John MacArthur recently got himself in hot internet water (which is to say virtually nothing in the real, non-internet world) over a comment he made about Beth Moore. Afterward, he gave a follow-up sermon to expressly and clearly state his view of women in ministry based on the Bible. You can and should watch that sermon here.
In the sermon, J Mac lays out a pretty standard complementarian view with pretty standard complementarian support passages. I largely agree with John MacArthur’s view on this issue (with a few specific exceptions). However, while I mostly agree with John’s conclusions, I disagree with many of his supporting passages and one in particular I think he gets totally wrong. I explained this disagreement to my mother and she found it so helpful that she asked I write a blog post about it.
So here’s the deal with this post… I’m not going to go through JohnnyMac’s sermon and explain every point of disagreement. Instead, I’m going to interpret the major passage we disagree on (Gen 3:16) and hopefully highlight along the way the only major conclusion we disagree on as a result (hint: it has to do with the “curse” on women). The hope is by walking you through what the Bible actually says, you’ll be able to build your theology from the ground up, as opposed to the usual method of entering a biblical passage with your theology already decided and wrestling the Bible into a contorted position in order for it to fit that pre-conceived theology.
So here it is. This is my exegesis of Genesis 3:14-16.
Genesis 3 Exegesis
Most of us know the story of the bible up through Genesis 3 pretty well. I could spend, and have spent, hours talking about each chapter. But one verse in particular I understand very differently than most Christians today. It is Genesis 3:16. We disagree mainly because of translation. So, in this exegetical summary I’ll (1) set the context, (2) translate the passage (3) walk through the translation of the passage, explaining what it actually means in context, and (4) show why this makes more sense than the most common view today.
In Chapter 3 so far, the woman has been deceived by the serpent, she has eaten the fruit, and her husband with her, out of a desire to be “wise” “knowing” good and evil, (I think “deciding” is probably a better word to get the point across. They want to know good and evil the way God knows good and evil. And what relationship does God have with good and evil? He determines/decides it!) so their eyes are opened and they realize they are naked, they sew together fig leaves as a covering, hide, are found by God, and play the blame game.
After the blame game is done we move to the punishment phase of the hearing in verse 14.
The Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all the beasts, and above all the things living in the field; On your belly you will go, and dust you will eat all the days of your life. And enmity I will put between you and between the woman, and between your seed and between her seed; He will strike your head and you will strike his heel.”
To the woman he said, “I will increase upon increase your grief/sorrow/toil (Hebrew:ohtzev or etzev) and your conception (Hebrew:harah); In grief you will beget sons, but toward your man (Hebrew:ish) will be your longing, and he will rule over you.”
Walkthrough of Translation
Verses 14 and 15 look pretty much exactly like they do in your Bibles, and the conventional exegesis of these verses I tend to agree with. The curse is placed upon the serpent to go on his belly and eat dust, and a promise, the protoevangelium (first gospel) is issued that there will be a man, a “seed of the woman” who will come forth and fight the serpent. He will strike/bruise/crush/snatch the serpent’s head and the serpent will do likewise to his heel. This “seed of the woman” is widely thought to be Jesus, and I think that’s the correct interpretation. So, in the midst of the curse on the serpent, God issues the promise of salvation in his Son, all in type and shadow format.
However, verse 16 probably looks quite different from your Bibles’ translation. First, let’s set aside the question of “why” your bibles translate it so differently than I do (we’ll come back to that), and let’s stick with what my translation says. It’s quite obvious that my translation isn’t making a claim about how giving birth is now painful as a result of the fall.
That’s the common interpretation, and the common translation of Genesis 3:16. However, there are a few keywords which belie this common understanding and translation, and I think there’s ample evidence to go with something like the translation I’ve given above.
First of all, “pain.” The noun ohtzev “grief” which is being increased upon increase (i.e. greatly increased) is a word which the vast majority of the time refers to “anxious hardship” or “worry” (see HALOT). The sort of “pain” it represents is almost always emotional pain (i.e. grief or anguish), not physical pain.
The word is used when God was “sorry that he made man on the earth and he was ohtzev-ed in his heart.” (Gen 6:6) Joseph says to his brothers, “Do not be ohtzev-ed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” (Gen 45:5) Jonathan arises in anger and refuses to eat food, “because he was ohtzev-ed over David because his father had dishonored him.” (1 Sam 20:34). Psalm 139 asks God to see “if there be ohtzev-ful way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way.” The vast majority of the time, and arguably all the time, the word refers to an internal reality of grief, or sorrow, or anguish, and does not refer to “ouch, give me the epidural” kind of pain. It’s emotional, not physical.
The next word with nuance is the word often translated “childbearing.” The verb harah means “conceive.” It refers to the whole process of creating, carrying, birthing, and sometimes even includes the concept of raising the child. The word is repeated most often in the phrase “… and she conceived and gave birth to… [a son].” (Gen 4:1, 17; 21:2; 29:32-35; 30:5, 7, 17, 19, 23, 38:3-4, Ex 2:2…) The phrase is common and the word means “conceived” as a verb and “conception” as a noun. The reason translators choose “child birth” is because they erroneously think ohtzev refers to physical pain. One translation error thus gives birth to another. How you translate the first word will lead you to translate the second word a differently.
Next, the word for “bear children” teyldi banim actually literally means “bear sons.” Now a masculine plural noun is often taken as a neuter plural, so “children” isn’t the worst translation, but the main reason this is important is that we’re talking about a specific woman with specific children. This was spoken to Eve, who a few verses later bears two sons. This fact highlights a broader point about interpretation. So often, this verse is viewed as axiomatic about women in general, but there are virtually no linguistic clues to suggest this is accurate. When God spoke to Balaam through a donkey, no one reading the story thought “The donkey is talking to all men.” It’s just for Balaam to hear, and we learn something about Balaam through what he says, not something about mankind in general. Why do we jump to the conclusion that when God speaks directly to Eve, he’s talking about all women? We shouldn’t, unless he says something to indicate he’s making an axiomatic statement for all women, and he doesn’t seem to here. He’s talking to a particular woman, and her particular sons. And it is in the “conception” of these two “sons” that she (Eve) experiences intense “grief.” This “grief” is brought on in the first place, for the obvious reason that the older son kills the younger son. “Grief” over the “conception” of such “sons” is to be expected. However, the grief is also for the less obvious reason to which we now turn.
My translation “toward your man will be your longing and he will rule over you.” The main word here that differs is “man.” The word in Hebrew, ish, means “man” in some contexts and “husband” in others. However in Genesis 1-11, I believe it has another much deeper and more nuanced meaning.
Backing up slightly… there are two words for “man” used in these chapters. The two words are adam and ish. Adam seems to refer specifically to the first human male, who married the first human female, and his name, adam carries significance because it was out of the “ground” adamah that he was made. This is the particular “man” who falls, and the “man” whose fallen image is passed down to his sons, and thus the whole human race (Gen 5:3). Specifically, in Genesis 1-3 ish is used only FOUR times (as opposed to the 26 times adam is used). These four times are as follows:
Twice in Genesis 2:23-24 – “The man (adam) said ‘This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman (ishah) because she was taken out of man (ish). For this reason a(n) ish shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his ishah.”
Once in Genesis 3:6 during the act of eating the forbidden fruit – “and she gave to her man (ish) who was with her and he ate.”
And once here in Genesis 3:16.
These four occurrences have major significance for the word ish. The first two occurrences refer to a sort of paradigmatic statement of man, the image-bearer of God, the crowning glory of the creation of God, seen marrying his bride in the original marriage. Here, the statement as paradigmatic is justified, because Moses actually makes a comment about how this informs the human understanding of marriage. This is the picture of the ultimate man. This is for what he was made. He was made to be the image-bearer of God and he is doing it by being united with his wife. Two persons become one being. Bone of bone, flesh of flesh. Just as God is three persons and one essence, so ish and ishah are now two persons, but one essence.
In the third occurrence, Genesis 3:6, the writer, Moses, emphasizes the moment that the image-bearing ish becomes corrupt. “She gave to her ish who ate” ironically highlighting the exact opposite of what an ish should do. Instead of leading his wife as her head, according to the created order ordained by God, he follows her voice. Instead of listening to the voice of God, he listens to the voice of his wife who was deceived.
(((A thought provoking side-note here: which MacArthur points out. Eve was deceived into sin, but Adam knew better. We sometimes communicate the idea that because Eve sinned first, she committed the greater sin. She did not. Read 1 Tim 2 carefully and you’ll see that he says Adam was CREATED first, but he does not say Eve was “deceived first.” he says Eve was “deceived,” as in contrast to Adam who was not deceived, but sinned anyway.)))
Now, in between Genesis 3:6 and Genesis 3:16, there is given a promise of a particular man, a “seed” from the woman who will strike the head of the serpent (Gen 3:15). This man, whom we know because we’ve read the end of the story, is the true ish, the image-bearer to replace the now fallen image-bearer, the “last Adam” as Paul calls him: JESUS. It is for this man, this seed, this ish, that Eve will obviously be longing. For He shall rule over her (in the resurrection, that is). He will be the ruler of all.
It is for this ish that Eve’s longing is directed, but she experiences “grief” in her “conception” because the seed doesn’t come in her life-time. She “bears sons,” (namely, Cain and Abel) thinking that the promised seed has come in the form of Cain. She says as much in Genesis 4:1, “and she conceived (harah) and gave birth: Cain. And she said, ‘I have gotten a(n) ish, the Lord!” Many translations will add in the words “with the help of,” but they do not appear in the Hebrew text. There is a Hebrew word et which acts as a direct object marker. It tells you the direct object of the verb you’ve just read. You can think of it like a colon in English. It is used earlier in the same verse when it says “and she conceived and gave birth: Cain” It also appears in her own sentence and it marks direct object, the ish, which she thinks she’s begotten. i.e. “The Lord.”
It would seem that Eve had a crystal-clear understanding of whom to expect as far as the personality of the “seed” prophesied to the serpent, and promised to her. She understood that the “seed” would in fact be “the Lord”… which only really makes sense if she had been told that he “will rule over you.” She knew it was God in flesh who was coming via her conception of a “seed,” she was simply unclear as to the timing of that “seed’s” arrival. And so, this “conception” of a murderous “son,” (Cain) instead of the ish she was expecting, “increases upon increase” her “grief.”
Do you see how this all fits together like a hand in a glove? Do you see how this makes way more sense in the context of the story being told by Moses? Verse 3:16 follows verse 3:15, and so maybe we should read verse 16 as if verse 15 had just been written, cause it had. They both concern the same person, the same promised savior who will fix the issue at hand. It’s not like one was talking about the promised savior and then Moses and God took a commercial break to tell you why giving birth hurts so much.
To my mind, this is the proper translation and understanding of Genesis 3:16. It simply makes far too much sense to ignore.
Notice something else: The woman is never cursed. The two things which receive a curse in this story are the serpent and the ground. The man and woman get promises of a savior, in the midst of their great “grief” at incurring death for themselves. Far from this being a display of God’s wrath in pouring out a curse on Adam and Eve, it is a display of God’s mercy in giving them the promise of a messiah mere moments after they fell, and pouring out the curse on his own creation rather than his greatest creation: man. Of course, His justice and unbreakable word requires that they still die, (as God says to Adam in v.17ff) but even in the midst of His justice being reaffirmed, His grace is reaffirmed as well. There will be a “seed’ who will strike the head of the serpent. There will be one to fix this whole mess. Jesus is coming and He will rule over you. Death is here, but resurrection is on the way.
Show Why This Makes More Sense
I hope it’s pretty obvious why this makes more sense than the “popular” understanding of Genesis 3:16. It starts with properly understanding the word ohtzev and the rest mostly falls into place. Where the “popular” understanding goes wrong begins at the “popular” understanding’s answer to a very fundamental question: Why and how should you read the Bible?
Most Bible-preachers read and preach the Bible because they think it will teach them how to live. That’s only kind of true. They’re forgetting a very basic fact: the Bible is a story.
The Bible has two overall points: (1) To lay out the plan of creation, fall, redemption, and resurrection (the storyline of the Bible; most of the narrative literature). (2) To teach about and glorify the God enacting that plan (the “umph” of the Bible; most of the prophetic, poetic, and didactic literature).
Those are the two main points of the Bible. Naturally, learning about God has the unavoidable byproduct of learning how to live, but it’s important not to supplant an effect of reading the Bible for its purpose. This is what many preachers and teachers erroneously do.
In seeking “application” to learn how to live day-to-day from the Bible, instead of seeking first to learn about God Himself, we often turn passages intended as plot-points in a story into rules or paradigms to follow and believe. Sometimes it’s harmless; sometimes the cost is great. This practice of treating narrative literature as didactic literature results in dissecting the Bible and pulling verses away from their contexts, to the point where Genesis 3:16 is viewed as a stand-alone, paradigmatic statement about all women and the supposed “curse” they received. A massive theology (the one laid out by John MacArthur in his sermon), is then built up around this misappropriation of a single verse, to suggest that women bear a curse (which they don’t) and the reason that they should not preach in churches is because they have an innate desire to usurp authority placed in them by that curse. But that’s not what Genesis 3:16 is saying.
Now to be clear, I believe women should not preach in churches! I am pretty firm that a woman should not teach or exercise authority over a man in a church setting and I think it has to do with the created order and the fall. I also think it’s quite common that women want to rebel against the created order of a husband as the head of his wife by usurping authority. It’s not because they’re cursed; it’s because they’re sinners! They’re sinners just like the men who often want to rebel against the created order of a husband as the head of his wife by following her lead instead of himself leading. (i.e. what God tells Adam in Genesis 3:17!) I think all of that stuff is true… but I think none of it is stated in Genesis 3:16. Genesis 3:16 is a word to Eve, about her own children, and the promised savior who was to come. Just because Genesis 3:16 doesn’t teach those ideas, it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily false, they just have to be validated by plain reason and the other Biblical passages which do teach them. That’s all I’m saying. So I repeat, the main thing I disagree with JohnnyMac on, in this sermon, is the idea that women are cursed. They’re not. They’re just sinners like the rest of us.
Why Don’t Modern Translations Say It This Way?
I’ve basically said all I wanted to say about the passage, so if you want to check-out now, feel free. But, I said earlier I’d address this question as well. Why do translations stick with “pain in childbirth” and “your desire will be for your husband”?
A quick caveat before I answer that question directly: by and large, modern translations of the Bible are extraordinarily good, and the benefit of having the bible in the common tongue is remarkably immense. I praise God for faithful men and women who have worked diligently to bring the scriptures into new languages. I don’t want you to think your English Bibles are unreliable simply because they miss the mark in a few spots. I love my NASB and ESV, and CSB, and even the NLT when I’m feeling a little whimsical. However, translations aren’t inspired, which is why it’s so important for godly elders to learn to read the scriptures in their original languages, so that the churches of God can better understand what God has said. While your translations are quite good and get all the major important stuff across so that you can know and believe the gospel, the translations are not the inspired word of God. They are mere translations, interpreted by men, doing their best, so that the gospel can get to as many people as possible.
That caveat out of the way, the reason most English translations render this with “pain in childbirth” and “husband” is because they are trying to translate a text, but do not understand what that text is saying.
All translation involves interpretation. As you saw in my translation of Genesis 3:14-16, the words I chose yield a much different interpretation than the words the NASB, ESV, or NLT translators chose. I think the words I chose better represent what was being said in the original language, and I tried to prove that was the case, but it’s still my interpretation being brought through in the translation.
Well, if you have no clue what the original author meant, sometimes you have to take a guess and choose some words. In so doing, instead of trying to figure out what the author meant based on his own words, you’ll let your pre-conceived systematic theology “inform” you of what the author meant, even if he didn’t really mean that. We try to guard against that by translating in community, having many people read the same text and see if they agree about the interpretation to convey, but even that doesn’t sort out everything. Sometimes a passage still won’t be understood by a majority of translators on a committee. I think this is what has happened in Genesis 3:16.
The way bible translations usually work nowadays is a group of say 30-100 people who know the original languages (usually seminary professors who teach the original languages to seminary students) get together and divvy-up the bible to be translated, and they all agree to translate according to a particular governing philosophy. They also usually all share a similar theological bent. For example, the RSV was translated by mostly Catholics, while the ESV was translated by mostly Evangelicals. (You can read about those translation philosophies in the front sections of your Bible, before Genesis.) Those people come back and then pass their translation off to someone else who sees if they agree with the first translation. The group will then highlight a few passages for a bunch of people to come together and debate about how it should be rendered in the new language, then the editors finally pick one as the official translation they’ll use for that particular Bible translation, making footnotes about other possible translations if there was enough disagreement among the group in the arguing process.
These translators know the languages, to be sure. They are doing their best to translate, to be sure. They are often men much smarter than I, to be very sure. I know some of the translators on committees of major Bible translations. Some of them taught me Greek and Hebrew. They are good and godly people, but they are fallible people and they also all believe a particular systematic theology unique to themselves. I do not exclude myself. I also have a particular systematic theology. Theology always comes through in a translation.
So, the dominant systematic theology concerning Genesis 3:16 for the last 100 years or so (even across denominational lines, but particularly among the people working on modern literal Bible translations) has been overwhelmingly dominant, and it says Genesis 3:16 is about delivery room screaming and women wanting to dominate their husbands. Before 100 years ago, you can see a pretty clear shift in word choice between older translations and newer ones on this verse. For fun, go look at how the 1599 Geneva Bible or the Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition render this verse. You’ll notice some similarities and difference with my own translation, and some similarities and differences with modern major bible translations.
The translation clearly changed, but the underlying Hebrew didn’t. So, what did? Answer: general theological bents, or preconceived understandings about certain texts by the translators.
All that to say, there’s been a lot of confusion about this verse down through the ages. It’s not immediately apparent what the verse means by the words alone. The context helps greatly in interpreting it. And if you’ve been taught, and believe, that this verse is there to explain why giving birth is painful and why women want to rebel against their husbands’ headship, then you’re going to be inclined toward translating it that way (like the NASB, ESV, CSB, NLT, every translation in the last 100 years translated it). But if you let the context of the verse determine your interpretation, and you let the words speak a little more for themselves, you’ll end up with a different translation, and I think mine is better for the reasons I’ve given above.
If you’re still with me reading this… wow. You must be really bored. Haha. If you have questions about any of this, I’d love to chat. Use my contact page and let’s talk about the bible!
God bless you as you study the Bible. May you be more and more convinced to let the Bible speak for itself and subject yourself to the author who wrote it.