Why the ESV’s “contrary to” in Gen 3:16 Matters

For the word behind “contrary to” (el) to mean “contrary to” one must prove that “desire” means a negative desire, and for that to occur, one must conclude that God’s judgment against the woman/Eve is that she will become a contrarian to her husband.

Matt Lynch has summarized this argument expertly:

Typically, the Hebrew preposition ’el means ‘to’ or ‘toward.’ All the major Hebrew lexicons agree on this. The adversative sense of the Hebrew preposition ’el does occur in some instances. However, even in those instances, the direction of action is still to or toward. So, for instance, ‘Cain rose up ’el Abel’ (Gen 4:8). Cain’s action of rising up is obviously toward Abel, but the translation ‘against’ makes sense because of the hostile nature of his movement toward his brother. In other words, the preposition ’el in Gen 4:8 does not determine the contrariness of Cain’s action. Instead, it’s his hostile action that permits the translation ‘against’ for the sake of clarity in translation. Brown, Driver, Briggs (the standard biblical Hebrew lexicon) is clear about this, listing ‘against’ as a possibility only in cases where ‘the motion or direction implied appears from the context to be of a hostile character.’

In short, the Hebrew preposition ’el needs a clear contextual clue to render it hostile, but it always designates ‘movement toward a person or thing.’ Grammatically, the Hebrew ’el functions as an attractional  preposition, expressing ‘motion toward.’

Lynch then develops the argument further by contending that the use of Genesis 4:7’s similar language puts God in the corner of having turned the woman into a contrarian:

In this reading, the woman’s ‘desire’ (tešūqâ) is deliberately antagonistic to—and even harmful to—her husband, but it is the woman herself, like sin, that becomes the object of the husband’s mastery. The expectation that ‘he shall rule over you’ becomes a solution to a sinful threat, and not a statement of sin’s awful consequences. Because of the woman’s antagonism, the man will (necessarily) dominate. Rather than a malfunction from ‘the fall,’ male dominance becomes an urgent necessity….

Thus, one cannot say that because Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 resonate, desire must be bad in each text, unless one is also willing to argue for another equivalency wherein (a.) the woman is the one in whom sin resides, and therefore (b.) the man’s response ought to be uncompromising rule or domination.

In summarizing Andrew McIntosh’s new article on the meaning of desire, we discover these:

The early Greek and Hebrew (Dead Sea Scrolls) translations and interpretations of the Hebrew tešūqâ are basically correct. It [“desire”] 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….

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….

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….

The consequences of sin for Eve, as Macintosh points out, are ‘defined against [this] background of [the] radical complementarity of the sexes in creation: precisely where woman’s joyful fulfilment in life is found … here now is the burden of pain, and of subordination.’ Just as her childbearing is a ‘good’ now tainted by pain (3:16a), so too her ‘devotion’ is a good now tainted by domination (3:16b). In my opinion, the only ‘contrariness’ in Gen 3:16b exists in the husband toward his wife.

To repeat, for “el” to mean “contrary to” the woman’s “desire” must be negative. One has to wonder if the ESV’s translation is not an ironic manifestation of the dominance of the man over the woman.

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