***This piece is dedicated to my daughter Emily and her fiancé, Josh Ginchereau, in view of their upcoming wedding on May 25, 2018.
To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16, NIV)
Given that marriage is the foundational institution of the human race, most pastoral marriage counseling will give some discussion to early biblical texts like the above. The bolded sentence, however, is notoriously difficult to interpret. That’s because, besides being thousands of years removed from our world, this particular term used for “desire” is only used two other times in the OT. Here they are:
- “The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry and why has your face fallen? 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.” (Gen. 4:6-7, ESV)
- “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.” (Song of Solomon 7:10, ESV)
Before we discuss what “desire” means in Gen. 3:16b, let’s drop an important interpretive anchor: As part of the creational order, man was given authority over woman in that man was made first, woman was made from man to be his helper, and is twice named by man (2:23, 3:20). It’s critical to see that all this was before the fall and curse of sin associated with 3.16b above. What this means for our purposes is this: Loving, responsible male leadership—a good thing—should be distinguished from disrespectful, exploitative male dominance—the historic fruit of man’s sinful desire to “rule over” women.
With this control point in place, here are two possible meanings for the woman’s “desire”—her basic instinct or urge—in Gen. 3:16b:
- Desire to be independent and dominate. The “interpretation of an ambiguous passage [3:16b] is validated by the same pairing [“desire” and “rule over”] in the unambiguous context of 4:7.” In other words, a wife desires to dominate her husband in 3:16b in the same way sin desires to dominate Cain in 4:7. Here’s a popular expression of this view:
“These words from the Lord indicate that there will be an ongoing struggle between the woman and the man for leadership in the marriage relationship. The leadership role of the husband and the complementary relationship between husband and wife that were ordained by God before the fall have now been deeply damaged and distorted by sin. This especially takes the form of inordinate desire (on the part of the wife) and domineering rule (on the part of the husband).” (ESV Study Bible, 56)
- Desire for sex and children. “In 3:16, …since the context has already addressed the issue of reproduction, that can easily be identified as a basic instinct of women… The text sees that desire ‘for [her] husband’ because such a desire cannot be fulfilled without his cooperation… her need will put him in a position to dominate.” OT Professor John Walton sees sin’s desire or basic instinct in 4:7 as more generally to deprave, rather than specifically to dominate. He also feels that letting 4:7 be the primary interpreter of 3:16b ignores a third of the data (i.e. Song of Solomon 7:10 above where desire in that context is clearly about sex). Gen. 30:1 also gives further evidence of sexual desire connected with “motherly impulse”:
“When Rachel saw that she wasn’t having any children for Jacob, she became jealous of her sister. She pleaded with Jacob, ‘Give me children, or I’ll die!’” (NLT)
Exegetically, based on my experience, and talking to other women, I think # 2 makes the most sense. Whichever option you choose, however, here are three ways to love and desire your spouse God’s way:
- Thank God for your sexuality and look to him to protect it. Victorian white-washed discussions and prudish repression of sexual desire have no place in Christian faith and practice. There’s no need to deny the existence of “the animal instinct” the late Delores O’Riordan from the Cranberries sang about. What is needed, however, is to again firmly re-link sex with marriage and children—something Gen. 3:16 reminds us to do. Untold abuse, violence, disease, and life-long wounds continue to come as a result of separating the real, powerful, and very human desire for sex from loving marriage and children. Healthy marriage between a man and a woman is God’s plan to protect both the beauty and potential of sex and children.
- Distance yourself from dishonorable views that celebrate the dominance of men or the subjugation of women (Eph. 5:21). As Bruce K. Walke points out, “Male leadership, not male dominance, [should be] …assumed in the ideal, pre-Fall situation (2:18-25)… [Further,] the restoration of a love relationship is found in a new life in Christ.” Here’s a passage that describes well this new life:
But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:25-28, NLT)
- Let your marriage mirror the beauty in the story of how Eve was created. Genesis tells us that God created woman out of one of Adam’s ribs (2:21). This image captures perfectly the intimacy and harmony of marriage as God intended it. In the famous words of Matthew Henry, the woman is “not made out of his head to top him, not out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.”
 Bruce K. Walke, Genesis, A Commentary (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2001), 94.
 John H. Walton, NIV Application Commentary: Genesis, (Grand Rapids: Word, 2001), 228.
 Matthew Henry, A Commentary on the Holy Bible (London: Marshall Brother, n.d.), 1:12.