The Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1974/75) 376-83
Copyright © 1974/75 by Westminster Theological Seminary, cited with permission;
WHAT IS THE WOMAN'S DESIRE?
SUSAN T. FOH
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. A proper under-
standing of Genesis 3:16 is crucial to this reconsideration of the
Biblical view of the woman. In Genesis 3:16 God pronounces
judgment on the woman. Two areas of the woman's life are
specifically mentioned: childbearing and her relationship to her
husband. The latter is the concern of this article; "yet your
desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you"
(Gen. 3:16b, RSV)
A. Common Interpretations
The translation of hqvwt causes a large part of the difficulty
in understanding Genesis 3.16. There are three typical inter-
pretations. (1) hqvwt is frequently equated with sexual desire.
The woman's craving for her husband will be so strong that
to satisfy it she will be ready to face all the pains and sorrows
of childbearing."l ". . . thy desire shall be to thy husband--
thou shalt not be able to shun great pain and peril for child-
bearing, for thy desire, thy appetite, shall be to thy husband. . ."2
The woman still desires marital intercourse though the result,
conceiving, and bearing children, brings pain. This interpretation
closely links verse 16b with verse 16a (as does the RSV render-
ing of the waw as "yet," which could be translated "and"), and
so fits the immediate context.
(2) hqvwt is viewed as "the desire that makes her the willing
1 David R. Mace, Hebrew Marriage: a Sociological Study, London, The
Epworth Press, 1953. p. 196.
2 Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Holy Bible, Kansas City, Mo.,
Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1967, p. 22.
WHAT IS THE WOMAN'S DESIRE 377
slave of man."3 It is that "immense, clinging, psychological de-
pendence on man."4 Seeing no reason to limit the scope of
"desire" to sexual appetite, Clarence J. Vos would not exclude
from it the woman's desire for the man's protection.5 Keil and
Delitzsch see "desire" as a morbid yearning; the woman ". . . was
punished with a desire bordering upon disease (hqvwt from qvw
to run, to have a violent craving for a thing) . . ."6
(3) Calvin states that Genesis 3:16b means that the woman
will desire only what her husband desires and that she will have
no command over herself.7 The woman's desires are wholly sub-
servient to her husband's, as a result of God's judgment.8
Despite the differences in the interpretation of hqvwt, all of
the commentators cited above agree that, through the woman's
desire for her husband, he rules her. In other words, because
the woman desires the husband in some way, he is able to rule
B. Objections to the Preceding Interpretations
(1) The interpretation of hqvwt as sexual desire appears to be
contradicted by etymology. Biblical scholars are well aware of
the danger of confusing diachrony and synchrony in the use of
this tool, but all sources of help must be weighed when there
are only three occurrences of the word.9 The verbal root appears
3 John Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis
(International Critical Commentary), Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1930,
4 Gini Andrews, Your Half of the Apple; God and the Single Girl,
Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1972, p. 51.
5 Clarence J. Vos, Woman in Old Testament Worship, Delft, N. V.
Vereinigde Drukkerijen Judels & Brinkman, n.d., p. 24.
6 C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten
Volumes, V. 1: The Pentateuch, Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans
Publ. Co., n.d., p. 103. Cf. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, Colum-
bus, The Wartburg Press, 1942, p. 172.
7 John Calvin, Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis,
v. 1, Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1948, p. 172.
8 Cf. U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Part 1, Jeru-
salem, The Magnes Press, 1961, p. 165, and Edward J. Young, Genesis 3:
A Devotional and Expository Study, London, Banner of Truth Trust,
1966, p. 127.
9 As J. Barr also recognizes; "Etymology and the Old Testament,
378 WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
to be qvw for which BDB suggests three homographs. BDB
would relate hqvwt to the Arabic root saqa, to desire, excite
desire.10 However, as they are aware, the phonemic equivalent
of the Hebrew s is s in Arabic, a fact recognized by G. R.
Driver11 and Koehler-Baumgartner.12 This suggests that the
proper etymology in Arabic would be saqa, to urge, drive on,
impel,13 a meaning consonant with the interpretation to be ar-
(2) The rule of the husband, per se, is not a result of or
punishment for sin. The headship of the husband over his wife is
a part of the creation order. The commentators have dealt with
this problem in two ways. The one ignores or misunderstands
the New Testament interpretation of the creation order.14 It is
suggested that before the fall, man and woman were equal and
that neither ruled.
. . . and he shall rule over thee, though at their creation both
were formed with equal rights, and the woman had probably
as much right to rule as the man : but subjection to the will of
her husband is one part of her curse.15
Language and Meaning (Oudtestamenische Studien, Deel 19), Leiden,
E. J. Brill, 1974, p. 2.
10 Francis Brown, S. R. Driver & Charles A. Briggs, A Hebrew and
English Lexicon of the Old Testament, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Com-
pany, 1907, p. 1003.
11 G. R. Driver, "Notes and Studies; Theological and Philological Prob-
lems in the Old Testament," Journal of Theological Studies, XLVII, 1946,
12 Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, Lexicon in Veteris Testa-
menti Libros, Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1953. KB recognizes the derivation as
from saqa by their distinguishing only two verbal roots, p. 957. One must
suspect that the major influence which made BDB willing to contradict
the usual phonemic equivalence and associate hqvwt with the Arabic saqa
was the notion that hqvwt was a reference to sexual desire. The sounder
lexicography may have been overruled by a commitment to the under-
standing of the passage.
13 Edward William Lane, An Arabic-English Lexicon, Bk. 1, Pt. 4,
London, Williams and Norgate. 1872, p. 1470.
14 I Corinthians 11:8: I Timothy 2:13a. The source of and reason for
the creation of the woman is significant. Man is created first; he is the
source of the woman's existence: and she is created for the sake of the
man. Therefore, the head of the woman is man,
15 Clarke, p. 22,
WHAT IS THE WOMAN'S DESIRE? 379
The other more frequent method of dealing with this problem
is to differentiate between the husband's God-ordained headship
and his "rule" in Genesis 3:16. The woman was subordinate to
her husband from the beginning, but the "supremacy of the man
was not intended to become a despotic rule, crushing the woman
into a slave. . ."16 as it does after the fall. Before the fall, man's
rule was gentle; afterwards it is tyrannous. Rule (lwm) in
Genesis 3:16 is said to suggest suppressing or overcoming.17 Not
all agree that the post-fall rule of man is different in quality.
Some have suggested it is different only in extent; after the fall,
the woman is wholly subject to her husband (causing one to
wonder what the pre-fall limits on the husband's authority were).
This total subjection of the woman makes her liable to arbitrary
treatment by her husband; so the complete rule of the husband
can lead to a reign of tyranny.18 Practically, then, there is no
difference in the rule of worse quality and that of greater extent.
(3) The preceding solution satisfies the demands of the over-
all context, i.e., the tyrannous rule of the husband seems an
appropriate punishment for the woman's sin. However, if the
woman's desire makes her a willing slave of her husband (A.2)
or if she has no desires except for husband's (A.3), the hardship
of punishment in Genesis 3:16b is absent, because the woman
willingly submits herself to her husband's rule. But willing sub-
mission contradicts the context of judgment and clashes with
the New Testament commands to submit to the husband's au-
thority (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; I Pet. 3:1), as well as experience.
C. Genesis 3:16b and Genesis 4:7b
hqvwt occurs only three times in the Old Testament (Gen.
3:16; 4:7; Song of Solomon 7:10).19
A comparison of Genesis 3:16b and 4:7b reveals that the
16 Keil & Delitzsch, p. 103. Cf. Calvin, p. 172, and Young, p. 127.
17 Vos, p. 25.
18 Keil & Delitzsch, p. 83.
19 Because the context of Song of Solomon 7: 10 is ambiguous, it is not
possible to determine the precise meaning of hqvwt in this case. We shall
only suggest that the meaning of "desire" proposed in this article is
credible in Song of Solomon 7:10. Note that the immediate context is
that of possession: "I am my beloved's. . ."
380 WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
Hebrew is the same, except for appropriate changes in person
and gender; but the English translation (RSV, ASV) varies.20
jb-lwmy xvhv jtqvwt jwx-lxv 3:16b
vb-lwmt hqxv vtqvwt jylxv 4:7b
RSV . . . Yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you"
. . . its [sin's]21 desire is for you,
but you [Cain] must master it.
ASV . . . and thy desire shall be to thy husband,
and he shall rule over thee.
. . . and unto thee shall be its desire;
but do thou rule over it.
In Genesis 4:7 sin's desire is to enslave Cain -- to possess
or control him, but the Lord commands, urges Cain to overpower
20 KJV translated them the same: in Gen. 4:7, ". . . and thou shalt rule
over him." The problem is that Cain does not in fact rule, whether the
antecedent of "him" is sin or Abel. Therefore, the future indicative or
predictive translation of Gen. 4:7 is incorrect.
21 The masculine pronouns refer to the feminine noun "sin" txFH
A. R. Hulst in Old Testament Problems (Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1960, p. 1)
says: "The Hebr. active part. robes, 'beseiger', is often used of an animal
that lies in wait for its prey. . . . It is quite possible then, that the writer's
use of the masc. suffixes has been determined by this mental image of
'the croucher'." Cf. Robert S. Candlish, The Book of Genesis, v. 1, Edin-
burgh, Adam & Charles Black, 1868, p. 99; G. R. Driver, p. 158; Keil
& Delitzsch, p. 112. The only other alternate antecedent for the masc.
pronouns is Abel; then the rule of Cain as the first born is in view. This
interpretation is unlikely because (1) "Abel" is distant from the pronouns
and does not occur in God's words to Cain but only in the preceding
narrative; (2) it is not conclusive that the first born ruled his younger
siblings; for instance, rule over his brothers is given to the supposed first
born only at the death-bed of Isaac, and it is given to the second born
Jacob by mistake (Gen. 27:29); and (3) what is the meaning of "desire"
in such a case? Calvin (p. 203-4) explains the desire of Abel for Cain
as that of an inferior for the superior, in this case the first born Cain.
"Moreover, this form of speech is common [?] among the Hebrews, that
the desire of the inferior should be towards him to whose will he is
subject; thus Moses speaks of the woman (iii.16) that her desire should
be to her husband." Calvin's interpretation of "desire" in Gen. 3: 16 and
Gen 4:7 is consistent, but it is not appropriate in Song of Solomon 7:10,
where the man's desire is to his beloved. According to Calvin's theory,
the man would then be the inferior.
WHAT IS THE WOMAN'S DESIRE? 381
sin, to master it. An active struggle between Cain and sin is
implied; the victor of the struggle is not determined by the
words God speaks to Cain.
E. J. Young notes the similarity of language in Genesis 3:16
and 4:7 but fails to account for it.
As we examine the language of the Lord, we note that it
is capable of two interpretations. First of all, however, it is
well to compare it with the similar language in Genesis 4:7.
In that verse we read, 'and his desire is unto thee.' The mean-
ing in this context of the fourth chapter is that what sin desires
is what Cain will carry out. His desire is unto Cain in the
sense that Cain is a slave thereto, and must perform whatever
sin's desire may be. In the present verse Gen. 3:16 we may
render, 'and unto thy husband is thy desire.' It is obvious
that the meaning here is the reverse of what it was in the
fourth chapter. Is it not clear that in this third chapter the
meaning cannot be that the desire of the woman is unto the
husband so that he must do what she wishes? Is it not clear
that the woman is not here pictured as a despot who compels
the man to do the thing she desires? Plainly this is not the
meaning of the text.22
The above argument relies on certain presuppositions about the
nature of the husband/wife relationship and about what the
passage means. Young neglects the primary exegetical consider-
ation -- context.
The passage, he continues, has two possible meanings, which
we have considered before:
(1) The desire of the woman will be subject to her husband
(2) The wife has a yearning for her husband, as a disease
Young prefers the first alternative.23
What Young considers an obviously impossible meaning for
"desire," the meaning which "desire" has in the same syntactical
setting only 15 verses away, is not impossible. The woman has
the same sort of desire for her husband that sin has for Cain,
a desire to possess or control him. This desire disputes the head-
ship of the husband. As the Lord tells Cain what he should do,
i.e., master or rule sin, the Lord also states what the husband
22 Young, p. 126-7.
23 Ibid., p. 127.
382 WESTMINSTER TIIEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
should do, rule over his wife. The words of the Lord in Genesis
3:16b, as in the case of the battle between sin and Cain, do not
determine the victor of the conflict between husband and wife.
These words mark the beginning of the battle of the sexes. As a
result of the fall, man no longer rules easily; he must fight for
his headship. Sin has corrupted both the willing submission of
the wife and the loving headship of the husband. The woman's
desire is to control her husband (to usurp his divinely appointed
headship, and he must master her, if he can. So the rule of love
founded in paradise is replaced by struggle, tyranny and dom-
Experience corroborates this interpretation of God's judgment
on the woman. If the words "and he shall rule over you" in
Genesis 3:16b are understood in the indicative, then they are
not true. As Cain did not rule over sin (Genesis 4: 7b ), so not
every husband rules his wife, and wives have desires contrary
to their husbands' and often have no desire (sexual or psycho-
logical) for their husbands.
As we have stated earlier on the basis of context, the woman's
desire does not contribute to the husband's rule; the opposite is
the case. The two clauses, "and your desire to control shall be
to your husband" and "but he should master you," are anti-
thetical. The presence of the personal pronoun xvh (htx in
Gen. 4:7) supports this understanding of the relationship of the
The participants of two parallel but in some ways different
activities are brought into prominence by realizing them as
grammatically similar items in preverbal positions. A common
way of doing this is to refer to the two participants by means
of explicit pronoun subjects.24
The use of the personal pronoun in preverbal position (xvh) is
unusual and redundant and brings the participants into con-
24 Francis I. Andersen, The Sentence in Biblical Hebrew, The Hague,
Mouton, 1974. p. 150.
25 Ibid.; cf. Takamitsu Muraoka, Emphasis in Biblical Hebrew, thesis
submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy to the Senate of the
Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1969, p. 42.
WHAT IS THE WOMAN'S DESIRE? 383
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 rela-
tionship. This desire is a result of and a just punishment for sin,
but it is not God's decretive will for the woman. Consequently,
the man must actively seek to rule his wife.
The reasons for preferring this interpretation are:
(1) It is consistent with the context, i.e., it is judgment for
sin that the relation between man and woman is made difficult.
God's words in Genesis 3:16b destroy the harmony of marriage,
for the rule of the husband, part of God's original intent for
marriage, is not made more tolerable by the wife's desire for her
husband, but less tolerable, because she rebels against his leader-
ship and tries to usurp it.
(2) It permits a consistent understanding of hqvwt in the
Old Testament also consistent with its etymology.
(3) It recognizes the parallel between Genesis 3:16b and
4:7b. The interpretation of 4:7b is clearer; we know from the
context that sin's desire to Cain involves mastery or enslave-
ment and that Cain did not win the battle to rule sin.
(4) It explains the fact that husbands do not rule their wives
as a result of God's proclamation in Genesis 3:16b. (Further
support is implied by the New Testament commands for wives
to be submissive to their husbands and the requirements for
elders to rule their families.) jb-lwmy xvhv is not an indicative
statement, for if God states that something will come to pass,
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