The question: What is the “desire of woman” as seen in Genesis 3:16?
Genesis 3:16 (ESV) says “to the woman he said, I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” This “desire” mentioned in this verse can be and is interpreted in several ways. Susan Foh is quick to point out there are several common interpretations of this verse and they are: 1) this desire is equated with sexual union or intercourse in that she will greatly crave her husband despite the pain of childbearing, 2) this desire makes her the willing slave of man and with this desire comes an immense psychological dependency upon him, 3) this desire, as she paraphrases John Calvin, means the woman will only desire what her husband desires and her desires are secondary to her husband’s as God’s judgment. Foh says the common theme among these three interpretations is that the woman’s desire for her husband, in whatever way, is so strong that he is able to rule over her. Foh argues that the “desire” found in verse 16 is not actually connected with a sexual desire due to the etymology of the word. She goes on to say that the rule of the husband over the wife is not a punishment but a part of the creation order. Foh summarizes that the desire of the wife is contention for leadership in their relationship and this desire and conflict is a result of and punishment for sin. This result, in her view, also isn’t God’s decretive will for the wife and the husband must actively seek to rule her. John MacArthur believes this “desire” should be interpreted, not in a sexual sense, but a battle for leadership in a husband-wife relationship. MacArthur says “sin has turned a harmonious system of God-ordained roles into distasteful struggles of self-will” (MacArthur 21). In sum, MacArthur suggests that the woman’s desire mentioned here is to lord over her husband, but the husband will rule by divine design (Eph. 5:22-25). John Davis suggests this “desire” is one of “deep, natural attraction,” a sort of “violent craving” (Davis 94). Davis says that this desire is instilled in woman to “alleviate the sorrows of womanhood and bind the hearts of the husband and wife ever more closely together” (Davis 94). In providing a solution, I believe the correct interpretation suggests the “desire” of woman is a desire for the leadership in the relationship between husband and wife, not a sexual desire. Both Foh and MacArthur point to Genesis 4:7 as another instance in which the same Hebrew word is used to show the overpowering of sin or its rulership in Cain’s life. I think the verse has to be read in context with the second half of the sentence “and he shall rule over you,” and compared with other uses of the Hebrew word for “desire.” Together, it seems to me that this desire did not make her submissive but causes her to contend for leadership in their relationship.
Davis, John J. Paradise to Prison: Studies in Genesis. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Company, 1975.
Foh, Susan T. “What is the woman’s desire.” Westminster Theological Journal 37, no. 3 (March 1, 1975): 376-383. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.
MacArthur, John. The MacArthur Study Bible: NKJV. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1997.