Did God decree that a wife’s desires would be “contrary” to her husband’s?

Crossway recently announced that the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible would “remain unchanged in all future editions . . . to guard and preserve the very words of God as translated in the ESV Bible.”  That way “people who love the ESV Bible can have full confidence in the ESV, knowing that it will continue to be published as is, without being changed, for the rest of their lives, and for generations to come.”

Update: The next month, Crossway issued a statement saying, “We have become convinced that this decision was a mistake. We apologize for this and for any concern this has caused for readers of the ESV.” Crossway said it would “allow for ongoing periodic updating of the text to reflect the realities of biblical scholarship such as textual discoveries or changes in English over time.”

This so-called “permanent text” of 2016 represents a third revision of the translation, which was first published in 2001 and then revised in 2007 and 2011.  This last text incorporates what the publisher calls “a very limited number of final changes” (“52 words . . . found in 29 verses”) that are designed to make “a substantial improvement in the precision, accuracy, and understanding” of the text at these places.

One of these changes has already become very controversial. In the account of the fall, in previous editions of the ESV, God says to Eve:

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.”

The permanent text now reads, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”  I am not aware of any statement that Crossway or the ESV Translation Oversight Committee may have offered explaining the rationale for this change.  But it appears to me that the concern was that the phrase “your desire shall be for your husband” would be misunderstand to mean that Eve would still want to be emotionally and relationally close to Adam, and that to accomplish this she would accept to live in a household in which he was in authority.

These phrases actually do mean something different.  They appear again, in word-for-word parallel, shortly afterwards in Genesis when God warns Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”  Sin is represented metaphorically as a wild animal poised to pounce on Cain, and this makes clear the meaning of “its desire is for you”: Sin wants to have Cain in its power, but Cain must not succumb to that power; he must remain in control of his own actions.

So it is important to correct the misimpression that Eve has a “desire for” closeness and affection with Adam.  No, she wants to have him in her power.  But he will resist and dominate her instead. In other words, after the fall, marriage is no longer a cooperative enterprise but a struggle between husband and wife for dominance.

However, I don’t think that the ESV has gone about correcting this misimpression the right way.  The expression “your desire will be for your husband” (= “its desire is for you”) is an idiom.  (Like Muhammad Ali famously saying “I want Joe Frazier,” emphasis his, before one of their fights.)  It is not describing an actual desire or longing that a person feels.  Instead, it means, as the New English Translation puts it, “You will want to control your husband.”  The New Living Translation says similarly, “You will desire to control your husband”—desire in the sense of wanting to do something.

But the ESV now uses, for the first time in any English translation, a qualifying adjective, “contrary,” instead a preposition (“for” or “against”) as in Hebrew.  The presence of this adjective requires us to understand this literally as an actual wish, desire, or longing, and one that is necessarily opposed to the husband’s wishes.  Now “he shall rule over you” means not “you won’t be able to control him,” but he will get his way, you won’t get yours!

Still, does this really matter that much, since in any event it portrays a formerly cooperative relationship dissolving into conflict?  I believe it does.  The essential issue here is interpretation rather than translation, but a given translation can serve to advance one interpretation and hinder or prevent another.

The interpretive question is whether redemption restores God’s original intention for marriage, so that within the kingdom of God couples can live out a cooperative enterprise once again, or whether male authority needs to be insisted upon even among regenerate people.

I’d observe that we do everything we can to mitigate all the other effects of the fall as described in Genesis.  We use every technique and medication available to make sure that women have as little pain as possible in childbirth.  I don’t know one man who doesn’t try to make his work as efficient and labor-saving as possible.  (Another effect of the fall was painstaking toil to earn a living.)  So shouldn’t we also believe that we’re supposed to mitigate the distortions in husband-wife relationships, and in male-female relationships generally, that resulted from the fall?

The mandate to do this is clear if the consequences of the fall are that husband and wife will both try to be in control.  Once they become regenerate people, they will treat one another the way the New Testament says all followers of Jesus should treat each other: “Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”  Taking this attitude makes marriage a cooperative enterprise once again.

However, if the consequences of the fall are that husbands and wives will want “contrary” (opposing) things, and the solution is that the husband gets his way, and the wife has to “submit” to that—what’s there to fix?  There’s no conflict when everybody knows who’s in charge.

But leaving things this way is dismal.  How much better it is for both husband and wife to bring all of their increasingly sanctified hopes and wishes and desires to the table, and if some of them differ, for the two of them to seek God earnestly to find a greater plan, more comprehensive and far-reaching than either of them could imagine, that will catch up everything they could hope or dream for into an enterprise that calls for all of their gifts to be used to the fullest, interactively, to bless far more people than they ever could have anticipated.

We should not continue to see a husband’s and a wife’s desires, if they differ, as contrary, in light of provisional arrangements made after the fall.  Instead, we should recognize them as complementary, just awaiting the hand of the Creator to weave them together into something unified and glorious.

“The Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise,” Benjamin West (1791). How many of the effects of the Fall are mitigated by God’s redemption?

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

10 thoughts on “Did God decree that a wife’s desires would be “contrary” to her husband’s?”

  1. The ESV is an admitted masculinist translation, altho they use the euphemism complementarian (note the first e instead of an i). The sexes complement each other, this is different from them complimenting each other. One can count on the ESV to put forward what they consider to be a plausible translation that comports with their teaching of a man ruling over woman caste system.

    What Scripture actually teaches in the area of relations between the sexes is a matter of intense and continuing debate. The 2 basic sides are patriarchy/complementarian and egalitarian/mutuality. I can assure you there are mutualist ways to understand all the relevant gender/sex verses in Scripture, if you wish to discuss, including Gen 3:16.

    1. Yes, I meant to say that a husband’s and a wife’s desires are complementary (“harmonious”), not complimentary (“free of charge”)!

      Please do share your thoughts here on what God says to Eve right after the fall.

      1. My thoughts are shaped largely by those of Joy Fleming, I have 2 articles she wrote in PDF which I can send you if you wish, but I can summarize. I also plan to see what John Walton says and have his book, but have not read it yet.

        As an overview, there are 3 types of sinners in the garden, a deceiving sinner (serpent), a deliberate sinner (man) and a deceived sinner (woman). I listed them in decreasing level of severity of their sin, all sinned, but the consequences for each are appropriate for the severity of their sin. Because of the serpent’s actions, it is cursed. Because of the adam’s actions, the ground (adamah) is cursed, in a word play, where it at first sounds like he will receive a curse until the final syllable is pronounced. However, there are only 2 curses mentioned, not 3 or more. (Orthodox rabbis wrote there were 10 curses on the woman, but the word is not used). This opens up the possibility for what God says in Gen 3:16 to not be all bad things, in other words, we need to assess each one without prior expectation, which is not like the pronouncements to the serpent and the man.

        LITV Gen 3:16 He said to the woman, I will greatly increase your sorrow and your conception; you shall bear sons in sorrow, and your desire shall be toward your husband; and he shall rule over you.

        I like this except the 2 sorrows are different words in the Hebrew, the first is itsabon (part of the curse on the land, sorrowful toil) and the second is etseb (hard labor, often with pain).
        1) increase your itsabon: itsabon is a result of the curse as a result of the man’s actions, it will affect her also.
        2) increase your conception: this is a blessing, she knows from the curse on the serpent that she will have a child (seed), this promises multiple children.
        3) bear sons in etseb: this is a partial blessing, she will have multiple children, although there will be hard labor involved, possibly with pain.
        4) your desire for your husband: even with the hard labor of having sons, she will continue to (sexually) desire her husband.
        5) he will rule over you: this is not a command to her, as it is not in the form of a command and it is not a command to the man, as it is not addressed to the man. So what is it? I see it as a warning from God about what to expect from being married to the deliberate sinner that tried to blame her for his own sin. Note that the Hebrew word for rule is the normal word for rule or dominion, it does not mean a harsh rule or an easy rule, it is any type of rule at all. Note also there is NO authorization from God for this rule, unlike when God tells both the man and woman to rule the animals.

      2. I don’t find this argument by Joy Fleming convincing. Strictly speaking, neither the man nor the woman is “cursed”; the serpent is cursed, and the ground is cursed because of the man. Even so, I don’t see how, in context, we can expect what God says to the man and the woman to be anything but negative consequences of their disobedience.

        “I will greatly multiply thy pain and thy conception” (ASV) is an unfortunately too-literal translation of a hendiadys meaning “thy pain in conception.” Only translations that insist on replicating each word miss this. Even the NASB understands this to mean “your pain in childbirth.” The first two lines of God’s speech to Eve are a poetic parallel (e.g. the ESV ““I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children”); the next two lines are a poetic contrast.

        There’s not a positive promise to the woman here that she will have many offspring. I think God is saying that at both ends of the reproduction process, conception and delivery, there will be trouble. The TLV reads, ““I will greatly increase your pain from conception to labor.” (I think the two different Hebrew words may refer to “sorrow” over infertility, and actual pain in delivery. It would be good if our translations rendered these words differently, and not used the same English word for each.)

        I agree, however, that the husband’s “rule” is not something sanctioned by God, like human rule over the animals. Rather, it is the consequence of God’s design for marriage gone astray, as I say in my post, from cooperation to competition for control.

      3. Yes, the idea of a hendiadys is usually taught about Gen 3:16, but how does conception involve pain or labor, etc. That is, the translators assume it will be something negative and so try their best to make it say something consistently negative. But her argument gets more into the Hebrew and literary structure. I recommend studying it, I am just able to give a summary. I have the full papers if you wish to look at them.

        I object to the idea that desire/teshuqa of the woman for her husband in Gen 3 is something negative, the desire/teshuqa of a man for his wife in SoS is something positive. Yes, there is a similar literary structure between Gen 3 and Gen 4 around desire/teshuqa, the question is what does this similarity mean.

        Patriarchy was an assumption of all of the cultures in Scripture, but this does not mean it was God’s best. God worked inside patriarchal cultures because that was what there was to start with, just like God works with each of us where we are at because that is what there is to start with. One insight that has helped me is that the way we decide to read Scripture can reflect our selves, like an ink blot test, as we fill in possible gaps and make decisions as to meaning. All of us have a temptation to power and patriarchal readings enshrine male power and can therefore disempower half of humanity. I want to resist such readings.

      4. I believe that the word “desire” is used in a literal sense in Song of Songs, where it is indeed positive. But it is used within an idiom in the two instances in Genesis, where it refers to an attempt to control. The literal use of a word does not give us its sense in an idiom. We might say that a basketball player is “on fire” because he’s making all his shots. The literal sense would suggest something bad, but the idiomatic usage is just the opposite.

        Conception does not involve pain or labor, but a different word is used with regard to it than for delivery. I believe the word either suggests difficulty in conceiving, or sorrow over infertility. We see this as a prime problem throughout the Old Testament.

        I do agree entirely with your last paragraph. Patriarchy does not reflect God’s original and ideal intentions, any more than things like polygamy, which was also an assumption of the OT culture.

  2. I would say, God would say…”you are both on your own” as prodigal son and prodigal daughter. The rest is history as per the Bible…hopefully not corrupted.
    What you have written tantamount to the “man” having the absolute power over the control of the woman and the “decree” from a man-made source. The Muslim can have 4 wives and the values are quite similar to what you are advocating. Yes, translation is different from interpretation…and submission from the wife to the husband is required when all the rest fails. Motivation would be a better bet.

  3. Ironically, a friend and I were talking about the implications of the fall on our marriages, right about the time you were posting this.

    Also funny is, I had only read as far as the ESV’s new wording before I was looking up how the New English Translation had to worded it. Only to see you reference it later.

    Thanks again.

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