In a previous post, I noted my dissatisfaction with NLT Genesis 3:16. The translation NLT offers of Gen 3:16 is, it seems to me, indefensible on philological grounds.
Here is NLT Genesis 3:16b – the part that is of immediate interest:
And you will desire to control your husband,
but he will rule over you.*
*3:16 Or And though you will have desire for your husband, / he will rule over you.
My beef is with NLT’s primary reading, the only one most people will ever notice, the only one most people will ever quote. The alternate reading reflects the traditional interpretation of the verse. The traditional interpretation is on target, as I will now argue.
Philology is the study of words. Correct method requires that the meaning of words be established by the following means and according to the following order of importance:
(1) Usage within a defined language and time period
(2) Usage within a defined language over a broader time period
(3) Usage within a defined language family over a defined time period
It’s all about usage. Etymology, strictly speaking, should play no role at all.
Better yet, it’s all about usage with extreme attention given to contextual considerations. Just because word x has a meaning we like in one or more occurrences doesn’t mean we can plug that meaning into another passage. Context (including identification of genre and kind of usage, metaphorical or non-metaphorical, for example) determines whether the proposed meaning is probable, not statistics. Statistical arguments of the following kind: word x in most other occurrences means y, therefore, it most likely means y in this occurrence; or word x rarely means y elsewhere, therefore, it probably doesn’t mean y here – are too crude to be useful.
The meaning of teshuqah תשוקה in Genesis 3:16 has been disputed since 1976 (see bibliography below). Does it mean “desire, longing” in its three occurrences in the Hebrew Bible, as has been thought to be the case, still the consensus opinion among scholars today? Or does it mean something far more specific on the one hand and something more inconstant on the other, “desire to control” and “eager to control” in Gen 3:16 and 4:7, respectively, and “claim” in Song of Songs 7:10 (=7:11 in some verse numberings) – as NLT suggests?
From a philological point of view, it is more convincing to identify a single common sense for a specific term across passages in which it occurs, all other things being equal. All other things being equal, of course, is the sticking point.
It is my contention that תשוקה has a single common sense in its three occurrences in the Hebrew Bible. Here is my argument.
תשוקה in Genesis 3 and 4
In Genesis 3:15, the battle between serpentkind (a personification of temptation) and womankind is described as one which will be perpetual. The emphasis is on serpentkind having the wherewithal to do but limited harm to womankind. In Genesis 4:7, a similar battle is described. The emphasis is placed on humanity having the wherewithal to dominate sin. Sin is described in phenomenological terms as a being which lurks at the door. A convincing description to be sure.
3:15 and 4:7 complement one another. In the battle with temptation and sin, God tilts the playing field in favor of humanity. Will humanity exploit the fact so as to master the situation? The drama lies therein. Here is the Hebrew:
15וְאֵיבָה אָשִׁית בֵּינְךָ וּבֵין הָאִשָּׁה
וּבֵין זַרְעֲךָ וּבֵין זַרְעָהּ
הוּא יְשׁוּפְךָ רֹאשׁ וְאַתָּה תְּשׁוּפֶנּוּ עָקֵב׃
[God to the serpent]
And I shall set enmity
between you and the woman,
between your seed
and her seed.
He will bruise your head,
but you will bruise his heel.
6 לָמָּה חָרָה לָךְ וְלָמָּה נָפְלוּ פָנֶיךָ׃
7 הֲלוֹא אִם־תֵּיטִיב שְׂאֵת וְאִם לֹא תֵיטִיב לַפֶּתַח חַטָּאת רֹבֵץ
וְאֵלֶיךָ תְּשׁוּקָתֹו וְאַתָּה תִּמְשָׁל־בֹּו׃
[God to Cain]
Why does it burn you?
Why are you crestfallen?
If you are well-disposed, there’s uplift.
If you are not well-disposed,
Sin, a lurker, is at the door.
His desire is for you,
but you are able to dominate him.
Correspondences are clear: ‘serpent and serpentkind // sin, a lurker’; ‘bruising the heel // waiting at the door, ready to pounce.’ The serpent is addressed in the first instance. The maximum damage the serpent can do (‘bruise the heel’) is specified last, and caps God’s speech. The human is addressed in the second instance. The maximum damage the human can do (‘dominate him,’ which is less than annihilating him) is specified last, and once again caps the divine speech.
‘Why does it burn you?’ is an impersonal construction. ‘It’ refers to a precedent fact, that of God preferring Abel’s offering to Cain's.
With Keil and Delitzsch, Sarna, Wenham et al., I take H יטב to refer to mood, not behavior, and שְׂאֵת to refer to a potential reversal of Cain’s crestfallenness, not forgiveness. Should Cain be well-disposed to his brother despite the circumstances, God will show favor to him as well.
The language the twin narratives use to describe relationships blighted by broken intimacy with God is symmetrical and asymmetrical at the same time.
16 וְאֶל אִישֵׁךְ תְּשׁוּקָתֵךְ וְהוּא יִמְשֹׁל בָּךְ׃
[God to the woman]
Your desire is for your man;
he on his part will dominate you.
7 וְאֵלֶיךָ תְּשׁוּקָתֹו וְאַתָּה תִּמְשָׁל־בֹּו
[God to Cain, speaking of a “crouching” demon]
His desire is for you,
but you are able to dominate him.
In Genesis 3, ‘your desire for your partner’ is a positive (as in Song of Songs 7:11: see below) balanced by a negative ‘he will dominate you.’ In Genesis 4, a negative ‘[sin’s] desire for you’ is balanced by a positive ‘you are able to dominate him.’ Note the inversion of elements. Inversion is a well-known literary device in literature the world over, and in ancient Hebrew literature as well.
By translating yiqtol משל ‘able to dominate’ in Gen 4:7, I do not mean to suggest that the sense is restricted to potentiality. In both cases, yiqtol תמשל ‘you will dominate’ refers to both certainty and potentiality, in this sense: it is certain that he/you is/are able. Note that משל ‘rule, govern’ is used negatively in Gen 3, and positively in Gen 4. Negative and positive usages of משל ‘rule, govern’ are amply attested elsewhere in Hebrew, as is the case for like words in languages and literatures generally.
In Genesis 3, the outcome of broken intimacy with God is a relationship in which the woman’s man will domineer. In Genesis 4, the outcome of broken intimacy with God is a relationship with sin and temptation in which the latter attack and menace life’s goodness.
But in both narratives, God puts limits on the damage broken intimacy with him brings in its wake. If it were not so, life would merely be hell on earth. The overabounding nature of God’s benevolence vis-à-vis human sin becomes fully manifest from chapter 12 of the book of Genesis on.
But does תשוקה mean ‘desire, longing’ in Genesis 3 and 4, rather than ‘desire to control’? So far, I have only established the possibility that ‘desire, longing’ is the meaning in Gen 3 and 4. I have not established its probability. All other things being equal, one might argue, ‘desire to control’ works just as well.
The symmetry of the larger textual context as I understand it, with its balance of positives and negatives observable elsewhere in the Genesis 3-4 narrative block, is eliminated if תשוקה is taken to mean ‘desire to control.’ In that case, תשוקה is used negatively in both Gen 3 and 4, whereas תמשל ‘you will rule’ is used negatively once and positively once. The most famous positives balancing negatives in context are those of God clothing Adam and Eve with garments of skin after condemning them by various punishments (Gen 2:16-21); and of God protecting Cain even as he banishes him from sedentary human population (Gen 4;11-15).
This is one point in favor of the construal I offer. From a philological point of view, another argument carries more weight: the sense תשוקה has in its other occurrence in the Hebrew Bible: Song of Songs 7:10 [= 7:11 in MT and some translations].
תשוקה in Song of Songs 7:10
11 אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְעָלַי תְּשׁוּקָתוֹ
I am my beloved’s
and his desire is for me.
I am my lover's,
and he claims me as his own.
NLT’s translation, to put it bluntly, is context-insensitive. Song of Songs generally and chapter 7 in particular are about desire, not a ‘claim’ made by one lover upon another. Furthermore, a concordant translation across all passages, ‘desire to control,’ is simply impossible.
In short, based on a context-sensitive examination of תשוקה across all of its occurrences in the Hebrew Bible in accordance with standard philological procedure, NLT’s translation of תשוקה is indefensible. ‘Desire, longing’ is the one meaning that works well in all three occurrences. It is the defensible meaning in all three occurrences.
‘(Impellent) desire, longing’ is also the meaning תשוקה has in Hebrew beyond the biblical period. Finally, ‘Desire, longing’ is the meaning the ancient translators (insofar as what they had in mind is ascertainable), based on passed-down understanding of ancient Hebrew, thought תשוקה had. More on those matters later.
Susan Foh, “What is the Woman’s Desire?” Westminster Theological Journal 37 [1974/75] 376–83; Walter Vogels, "The Power Struggle between Man and Woman," Biblica 77 (1996) 197–209