Friday, April 1, 2011

What Do You Think About Genesis 3:16?

Jay sends me a fb message asking,
... on Genesis 3:16. What are your thoughts on this verse? תּשׁוּקה αποστροφη desire, recourse, return ????
My reply:
...on G3:16 ... the LXX is fascinating with its choice of ἀποστροφή.  I'd compare with the choice in the nearby G4:7 (and why not ἐπιστροφὴ, as in Song of Songs 7:10)? And there's what Oedipus says to his sons as he lays dying, preparing for Hades (in Oedipus the King by Sophocles): "Ὦ παῖδες, ἥκει τῷδ’ ἐπ’ ἀνδρὶ θέσφατος βίου τελευτή, κοὐκέτ’ ἔστ’ ἀποστροφή." Are the translating Jews saying something here in G3:16? I'd say they're signaling "Eve's" or "Life's" desire ( תּשׁוּקה ) as "away from" rather than "towards" the mortal, human man? In "The Women's Bible," Lillie Devereux Blake stresses "Then follows what has been called the curse. Is it not rather a prediction?... It is a pity that all versions of the Bible do not give this word ["Life" in G3:20] instead of the Hebrew Eve. She was Life, the eternal mother, the first representative of the more valuable and important half of the human race." So, the LXX: Ζωή. The Greek translation is certainly playing with, leaving open, and opening up the meanings of, the Hebrew. What are your thoughts?
Thanks for your comments. You seem to have something more than I do. I really am puzzled. There seems something so rich here. What is happening in this curse and what is to be the eventual solution? Victor Hamilton in his commentary suggests that the LXX translators got it wrong. I don't know, but surely they had a reason. A reason to translate תּשׁוּקה as αποστροφη in 3:16 and 4:7 but as ἐπιστροφὴ in Song of Song as you said. And I too cannot understand why the other translators are not translating חוּה Eve as the Jewish translators did Ζωή. I learned the name Eve as a boy and it meant nothing to me until the first time I read her name in the LXX. Wow, what a difference, after the curse the she-man is named by the now curse man, Life. What hope after death. But what is the relationship of the αποστροφη in 3:16 and 4:7 Then rule in 3:16 משׁל κυριεύσει but in 4:7 αρξεις I really don't know.
What great questions and wonderful uncertainties here. I'd love to ask Sylvie Honigman (a wonderful LXX historian at Tel Aviv University), who makes the claim that to its earliest Jewish readers, the Septuagint was “at least as sacred as the Hebrew original.” And I believe Naomi Seidman (Koret Professor of Jewish Culture and Director of the Richard S. Dinner Center for Jewish Studies at Graduate Theological Union, and a translation theorist) could speculate on how the Talmud version of the LXX's history might offer some ideas on what the Septuagint translators were up to (if *seeming* to get it wrong). Would you mind if I posted our fb conversation here as a blogpost (at / to see if anyone else has thoughts?
Yes, you may post it. Looking forward to seeing what others might add.
So now it's your turn.  What can you add to our conversation?  What do you think about Genesis 3:16 (the writer's and translators' choices)?


  1. Genesis 3:16 and 4:17 are worded similarly, in Hebrew as well as in translation. Each has the same form, and each uses not only the verb mashal ("rule over") but the rare noun t'shuaka ("desire").

    In other words, we have, "...and to your husband you will cling and he will rule over you" (3:16) and then "...and to you it will cling and you will rule over it" (4:7).

    But there's a well-known gender problem in 4:7. "It" there in Hebrew is "he," even though the antecedent is feminine. This raises the intriguing possibility that Genesis 3:16 reads "he will rule over you" while Genesis 4:7 counters "you will rule over him." I don't really think this was the original intention (for one thing, the pronoun "you" in 4:7 is masculine), but still....



  2. Thanks Joel. Fascinating comment. You make us want to see how others deal with the translating. Here are some (renderings of 3:16 then 4:7):

    "And for your man shall be your longing, / and he shall rule over you."
    "and for you is its longing / but you will rule over it."
    --Robert Alter

    "Toward your husband will be your lust, yet he will rule over you."
    "toward you his lust-- / but you can rule over him."
    --Everett Fox

    "and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee."
    "and unto thee is its desire, but thou mayest rule over it."
    --JPS 1917

    καὶ πρὸς τὸν ἄνδρα σου ἡ ἀποστροφή σου καὶ αὐτός σου κυριεύσει
    πρὸς σὲ ἡ ἀποστροφὴ αὐτοῦ καὶ σὺ ἄρξεις αὐτοῦ

    How differently each handles the Hebrew!

  3. Some reason that the masculine pronoun is used to personify sin as an animal crouching at the door. Young translates “at the opening a sin-offering is crouching” Some say it is a sin rabisu רבץ (from Akkadian ) waiting on Cain. Some say the masculine pronoun is refering Abel. That if Cain does well, he will maintain his rule as firstborn. I think the animal/demon sin is more likely.

  4. "At the tent flap sin crouches"

    "at the entrance is sin, a crouching-demon"

    "sin coucheth at the door"

    The LXX translators, of course, don't commit what Robert Alter calls the translator's "heresy of explanation." But they do, nonetheless, fail to translate rabisu רבץ (from Akkadian ) at all for Genesis 4:7. I'm showing the whole Greek verse here:

    οὐκ, ἐὰν ὀρθῶς προσενέγκῃς, ὀρθῶς δὲ μὴ διέλῃς, ἥμαρτες; ἡσύχασον· πρὸς σὲ ἡ ἀποστροφὴ αὐτοῦ, καὶ σὺ ἄρξεις αὐτοῦ.

    To render that Greek into English, Robert J. V. Hiebert (for the NETS) has to do this:

    "If you offer correctly but do not divide correctly, have you not sinned? Be still; *his **recourse is to you. And you ***will rule over ****him."

    Hiebert's four footnotes on this one verse:

    *"Or return"
    **"Or its"
    ***"Or shall"
    ****"Or it"

  5. Rashi contains some theological material ... the majority of his comments are linguistic -- explaining how to read the Hebrew.

    Has anyone checked Rashi on Genesis 3:16? HT on how perhaps to read the Hebrew (vs. the Hellene of the LXX), from that former blogger Iyov. (John Hobbins emails me to give the link a more general discussion, where we find Iyov's comment).

  6. Maybe, the LXX translators are seeing a recourse for Life or a return to her Husband which may be meaning the return to the androgyny of Genesis 1.26. In 3rd Maccabees, the word [ἀποστροφή] is translated and means [as the English translator would have it] a reverse. What if the LXX translators saw the woman reversing herself?

    Interesting questions from Joel Watts.

  7. But of course we also have to ask is God cursing (prescriptive = “you must do it this way”) or foretelling (descriptive = “this is how things will end up”)? And whichever way we jump on that one, we should note that this is “post-Fall”, and so not indicative of how things should be. (Which I take to be more along the lines of: “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh”. Isn’t it odd that in many societies the man “brings” his wife into his parental home instead?) So I see no need to wait until “all things are made new” before starting to work in renewing these relationship issues.

    I can’t say I’m keen on LDB’s comment: “She was Life, the eternal mother, the first representative of the more valuable and important half of the human race.” I’m not sure what she means by “eternal”, while “more valuable and important” sounds just a wee bit biased to me (and imposed on the text rather than extracted from it). Aren’t the two “halves” supposed (“designed”) to complement (in the true sense of the word) each other, rather than being set in opposition to (or weighed up against) each other?

    Of course, the present reality we see around us (even perhaps in our own homes) may be some way from that ideal; but I do see pockets (or microcosms) of that designed-in equality from time to time, and it is a wondrous to behold. So it’s not that it’s been tried and found wanting, but rather abandoned for want of trying.

  8. Thanks, John, as always for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments!

    So I see no need to wait until “all things are made new” before starting to work in renewing these relationship issues.

    I see this as what translator Julia E. Smith and commenter Lillie Devereux Blake are doing.

    Aren’t the two “halves” supposed (“designed”) to complement (in the true sense of the word) each other, rather than being set in opposition to (or weighed up against) each other?

    Well, yes. And, no. LDB is having to overcome or re-work, re-new, re-dis-cover, and re-cover what men translating had done before her. While it's true that Aristotle "helped" us all learn the logic of the binary, of the opposition, are we always required to do his opposite when re-working such a system of categorization? What I'm asking is this: do we really need to conceive of God, or of gender/sex, as two "halves"? If we can do away with that little pre-conception, then will we need some necessary conclusion that the opposite of being weighed up against each other must be to have a relationship of designed complement? I'm trying to stick with your words.

    "If all men were stricken by some incapacitating disease," writes Sheldon Van Auken, "she could take over and run the world. It might even be a more peaceful world. She, too, is homo sapiens with the brain that will take man to the stars. What has happened here?" He's speaking of girls, not as fe-males or as wo-men, that are counter-parts to males and to men. Rather, he's noting inherent sexism in our English language, and perhaps even in the Biblical Hebrew. But for the hu-man of the bible to name his wife, Life, now that's something that might not even "complement" him post-fall, post-sin, outside of the garden, apart from child-birth, which he can-not have a part in. Now, I'm playing with language again. But our notions of "complement" are too tied in, I think, with our Language of "opposition" or of binary. (I've gone on too much here; so here's that bit of an excerpt from Van Auken.)

  9. Well, “half” was LDB’s word rather than mine.

    Personally, I see people as being “complementary” in general, not just across the “gender gap”. Now when we’re thinking of a couple it may be natural to think in “cross-gender” terms, but where I part company with so-called “complementarians” is that, while I agree that husband and wife should complement each other, I don’t see the complementing “roles” as being predefined by gender.

    But isn’t the question of “Binary or Not” rather simplistic (or binary) itself? I’d suggest that, in many “real world” scenarios, many things that don’t appear to be binaries turn into one when we consider them pragmatically.

    Consider that “profound” question: Why does what you’re looking for always seem to be in the last place you look? The answer, of course, is that most people stop looking when they find what they are looking for. Thus, while looking is a non-binary process (in that it involves many, not just two places), it is at the same time a binary process (in that each place we look is “the Right Place” or not).

    For example, I’m considering buying another (used) car. If I’m trying to decide between, say, four vehicles, then I can weigh them all up on various factors, and one may clearly come out on top. But looking at second-hand cars tends not to work like this – typically I have to make a binary (“Buy or Not”) decision on each vehicle in turn, as by the time I get to #4 and decide I like #1 best, it will probably have already been sold.

    So I do wonder about this “Demonization of the Binary”. Often we need the binary to get us somewhere – to be pragmatic. While I’m very good at categorisation and scoring things over a range, I’m particularly bad at making that final binary (“Yes or No”) decision.

    I also wonder how much of the “Binary = Male / Not = Female” idea is culturally determined rather than innate. Isn’t this sort of “logic” in itself the very “Binary Logic” that you so hate – that males are all This and females are all That? Isn’t it rather the case that (like my cars), each individual is different, with some more prone to Binary logic than others, ranged on a sliding scale? Is it not quite likely that some females will be more “Binary” than some males? Surely you’re not suggesting that these people are being masculine females, or feminine males?

    Of course types of binary (such as “Marked or Unmarked” and “Default or Not”) may be more dangerous than others. They may be innocuous when applied to various linguistic features, but (unlike Aristotle) I wouldn’t apply that kind of categorisation to the sexes.

  10. Surely you’re not suggesting that these people are being masculine females, or feminine males?

    Well, your thoughtful and thought-provoking comment went to Spam. I did see it in email and only just assumed it automatically posted publicly. Since it was marked by blogger somehow, someway as Spam, I had to mark it otherwise (or to unmark it perhaps), as NOT spam. So, here perhaps in some non-linguistic speech act maybe, I rather practically invoked the binary, with some positive result. At least, I'm judging it as very positive since it's your comment that not just I but all the world now can read.

    But back to your question about my suggestion.

    At the risk of being accused of being a platonist, let me just ask this:

    Is God more a masculine female or more a feminine male? And how does the language of the Bible characterise Him?

    Well, my second question above here is really a trick, don't you see? I've used English, used the purely and only masculine pronoun as my referent to the deity, and I've capitalized the initial letter of that pronoun. I am marking. And without questioning my language, I can ask such as question, so very very presumptively. Aristotle's logic, the way it's come down to us, might declare this the fallacy of "begging the question." And this is what I'm suggesting. That language, our language, is not natural in its binarying. And when it comes to sex, to gender, to sexing and to gendering, the function of the binary alone (and by that I mean when one just solely depends on the binary alone and nothing else then...) causes the trouble. Demonizing the binary? Oh no, not at all. But attending to what men (like Hitler, and worse like Aristotle) do with the binary to claim what is Natural and then to declare who is NOT, now that is trouble. So it's how we would use language (and good feminists never say the binary is out of bounds) that's the trouble. If the binary is the fundamental structure of the patriarchy for a father's power over, then that's trouble. So how do we talk about God, about humans made in God's image, male and female, created by this creator?

  11. I’m puzzled as to why anyone would accuse you of being “a semi-aquatic egg-laying mammal”. Oh sorry, that’s a Platypus not a Platonist. An easy mistake to make, but apparently they’re not the same thing at all. (It seems Platonists don’t lay eggs or have webbed feet, although there may be other differences as well.)

    I’ve suggested that we often have to “Go Binary” to get anywhere, to make “real world” decisions about what to do. In reality, though, very few things are truly binary in themselves. Even some that initially appear to be “Binary No Brainers” aren’t – such as male and female. How do we define what we mean by each, and if we did add a qualification for each by public toilet doors, how many people would be excluded from both or be free to chose either – even if we made the only qualification that of “self-identification”.

    So although from where I sit it does sometimes seem that you’re saying “Binary, bad”, “Non-Binary, good”, the goodness or badness depends rather on the context, and particularly on how they are used and with what intent (such as to set up an “Us versus Them” thing).

    It’s a bit like I said once before about adjectives:

    … when looked at one way, they limit or restrict (so “It’s a yellow dog” is a more restricting, less general, statement than simply, “It’s a dog”: I’ve immediately excluded all brown, blue, and white dogs, for example), while, when looked at in a different way, they say more about the subject (so now we know it’s a dog and yellow).

    Isn’t that like life? Some people want to label us (“Oh, so you’re yellow: not green or purple, like me or him”); others just want to know more about how you tick, to understand you (and perhaps in the process, to learn more about themselves: “Oh, so you’re yellow. That’s interesting because I’m purple, but it seems we both like green cats.”)

    One of the great things about people is that they are all different, and one reason for that is that our character traits, abilities, etc, tend to sit on sliding scales, not toggling binaries, and so lead to literally millions of combinations with (again quite literally) no two people the same.

    This reminds me of an annoying situation I faced, when with my mother I visited a brand-new, multi-million-pound Visitors Centre, “somewhere in Scotland”. After having some lunch, we both wanted to use the toilets. Not I problem in my case; I self-identify as “male” and so went to the male toilets. My mother self-identifies as “female”, so logically would choose to go to the female toilets, but now requires assistance as far as entering the cubicle. While “disabled” toilets were provided, they were inside the separate areas for males and females, as apparently no-one on the design team had envisaged the situation of someone being assisted by someone of the opposite sex.

    Now typically this problem is avoided by having “disabled” toilets separately accessed rather than being within the specific “male” or “female” areas (so people get to choose from three rather than two options). In this case I made the enforced binary decision to enter the “female” toilets in order to assist my mother, on the basis that she rather, than I, was the “user”. While doing so didn’t embarrass me, that might not be the case for other people – such as women using the female toilets finding a man hanging around inside, or if a women went into the male toilets to assist a man.

    This design decision would have annoyed me anywhere, but that this was a clean-sheet design for a high-profile building made it more annoying. When I later commented on this via the organisation’s website, I received no response (even though there was a “would like a response” option), which perhaps isn’t surprising, as I find the design decision indefensible.

    As I see it, this is definitely a case of a “Bad Binary” – it forces people to make a binary choice in a non-binary situation, when a third choice could easily have been provided.

    1. My thanks to each of you for your comments and insights. I'm working on this topic for a new book and have the following to offer:
      "o Eve’s recourse (αποστροφη) is now to her husband, who will rule over her. This word means “desire, recourse, or return”, different from the usual word for sexual desire (ἐπιστροφὴ). A few scholars of biblical Greek prefer clinging. The phrase bothered me enough that I dug deeper and learned that “Eve” is the same word as “life”. It is just as accurate to say Life’s return will be from her husband as it is to say Eve’s clinging will be to her husband. They were technically dead, but by desiring or clinging to her husband, he would put Life’s Recourse into her womb. It is an elegant play on words with a double meaning, and helps to explain why Eve thought that any of her sons could be the Messiah."

      Your criticism of this is most welcome.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.