What is the Woman’s “Desire” in Genesis 3:16b?

It has been interesting to see how the meaning of the word often translated as “desire” in Genesis 3:16b has been treated in popular vs. scholarly circles. The former often tends to treat the term as obvious in meaning even though this has been far from the case from the perspective of Egalitarian and Complementarian scholars alike. The reason for this is that in the past there has been very little available for reaching any sort of confident conclusion on the matter (only three uses in the entire Old Testament). In my opinion, if there is little to go by then one should not be dogmatic about any conclusion reached in regards to this word.

The way most scholars end up deciding the term’s meaning is an appeal to a  “context” or one’s already established theology in combination with scant evidence and this may be because there are so very few examples of this word in the Old Testament.[1]  Currently, the most popular understandings of  “t’shoo-kah” are: 1) the woman’s sexual desire, or 2) a desire to be subjugated, or to be overly dependant or, 3) Eve’s desire to dominate her husband. However, an additional option has reemerged on the scene that is in agreement with how the Greek Old Testament understands the word. Admittedly, I had previously opted for the third and dismissed this fourth option—as did most commentators I have read. What has changed my mind very recently however has been the availability of seven new examples to work with from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Before going into what I think is the better option, I will explain the advantages and disadvantages of the other options.

Sexual Desire

The first view, which understands Eve’s desire to be sexual in nature, has the advantage of being able to draw from the context in Song of Songs where the desire is of a sexual nature. In addition it can utilize an Arabic root “^saqa” which is a passionate longing compatible with Song of Songs 7:11.[2] It also draws from the immediate context of the pain in childbearing mentioned previously. Still, this view often relies too heavily on preconceived theology and speculation. For example, Gordon Wenham finds he must resolve the tension between Adam’s rule placed in the curse section and an understanding of the rest of Genesis before the fall to be in favor of exclusive female subordination. He decides: “Women often allow themselves to be exploited n this way because of their urge toward their husband: their sexual appetite may sometimes make them submit to quite unreasonable male demands.”[3] Whether or not most would actually concur that female sexuality is the culprit behind falling for unreasonable male demands, this view does utilize some of the immediate context and at least the context of one of the Old Testament uses of the noun form of the word.

Desire to be Subject

The second view, believes the woman’s desire is to be subjugated or dependant. This can be understood under a positive or negative backdrop concerning male authority. Exclusive submission to leadership itself may be seen as motivated primarily by the result of the fall or it is often understood to be something good that existed before, but now functions as a curse in the new context of fallen male domination. Michael Stitzinger takes the latter option, but awkwardly fits it in the context of what he perceives as Eve’s failure to obey Adam earlier. The text of course does not say this anywhere, but this is the presupposed theological paradigm being used to interpret an addition passage even if it does not quite explain why the desire here is for submission when elsewhere it was not evident and admittedly female “sin nature precludes that they will do this.” So, Eve didn’t do it before and women don’t tend to do this later—but this context indicates that Eve’s desire is for submission? Despite these weaknesses, one of the strengths of this view is also the use of the Arabic root “^saqa” which Stitzinger understands to be a deep female longing to be submissive to one’s husband.[4] However, even the best feature of this view and the previous one is criticized by Foh who points out that the similar word “saqa” is actually phonetically the equivalent Arabic word which instead means “to urge, drive on, impel.”[5]

Desire to Dominate

The third vew, which understands Eve’s desire to be to dominate her husband, is the stronger one of the three options. The biggest strength of this view is that it follows the usual convention of first drawing from how the word is used in the same book of the passage in question. It takes seriously the grammatically, and arguably contextually similar passage not far away in Genesis 4:7 where sin’s desire is for Cane, but he must master it. The same word meaning “to rule” is used in both and both are set in negative contexts. In both one could easily understand the desire to be to possess and control.

This view also utilizes properly the Arabic word “saqa” that is the phonetic equivalent to the “s” in Hebrew. The weakness of this view is in line with the weaknesses of all the other views discussed (too little data) as well as the usage not quite fitting Song of Songs since the desire here would not be forced or negative in that context.

Not “Desire” but “to Return”

This final view understands the word to mean not desire, but “to return.”  It is actually an older understanding of the term, but previously thought to be a misunderstanding of the word’s meaning by the Greek Old Testament.[6] However, now we have new evidence available to consider—seven new examples of the term.

Joel Lohr utilizes other instances of the word found in the non-biblical portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In each of the examples, “desire” is not the best fit and instead “turning” or “returning” is a better match. For the sake of brevity, I will only provide a partial sampling of two of his seven examples and italicize and number the options within the text. For the first example we have: “At what shall one born of woman be considered in your presence? Shaped from dust has he been, maggots’ food shall be his dwelling; he is spat saliva, moulded clay, and 1) for dust is his longing 2) to dust is his return…” (1QS 11:21-22). Lohr points out that the first option makes little sense and the last brings clarity. “The mortal, taken from clay, shall eventually be the food of worms. The one molded from saliva and clay will return to it…the one made of clay is but dust and will return to dust.”[7]Another example is from the War Scroll which says, “Do not fear or be discoura[ged, may y]our heart not be faint…do not turn back or [flee from the]m.  For they are a wicked congregation; all their deeds are in darkness and to it 1) go [their] desires 2) they will return…”(1QM 15:8-11). In isolation either option makes sense in the sentence. However, telling the congregation not to fear because those who do dark deeds will return to darkness gives a reason for the courage “because the enemy will be powerless and will return to darkness, not to be a threat again.”[8]

Overall, the strength of this view is that it succeeds where the others fail. It has more examples to go off of and makes sense out of the LXX’s decision. The study also does a survey indicating that ancient Jewish and Christian interpreters “regularly, if not always, understood” the word “as an action involving the return of the subject or thing.” This means there is a common way the word was perceived by the ancients. Interestingly, this translation also makes sense in the three contexts in the Old Testament. In Song of Songs the woman waited uncertain for her lover to return to her. Cain could easily be warned that sin would return to him if he did not master it and Eve would return to her source—the man who will rule over her.[9] This last part resolves the unevenness of the section and reveals parallelism. Just as Adam will return to “adama,” (earth) so “issa” (woman) will return to “is” (man) whom she was taken from.

What does this mean for the gender debate and male leadership? I am not entirely sure of what the implications are yet since this is new for me and there has not been much theological reflection on this reading. I am certain that one’s pre-established theology will certainly come into play though. Also, in the future I would like to compare this passage with Paul’s statements where he understands “head” to mean source.

So far the theology that is revealed in this passage has to do with the idea of returning to one’s source. The sin of the fall was trying to seek wisdom (true knowledge of good and evil) apart from God and in opposition to the one who formed them. Adam and Eve asserted their autonomy over and against God even though they were merely creatures and God is the true source of wisdom (perhaps the tree of Knowledge would have been available to them later if they obeyed). As a result of the curse, the man and the woman will become intimately aquainted with their creaturliness as they return to the sources of their origins which are now tainted by the fall. Adam will die and return to adama, Eve will return or turn to the man she was taken from, but he will rule over her.

            [1] The uses are Genesis 3:16, 4:7 and Song of Songs 7:11.

[2] Brown, F., S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament             (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907), 1003.

            [3] Gordon, Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary V.1: Genesis 1-15 (Waco, Texas: Word Books,             1987), 81.

            [4] Michael, Stitzinger, “Genesis 1-3 and the Male/Female Role Relationship” Grace Theological Journal 2 (1981): 42.

            [5] Foh, Susan T., “What is the Woman’s Desire?” Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1975):             378.

            [6] Victory, Hamilton, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of             Genesis Ch. 1-17 (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Pub, 1990), 201.

            [7] Joel, Lohr “Sexual Desire?” Journal of Biblical Literature 2 (2011): 240-241.

            [8] Ibid., 242-243.

            [9] Ibid., 244.

3 thoughts on “What is the Woman’s “Desire” in Genesis 3:16b?

  1. Very, very cool!

    This reading fits with the creation theme-after the fall, Adam and Eve return to the thing they came from, becoming less differentiated from it than they were before, thus bringing about a small undoing of the differentiation God undertook in Gen 1 when he separated the waters and made different stuff from uniformity.

  2. Hey Allison,

    Thank you for laying out the majority of options for the view. After grading dozens of assignments for Pentateuch & Historical Books at Trinity on this issue these past two years, I have two suggestions/questions: (1) Might Walton’s view (in NIV Application Commentary) of ‘basic instinct’ be a better middle-ground that covers all cases equally well? Or, could ‘desire (to possess)’ be the general meaning, with the negative or positive connotations coming only from the immediate context of each passage? (2) Having read Lohr’s position, I am confused as to what it actually involves, even if he is correct. What does it mean for the woman to ‘return’ to her source in the man? I doubt he means some sort of fusion with skin grafts, so doesn’t his position end up the same as another version of the sexual or (submissive?) dependence options? If the ‘return’ involves relational intimacy of any sort, then Lohr’s position amounts to a softened variety of the options he argues against, as far as I can see.

    Either way we should not assume patriarchal views are espoused. That is a different question.



    • Hello, Sorry for the very very late response (I have not actually been blogging for a while). If you are still out there, how does Walton’s view cover all cases equally well and what is the lexical evidence he provides?

      As for Lohr’s position, I was also unsure on the implications (evidence just seemed to point there). You might be right in thinking it has to do with a one-way submission (submission itself is a positive thing in Scripture), especially with the he will rule over you description. The man returns to his source- the earth and that is bad. So whatever it is, it is not a positive thing.

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