Genesis 3:16-19

KJV:  16 Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.

NET Translation:  To the woman he said,
“I will greatly increase your labor pains;
with pain you will give birth to children.
You will want to control your husband,
but he will dominate you.

NRSV: To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”


This verse presents several translation conundrums and interesting interpretive possibilities.

First, what kind of “desire” is envisioned here?  Sexual desire?  (If so, why would this be a consequence of eating the fruit?)  Desire for protection (as a pregnant woman and/or mother)?  A desire to be dominated?  It has also been read as saying that Eve must eliminate her own desires and instead be subject to Adam’s desires.  How can we determine the best reading here?

Next, what is the relationship between Eve’s desire and Adam’s rule?  Does her desire cause his rule?  (That is, does he ‘lord it over her?’)

Why are labor pains relevant here?  Why is that a consequence of eating the fruit?  Is it related to having one’s eyes opened and/or dying?

I’m thinking about the idea of “increased” labor pains.  Increased relative to what?  Was it possible for her to have children before the Fall, but now it will be (more) painful?  If she hadn’t eaten of the fruit, would it have been given to her later, but without the nasty side-effect of painful child birth?

There are also translation complications with the idea of “multiplying sorrow and conception.”  Some have taken it to mean that Eve will have lots of children (that is, the number of conceptions will be multiplied), perhaps because so many of her children will die.  That reading, at least, makes some sense of the relationship of the consequence to the introduction of death into the world.  Otherwise, it seems hard to understand what Eve’s childbearing has to do with eating the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  Why are these things even related?

Another translation problem:  I’ve also seen it suggested that in “he shall rule over you,” “he” does not refer to Adam, but to Eve’s desire.  That is, her desire will rule over her.  (There are good verbal parallels to the Cain story’s use of this word here.) (Perhaps meaning that her sexual desire for Adam will rule over her, causing her to continue to have sex with him, despite the painful births that follow.)

Is there a link between the pain and the relationship to the husband?  One way to tie all of the strands together would be to read it thusly:  you will sexually desire your husband, but that desire will result in repeated, painful child births and open up room for your husband to dominate you (because of your sexual desire for him and/or your vulnerability/dependence as a pregnant woman and mother of small children).  However, this seems odd–why would sexual desire be a consequence of the fall?  And why emphasize Eve’s sexual desire for Adam as opposed to his for her?  (And does it imply that sexual desire is a condition of the Fall?  That it is unique to women?)  In a previous comment, Rosalynde pointed out that the first instance of the “male gaze” was actually Eve’s “lust” for the tree.  Now, in what seems to be the first reference to sexual desire, it is a woman’s!

Another translation conundrum:  the final lines can describe a situation where both Adam and Eve are trying to dominate each other, without the verse speculating on who the “winner” is.

This verse feels crucially important to our understanding of women’s experience of mortality, but, ultimately, I feel that our efforts to make sense of it are frustrated by an inability to understand what the verse is saying.  But even if you felt confident in your translation and interpretation, there’s another obstacle:  is this verse describing the ideal conditions of a mortal woman?  Or are they conditions that she should strive to overcome?  When anesthesia was introduced for child birth, there were some Christian theologians who argued that its use was unbiblical, since women were, according to this verse, supposed to have pain in child birth and it was therefore wrong for humans to attempt to circumvent it.  I don’t know that that position has many adherents today, but there are a fair number of people arguing, based on this verse, that husbands should rule over wives.

KJV:    17 And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;

NET:  But to Adam he said,

“Because you obeyed your wife

and ate from the tree about which I commanded you,

‘You must not eat from it,’

cursed is the ground thanks to you;

in painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your lifeNRSV 3:17 And to the man he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten of the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;


Note the logic of the verse:  the ground is being cursed because Adam obeyed his wife.  (Note also how this verse requires us to read into the story something that wasn’t narrated–namely, Eve commanding Adam to eat.)  Why would it make sense for the ground to be cursed because of something Adam did?

Note that the verse assumes that it was wrong for Adam to listen to his wife.  Why might this have been?  Did Adam know it was wrong to listen to her?

Why do you think the command and its violation are reiterated in this verse, but not in Eve’s situation in the previous verse?

Note the theme of eating:  they ate of forbidden fruit; now what they eat will only come as the result of painful toil.  And the serpent will eat dirt.

Note the parallelism between Adam and Eve’s consequences:  she will sorrow in pain to produce children; Adam will sorrow in pain to produce food.  What can we learn from these parallels?   In what ways are their consequences different, and in what ways might those differences be significant to our understanding of gender roles today?

18 Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;
19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

NRSV thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

I’m curious about the “for dust . . .” statement here.  Is it explaining why he will return to the ground?  If so, how does this relate to “the Fall”?  Which is to say, he’s always been created out of the dust, so why would eating of the fruit impact his relationship to it?  Also, isn’t it correct to say that Eve, too, will return to the dust, so why limit this to just Adam?  Why give an explanatory comment here, but no explanatory comment for Eve?

General thoughts on this passage:

(1) Is it significant that the consequences are presented in this order:  serpent, then woman, then man?  If so, what is the significance of the order?

(2) We casually talk about these consequences as “curses,” but note that the ground is the only thing that is cursed (and the serpent as well)–Adam is not cursed, Eve is not cursed.  And, in fact, the ground is cursed “for thy sake,” suggesting that the cursing of the ground in some way is a benefit to Adam.  If these aren’t curses, what are they?  The natural consequences (to use the language of modern parenting practice) for having eaten the fruit?  Is this a “heads up” from God as to what they should expect?

(3) How does this account differ from Moses 5 and from the temple ceremony and what should we make of the differences?

(4) From my files; statements from various LDS thinkers and leaders about this passage:

Hugh Nibley:

“Now a curse [sic] was placed on Eve, and it looked as if she would have to pay a high price for taking the initiative in the search for knowledge. To our surprise the identical curse [sic] was placed on Adam also. For Eve, God ‘will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception. In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children.’ (Gen. 3:16.) The key is the word for sorrow, atsav, meaning to labor, to toil, to sweat, to do something very hard. To multiply does not mean to add or increase but to repeat over and over again; the word in the Septuagint is plethynomai, as in the multiplying of words in the repetitious prayers of the ancients. Both the conception and the labor of Eve will be multiple; she will have many children. Then the Lord says to Adam, ‘In sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life’ (that is, the bread that his labor must bring forth from the earth). The identical word is used in both cases; the root meaning is to work hard at cutting or digging; both the man and the woman must sorrow and both must labor. (The Septuagint word is lype, meaning bodily or mental strain, discomfort, or affliction.) It means not to be sorry, but to have a hard time. If Eve must labor to bring forth, so too must Adam labor (Gen. 3:17; Moses 4:23) to quicken the earth so it shall bring forth. Both of them bring forth life with sweat and tears, and Adam is not the favored party. If his labor is not as severe as hers, it is more protracted. For Eve’s life will be spared long after her childbearing—‘nevertheless thy life shall be spared’—while Adam’s toil must go on to the end of his days: ‘In sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of the life!’ Even retirement is no escape from that sorrow.”
–Hugh Nibley, “Patriarchy and Matriarchy,” Old Testament and Related Studies, page 92f.

“There is no patriarchy or matriarchy in the Garden; the two supervise each other.  Adam is given no arbitrary power; Eve is to heed him only insofar as he obeys their Father—and who decides that?  She must keep check on him as much as he does on her.  It is, if you will, a system of checks and balances in which each party is as distinct and independent in its sphere as are the departments of government under the Constitution—and just as dependent on each other.”
–Hugh Nibley, Old Testament and Related Studies, page 92f.

President Kimball:

“As He concludes this statement he says, ‘and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.; (Gen. 3:16.) I have a question about the word rule. It gives the wrong impression. I would prefer to use the word preside because that’s what he does. A righteous husband presides over his wife and family. . . . No woman has ever been asked by the Church authorities to follow her husband into an evil pit. She is to follow him as he follows and obeys the Savior of the world, but in deciding this, she should always be sure she is fair.”
–President Spencer W. Kimball, “The Blessings and Responsibilities of Womanhood,” Ensign, March 1976, page 70f.

President Hinckley:

“[I] call attention to the statement in the scriptures that Adam should rule over Eve. (See Gen. 3:16.) . . . I regrettably recognize that some men have used this through centuries of time as justification for abusing and demeaning women. But I am confident also that in so doing they have demeaned themselves and offended the Father of us all, who, I am confident, loves His daughters just as He loves His sons. I sat with President David O. McKay on one occasion when he talked about that statement in Genesis. His eyes flashed with anger as he spoke of despotic husbands and stated that they would have to make an accounting of their evil actions when they stand to be judged by the Lord. He indicated that the very essence of the spirit of the gospel demands that any governance in the home must be done only in righteousness. My own interpretation of that sentence is that the husband shall have a governing responsibility to provide for, to protect, to strengthen and shield the wife. Any man who belittles or abuses or terrorizes, or who rules in unrighteousness, will deserve and, I believe, receive the reprimand of a just God who is the Eternal Father of both His sons and daughters. No man who engages in such evil and unbecoming behavior is worthy of the priesthood of God. No man who so conducts himself is worthy of the privileges of the house of the Lord. I regret that there are some men undeserving of the love of their wives and children. There are children who fear their fathers, and wives who fear their husbands. If there be any such men within the hearing of my voice, as a servant of the Lord I rebuke you and call you to repentance. Discipline yourselves. Master your temper. Most of the things that make you angry are of very small consequence. And what a terrible price you are paying for your anger. Ask the Lord to forgive you. Ask your wife to forgive you. Apologize to your children.”
–President Gordon. B. Hinckley, “Daughters of God,” Ensign, November 1991, page 97.

(5) What is set out in these verses is the condition of Adam and Eve post-Fall.  So, to the extent that we want to read these verses as normative for human life (side note:  should we be doing that?  We are very comfortable reading Adam and Eve as the template for male-female relations but would surely balk at reading Cain and Abel as the template for sibling relations; why?), do we read things as Eve’s desire for her husband as “natural,” or something that is part of the fallen world and that should be overcome?  In other words, how much of this section is “the way things are [and perhaps you should try to change them]” or “the way things should be”?

(6) D &C 61:17 reads:  “And, as I, the Lord, in the beginning cursed the land, even so in the last days have I blessed it, in its time, for the use of my saints, that they may partake the fatness thereof.”  Does this verse impact how we interpret the curse on the land in Genesis?

(7) Eve was created from Adam; her consequence has to do with her relationship to Adam.  Adam was created from the ground; his consequence has to do with his relationship to the ground.  V19 seems to emphasize this idea of the relationship between creation and consequence.  Some scholars have pointed out that for each person (snake, Eve, Adam), the consequence/curse involves two parts:  a personal function and a relationship.

(8) Presumably, Eve and Adam lacked knowledge of good and evil before they ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  If this is the case, then how can they be accountable for their action of eating the fruit?

(9) Maybe it’s just me, but I find it hard to read this story as being about anything other than gender.

(10)  Is the Fall in some sense analogous to the sealing covenant—both are necessary in order that the command to multiply and replenish the earth be kept?

(11) Purely speculative, but do you think that YHWH would have offered the fruit to them at some future point?  In other words, is this a story about timing and/or initiative?

(12) Why is this story the centerpiece of the temple endowment?

(13) Were Adam and Eve given contradictory commandments?  (If so, does that happen now, or was it a one-time thing?)

(14) Some modern translations, including the NET Bible, format v14-19 as poetry.  If you read it that way, does it change your impression of what is happening here?

(15) Is there anything in the consequences enumerated in this section that helps us better understand what it means to say (a) that eating the fruit would cause their eyes to be opened and/or that (b) eating the fruit would cause them to die?

Are these consequences negative or positive?  Are they good things?  Bad things?

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6 Responses to Genesis 3:16-19

  1. Candice says:

    Thank you Julie, I have often come to the same conclusion about verse 16– how on earth can we stand with confidence we understand what is really communicated?

    There is one part of it I feel more confident of, however. These verses are filled with irony. In the words of Elder Maxwell, irony is the “crust on the bread” of mortal adversity. He writes, “Irony can be a particularly bitter form of [the Lord's] chastening because it involves disturbing incongruity. It involves outcomes in violation of our expectations.” According to Maxwell, irony often includes:

    unexpected and undeserved suffering
    suffering the Father’s will
    drinking bitter cups
    feeling unappreciated and invisible
    “stabbing light expos[ing] the gap between what we are and what we think we are”

    Irony can produce:
    A “painful but progressive posture” during conflict in marriages.

    Ways to cope with irony as Christ did:
    loving more
    self-denial
    gratitude
    refusing to rail and complain

    Things that embitter us against irony:
    fantasizing and ruminating over the past

    The Father’s statements test Adam and Eve with potent irony. The consequences are unexpected and illogical, as Julie has described in be detail. It is ironic that one small mistake eating one piece leads to a lifetime of suffering in order to grow things. It is as if the Father is asking Adam and Eve to REALLY eat the full fruit of the tree of life/knowledge, and not only to eat it, but to grow it themselves and keep eating it from it until death. This is the bitter cup of life with all its painful, messy, sweet, and rich qualities. There is no backing out after their transgression– they must be committed to mortal life in its entirety.

    Sometimes I imagine that the Father here isn’t so much shaping the future, cursing, imposing and forecasting, as he is warning and strengthening here. I imagine that perhaps he is really just telling Adam and Eve not what they should do, but what is to come and what they should prepare for in mortal life. Men tend to dominate over women. Women suffer a lot, sometimes seemingly needlessly, in their child bearing and raising role. The burden of providing for a family weighs heavily on men physically and emotionally. He knows tends to happen, even if he doesn’t will it. Sometimes setting expectations low help people cope psychologically– they prepare for the worst, and then they don’t have emotional collapses. Perhaps the Father wanted Adam and Eve to know that he understood the depth of pain and endurance they were about to embark to prevent them growing bitter against him in future years. Now they could communicate with him knowing he really knows how ironic mortal life can be

    Of course, another dimension of this, as Maxwell points out is that the most ironic life ever lived was Christ’s. Irony refines us to become like him. Adam and Eve take up his identity in some measure when they meekly accept the ironies of life.

  2. Candice says:

    Here is the link to Maxwell’s talk: https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1989/04/irony-the-crust-on-the-bread-of-adversity?lang=eng

    “Irony: the Crust on the Bread of Adversity”

  3. Adam Miller says:

    Excellent, Julie. So many tough questions. I think you’re right to point out that neither Eve nor Adam are “cursed” here: only the serpent and the soil/ground. And I like Candice’s suggestion that the “consequences” articulated here by God for both Eve and Adam might be understood as a way of getting Adam and Eve to finish what they started: they’ve taken a bite of the fruit, now they need to eat the rest.

    A couple of additional, eclectic thoughts:

    1. We should be careful, as Julie indicated, to note jump too quickly to the conclusion that “pain” is simply a kind of punishment, or that suffering is simply to be regretted. Pain in general serves an important function: it communicates knowledge about a (potentially harmful) state of affairs. It registers our open and vulnerable relation to the world around us. (Is is possible to be aware of one’s open and vulnerable relation to the world without pain? Could this vulnerability be disclosed without it?) I’m reminded of Heidegger’s point that moods don’t just provide a kind of affective “color” to our experiences but that they are themselves powerfully disclosive, both of the world and of our own bodies. Pain, I think, has this same disclosive function. Pain itself is not the source of harm, but an alarm indicating the proximity of harm or potential harm. Pain is knowledge/information.

    2. Is there a connection in vs. 16 between the sharpening of pain and the sharpening of longing? Is longing itself a kind of suffering? (Though longing may be one that is more ambivalent in its connection to pleasure?)

    3. What of Adam’s pain/pangs in vs. 17? What is the source of the pang? The difficulty of the work? The hunger for food? The eating itself? Again, these kinds of difficulties and hungers are powerfully disclosive and reveal both the world and the body and the self in ways that aren’t possible otherwise.

    4. We get “bread” mentioned in vs. 19. Is this the second “technology” introduced? First clothes, then baked goods? Does God give this gift of “bread-techne” beyond the prefab fruit of the garden in the same way he gives the coats of skin to wear? That is, does God show them how to make bread? Is this additional layer of civilization or culture part of what produces the pangs?

    5. Does the cursing of the soil have especially to do with Adam having to return to the soil? Does God’s requiring Adam to daily have his hands in the dirt/dust, tilling it and working it, have the effect of putting Adam face to face with and hip-deep in his own mortality? Agriculture here, then, being God’s way of assigning Adam to “practice death” by returning, every day, to the soil until he dies?

    6. Both v.14 and v.17 introduce God’s response to the serpent and Adam with an etiological “because you did X, therefore Y.” But there is no such preamble to verse 16. He simply addresses the woman without explicitly situating a description of her forthcoming pain as a consequence of what she’d done. Does this matter?

    7. Julie asks so many great questions about the relationship between “ruling” and “longing” in v.16! (Though I don’t really have any answers.)

  4. rosalyndewelch says:

    Apologies for being so late to comment here, all. And thanks, Julie, for laying out the issues so ably.

    Approaching the passage from a purely narrative point of view, the plainest baseline reading, in my view, would be that Eve’s pain in childbirth and Adam’s pain in agriculture are punishments for disobedience, just as the serpent is punished. Perhaps they are not explicitly called curses, but narratively they parallel the serpent’s punishment and the text seems to ask us to read them analogously. There’s no “logical consequence” — that is, no particular link between the sin and the punishment — no gentle, father God carefully preparing his children, etc. Those readings serve valuable social functions in the present, but ultimately they re-make Yahweh into our own image of a good, comprehensible, loving parent. That’s not what the text gives us. I’m open to the rich, useful re-readings suggested above, but I’d be resistant to the suggestion that those re-readings are what the text “really means.” (Once again, my original intent strict constructionist training proves difficult to jettison.)

    Of course, for Mormons the question of what the text really means matters a great deal because of the complicity of this narrative in the temple ceremony. How simple it would be, and how freeing, if we could frankly admit that this story is neither immediately normative for present-day gender relations, nor objectively descriptive of the conditions of morality, but rather merely descriptive of an ancient Semitic worldview. What a fascinating window into another human reality it could be — the salience (almost glamour?) of the pain and danger of childbirth, the fresh perspective on female sexuality, the tremendous anxiety and social upheaval involved in the transition to settled agricultural human civilization.

    But we can’t avoid putting a great deal of interpretive pressure on this odd little tale because it happens to be the narrative spine of the temple ceremony. In my understanding, the temple ceremony as we have it today is an artifact — something Joseph (and Brigham and the later systematizers) put together using the resources in his environment, a weird, rickety, and ultimately sublime vehicle up the mountain. What other kind of vehicle is there, anyway? But no particular part of it was absolutely necessary as such — Joseph didn’t have to use the Masonic ceremonial structure, anything else could have worked just as well. And so I don’t think that the inclusion of the Genesis creations as the narrative structure was inevitable, either, and I can’t help wondering how much different and better things could be if Joseph had chosen his own tale of the premortal existence, the war in heaven, and our individual origins as humans. It would serve every single narrative purpose that the Genesis creations do, with the exception of stressing gender as the primary social division. How many pointless bloggernacle battles that would have saved us! We could even easily retain gender and marriage as the central social forms, but without having to shackle them to these uninterpretable verses encased in concrete blocks of misogynistic history. (On the other hand, what if somehow the fence-sitter-priesthood-ban line of reasoning had gotten mixed up in an alternate-reality temple ceremony centered on the war in heaven… what a disaster that would have been.)

  5. Even later than anyone else: Rosalynde, I see the logic of your argument about the narrative, but I’m less convinced than you. A couple of things make me skeptical that your reading is of the “original intent” rather than of “the way we’ve usually read the text.” One is that Genesis 2:17 said that death would be the consequence of eating of the fruit of the tree, yet that is not what happens here. Making death the consequence requires some theological tricks that go beyond the narrative. Having read / heard 2:17, the narrative assumes that we will expect the couple to die–but they don’t. God is merciful to them, providing protection (clothing) rather than death and bread. The second is the absence of the word “curse.” In the context of God saving rather than killing the couple, the absence of that word when he speaks to them of what is going to happen stands out. I don’t think its absence can be as easily ignored as you take it to be.

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