One Word that Ruins a Woman’s Bible

Benjamin Marsh
11 min readFeb 6, 2022

teshuqah and the importance of knowing your interpreter

In the midst of all the strife the ongoing egalitarian/complementarian wars, one of the most overlooked but rather pernicious habits by individuals on both sides is a tendency to bend the output of Bible translation to fit pre-determined theological bents.

The interpreter might say: hold on, we are just updating language to match modern scholarship or current usage. But when minority understandings of interpretation are being consistently selected based on a broader narrative, regardless of two thousand years of Christian tradition, we might need to pause and ask: is there a point where we are toying with the Bible too much for our own ends?

The NRSV has encountered this issue time and again, previously with gendered language, now with the inclusion of ‘modern sensibilities.’ I do not use the NRSV for this reason: the translation is bent to read according to how it will be received, in terms of emotional realities, rather than its ability to be understood. I am more comfortable with a ‘looser’ translation like the NLT over the NRSV for this very reason.

The stick in my craw nowadays is the ESV, the Bible translation most prevalent in the Reformed circles of my younger years and the one most influenced by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. As time goes on, I find more and more subtle ways the reading of specific words was changed or modified based on minority viewpoints in pursuit of a broader theological ethics, and in the reverberative echoes of that translation I find a great deal that I am still unpacking.

In this case, I am focusing on a word and translation that came from the CBMW camps into ESV then into the NLT, a translation that I just taught even a few months ago which I now question. So now I am doubly or even triply upset!


Teshuqah and Desire for/toward/contrary to?

(If this is too technical, the simple point is: the word translated as “desire shall be contrary” could be translated in several different ways and has been for most of history, and freely skip to the next section)

The ESV translates the second half of Genesis 3:16 as

Your desire shall be contrary to your husband,
but he shall rule over you.

The most important word here is “desire” — in Hebrew it is Teshuqah — a word that pretty much every classical and modern translation has defined as “desire for” and some other interpreters prefer as “turning to/from.” The addition of “shall be contrary to” is an interpolation — an addition of words that every Bible translation needs to make a sentence read well in English.

The NLT doubles down on the ESV understanding:

And you will desire to control your husband,
but he will rule over you.

The simple theological interpretation of this translation is that women fighting the power/control of men in society and marital relationships is the result of sin.

But consider a more literal translation:

your desire toward your man

or the KJV

thy desire shall be to thy husband

Note that “shall be” are interpolations as well, and are identified in the KJV with italics.

The Tyndale bible is most explicit:

thy lustes shall pertayne vnto thy husbond

This blog has a health summary of many views on the issue, leaving any of the many possible approaches from significant scholars:

Calvin: she is cast into servitude

Matthew Poole (about 1685) says that the expressions that ‘thy desires shall be referred or submitted to thy husband’s will and pleasure to grant or deny them, as he sees fit.

Keil & Delitzsch (1866): ‘[The woman] was punished with a desire bordering upon disease

R.S. Candlish (1868): it denotes the dependence of affection or of helplessness on the one hand, and the assertion of authority and power on the other.’

James Murphy (Barnes’ Notes, 1873): ‘“Desire” does not refer to sexual desire in particular. (Gen. 4:7). It means, in general, turn, determination of the will. “The determination of thy will shall be yielded to thy husband, and accordingly he shall rule over thee.”

H.E. Ryle (1921, in the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges) ‘Doubtless, there is a reference to the never ending romance of daily life, presented by the passionate attachment of a wife to her husband, however domineering, unsympathetic, or selfish he may be. But the primary reference will be to the condition of subservience which woman occupied, and still occupies, in the East; and to the position of man, as head of the family, and carrying the responsibility, as well as the authority, of “rule.”’

Look at all of the possibilities! The punishment of God toward the woman could be:

  • Sexual desire
  • Being ruled by a man in an abusive manner
  • Being ruled by a man at all

And then Walter Kaiser comes outta nowhere with a whole DIFFERENT idea!

Kaiser (Hard Sayings of the Bible) thinks that the words translated ‘desire’ and ‘will rule’ have been the subject of ‘a most amazing translation history’. He asks,

‘Is it true that due to the Fall women naturally exhibit overpowering sexual desires for their husbands? And if this is so, did God simultaneously order husbands to exercise authority over their wives?’

According to Kaiser, in the ancient versions (including the LXX and the Vulgate) the word teshuqah, in all three instances in which it occurs in the OT, was usually translated, not as ‘desire’, but as ‘turning’.

For Kaiser, too, the literal meaning is, “You are turning away [from God!] to your husband, and [as a result] he will rule over you [take advantage of you].” In other words, ‘the sense of Genesis 3:16 is simply this: As a result of her sin, Eve would turn away from her sole dependence on God and turn now to her husband. The results would not at all be pleasant, warned God, as he announced this curse.

So the punishment of God for the woman is some sort of the following:

  • She will desire her man in some uncontrolled, sinful manner

Then the Complementarians Come Along

THE current issue of feminism in the church has provoked the reexamination of the scriptural passages that deal with the relationship of the man and the woman.

So began the article WHAT IS THE WOMAN’S DESIRE? by Susan T. Foh in the 1974/75 Westminster Theological Journal. By examining parallel construction, she determined

Contrary to the usual interpretations of commentators, the desire of the woman in Genesis 3:16b does not make the wife (more) submissive to her husband so that he may rule over her. Her desire is to contend with him for leadership in their relationship.

This one paper became a source text for the Complementarian world, such as in the Danvers Statement

The Fall introduced distortions into the relationships between men and women (Gen 3:1–7, 12, 16).

In the home, the husband’s loving, humble headship tends to be replaced by domination or passivity; the wife’s intelligent, willing submission tends to be replaced by usurpation or servility.

In the church, sin inclines men toward a worldly love of power or an abdication of spiritual responsibility, and inclines women to resist limitations on their roles or to neglect the use of their gifts in appropriate ministries.

Or Wayne Grudem here talking around the 28 minute mark:

For the most recent example of this, see this rather direct passage from Kevin DeYoung’s book Men and Women in the Church, which I have previously critiqued for beginning with a question the Bible itself does not demand. He writes about this passage on page 32:

…the relational wholeness between the man and the woman had been ruptured by the curse. God said to the woman, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (3:16b, NIV). The word desire there does not mean romantic desire, as if God cursed the woman by making her need a man. Rather, the desire is a desire for mastery. This is the same Hebrew word used in Genesis 4:7b (NIV): “Sin is crouching at your door, it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” That the meaning of desire in 3:16 is the same as the desire in 4:7 is clear form the obvious verbal parallel between the two verses:

3:16b Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you, w’el-ishek tishuqatek wehu ymshal-bak

4:7b It desires to have you, but you must rule over it, w’elek tsheqatu timshal-bo

Just as sin desired to have mastery over Cain, so the woman, tainted by sin, desires to have mastery over her husband. Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, God says to the man, you will get what you deserve, and she will try to master you (3:17)

DeYoung does a couple things here that are rather interesting:

  1. He shifts away from the ESV. An uncharitable reading would say he did it intentionally to avoid the criticism that he got this view from the ESV rather than from his own scholarship. He uses the ESV as his default translation for most of the book. Maybe he had other reasons for NIV here? It would be good to know.
  2. He does not cite anyone or anything for this interpretation, leading one to believe that it his original to him, when everyone under the sun, moon, skies, and stars knows this comes from decades of Complementarian work on the issue, starting with Foh’s article in 1975. (I am not going to say he committed plagiarism here or intentionally left out a citation to a woman because I do not think he wrote a scholarly book, but given that he himself points out such errors in his reviews of others, he does, in fact, open himself up to both charges by not offering any citation for this interpretation).

The theological point he is making is same one the NLT directs: Genesis 3:16b is about women resisting the right order of male leadership being a direct consequence of sin. All beginning with an article that was written less than 50 years ago!

This article has been debated by far better authors and interpreters than me. I have not seen many compelling responses to those criticisms:

In addition to the sloppy research and poor exegesis, Foh’s biggest weakness is the internal inconsistencies. She states that experience confirms her interpretation, that all women want to control their husbands. She says that “he shall rule over you” can’t be an indicative because not all husbands rule their wives.

While I’m not suggesting that wives don’t struggle with the application of appropriate submission, but in the history of the world, across centuries and countries and cultures, have men ruled over women or women over men? Foh sees no universality to husbands ruling wives, but she does think wives universally desire to usurp authority. This is contrary to the experience of most women.

The scholarship, it seems, was incomplete, but in lieu of ongoing building on the scholarship, it was taken and run with by “Pastor-Theologians” who did little to argue back with the critics. Rather, it has been used to perpetuate and even expand a particular theological view that, in my understanding, does violence to this particular text and to millions of men and women whose marriages and relationships have been corrupted by it.

Why Does this Matter?

This seems like a lot, you might thing, for one little phrase. But consider: if this is the foundational understanding of corruption between a man and a woman, what does it say about how we understand our relationships today? If a woman trying to take things over is the punishment, what does that say about strong women? About women who lead or rule? Are they sinning?

And what does a restored world look like if the punishment for women is that they will try to take over? Well, obviously, the restored world has men in charge, calling the shots. If the punishment for sin — the corruption of male/female relationships — is feminism, then the only answer is patriarchy, of course.

So I am extremely wary now of approaching this text, and am even entirely distasteful of the NLT enterprise if they want to take that kind of tact with this verse. A theology of patriarchy has been baked into the text of two major Bible translations which even the most patriarchal of divines (Calvin!) did not take up.

What if a different understanding is true? Take Calvin, “she is cast into servitude.” If servile femininity is the punishment, than the rightly ordered life would be women being seen as equals and treasured as partners. You would begin, as Grudem did in his video, with an overwhelming affirmation of equality and a repentance for maltreatment of women. Sad that Grudem does not see how his translational bent bolstered violence by abusers wielding this verse (and others bent in similar manner) against them.

The translation matters immensely because there is a vast chasm between the punishment for sin being a desire to rule over men and the punishment for sin being subservience. There is a whole universe between saying a rightly ordered correction of Genesis 3 is “Men rule women who appropriately serve” and “Men love and protect women, lifting them up, cherishing them, and pointing them to Christ above all.”

And let me ask you, which issue has affected women more? Their desire to rule, Or their being ruled?

A few concluding thoughts:

  1. The NLT came from the Living Bible, which painted this passage as “yet even so, you shall welcome your husband’s affections.” I would love to know who made the stark change in the NLT to such a bold complementarian translation.
  2. How does a book like DeYoung’s or these pointed Complementarian translations help us go back to the Bible, as Schreiner directed, when he does not engage with scholarship on this issue or even cite his sources?
  3. Why isn’t there more interaction with modern critics of Foh, especially ones that are heavier in biblical interpretation than the historical critiques of Complementarian targets like Dr. Beth Allison Barr and Dr. Kristin Kobes Du Mez? Are we chasing the big names merely to gain attention from interacting with them rather than from sources which critique Foh on translational grounds?
  4. How can we live with knowing that a theological and translational lynchpin like “desire to be contrary” or even “desire to control” was found only in reaction to feminism, whatever that word may have meant at the time? Why are we allowing reactionary interpretations to drive the debate, instead of the text itself, sans current cultural context?

5. I quote from the Aquila Report:

The problem is we don’t need to change the meaning of Genesis 3:16 in order to teach a husband’s headship and a wife’s submission. There are plenty of New Testament passages that do so clearly. There are also several passages that teach the ordination of qualified male pastors and elders. Foh’s interpretation is completely unnecessary and extremely harmful.

If, as Dr. Schreiner says, “At the end of the day, it should come down to whoever offers the most plausible and persuasive reading of the biblical texts in question,” why on earth has the Complementarian world wed itself to a Bible translation which is so specious?

One academic paper became a mantra became the Bible text itself. That, to me, is a disaster.


Then there is Augustine commenting on Genesis 3:16… which… no

Why, therefore, may we not assume that the first couple before they sinned could have given a command to their genital organs for the purpose of procreation as they did to the other members that the soul is accustomed to move to perform various tasks without any trouble and without any craving for pleasure? For the almighty Creator, worthy of praise beyond all words, who is great even in the least of his works, has given to the bees the power of reproducing their young just as they produce wax and honey. Why, then, should it seem beyond belief that he made the bodies of the first human beings in such a way that, if they had not sinned and had not immediately thereupon contracted a disease that would bring death, they would move the members by which offspring are generated in the same way that one commands his feet when he walks, so that conception would take place without disordered passions and birth without pain? But as it is, by disobeying God’s command they deserved to experience in their members, where death now reigned, the movement of a law at war with the law of the mind. This is a movement that marriage regulates and continence controls and constrains, so that where punishment has followed sin, there correction may follow punishment.