“Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Gen. 3:16)
This part of what is sometimes called Eve’s curse has been used to justify male domination for thousands of years. On the surface, it seems fairly clear. As part of her punishment for disobedience in Eden, Eve is required to suffer the pain of childbirth, to “desire” her husband, and to be ruled over by him. But like so many things in the Bible, the English translation may be obscuring the true meaning of the text.
The traditional interpretation of this part of “Eve’s curse” is that women will have sexual or romantic desires for men, who will in turn rule over the women who desire them. This supposed longing for men has been seen to be part of the sexual heirarchy, and a source of the male dominance.
The Hebrew word in this passage that is translated as “desire” is tashuqah. Interestingly, that word only appears in the Bible two other times, and once is just one chapter over, in the story of Cain and Able.
In Genesis 4: 6-7, God tries to persuade Cain to overcome his anger. He says to Cain: “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master it.” In this passage, the Hebrew word translated as “desires” is again tashuqah. God says that sin seeks to overcome or control Cain, but that Cain should master or rule over it. This language closely tracks that in “Eve’s curse.” Obviously, therefore, tashuqah is not a sexual or romantic “desire.” Instead, it means “desire” in the sense of desire to control, or to dominate.
It seems, therefore, that the meaning of Genesis 3: 16 is that Eve will seek to control or dominate her husband (as sin sought to control or dominate Cain), and that her husband will in turn dominate or control her in response. In other words, the “desire” woman will have for man is the desire to dominate him, and the reaction of sinful man will be to subdue and dominate women. Essentially, in the fallen world the perfect male-female union designed by God, will degenerate into a battle for superiority.
God is not saying in this passage that men should rule over their wives, just as he is not saying the women should seek to rule over their husbands. He is just describing one aspect of a fallen world–in this case the battle of the sexes that has raged ever since.
Mutual submission of husbands and wives to each other is the way we are eventually taught to escape this trap. As Paul put it thousands of years later: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
In that kind of mutual submission, the right kind of “desire” occurs.