A Ladder Leans ‘Against’ A Wall—and more about Genesis 3:16b

This morning I watched a few scenes from Dodgeball and then somehow ended up reading a piece by The Transformed Wife (Lori Alexander) where she describes her husband’s former struggle: it was her attempts to control him. (My own story is at the end of this post.)

*** PLEASE read this blog post as an attack on an ideology as opposed to ad hominem; I truly hurt for this woman and have attempted respectful conversation. ***

Rather than learn mutual respect and personal agency, Lori fixed the problem by going to the opposite extreme and giving her husband full control.

That works for a calm home, but it hinders growth in both people. It can cause resentment and depression in the woman and encourages pride in the man, halting sanctification into more of Christ.

Mature relationship involves each having a voice; both in a marriage considering the other as higher than themselves and looking to the other’s interests (Phil 2). Maturity looks neither like control and forcing one’s will, nor like one-way submission.

I want to stress this. There IS a wholesome middle ground between either spouse dominating the other; it is mutual respect, which is part of true love. 

This is mature relationship. 

The Transformed Wife’s solution is supported by a mistranslation of Genesis 3:16b. Here is a better one:

To the woman he said,

“ . . . Your desire will be for your husband,
    and he will rule over you.”

Genesis 3:16 NIV

Resulting from the curse this verse says that Eve’s desire/longing will be “to, into,” or “toward” her husband (translating the Hebrew va-el ishek teshuqah), yet he will rule over her. 

This is the sad nature of human sinfulness. I will explain one way that this looks when I share part of my own story, but first, let’s look at how some translate this to say “her desire shall be ‘contrary to’ her husband.”

A Ladder Leans “Against” a Wall

The Greek Septuagint’s translation has the possible interpretation of Eve’s desire being “‘against’ her husband.” The Septuagint is literally translated “and your turning (will be) toward/against (pros) your husband/man.” My Greek professor explained that this word pros is an “against” that has the sense of “toward,” such as when a ladder leans “against” a wall

photo cred to to Marc Schiele on Unsplash.com

Pros means toward. It does not mean “contrary to,” even while “contrary to” is a synonym for “against.”

Now you know how the translators of the ESV mischaracterize this verse with their “her desire shall be contrary to” interpretation. “Contrary to” is a synonym for “against,” but it is not a synonym for the meaning of the Greek pros. Pros means an “against” like a ladder leaning against (that is, toward) a wall.

In other words, “contrary to” is not a translation from the Hebrew text but is extrapolated from a possible English translation from the Greek Septuagint and is not the intended meaning.

The ESV does note the translation of “or shall be toward” in the footnote. See this Brief Translation History, for more detail. The editors of the ESV had an explicit bias to push a complementarian agenda; the translation arose as a direct result of women gaining more agency in the church. Other than that, the version can be very helpful and points to Christ.

For another look at Desire see “Is the Woman’s Desire Bad?” This post details a possible link to Aristotle and latent ideas about women that were passed down through the generations.

Katharine Bushnell

In an article titled “Gender Equality God’s Original Design” by Dennis Preato, we find that Katharine Bushnell came to the same exegesis that I did. 

Katharine, a medical doctor and missionary, was a pioneer of reexamining biblical translation in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s after finding obvious gender mistranslation in her work on the mission field. When Katharine discovered that a woman was translated as being male, a male missionary nonchalantly said,

“Well yes, that’s just because this culture would not handle a woman leader in Scripture well.”

Katharine was floored by this careless attitude toward God’s Word.  

“Where else could this bias have been inserted into our English translations?” Katharine thought. (These quotations are my paraphrase.) She already knew Greek, so she taught herself Hebrew. She then found the same thing I did after studying Hebrew for two semesters—and notably, knowing what it feels like inside as a woman, to shift my search for wholeness from God to a man. 

My Journey

My high school and early college self longed for the “perfect man.” Can anyone relate? I still loved God intellectually, but in hind sight I understand that my heart carried altered devotion.

I learned what a Genesis 3:16 “desire” (Hebrew) or “turning” (Greek Septuagint) was long before I conceived of the idea to learn biblical languages. As my now-husband Dan and I got more serious, I inadvertently began to depend on him and our plans for my future.

This is what Genesis 3:16 describes; my longing was toward my husband. And remember, this is a shifted desire from God to a man due to sin.(1) This sinful turning-of-desire is encouraged by complementarian teaching. The ideology pushes mixed messages: be fully devoted to God—submit to your husband as your leader. Find your wholeness in God—your highest calling is to be a wife and a mother.

Either a woman’s highest calling is to trust God as he leads (which may or may not include being a wife and mother), or it is to focus first on pleasing a husband and building a family. There is a careful distinction of devotion between these options: to God first or to man first.

When our wholeness is met in God, upon whom our desire is rightly placed, we are free to grow into who we are while developing healthy relationships and honoring others. 

This is true for men as well as women. Sometimes men set their longing on a “perfect” woman or on a car or on something else. Just as the Transformed Wife found, women may also desire to rule.

It is important to note that mutual submission exhibits Ephesians 5:21 godly marriage; one-way submission depicts Genesis 3:16 sin: “he will rule over you.”

Relational dynamics of men ruling can bring about a “contrary” reaction in women; however, I see Genesis 3:16 describing first-level sin nature. This is a description of what sin looks like and not a prescription for how relationship should be.

Genesis 3 describes what broken mutual dominion/stewardship/relationship established by God in Genesis 1:26-28 looks like.

Thankfully this shifted, unholy desire was (mostly) healed in me during a difficult period before Dan and I were married. This growth process was one of the hardest things I have gone through, but God was (and is) my source of life, saying, “Trust Me.” 💫

Teshuqah תְּשׁוּקָה (a longing) in Genesis 4:7

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 [teshuqah] to have you, but you must rule over it.

Genesis 4:7 NIV

The same Hebrew word for a woman’s longing in Gen 3:16 is used of sin in Gen 4:7. This makes sense. Sin does long for us to make it (sin) our only focus. This is similar to me longing for Dan to make me his world, back in college,

And, as Wild at Heart which came out while I was in college recommends, for him to “rescue” me.

WARNING! RED FLAG! This is an encouragement of the woman’s desire shifted from God to a man to be her (functional) savior. This view sets a sinful, shifted desire as holy.

There is a careful play on words in the Genesis uses of teshuqah.

Genesis 3:16 tells us that woman will long for man, but he will rule over her. Remember, this is a broken shift caused by the introduction of sin.

In Genesis 4:7, the words are the same, but the tone is flipped. While sin desires to have us all, we must rule over it. Here, the “ruling” is prescriptive of what should happen—we should rule over sin—rather than descriptive of what will happen due to sin when man now rules over woman.

This is a big difference!

The context of Genesis 1 and 2 sets the stage for mutuality; Genesis 3 introduces sin.

I do not find the dual reference to “ruling” (mashal) after “longing” (teshuqah) to be a problem. One is God’s description of what follows the curse—there’s a shifted longing, and an unholy ruling—while the other is God’s active teaching to Cain: sin longs to have us, and we must rightly rule it.

The first is a negative ruling describing sin’s effect in us. The second is a positive description of our right response to sin.

The key to healthy relationship and overcoming sin is always to return to reliance on Christ to both satisfy our deepest desires and to lead.

❄K. S. Lassen

  1. For more on the Septuagint’s translation of teshuqah into apostrophe which means a “turning,” see Marg Mowczko’s “Teshuqah: The Woman’s “Desire” in Genesis 3:16”. This “turning” describes my proposal that due to sin the woman “turns” her desire from God to a man.

2 thoughts on “A Ladder Leans ‘Against’ A Wall—and more about Genesis 3:16b

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s