Genesis 3:16, a verse about Eve, and Genesis 4:7, a verse about Cain, are sometimes compared. This is because both verses contain the Hebrew words teshuqah (“desire”) and mashal (“rule”) and there are other similarities in vocabulary and syntax. Similarities are usually highlighted; however, there are considerable differences in the overall context of these verses.
In this post, I briefly look at these similarities and differences and look at whether the vocabulary of Genesis 4:7 help us to better understand 3:16.
God is Speaking in Genesis 3:16 and 4:7
In both verses, God is speaking. In Genesis 3:16 he speaks to the woman, Eve, when she admitted she had eaten the forbidden fruit after being duped by the snake’s temptation. In Genesis 4:7, God speaks to Cain who is jealous of his brother Abel and who is currently susceptible to an attack from personified sin lurking nearby. The context of these verses is similar in that God is speaking to an individual and that sin is involved in the story.
He [God] said to the woman: I will intensify your labor pains; you will bear children with painful effort. Your desire (teshuqah) will be for your husband, yet he will rule (mashal) over you.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you furious? And why do you look despondent? If you do what is right, won’t you be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire (teshuqah) is for you, but you must rule (mashal) over it.”
The Same Two Words in Genesis 3:16 and 4:7
The verb mashal occurs about eighty times in the Hebrew Bible and means “to rule, to have dominion.” Mashal is qal imperfect in both Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 and followed by a prepositional phrase that can mean “over you” and “over it (literally: him)” respectively.
Context determines the tense of Hebrew verbs. As it turns out, Cain did not rule over sin, so the imperfect verb is not translated as a future in 4:7, as it usually is in 3:16, but as a command. This difference in interpretation and translation of the qal imperfect of mashal―“you [Cain] must rule” (4:7) compared with “he [Adam] will rule” (3:16)―shows that similar vocabulary and grammar does not necessarily signify an exact or close correspondence in meaning.
Teshuqah is an uncommon word and occurs only three times in the Hebrew Bible. As well as the two times in Genesis, the word also appears once more, in Songs 7:10: “I am my love’s, and his desire (teshuqah) is for me.”
The Different Contexts of Genesis 3:16 and 4:7
Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7 are similar linguistically in Hebrew, and God is speaking to an individual in these verses, but the overall contexts of these verses are not the same.
In Genesis 4:6-7, God asks Cain questions and speaks hypothetically. Note the “ifs.” Furthermore, sin is unmistakably depicted as Cain’s adversary, crouching at the door, and Cain is told directly by God that he must rule or master (mashal) it. “Ruling” is the right thing for Cain to do.
Cain is the main subject of God’s words in Genesis 4:7, but personified sin is the one who has the desire (teshuqah). There is a struggle between Cain and sin.
In Genesis 3:16, God makes pronouncements that will affect Eve. There are no “ifs” or hypothetical statements. The tone is different from Genesis 4:7. Furthermore, no one in 3:16 is plainly presented as an adversary. And unlike how some read this verse, Adam is not told by God that he must rule or master (mashal) Eve, or that ruling her is a good or just thing to do. Rather Adam’s rule of Eve, man’s rule of woman, is an unhappy consequence of sin in the world spoiling relationships.
In Genesis 3:16, the woman Eve is the main subject of God’s words, and she is the one who has the desire (teshuqah). I read this verse as saying that the struggle is the woman’s alone: she will continue to desire her husband despite the fact that he will now rule over her. Tragically, their relationship that was marked by compatibility and unity has changed.
The grammar and vocabulary of the phrases that contain teshuqah and mashal are similar; it is the context that distinguishes these verses. In 3:16, God is telling Eve what is going to happen, with changes she has practically no control over. On the other hand, in 4:7, God is telling Cain that he must act and effect change. These two verses are quite different in tone and meaning, and though it makes sense to compare them because of the same language, ultimately the light that 4:7 sheds on 3:16 is minimal.
© Margaret Mowczko 2021
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Desire or Devotion: Which is a better translation of teshuqah in Genesis 3:16?
What does Eve’s reply to the Serpent tell us?
All my articles on Genesis 3 are here.