The meaning of “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband” (Genesis 3:14)

The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Richard E. Averbeck’s Pentateuch and Historical Books course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

In Genesis 3:14-19, God pronounces His curse upon the serpent, the women, and the man after humanity’s fall into sin. Of the punishments administered out to the woman, God includes the following—וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ך. Much scholarly debate has occurred as a result of the ambiguity of this phrase. What is meant by the woman’s desire (תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ)? And how does this desire relate to her husband (וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙)? The answer to these sorts of questions is no trivial matter, for they strike at the heart of the nature of both womanhood and the marital relationship within this fallen world, let alone the identity of God’s curse against the woman.

Matthews provides a succinct survey of various perspectives on the meaning of this phrase (see pg. 250). One such popular view argues that תְּשׁוּקָה refers to the wife’s sexual desire for her husband. In this case, the וְאֶל would be understood as indicating interest, e.g., desire for your husband. The central argument for this understanding is found in Song of Solomon 7:11 [Eng. 10], one of only two other occurrences of תְּשׁוּקָה, where תְּשׁוּקָה clearly refers to sexual desire. Further support is drawn from the close proximity reference to childbirth in 3:1, which assumes sexual relations. According to this interpretation, the woman’s curse entails sexual desire for her husband despite the now extremely painful experience of childbirth that comes as a result of such sexual relations, “making all the more certain that the woman will undergo painful childbirth” (Matthew, 250). In other words, וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ relates more so to what precedes it (הַרְבָּ֤ה אַרְבֶּה֙ עִצְּבוֹנֵ֣ךְ וְהֵֽרֹנֵ֔ךְ בְּעֶ֖צֶב תֵּֽלְדִ֣י בָנִ֑ים) than what follows (וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ). Therefore, the relationship of the subsequent line about the husband ruling is handled in various ways. For example, Wenham provides one possible understanding—the husband takes advantage of his wife’s sexual appetite; “women often allow themselves to be exploited in this way because of their urge toward their husband” (81).

However, more persuasive reasons exist for understanding this desire as a desire of the woman to rule over or be independent of her husband. In this case, the וְאֶל would most likely be viewed as adversative, e.g., desire against your husband. This view finds initial support in the immediate and larger context. This punishment comes as the disruption of the complementary marriage relationship (i.e., the woman as the man’s helpmeet) established in 2:18-25. Matthew also notes that this “reference to marital disharmony [in 3:16] . . . has its match in the subsequent clause, where the judgment against the man alludes to the ensuing gender struggle in the indictment, ‘because you listened to your wife’ (3:17)” (250). Further, this interpretation makes much more sense of the relationship between this line (וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ) and the one that follows (וְה֖וּא יִמְשָׁל־בָּֽךְ). As Wenham states, “woman’s desire for independence would be contrasted with an injunction to man to master her” (81-82). But finally, the nail in the coffin is the close proximity use of תְּשׁוּקָה in Gen 4:7 where it refers to sin’s personified desire to dominate Cain. Further, as Hamilton notes, the pairing of תְּשׁוּקָה and מָשַׁל in both 3:16 and 4:7 argues that these words should be read in concert and carry the same force in both contexts. As such, “the clear meaning of 4:7 illuminates the less clear meaning of 3:16” (201). In fact, the lexical and structural similarities are likely intentional (Matthew, 251). Therefore, although the meaning of תְּשׁוּקָה can be ambiguous—granted—these connections between its use in 3:16 and 4:7 are convincing. With that said, the clear meaning in 4:7 is that of control and mastery; and as such, וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ is best understood as referring to the desire of the woman to rule over or be independent of her husband.