A Better Translation Genesis 3:16

Matt Lynch* posted an article yesterday about the ESV’s newly revised and controversial translation of Genesis 3:16. As part of his post, Matt presents a brief summary of Andrew Macintosh’s recent paper, “The Meaning of Hebrew תשׁוקה,” Journal of Semitic Studies LXI/2 (2016) pp.365-87. Matt’s summary is posted here with permission.


It is probably just an accident of history that the ESV made a permanent and significant change to Genesis 3:16 right around the time that Andrew Macintosh, one of the world’s leading scholars of biblical Hebrew, published an article proposing a new translation for a key term (Heb. tešūqâ) in the same verse. Macintosh’s article is the most comprehensive and up-to-date academic treatment of this term to date, and deserves attention.

His argument proceeds (in typically dense-but-rich philological fashion) along the following lines:

  1. While translators almost universally render the Hebrew term tešūqâ ‘desire.’ Unfortunately, the term only occurs 3x in the Hebrew Bible (Gen 3:16; 4:7; Song 7:10), so it’s very difficult to translate. This is why the Dead Sea Scrolls and the ancient Greek translation prove helpful. They provide (a.) a wider semantic data set and (b.) the earliest translations.
  1. Based on Gen 3:16 and Song 7:10 and instances of the term in the Dead Sea Scrolls, it seems that tešūqâ is a personal term, and that the abstract use in Gen 4:7 is dependent upon that personal sense.
  1. The early Greek and Hebrew (Dead Sea Scrolls) translations and interpretations of the Hebrew tešūqâ are basically correct. It 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. (p.369)
  1. 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.
  1. Applied to Gen 4:7, the term takes on an abstract sense whereby sin, lying like a coiled serpent, ‘rests at Cain’s door waiting for an opportunity to entrap him and bring about his downfall.’ (p.372) He continues, ‘the subtlety and insidious craftiness of the serpent’s aims are served with the same single-minded concentration as is the loving care and devotion shown by Eve for her husband and by the lover of Canticles for his inamorata.’ (p.372, emphasis added)

Macintosh’s insistence that the term refers to ‘single-minded devotion’ is convincing, and clearly lies behind the earliest translations. His careful philological analysis raises a further problem for the ESV rendering of Gen 3:16b. If tešūqâ means ‘single-minded devotion,’ as Macintosh maintains, then what is the object of her single-mindedness? Is she single-mindedly devoted to not being devoted, or to not being subordinate? Or is it more insidious, that she devotes herself entirely to opposing or harming her husband? Both are unlikely in context, and as suggested above, cannot be inferred by appeal to Genesis 4:7.

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. A more appropriate translation of Gen 3:16b would be the following:

‘Your devotion will be toward your husband;
Yet he will rule over you.’

This excerpt was taken from Matt’s article Contrary Women: Genesis 3:16b in the (now non-) Permanent ESV which was first posted on Theological Miscellany, the blog of Westminster Theological Centre. You can read the rest of the article here.

*Matthew Lynch serves as Dean of Studies at Westminster Theological Centre, where he also lectures in Old Testament. Matt is the author of Monotheism and Institutions in the Book of Chronicles (Mohr Siebeck, 2014) and various articles on the Old Testament. His current research investigates conceptions of violence in the Old Testament. Matt is particularly interested in helping students grasp the theological and literary contours of the Old Testament, wrestle through its ethical and historical challenges, and understand its ongoing significance.



Related Articles

Teshuqah: The Woman’s “Desire” in Genesis 3:16
Other articles on Genesis 3, here.