, Tex.: Word, 1987), 82. I am inclined to agree with Wenham that, because the term is rare, “certainty is impossible.” Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 82. However, I would be reluctant to follow an interpretation that takes us down a “Battle of the Sexes” line. The idea of such a battle appears to be a particularly   modern understanding of the male-female relationship. (Fraisse identifies “the idea of a battle of a conflict between the sexes as a problem to be solved” as a 19th Century idea linked to a growing focus on people as individuals. Geneviève Fraise, “A Philosophical History of Sexual Difference” in A History of Women in the West Volume IV Emerging Feminism from Revolution to World War (Ed.Geneviève Fraisse and Michelle Perrot. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993), 73.)

Williams, Marriage at Work, 16 n4.

The point is that this is a tricky verse to interpret because when we look at the vocabulary of desire, there are positive uses of the vocabulary elsewhere.  However, when we look at the structure of the text, it is mirrored in a manner that carries negative connotations in the next chapter.

The first thing this should do is cause us to pause and exercise a bit of caution before making judgements and application on this verse alone. And this is why I have a significant issue with the ESV translation. The ESV usually follows a translation philosophy called “formal-equivalence” where the aim is to track the grammar and syntax of the original text as closely as possible. One of the justifications for this approach is that translators need to be as careful as possible not to constrain the interpretative decisions of the reader. Yet here, the ESV clearly makes a strong interpretative decision and leaves no clues to the reader that the text could be read another way.

This is also important because I’ve seen some people attack Byrd and accuse her on this of rejecting what Scripture says. Yet, it is not Scripture she is rejecting but a particular interpretation of it.

Secondly, as I said above, it does seem that the ESV has made a decision that goes in the opposite direction to which the text seems to point. This does look like a case of the ESV’s editors being affected by complementarian theology in their decisions and the result seems to be that they’ve gone through a two stage process which is “the passage must be negative, so what would be a negative reading of it.”

However, in Genesis 4 where the same structure is used negatively, this does not mean that “sin’s desire” is contrary to Cain’s will. Cain is a sinner and therefore has sinful desires. The point here is that sin desires to control/rule Cain.  So, the point in Genesis 3 is that Eve will desire her husband, he will be the object of her affections, her dreams, her ambitions. 

At this point we are still left with question marks about whether or not the words here are intended as negative or positive. Is it a good thing that her desire is to him.  I think the context of judgement after the fall does give a negative tinge, although we may also see grace at work in the midst of judgement too.

Perhaps though, this pushes us to think in terms of how post fall relationships are often messy, complicated, mixed. I think most couples would acknowledge both the challenges and the blessings of their relationships.  Could it be a negative thing if a wife desires her husband? Well, if that desire becomes possessive and controlling then yes. If it means that she seeks to shape and mould him to her ideals, then yes. However, if her desire is simply about her love and affection towards him, her desire to be with him and share life with him then it is a good thing.

So, when we come to Ephesians 5 I’d suggest that we see teaching that shows how that desire can be expressed in a healthy way because it is now “in the Lord.” The same is true of the husband. He is described as “head” but that is not about him seeking to dominate or control, instead it is about his sacrificial love for her.  How should a husband be “the head”? The answer is “by loving his wife.”  How should a wife submit to her husband (Ephesians 5:22), the answer is by letting him love her.  This then is a relationship where the aim is not to control or master but to seek the well-being and flourishing of the other.

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