Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

A Better Translation of Genesis 3:16?

A Better Translation Genesis 3:16

Matt Lynch* posted an article yesterday about the ESV’s newly revised and controversial translation of Genesis 3:16. As part of his post, Matt presents a brief summary of Andrew Macintosh’s recent paper, “The Meaning of Hebrew תשׁוקה,” Journal of Semitic Studies LXI/2 (2016) pp.365-87. Matt’s summary is posted here with permission.


It is probably just an accident of history that the ESV made a permanent and significant change to Genesis 3:16 right around the time that Andrew Macintosh, one of the world’s leading scholars of biblical Hebrew, published an article proposing a new translation for a key term (Heb. tešūqâ) in the same verse. Macintosh’s article is the most comprehensive and up-to-date academic treatment of this term to date, and deserves attention.

His argument proceeds (in typically dense-but-rich philological fashion) along the following lines:

  1. While translators almost universally render the Hebrew term tešūqâ ‘desire.’ Unfortunately, the term only occurs 3x in the Hebrew Bible (Gen 3:16; 4:7; Song 7:10), so it’s very difficult to translate. This is why the Dead Sea Scrolls and the ancient Greek translation prove helpful. They provide (a.) a wider semantic data set and (b.) the earliest translations.
  1. Based on Gen 3:16 and Song 7:10 and instances of the term in the Dead Sea Scrolls, it seems that tešūqâ is a personal term, and that the abstract use in Gen 4:7 is dependent upon that personal sense.
  1. The early Greek and Hebrew (Dead Sea Scrolls) translations and interpretations of the Hebrew tešūqâ are basically correct. It means ‘focused attention’ or ‘devotion,’ and refers in personal contexts to ‘an aspect of the love and commitment’ that a man or woman expresses for their mate. (p.369)
  1. tešūqâ is predicated of both the man (Song 7:10) and woman (Gen 3:16), but is not referring to sexual desire, or desire as such. Instead, it refers to the relational devotion or preoccupation of one lover for another.
  1. Applied to Gen 4:7, the term takes on an abstract sense whereby sin, lying like a coiled serpent, ‘rests at Cain’s door waiting for an opportunity to entrap him and bring about his downfall.’ (p.372) He continues, ‘the subtlety and insidious craftiness of the serpent’s aims are served with the same single-minded concentration as is the loving care and devotion shown by Eve for her husband and by the lover of Canticles for his inamorata.’ (p.372, emphasis added)

Macintosh’s insistence that the term refers to ‘single-minded devotion’ is convincing, and clearly lies behind the earliest translations. His careful philological analysis raises a further problem for the ESV rendering of Gen 3:16b. If tešūqâ means ‘single-minded devotion,’ as Macintosh maintains, then what is the object of her single-mindedness? Is she single-mindedly devoted to not being devoted, or to not being subordinate? Or is it more insidious, that she devotes herself entirely to opposing or harming her husband? Both are unlikely in context, and as suggested above, cannot be inferred by appeal to Genesis 4:7.

The problem for the ESV of Gen 3:16b is that ‘single-minded devotion’ is not hostile on its own, and so ’el cannot perform that contrary function. On the contrary, tešūqâ is decidedly loyal. A more appropriate translation of Gen 3:16b would be the following:

‘Your devotion will be toward your husband;
Yet he will rule over you.’

This excerpt was taken from Matt’s article Contrary Women: Genesis 3:16b in the (now non-) Permanent ESV which was first posted on Theological Miscellany, the blog of Westminster Theological Centre. You can read the rest of the article here.

*Matthew Lynch serves as Dean of Studies at Westminster Theological Centre, where he also lectures in Old Testament. Matt is the author of Monotheism and Institutions in the Book of Chronicles (Mohr Siebeck, 2014) and various articles on the Old Testament. His current research investigates conceptions of violence in the Old Testament. Matt is particularly interested in helping students grasp the theological and literary contours of the Old Testament, wrestle through its ethical and historical challenges, and understand its ongoing significance.



Related Articles

Teshuqah: The Woman’s “Desire” in Genesis 3:16
Other articles on Genesis 3, here.

Posted October 4th, 2016 . Categories/Tags: Bible Translation and Interpretation, Equality and Gender Issues, Gender in Genesis 1-3, ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

17 comments on “A Better Translation of Genesis 3:16?

  1. Donald Johnson says:

    I think this idea for teshuqa is a good possibility.

    Just to add to the possibilities, I have just seen one where the author noticed that the word for “sin” in Gen 4 is also the word for “sin offering”. This then recasts the story as one in which Cain, whose offering was refused, is now given an opportunity to make it right, but has to seize the opportunity.

    I know, seems far fetched at first, I thought so too at my immediate reaction but the more I thought about it, the more it seems a possibility.

  2. Ashley says:

    I’ve read that the Septuagint renders the Hebrew word as a turning to or towards. Does that contradict or complement the above where the Hebrew word is a single minded devotion? Is it possible that Eve was turning her devotion from God to Adam? Or is that still reading a negative connotation into that verse that isn’t required?

    • Marg says:

      Hi Ashley, I make this comment about the Greek word apostrophē, the Greek translation of the Hebrew teshuqah in Gen 3:16:

      “Liddell, Scott and Jones (LSJ), arguably one of the best lexicons of Ancient Greek, has several definitions for apostrophē. Most don’t fit the context of Genesis 3:16 at all. For definition III, however, the LSJ says that apostrophē is used rhetorically when one turns away from all others to one person and addresses him specifically.”
      From here: http://newlife.id.au/equality-and-gender-issues/teshuqah-desire/

      This sounds like single-minded concentration and devotion to me.

      • Ashley says:

        Your article is probably where I read that about the Greek translation. 🙂 It sounds like single minded devotion to me as well.

  3. Ticking the box so I see further comments.

    • Marg says:

      For some reason, my email followers did not receive an emailed notification about this post, so it has not been seen by many people. Consequently, I don’t think they’ll be many more comments.

  4. Ashley Stahl says:

    It bothers me so much when some people say the word means that she’ll want to control her husband. I mean really??? If they just asked us instead of telling us what we think, they’d see that we just want to treated equally.

  5. Having finally read Macintosh’s article, I’m not convinced he’s right. He begins with Song 7:11, I think that’s a mistake given the genre of that text. Just think about English songs about love and you’ll hear lyrics telling us that we’re a “slave to love,” “addicted to love,” and equally harsh things about love. Well Song of Songs is a Hebrew love song, and it says some harsh things too, using language about being held captive and so on. Macintosh makes some assumptions about what Song 7:11 says based on a failure to adequately account for the nature of the genre. It just isn’t the right place to start. At the end of his article he uses Song as the decisive factor in favouring his interpretation over that of Joüon (p. 384–385). On p. 385 he writes “The case [Joüon] makes has some force in respect of the two verses from Genesis and their respective contexts, but it seems somewhat contrived in the case of Cant., where radical equality, rather than domination, is celebrated.” I think the reverse is true: Macintosh places too much weight on his understanding of Song 7:11.

    Other problems I have with Macintosh’s article are his failure to note that the Greek frequently translates Hebrew words from the root שוב with στρεφω/στροφη words. Furthermore, the paleo forms of ב and ק are more easily confused than they were in the square (Aramaic) script. All this lends credence to Ch. Rabin’s claim that the later meaning of “desire” was unknown at the time Gen and Song were composed and Rösel’s view (cf. Macintosh, pp. 374–375) that the Greek translator did not understand the Hebrew.

    Finally, I was surprised that Macintosh didn’t interact at all with Foh.

    In the end, Joüon’s and Foh’s understanding fits better with the context of Gen 3:16 and 4:7, so I’m sticking with the understanding that Gen 3:16 depicts the rise of enmity in the relationship between the husband and wife.

    • Marg says:

      Thanks Martin. I always appreciate your take on the Hebrew text.

      My main problem with Foh’s understanding (I’m not acquainted Joüon’s) is that I can’t see that wives trying to control their husbands is, or has been, a widespread phenomenon, especially when compared with husbands/men ruling wives/women. The Greek of Genesis 3:16 doesn’t support Foh’s premise either.

    • Hi Marg, that’s a good point. I think that there is a danger in depending too heavily on the etymology, so that “control” may not be the best rendering. However, I do think it points to תשוקה being a negative term which, in the context of Gen 3, is used to express the breakdown of the intimacy of Gen 2. As for the Greek, you’re right that it doesn’t support Foh’s reading, but (as I mentioned above), I think there are good reasons to doubt the value of the Greek (and later versions) in understanding the Hebrew.

      • Marg says:

        There’s definitely a breakdown of intimacy, but I still can’t clearly see what role the woman has in it: whether it’s a negative passive or negative active role.

  6. Donald Johnson says:

    I think most people read Gen 3:16 with an assumption that each and every item in it is negative. I think this is a mistake. The challenge is that Gen 3:16 is bracketed by the 2 curses on the serpent and the land based on what the serpent and the human did, the latter curse involving wordplay of adamah/ground and adam/human. So the curse on the serpent is bad for the serpent (but one aspect is good for humans) and the curse on the land is bad for humans. But the middle text is not the same. There is no mention of the woman’s actions and no mention of a curse. These differences are important, methinks.

    • Marg says:

      I love this comment on the play on words in Genesis 2:

      . . . Adam names himself ish, ‘man’, here [in Genesis 2:23] for the first time. He deepens his self-identity from simply being adam connected to adamah, ‘human’ to ‘humus’, to being ish connected to ishah, ‘man’ to ‘woman’. Rev’d Canon Dr Matthew Anstey (Source)

      It is important to recognise the puns in Genesis 2 and 3, and elsewhere, when interpreting.

    • Louis Wiid says:

      I agree with a negative connotatation in interpteting Hebrew concept of “desire” in Gen.3:16.interpretation based the usage of the term in the Song of Solomon leads to conclutions forced down futuristiclly down the ages to rimes of the Fall. It must not be forgotten that ‘desire’was,in the context of Gen 3, part of a curse due to inobediance and defiance of God’s direct command to Adam.

      • Donald Johnson says:

        That is exactly what Gen 3:16 is not, it is not a part of the curse on the serpent or the curse on the land.

      • Marg says:

        Hi Louis,

        Only the serpent and the ground are explicitly cursed in Genesis 3 (in Gen. 3:14 & 17).

        There are negative ramifications resulting from the man and woman’s disobedience, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the woman’s desire is in itself negative. What is negative is that even though she will desire her husband, he will rule over her.

        God’s words in Genesis 3:16 are spoken to the woman, and primarily concern the woman. At this point in time, I honestly can’t see that God intimates she will become an adversary of her husband.

        Genesis 3:17-19 is spoken to the man and here God states that the ground is cursed, and that the ground and its thorns and thistles (not the woman) will be an adversary of the man. There is nothing untoward about the man’s toil except that it will be frustrated, much like the woman’s desire is frustrated.

        Bring on the fulfilment of Romans 8:19-25! Adam and Eve have nothing on us.

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