Grace Theological Journal 7.2 (1986) 203-12
Copyright © 1986 by Grace Theological Seminary; cited with permission.
WOMAN'S DESIRE FOR MAN:
IRVIN A. BUSENITZ
Lexical and etymological studies of the words of Gen 3:16b yield
little help for interpreting the meaning of the woman's desire for man.
Contextual evidence, however, indicates that the woman's desire for
the man and his rule over her are not the punishment but the
conditions in which the woman will suffer punishment. Although there
are linguistic and thematic parallels between Gen 3:16b and Gen 4:7,
contextual differences and interpretive problems indicate that Gen 4:7
cannot be used to interpret the meaning of “desire" in Gen 3:16. Cant
 provides a better context for understanding the word. It may
be concluded that, in spite of the Fall, the woman will have a longing
for intimacy with man involving more than sexual intimacy.
* * *
ALTHOUGH in the past few decades there has been a proliferation of
books and articles discussing biblical norms for the role of women
both in society and in the church, a consensus of interpretation has not
emerged. The complexity of the issue, coupled with the exegetical
difficulty of relevant Scripture, has made general agreement elusive.
Part of the discussion has focused upon the last phrase of Gen 3:16:
"yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over
Various interpretations have been propounded for the meaning of
this phrase, centering primarily around the definition of "desire." One
prominent interpretation suggests that, as a punishment for the Fall, a
woman's desire will be subject to her husband's. "Her desire, whatever
it may be, will not be her own. She cannot do what she wishes, for her
husband rules over her like a despot and whatever she wishes is subject
1 All biblical quotations from NASB unless otherwise noted.
204 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
to his will.”2 Another viewpoint contends that the woman will have an
immense longing, yearning, and psychological dependence.3 More
recently a third view has surfaced. It suggests that, based on the usage
of "desire" in Gen 4:7, the woman will desire to dominate the relation-
ship with her husband. "The woman's desire is to control her husband
(to usurp his divinely appointed headship), and he must master her, if
The Hebrew term rendered "desire" is hqAUwT; and is derived from
qUw. It is given the general lexical meaning of "attract, impel, of desire,
affection”;5 however, due to its infrequent occurrence in the OT (Gen
; 4:7; Cant ),6 the semantic range is unclear. The etymo-
logical data is equally obscure. The word may be related historically to
the Arabic saqa (which is often used in contexts indicating sexual
desire) or saqa (which is used in a more general sense of desire).7
Nevertheless, saqa does not demand sexual connotations and saqa
does not rule them out.8 In light of its usage in Gen 4:7, the term
appears to have a meaning which is broader than sexual desire.
Perhaps the translators of the LXX attempted to clarify their
understanding of the term by translating it with a]postrofh< in Gen
and 4:7, but with e]pistrofh< in Cant . The preposition
a]po<, when attached to the verb stre<fw, suggests "to turn away," while
e]pi< suggests "to turn toward." However, it is difficult to understand
2 E. J. Young, Genesis 3 (London: Banner of Truth, 1966) 127; cf. John Calvin,
example of Hebrew poetry in which a thought is restated in a subsequent phrase. As
such, "and he shall rule over you" is a reassertion of "your desire shall be to your
3 Gini Andrews, Your Half of the Apple (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972) 51; cf.
C. Leupold, Genesis
4 Susan Foh, "What Is the Woman's Desire?" WTJ 37 (1975) 382; cf. also Foh's
and the Word of God (reprint;
5 BDB, 1003. The definition given by Koehler and Baumgartner (KB, 1. 1043) is
similar: "impulse, urge."
6 The significance of the term as used in these three passages is treated below. The
number in brackets refers to the versification of the Hebrew text.
7 Foh (Women, 67) seeks to remove any sexual connotation from "desire" in 3:16b
by contending that "the phonemic equivalent of the Hebrew s [w of qUw] is s in Arabic.
The proper etymology in Arabic for qUw is saqa, to urge or drive on. This meaning need
not have sexual connotations."
8 In either case, etymology is often of little help in ascertaining meaning, which is
determined by context and usage.
BUSENITZ: WOMAN'S DESIRE FOR MAN 205
how Gen 4:7 could embody any idea of "turning away.”9 Furthermore,
the terms are virtually synonymous in meaning in noun form,10 so that
the change in prepositional prefix is "unconvincing"11 as an interpreta-
tion and "quite unnecessary."12
The Tg. Onq. translates the term with j`yTib;UxTi, which means "to
desire, long for." While it does not occur in the Aramaic portions of
the OT, its Hebrew equivalent is recorded in Ps 119:20: "My soul is
crushed with longing [hbxt] after Thine ordinances at all times."
The other terms used in Gen 3:16 are even less helpful (when
treated individually) for determining the meaning of the text. The verb
"to rule," from lwamA, is employed both here and in 4:7. The LXX
translates the term in with kurieu<w, which means "to lord it
over,"13 but uses a verb form of a@rxw ("to rule over"14) in 4:7, possibly
to depict a more governmental, autocratic concept. Similarly, little
significance can be attached to the interchange of the prepositions
(; 4:7) and lfa (Cant ). The Hebrew language frequently
employs the two prepositions interchangeably, with apparent indis-
Ultimately, the effort to achieve exegetical clarity cannot be
propelled by lexical or etymological information, for the data revealed
9 The same should be said of Gen 3:16 also, for even understanding to mean a
desire for domination and control does not essentially incorporate a "turning away"
10 The meaning assigned to both terms in BAGD (100, 301) is "to turn toward."
11 John Skinner, Genesis (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1969) 83.
12 U. Cassuto, The Book of Genesis (2 vols;
13 Some have contended that kurieu<w connotes the idea of establishing one in an
office over another. If this were true it would suggest that the husband was not installed
in the "office" of leader/headship until after the Fall. Yet 1 Tim 2:12-14 implies that the
role of headship was divinely ordained prior to the fall. Equally untenable is the
following analysis: "This is obviously neither an intensification nor a warping of a
pre-existing hierarchy between the sexes for no such hierarchy is alluded to" (Victor P.
K. Waltke, and Gleason L. Archer, Jr. [2 vols;
While Genesis 1-3 does not specifically refer to a preexisting hierarchy, it is alluded to in
a multiplicity of ways in the opening chapters. Examples include the purpose of woman's
creation () and the naming of woman (). Furthermore, it is specifically stated
elsewhere in Scripture that a hierarchical structure between man and woman antedated
the Fall (I Tim -14; I Cor 11:3-12).
14 BAGD, 113.
15 Cf. BDB, 41. Numerous examples of this interchange exist in the OT (e.g., I Sam
, 26; I Sam 25:25). While the "physical motion toward" idea of lx, can also
encompass the concept of "against," as it does in Gen 4:8, it is made evident only by the
context. Since such a thought is not inherent in the context of , one should not be
too quick to read the idea of "against" back into it.
206 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
by such is dim and inconclusive. Lexically and etymologically, the term
qUw is shrouded in obscurity; the verb lwamA and the prepositions lx, and
lfa are equally impotent to unlock the meaning of Gen 3:16.
While the study of each of the terms does not shed much light on
the meaning of Gen 3:16, the context does. In Gen the mention of
woman serves as a point of transition to v 16 where the Lord
pronounces judgment upon the woman. A similar connection is pro-
vided between v 16 and v 17; the mention of the husband in v 16b
allows for a smooth transition to the judgment pronounced upon the
man in vv 17-19.
The first thing to be noted by the context is the fact that each
recipient of God's judgment receives one punishment. In the case of the
serpent (), he would move on his belly: similarly, Satan ()
receives one judgment--a death blow administered by the seed of the
woman.16 In the judgment upon man (-19), the ground will not
readily yield its fruit. In Gen 4:11, Cain too is the recipient of only one
punishment. Consequently, in 3:16 woman is probably the recipient of
only one judgment.
Second, in each of the judgments which God pronounced in Gen
3:14-19 and 4:11-12, the nature of the curse has no essential relation-
ship to the nature of the sin committed. The ground not readily
yielding its fruit has no essential relationship to Adam's eating of the
forbidden fruit; the fact that the serpent would now crawl on the
ground has no integral connection to his enticing conversation with the
woman. Consequently, one should not assume that the woman's
punishment is to be sealed forever under the control of her husband,
because she stepped out of her divinely ordained role of submission
and followed the admonition of the devil.
Third, the judgments given to the woman and the man (-19)
revolve around propagation and seed.17 "Both sentences involve
16 This argument follows the view that Satan is being addressed in v 15. It is doubtful
that the term "enmity" (hbAyxe) can be limited merely to a hostility between man and beast,
for elsewhere the term is employed only of enmity between morally responsible agents
(cf. Num 35:21, 22; Ezek 25:15; 35:5). Furthermore, if the v 15 judgment refers to the
serpent, then it is essentially no judgment at all, for animals in general exist under a
similar relationship with man.
17 The opening statement of : "I will greatly multiply your pain and your
conception" is probably a hendiadys--an idiomatic phrase referring to pain which
results from pregnancy. In addition to the fact that it is doubtful if an increased fertility
cycle would constitute a punishment, the next phrase combines the two thoughts: "in
pain you shall bring forth children." Cf. Cassuto's suggestion (Genesis,
better interpretation is: your suffering in general, and more particularly that of your
child bearing. "
BUSENITZ: WOMAN'S DESIRE FOR MAN 207
pain/toil, and both affect the bringing forth of life, human and
otherwise."18 The context speaks not of the desire of woman to rule the
man but of the continuation of life in the face of death. Such is the
central element of 3:16a. Such is the focal point of -19. Thus, there
is good cause to believe that the same idea is present in 3:16b.
Fourth, in the contextual development of Genesis 3 the woman is
specifically addressed in , while the man is the object of God's
pronouncement of judgment in 3:17-19. If the "desire" of 3:16b is the
desire of the woman to control and dominate her husband, then the
sentence is no longer a judgment upon the woman; rather, it is the man
who bears its brunt. Yet man's judgment is not mentioned until .
"Since the punishment was specifically intended for the woman and her
female descendants, and was not a penalty shared with the men, it had
inevitably to be of a nature restricted to the female sex."19
Fifth, in each of the punishments the pronouncement is given first,
then an explanatory statement follows. In the case of the serpent ()
the explanatory phrase is "And dust you shall eat all the days of your
life." Serpents are not dust-eaters per se; rather, the phrase is an
explanatory elaboration of the fact that they would crawl around on
their bellies. In the punishment is essentially enunciated in the
phrase "And I will put enmity between your seed and her seed," with
the subsequent phrase denoting the extent of that enmity, namely,
death. In -19 the punishment directed toward Adam is the cursing
of the ground (3:17a); 3:17b-19 is explanatory, describing how this
punishment would affect Adam and his descendants.20 The same is true
in ; the last phrase must be closely related contextually to the
punishment recorded in 3:16a. Since each of the explanatory state-
ments in , , and -19 is inseparably linked to the judgment
statement, it would be exegetically inadvisable to divide into two
separate, unrelated punishments. Rather, 3:16b is elaborating on 3:16a.
The "desire factor" is not a part of the judgment but an explanation of
conditions and relationships as they will exist after the Fall. Even
though the intimacy between the first man and his wife was abrogated,21
18 Foh, Women, 67. The judgment of both the woman and the man affects their
physical being. For the woman, pregnancy and childbirth will be accompanied by great
hardship and toil. The judgment on man will also involve hard labor (note the same
word [bc,f, = pain] used in both and ).
19 Cassuto, Genesis, 1. 164.
20 Cf. Gen 4: 11-12 where the punishment of Cain is a further cursing of the ground
(), while the statement that he would be a vagrant and wanderer on the earth () is
an explanation of the judgment, describing the extent and impact of it.
21 God's words in Gen 3:16b do not "destroy the harmony of marriage" (Foh,
"Woman's Desire," 383), for such harmony was broken earlier (cf. "his wife" of , 25;
3:8 with "the woman" and the phrase, "which You gave to me, she gave. . ." in ).
Though Eve is later called "his wife," the initial intimacy appears to be gone.
208 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
even though the unity with man would bring woman to the threshold
of death itself in the process of childbirth" yet woman would still
possess a strong desire to be with man. The broken intimacy and the
pain in childbearing would not be allowed to nullify the yearning of
woman for man and the fulfillment of God's command to populate the
earth22 or to alter the divine order of the headship of man.
It is equally tenuous to maintain that the phrase "and he shall rule
over you" was given because Eve had usurped the authority and
leadership role of Adam when she took and ate from the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil. The sin of the first woman was not that
she took the lead without seeking the prior counsel of Adam. No such
prior consultation was needed, for she herself knew God's command-
ment prohibiting them from eating the fruit of the tree of the knowl-
edge of good and evil (). The woman's sin was that she exalted
herself above her Creator. She took it upon herself to determine,
together with the counsel of the serpent, if God's law was good or bad,
if it was right or wrong. Her sin had nothing to do with denying Adam
his rightful role of leadership in their marriage or with grasping a role
that belonged to her husband. The only role that Eve usurped was
that of God's, a usurpation that is characteristic of all acts of sin of
all people living in all times of the history of mankind.
Woman may desire to dominate or rule over man, but it is not a
part of the punishment pronounced upon woman; it is just the essence,
character, and result of all sin against God. Self-exaltation and pride
always result in the desire to dominate and rule. Every person to some
extent desires to dominate and rule over others--not just woman over
One of the two passages most directly related to this discussion is
Gen 4:7. While there are linguistic and thematic parallels between this
verse and Gen , there are also differences. Furthermore, the
22 This element should not be dismissed too readily, for there is every reason to
believe that the broken intimacy, together with the deadly pain of childbirth, would be
sufficient to place the command to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth () in
jeopardy (cf. also Gen 11:4, 9).
23 The NT commands to submit to the
husband's authority (Eph ;
3:1) do not suggest that woman's desire to rule over man is a part of the Genesis 3
judgment. These passages incorporate admonitions directing slaves to submit to their
masters, children to obey their parents, and younger men to submit to their elders,
indicating that nonsubmissive attitudes and actions are the result of sin. To be certain,
women may seek to usurp authority not rightfully theirs. But it is an action which is the
consequence of sin and not a result of the judgment of Gen 3:16.
BUSENITZ: WOMAN’S DESIRE FOR MAN 209
interpretation of Gen 4:7 faces unique difficulties all its own.24 Gener-
ally speaking, there have been two interpretations. The less common
interpretation posits Abel as the antecedent of OtqAy.wT; ("his desire"),
suggesting that if Cain does what is right, then he will be lifted up and
restored to his position of preeminence which formed a part of his
birthright as the older brother.25 "From the latter clause of the verse it
is evident that God alludes to the prerogatives of the birthright which
Cain would be in no danger of losing if his conduct were such as it
ought to be.”26 This interpretation embodies at least two favorable
aspects. The first is contextual, for it readily accounts for the actions of
Cain toward Abel in the following verse.27 The second is grammatical,
for in OtqAy.wT; ("his desire") the pronominal suffix is masculine. If the
antecedent were "sin [txF.AHa] crouching at the door," one would expect
a feminine pronominal suffix, since txF.AHa is feminine.
A more common understanding of Gen 4:7 is that sin, pictured as
a wild beast, is waiting to pounce upon and control its victim. "The
fem. txF.AHa is construed as a masculine, because sin is personified as a
wild beast, lurking at the door of the human heart, and eagerly desiring
to devour his soul (1 Pet. v. 8).”28 This view benefits from the closeness
of the pronominal suffix ("his desire") to the antecedent ("sin crouching
at the door"); yet, despite the personification of sin as a wild beast, it
suffers from the discord of gender.
Regardless of which view one espouses, neither is sufficiently
certain to allow it to become the basis for establishing the meaning of
qUw in Gen 3:16. It is readily admitted that there are some noteworthy
similarities between Gen 4:7 and Gen 3:16. Both are given in a context
of divine judgment. Both come from the hand of the same writer. Both
employ similar terminology.29 It is true that "the proximity of Genesis
4:7 to Genesis suggests that a similar grammatical construction
24 Many commentators readily admit that the verse is one of the most difficult in all
of the OT to explicate. Skinner (Genesis, 107) has observed: "Every attempt to extract a
meaning from the verse is more or less of a tour de force, and it is nearly certain that the
obscurity is due to deep-seated textual corruptions." Suggested textual emendations are
feeble at best and have generated little light.
25 The term txeW; ("lifted up") is used in Gen 49:3 in the sense of "preeminence." In
this view "desire" would mean "to be subservient to" as to the firstborn of the family (cf.
26 George Bush, Notes on Genesis (2 vols; reprinted,
27 The disaffectionate relationship which developed between Esau and Jacob over
the matter of birthright (Genesis 27) is significantly analogous.
28 C. F. Keil and
Franz Delitzsch, Genesis
29 Gen 3: 16: j`BA-lwAm;yi xUhv; j`teqAUwT; j`weyxi-lc,v;
Gen 4:7. OB-lwAm;Ti hTAxav; OtwAUwT; j~yl,xev;
210 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
would have similar meaning.“30 But since Gen 4:7 is besieged with
interpretive uncertainties, it ought not to be applied unreservedly to
interpret Gen 3:16.
Furthermore, Gen 4:7 is not as parallel to Gen 3:16 as it may
appear. First of all, Gen 4:7 is figurative while Gen 3:16 is literal.
Hermeneutically, one should proceed from the literal usage to the
figurative usage if one's exegesis is to have validity.31 Second, while the
grammatical construction is similar, the two phrases are actually
inverted in sense. In 4:7 the object of the desire (Cain) is also the
recipient of the curse. However, in 3:16 the object of the desire (the
man) is not the recipient of the curse. For to be truly parallel with
4:7, the desire of woman would have to be part of the judgment against
the man. Third, similarity in grammar need not demand similarity of
meaning. Verbal parallelism may be only coincidental. As shown
above, the context of Gen does not indicate that the woman
desires to dominate her husband. If it is to be found in Gen 3:16, it
must be imported from Gen 4:7. However, the context of Genesis 3
must be given the primary role in determining the meaning of "desire"
in rather than the linguistic resemblance between and 4:7.
The thematic links between Genesis 2-3 and Genesis 432 neither
suggest nor imply that, as a part of the judgment of Gen 3:16, woman
will desire to dominate man. For example, in Genesis 2-3 there is
intimacy between God and man; then sin turns that intimacy to
alienation. There is intimacy between man and woman; then sin causes
intimacy to become alienation. In Genesis 4, intimacy between God
and Cain turns to alienation, and intimacy between Cain and Abel
turns to alienation. But in each case the broken intimacy, alienation,
and punishment are not allowed to go beyond God's intended extent.33
In the example of Cain, his death would be strongly avenged (Gen
). The thematic relationship suggests that such is the case in Gen
3:16b. The alienation between man and woman and the pain of
childbirth resulting from intimacy, would not be allowed to interrupt
woman's desire for man, man's rulership over woman, or the carrying
out of the command to populate the earth (Gen ).
Cant  contains the third Occurrence of the word qUw: "I am
my beloved's, and his desire is for me." While the meaning of qUw may
30 Foh, Women, 69.
31 It is difficult to perceive how one could determine how sin desires Cain and then
utilize that as the basis for determining how woman desires man.
32 Cf. Alan J. Hauser, "Linguistic and Thematic Links Between Genesis 4:1-6 and
Genesis 2-3," JETS 23 (1980) 297-305.
33 Scripture is replete with instances of divinely established parameters in the
punishment of mankind (cf., e.g., Exod ; -25).
BUSENITZ: WOMAN'S DESIRE FOR MAN 211
be difficult to determine precisely in its two previous occurrences, there
is little doubt here. It speaks clearly of the natural power and compul-
sion of the love of an individual for another. The slightest hint of one
desiring to dominate the other is totally absent. Says Zockler: “hqAUwT;
as in Gen. iii.16, the passage which lies at the basis of this, [speaks] of
the longing desire of the man for the society of his wife, not of gross
sensual desires for sexual intercourse. The whole is a triumphant
exclamation in which Shulamith joyfully affirms that her lover cannot
exist without her.”34
It appears that the usage of qUw in Canticles is closer to that of
Gen 3:16 than is Gen 4:7, notwithstanding the latter's grammatical
similarities and textual proximity. First of all, the plain must be
employed to interpret the obscure and difficult if there are contextual
reasons to believe that both usages are similar. Such is the case
between Gen and Cant . The abundantly clear meaning of
"desire" in Cant  should be given priority in the determination
of the meaning of "desire" in Gen . Second, "desire" is used
literally in Cant , just as it is in Gen ; in Gen 4:7 the usage is
figurative.35 Third, in distinction from Gen 4:7, both Cant  and
Gen address relationships between the opposite sexes. As such Cant
 and Gen 3:16 share a contextual relationship which is foreign
to Gen 4:7.
The true difficulty, then, is not understanding the meaning of
"desire" as used in Cant  and Gen , but as it is used in Gen
4:7. This is noted indirectly by Skinner in his comment on Gen 4:7:
"The word hqaUwT; is unsuitable, whether it be understood of the wild
beast's eagerness for its prey or the deference due from a younger
brother to an older.”36 The reason qUw is so unsuitable is because the
other two usages speak of the power of attraction between the sexes.
To grant Gen 4:7 in its obscurity a determinative role in the interpreta-
tion of Gen 3:16 without permitting the clarity of Cant  to
permeate the exegetical process is to abandon hermeneutical discern-
ment and propriety.
The central consideration in the interpretation of Gen 3:16b is
context; the meaning of "desire" is best determined in the light of its
34 Otto Zockler, The Song of Solomon in Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, by
P. Lange (tr. & ed. by Philip Schaff;
"I am my beloved's, and it is an obligation upon me to desire him" is grammatically
permissible, especially in light of a similar poetical use of ylafA in Prov . However, it is
doubtful on contextual grounds, for elsewhere the phrase "I am my beloved's" (6:3; cf.
) connotes reciprocity.
35 Cf. BDB, 1003.
36 Skinner, Genesis, 107.
212 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
immediate contextual setting. The context bespeaks procreation and
the continuation of life, not the desire to dominate. Furthermore, to
appeal to Gen 4:7 with its manifold obscurities to unlock the interpre-
tive door of Gen 3:16 is to throw exegetical caution to the wind. It is
much safer to apply the meaning of hqAUwT; in Cant  to Gen
, for while it does not enjoy the near proximity of Gen 4:7, its
meaning is plain and its interpretation is virtually unquestioned.
Consequently, it should be granted preeminence over Gen 4:7 and
become the primary cross-reference in ascertaining the meaning of
The text does not sustain the interpretation that one aspect of the
woman's judgment is that she will desire to dominate and control the
man. The last phrase of Gen is not a part of the judgment; it is an
explanation and description of conditions which will exist after the
fall. Thus, the last phrase could be translated: "yet you will still desire
[as you did before the Fall, though now tainted by sin] your husband,
and he will still rule [as he did before the Fall, though now tainted by
sin] over you." The alienation, broken intimacy, and pain in childbirth
resulting from the Fall will not be allowed to annul that desire nor
abrogate the command to be fruitful.
In spite of the fact that man will rule over woman, and in spite of
the fact that intimacy may result in the pain (and possible death) due to
childbirth, yet woman will desire and yearn for man. The issue is
broader than purely sexual but does not exclude the sexual element.
This interpretation does not imply that woman's sexual drives are
stronger than the man's. While it is generally concluded that the man
has the stronger sexual desire, such is to be expected, for there was
nothing in the judgment upon man to temper it. On the other hand, the
woman must deal with the pain of childbirth; thus it is to be expected
that the woman's sexual desires would be somewhat moderated.
Nevertheless, woman's desire for man is an attraction which cannot be
uprooted from her nature. The contention that "sin has corrupted both
the willing submission of the wife and the loving headship of the
husband”37 is unquestionably true. But it is a natural consequence of
sin, not a result of God's judgment on the woman in Gen 3:16! Just as
the sin-corrupted headship of the husband is not a part of the divine
judgment upon the man but a consequence of sin, so the sin-corrupted
submission of the wife is not a part of the judgment; it is the result of
37 Foh, Women, 69.
38 While some may contend that the women's liberation movement of recent years
does not corroborate this interpretation (Foh, Women, 67), the opposite may actually be
the case. Many of the women who speak out strongly against the headship of man
nevertheless do get married and do bear their husband's children. Certainly it cannot be
maintained that this interpretation is contrary to the broader historical perspective.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Grace Theological Seminary
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: firstname.lastname@example.org