Teshuqah: The Woman's Desire in Genesis 3:16

For Mandy, Jude, and Karen.

Teshuqah: A Rare Word

Several words that are crucial in understanding what the Bible shows us about the relationship between men and women are rare and somewhat obscure in their original languages. I’ve previously written about the Hebrew word kenegdo which occurs only twice in the Old Testament (in Genesis 2:18 and 20). And I’ve looked at the Greek word authentein which occurs only once in the New Testament (in 1 Timothy 2:12). In this post I look at the Hebrew word teshuqah in Genesis 3:16. This word also occurs in Genesis 4:7 and Song of Solomon 7:10. Three times in all.

In Genesis 3:16 God says to the woman:

“I will greatly multiply
Your pain in childbirth,
In pain you will bring forth children;
Yet your desire (teshuqah) will be for your husband,
And he will rule over you.” NASB

Until Susan Foh wrote her 1974-5 paper What is a Woman’s Desire?, many Bible translators were content to understand teshuqah as simply meaning “desire” and “longing”.[1] A few English translations such as the NLT and NET, however, show the influence of Foh’s paper. They have translated teshuqah as “desire to control” and “want to control” in Genesis 3:16. Is “a desire to control” what the original authors meant in Genesis and in Song of Solomon?

Teshuqah in Hebrew Lexicons

In the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew Lexicon (BDB) it says that teshuqah means “longing”: a longing of woman for man in Genesis 3:16; a longing of man for woman in Song of Solomon 7:11;[2] and, figuratively, a longing of a beast (representing sin) to devour Cain in Genesis 4:7.[3] Furthermore, BDB claims that teshuqah is derived from a stem shuq which means “attract, impel, of desire, affection”.[4]

Gesenius likewise states that teshuqah is derived from the stem shuq which has the meanings “to run after, to desire, to long for anything; whence תְּשׁוּקָה [teshuqah means] desire, longing.”[5] Other lexicons, such as HALOT, also define teshuqah as “desire, longing.” None of these lexicons, however, connect teshuqah with a desire to control.

Teshuqah: The Woman's Desire in Genesis 3:16

Screenshot of the second meaning of shuq with teshuqah (in Hebrew letters)
As it appears in Gesenius’ lexicon.

Teshuqah may simply mean “desire”. If so, it is the context which supplies what kind of desire is being spoken of.[6]

Teshuqah and the Context of Genesis 3:16

There have been several ways of understanding what “desire” means in the context of Genesis 3:16. Here are four of the more common interpretations.

1. A woman will desire a husband and marriage despite the pain that comes with having children.

When God speaks to the woman in Genesis 3:16, he begins by telling her that having children will be a painful experience. It is immediately after God gives this information that he says, “your desire will be for your husband . . .” So perhaps we are meant to understand that even though childbirth and child rearing will involve pain and sorrow, a woman will still desire to be married and have a family. (In the days before contraceptives, the primary reason for marriage in practically all cultures was to raise a family.) The use of the word “yet” in the NRSV and NASB indicates that this may be the preferred interpretation of the NRSV and NASB translators: “. . . in pain you will bring forth children; Yet your desire will be for your husband . . .” (NASB, italics added)

2. A woman will desire marriage and sex despite this intimacy being marred by her husband’s rule.

Instead of looking at the preceding phrases, perhaps we are meant to look at the last phrase of Genesis 3:16 (“he will rule over her”) to give us the context of teshuqah. If so, then the meaning is that a woman will desire to be married, and have a longing for her husband, even though the intimacy and joy of marriage will be marred by her husband’s rule. The use of the word “but” in the CEB translation indicates that this may be their preferred interpretation: “You will desire your husband, but he will rule over you.” (Italics added)

Some have understood the woman’s desire to be sexual lust, rather than simply a longing for, or a longing towards, a husband. Keil and Delitzsch include an overstatement in their commentary on Genesis 3:16 describing the woman’s teshuqah as an almost manic desire: “she was punished with a desire bordering upon disease (תּשׁוּקה from שׁוּק to run, to have a violent craving for a thing).”[7]

3. A wife’s own desires are submitted to her husband.

Another interpretation found in quite a few older commentaries is that a woman’s own desires, or the determination of her own will,[8] will be submitted and referred to her husband, and he will grant or deny her desires as he sees fit.[9] This disturbing interpretation, and variations on it, seem to have been popular in the last several centuries.[10]

4. A wife will desire to control her husband.

Foh’s interpretation, adopted by some, is that a women will desire to control her husband,[11] but, despite this desire, her husband will rule her. Foh bases her interpretation on a comparison of Genesis 3:16 with Genesis 4:7 where the keywords teshuqah and mashal (“rule”) also occur. However, there are some significant differences between Genesis 3:16 and 4:7.

In Genesis 4:7, sin is unmistakably depicted as Cain’s adversary, crouching at the door; and Cain is told that he must master sin and that this is the right thing to do. Foh believes Eve is similarly presented in Genesis 3:16 as Adam’s adversary, but this is not explicit in the text.[12]

Furthermore, while Cain is directly told by God to master or rule sin, Adam is nowhere told by God to master or rule Eve. In fact, God never tells men to rule women. The “rule” spoken of in Genesis 3:16 is a consequence of sin. It is not divinely commanded, as in 4:7, and it does not refer to a beneficial rule.[13] The contexts of 3:16 and 4:7 are different, even though they share two keywords.[14]

Early Translations of Teshuqah

In Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 in the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek Old Testament, teshuqah is translated as apostrophē.[15][16] The etymology of apostrophē gives the meaning “a turning away”, but it is has a broader range of meanings, some of which are conflicting.

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.[17] This meaning makes good sense in the contexts of Genesis 3:16 and 4:7.

Since the preposition pros (“towards”) also occurs in Genesis 3:16 (“your turning (apostrophē) will be towards (pros) your husband”), I think the meaning of a woman turning away from others to turn towards, or even long for, her husband may well be what is intended here.[18] 

Skip Moen believes that teshuqah may not mean “desire” and he looks to the early Greek, Syriac, and Coptic translations, for insight. He writes,

“But there is another translation stream arising through the LXX, the Syriac Peshitta and Coptic translations. This stream views the rare Hebrew word teshuqah as “turning,” not “lust.” If this stream is correct, then the word in Genesis 3:16 is about Eve’s mistake of “turning” her principle devotion toward Adam rather than God. Eve makes Adam her priority . . . .”[19] 

Walter Kaiser likewise states that teshuqah should be understood as “turning”.

The Hebrew word teshuqah, now almost universally translated as ‘desire,’ was previously rendered as ‘turning.’ The word appears in the Hebrew Old Testament only three times: here in Genesis 3:16, in Genesis 4:7 and in Song of Songs 7:10. Of the twelve known ancient versions (the Greek Septuagint, the Syriac Peshitta, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Old Latin, the Sahidic, the Bohairic, the Ethiopic, the Arabic, Aquila’s Greek, Symmachus’s Greek, Theodotion’s Greek and the Latin Vulgate), almost every one (twenty-one out of twenty-eight times) renders these three instances of teshuqah as “turning,” not “desire.” Likewise, the church fathers (Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Epiphanius and Jerome, along with Philo, a Jew who died about A.D. 50) seem to be ignorant of any other sense for this word teshuqah than the translation of “turning.” Furthermore, the Latin rendering was conversio and the Greek was apostrophē or epistrophē, words all meaning “a turning”.[20]

While Susan Foh, and a few others, see a power struggle implied in Genesis 3:16b, women turning towards their husbands, rather than having a desire to control them, fits better with what we see in the world at large.

Conclusion

There is ample evidence that, due to the prevalence of patriarchy, men have ruled their wives. God’s prophetic description that “he will rule over you” has been played out in countless marriages across millennia across the globe. Over the centuries, many Christians have even assumed that Genesis 3:16 gave men permission to rule and control their wives, but there is no divine mandate here.

Is there widespread evidence that women have typically desired to control their husbands, even if this desire has been thwarted by male rule? If there is, I haven’t seen it.

The precise meaning of teshuqah is not certain. It may mean “desire”. It may mean “turning”. But context, as well as the evidence from history and the present day, seems to rule out that it means “a desire to control”. Whatever its meaning, the mutuality and unity between the first couple was spoiled by sin. Yet this is not the end of the story. Thankfully, Jesus came to deal with sin, and our relationships today can potentially be as mutual and harmonious as it was in Eden before the Fall (Gen. 2:21-25). Restored relationships between men and women is part of the good news of Jesus.


Endnotes 

[1] Susan T. Foh, “What is the Woman’s Desire?”, The Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1974/75), 376-83. This paper can be read online here.

[2] Song of Solomon (Song of Songs, or Canticles) 7:11 in the Septuagint is equivalent to 7:10 in English and Hebrew Bibles.

[3] Francis Brown, “תְּשׁוּקָה”, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007), 1003.

[4] Ibid., 1003.
Unlike what some online resources suggest, BDB does not connect teshuqah with Strong’s words 7783, 7784 or 7785. These are unrelated words spelt שׁוּק—shuq and שׁוֹק—shoq. The Strong’s number for teshuqah is 8669. There is no Strong’s number for the shuq which is the primitive and obsolete stem of teshuqah. Moreover, there is no clear consensus among lexicographers as to what the meanings of this particular stem were.

[5] Friedrich Wilhelm Gesenius, “שׁוּק”, Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scriptures, English translation by Samuel Prideaux Tregelles (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons) (Source)

[6] David T. Lang has found eleven occurrences of teshuqah in Qumran sectarian manuscripts, most of which are translated as “longing” or “desire.” He writes, “Interestingly, in most of these cases the object of desire was something negative or in some way related to destruction. The desire spoken of was not clearly a ‘desire for control,’ but it certainly seemed to connote some kind of negative longing or obsession.” (Source)
Since the members of the Qumran community were ascetics, and desire was antithetical to a strictly disciplined lifestyle, it is not surprising that they viewed desire and longing negatively.

[7] C.F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, “The Pentateuch”, Biblical Commentary: The Old Testament, Vol. 1, English translation by James Martin (Edinburgh: T. & T, Clark, 1885), 108. (Sources 1 and 2)

[8] Albert Barnes, Notes on the Old Testament (London, Blackie & Son, 1884) (Source)

[9] Joseph Benson, Commentary of the Old and New Testament (New York: T. Carlton & J. Porter, 1867), (Source).

[10] For example: “‘Thy desire shall be unto thy husband,’ is of the same force as if he had said that she should not be free and at her own command, but subject to the authority of her husband and dependent upon his will; or as if he had said, ‘Thou shalt desire nothing but what thy husband wishes.'” John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis. (Source)
A few older commentaries on Genesis 3:16, here.

[11] In his commentary on Genesis 3:16 in the ESV Study Bible, T. Desmond Alexander agrees with Foh’s interpretation and writes that this verse “indicates that there will be an ongoing struggle between the woman and the man for leadership in the marriage relationship. . . . Eve will have the sinful ‘desire’ to oppose Adam and assert leadership over him.” ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 56.

[12] The two obvious adversaries in Genesis 3 are the cursed serpent, who will be an enemy especially of the woman and her seed (Gen. 3:15), and the cursed ground (adamah), which will produce thorns and thistles and make life especially hard for Adam (Gen. 3:17-19).

[13] The form of mashal used in Genesis 3:16 is identical to that in Isaiah 19:4, and similar to that in Proverbs 17:2.

[14] For more on the contexts of Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 see Irvin A. Busenitz’s paper, “Woman’s Desire for Man: Genesis 3:16 Reconsidered”, Grace Theological Journal 7.2 (1986), 203-12, esp. 206-210.  This paper can be read online here.

[15] The Greek word which translates teshuqah in Song of Solomon 7 is epistrophē which has a somewhat different range of meanings to apostrophē.

[16] Interestingly, the Hebrew word teshuvah (which looks similar to teshuqah) means a “turning” or “return”, etc. This word is derived from the root שׁוּב—shuv. Shuv and teshuvah are neither rare nor obscure words. (More on shuv here.) Is teshuqah really meant to be the word teshuvah?

[17] Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, “apostrophē”, A Greek-English Lexicon, Ninth Edition, revised by Sir Henry Stuart Jones, with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1996),  220.

[18] Pros corresponds with the Hebrew preposition el- אֶל which occurs in the Hebrew text of Genesis 3:16. BDB (page 39) gives the general definition of el as a “preposition denoting motion to or direction towards.” The ESV translates it as “for” in Genesis 3:16, but gives an alternate meaning in a footnote of “against”. El is occasionally used in a hostile sense; nevertheless it typically means “towards”. Perhaps the debate over the meaning of Genesis 3:16 needs to focus more on this preposition than on the meanings of teshuqah and apostrophē. Update: The latest version (August 2016) of the ESV translates Genesis 3:16a as: “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband . . .” This seems like a paraphrase or interpretation, rather than a literal translation.

[19] You can read more of Skip Moen’s interpretation here. (I have changed his use of the more Hebraic “Havah” to the more recognisable “Eve” in the quote.)

[20] Walter Kaiser et al, “3:16 How was the Woman Punished?”, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 96.


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