About that Desire: Eve and the ESV Bible Controversy

Crossway publishers recently sparked controversy with their announcement that they have released a Permanent Text (PT) version of their English Standard Bible. There are two main reasons why this is a controversial decision. First, there is the issue of whether the attempt to safeguard the biblical text against any future change is a reasonable translation philosophy. Second, some of the specific changes made have drawn criticism from the evangelical community for being politically rather than academically motivated. This is especially true for the modification made to Genesis 3:16, where the Hebrew preposition el is translated as “contrary to” rather than “to, towards, for,” as all other translations have it. Here is what the ESV-PT has done to this verse:

“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;

in pain you shall bring forth children.

Your desire shall be contrary to [Hebrew=el] your husband,

but he shall rule over you.” (ESV-PT)

Here is what every other English translation reads:

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;

in pain you shall bring forth children,

yet your desire shall be for [other versions read unto] your husband,

and he shall rule over you.” (NRSV)

This emendation is a radical departure from every English translation tradition, a magnificent irony given that the ESV editors claim that the ESV “stands in the classic mainstream of English Bible translations over the past half-millennium.”1 But it seems no Hebrew lexicon lists “contrary to” as a viable option for translating el. So why this rendering? If there is no actual ambiguity regarding the meaning and sense of this word, why has the translation committee opted for this interpretation?

Many bloggers have speculated that this change has been made in order to make the biblical text conform to a gender politic that favors a complementarian reading. Complementarianism, for anyone who’s unfamiliar with the term, is a gender theology currently popular among many conservative evangelicals. Its basic premise is that men and women have distinct but complementary gender identities; thus on the basis of their differing ontologies they cannot occupy the same church offices (or perform similar domestic roles). Spiritual vocation is based on gender, not skill or ability. This view is not a new one, although conservative evangelicals did revive, rebrand and repurpose it during the late twentieth century. But, technically, it is not a distinctly evangelical theology; the theoretical foundations of gender complementarity exist in the Catholic and Orthodox Church traditions as well. Nor is complementarity distinctly Christian: both Judaism and Islam have complementarian theologies.

Perhaps complementarity’s secular cousin, in terms of the Christian tradition, is the Victorian era’s “separate sphere” ideology, which held that women and men are equal in value and worth but designed to fulfill different roles and functions. For Victorians, this meant that men’s proper place was the public sphere and women’s was the domestic sphere (Not many Christians hold to this stricter view today). Complementarism gives the separate sphere ideology a theological spin by arguing that God has created (and so commanded) men and women to serve different roles in both church and home. Church is not the exclusive domain of males, and neither is the home the exclusive domain of females; rather, there are distinct roles within each sphere that both sexes must adhere to. It is men who must lead and guide in both home and church, and women who must submit and nurture, likewise in both home and church. Above all, the priesthood/pastorate is restricted to men; only males can stand in for the person of Christ/shepherd his flock. The power of the complementarian position (or the burden, depending what gender you belong to) is that this division of the sexes is divinely ordained; to contest this scheme is to defy the very design of the Almighty One.

“Complementarianism,” as it refers to the evangelical gender politic believed to underlie the ESV change to Genesis 3:16, is a term coined during the American evangelical gender wars in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The point I wish to make is that it emerged then, with all its Western/European/Anglo baggage (this is why critiques of complementarianism by non-Anglo women are particularly damning). As a contemporary concept, it is totally foreign to both the ancient Israelite and Greco-Roman culture in which the biblical text was written, despite claims that complementarity is what Paul and Scripture teaches. This is not to say these biblical cultures were not sexist, or that there is no overlap between biblical patriarchy and complementarian teaching; it is only to say that these ancient cultures were not sexist is the same ways that we are. There is no one-to-one correspondence between the patriarchy of the biblical worlds and the Protestant-style, gender traditionalism conservative evangelicals advocate.

In any case, the triumph of traditionalist gender politics in the new ESV Permanent Text is devastating for egalitarian evangelicals—it is complementarianism’s most dramatic power play yet. Yes, it is a classic case of eisegesis, or reading an interpretation into the text; but since evangelicalism is so text-centered and more or less committed to a literalist hermeneutic, this new rendering is potentially game-changing: it will be viewed as the literal word of God by ESV readersThey will be primed to think of women as inherently rebellious contrarians. Do we even comprehend how immoral this is? Do we recognize this for the act of spiritual abuse that it is? There is no better way to sanction human interpretation that to collapse it with God’s own views—this is the tried and true method of validating our doctrinal distortions and solidifying our political power. And we are naive to think that the ESV translation editors were not aware of the effectiveness of this ploy.

So what about Eve’s desire? If her desire is not to defy her husband’s authority, then what does Eve really want? What follows are some personal reflections. The idea that Adam and Eve are engaged in some sort of power struggle is a fairly modern interpretation—one, I think, conditioned by our own culture’s anxieties about gender. Presumably, this is the interpretive angle the ESV took when changing Gen 3:16. Susan Foh, the original proponent of this view (to the best of my knowledge), wrote in her “What is the Woman’s Desire?” that the Hebrew teshuqah—or desire—refers to Eve’s desire to dominate her husband.2 Likewise, Adam desires to dominate (mashal) Eve. Comparing Gen 3:16 alongside Gen 4:7, she argued that this is the only other verse in which teshuqah appears in conjunction with mashal, the verb meaning “to rule.” In Gen 4:7, sin’s desire (teshuqah) is for Cain, and it attempts to rule over him (mashal). Obviously, sin does not desire Cain sexually; therefore, teshuqah refers to a more broad desire to dominate/control/possess him.

On the basis of this obvious point—that sin does not desire Cain sexually—she concludes that, likewise, Eve does not desire Adam sexually in Gen 3:16 but rather desires to control him the way that sin desires to control Cain. Thus Adam and Eve are said to be engaged in a battle of the wills that has defined male-female relations since the days of Eden. Foe’s assumptions are highly problematic; while she rightly interprets 3:16 alongside 4:7 (the identical word pairing these verses share is grounds for cross-analysis), she does not square her conclusions with the immediate context of Gen 3:16 itself.4 Teshuqah doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with power or domination; it simply connotes a powerful longing for someone. Again, she relies on Gen 4:7 (as well as nearby mashalwhich actually does connote domination) to shape her understanding of the nature of Eve’s desire.

There are many other interpretations that take a different route, interpretations that do not take teshuqah as expressing a desire for domination (yet this view seems to have taken hold in popular writings). The truth is, these verses are fraught with perplexities. Some earlier commentaries made the case that teshuqah reflects an intensity in Eve’s desire that is psychologically morbid. In this view she is needy, clingy, and diseased. And John Calvin took a totally different tack altogether (another little piece of irony in all this, since ESV-ites love to claim historical continuity with the Reformers): as part of Eve’s curse, her own desires would be totally subject to, and absorbed by, her husband’s desires. She would have no autonomous desire of her own; she would want only what her husband wanted. What Calvin is saying is that Eve’s subjection is primarily internal, within her own self; Adam’s external domination is real but secondary. And, finally, there is the traditional view that teshuqah refers to Eve’s sexual desire for Adam, that notorious female desire forever said to ensnare innocent, otherwise sexually pure men.5

Cultural anthropology has been useful in sensitizing modern interpreters to the nomadic/agrarian backdrop that appears to inform much of Genesis’s overall orientation. This perspective, taken seriously with the surrounding literary context of Gen 3:16 in which Eve’s curse relates to the pain of giving birth, suggests that teshuqah is best understood as a) a continued desire for sexual reproduction that Eve experiences in spite of her birthing pains, or b) a general desire (sexual, reproductive, emotional, all of the above?) for Adam that results in her inevitable pregnancy. How Adam factors into this dynamic (mashal) is the concern of the second half of Gen 3:16, which I will not get into here.

My guess is that Eve’s teshuqah is somehow connected to childbearing. The consequence of teshuqah, rather than its essential nature, appears to be the Genesis author’s main concern. The traditional view that teshuqah relates to Eve’s sexual desire is only partially correct, in my view: it focuses narrowly on sexual desire as sexual desire, particularly sexual desire as sinful desire (How very Augustinian). And women always make out badly in this construal, inevitably being regarded as the seductress, temptress, femme fatale, etc. The result is the misogynistic reading we’re all accustomed to. In fact, the very tendency to align Eve with sin is inherently misogynistic, something Foh unconsciously does when she argues that Eve’s teshuqah for Adam and sin’s teshuqah for Cain function in a similar manner (in any case, sin’s capacity to desire Cain doesn’t make it sinful; sin is sinful because it’s sin!) Eve is merely a human being created by God, in the image of God, to desire her partner. This is no more sinful or spiritually morbid than giving birth.

It is hard to tell which cultural assumption came first: is sexual desire sinful, and therefore women are likewise sinful, or are women bad and so too their sexual desires? But there is nothing about the text—and certainly nothing about the word teshuqah itself—that would lead us to conclude that sex, desire, and procreation are bad. Painful, yes, but not inherently bad.

This essay originally appeared at Women in Theology.


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