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  • Sexual Desire? Eve, Genesis 3:16, and תשוקה
  • Joel N. Lohr

Yhwh Elohim says to the woman, “I shall multiply your suffering and your . . . pregnancies; with pain you shall give birth to sons; and your desire shall be unto your husband, and he shall rule over you” (3.16). Any interpretation of this utterance— as a curse, aetiological statement of fact, blessing or otherwise—is largely dependent on the reader’s gender position and may vary considerably.1

Thus states Athalya Brenner in her important monograph The Intercourse of Knowledge. Those who have spent any time in the literature surrounding the interpretation of this verse will probably only affirm Brenner’s dictum. In fact, some may be inclined to suggest that she is given to understatement. Her words could give the impression that readings of this verse “may vary,” when in fact they regularly do much more—at times they clearly oppose or contradict each other. There is also a risk in saying too little in speaking of one’s “gender position.” Clearly there are a variety of factors in play, not the least of which is one’s religious or theological persuasions, or one’s place in history, society, and culture. All of this, to be sure, contributes to one’s “gender position,” but we need to be clear. The effects of one’s wider presuppositions are truly far-reaching and profound in reading this verse.

For some, Gen 3:16 is a problem not only for faith communities that hold the Bible as Scripture but also for the larger world and its social order. Given the Bible’s influence in and on various societies, the potential for this verse to be used for oppressive means should not be underestimated. Many see here the institution of [End Page 227] patriarchy. Phyllis Bird’s words might be taken as representative: “A hierarchy of order is introduced into the relationship of the primal pair. Mutuality is replaced by rule. Patriarchy is inaugurated. . . . The rule of man over the woman, as announced in Genesis 3:16, is the Bible’s first statement of hierarchy within the species.”2

But perhaps the term in Gen 3:16, often translated as “desire,” is not the primary issue regarding the institution of patriarchy; it instead introduces the clause that makes this clear. That is, the immediately following line, “and he will rule over you,” is really the crux. It is clear, however, that the two ideas are intricately related. In fact, all four lines of this verse are important and should be understood together; it is also clear that this verse cannot be properly understood outside of the larger context of the Eden story and especially the deity’s other pronouncements upon the man and the serpent.

In this article, I am principally concerned to provide an overview of how this verse—particularly the third line and the term —has been translated and interpreted in antiquity, the rabbis, and the fathers. All of this is with a view toward understanding the meaning of for both translation and interpretational purposes. Prior to this overview, however, I briefly survey some of the different readings this verse has brought about in the recent past, especially regarding the term . I do this first to highlight the remarkable confusion there is surrounding the term and, at times, the existence of profoundly opposed readings regarding it. Following my survey of the history of reception, I examine instances of the term in the Dead Sea Scrolls and then make suggestions on how we might best translate and understand the term in the light of ancient practice.

I. Survey of Recent Interpretations:

Perhaps the most common way of understanding the term is simply through the word “desire”—often taken as sensual, or sexual, desire. For example, Gordon J. Wenham, in his Genesis commentary, calls this a “sexual appetite,” something he claims will “sometimes make [women] submit to quite unreasonable male demands.”3Hermann Gunkel, in his commentary on the verse, refers to the woman here as having “a stronger libido than the man,” an idea with which John Skinner does not concur, though he agrees that the verse refers to a sexual desire, something...


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