Genesis 3:16 – Does the Husband Rule His Wife?

(A downloadable, PDF version of this document is available, complete with footnotes. Click Genesis 3:16 – What the Bible Really Means)

With one exception, all English Bibles render Genesis 3:16b along the following lines:

..but toward your husband will be your desire and he will rule over you.

A straight-forward reading of this verse has been understood to mean, in spite of the problems posed by the discomfort of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth, a wife will continue to desire her husband and her husband will be the boss. Does this make any sense? Well, we’ve lived with this translation for well over a millenium so we’ve certainly become accustomed to it. But…

Here’s what the Bible really says:

…but toward your husband you will turn and he will do likewise”.

When the wife is distressed, the husband is to turn to her just as she turns to him. The implication is that the husband has an obligation to respond to his wife’s distress. Now, let’s examine the words themselves. We begin by examining the translation of “desire”.

the wife’s desire

The mistake here is actually quite obvious. The translator likely mistook the original Hebrew word, t’shuvatekh (meaning you will turn, or you will return) for t’shuqatekh (meaning you will desire). To see how easy it might be to make such a mistake, examine the translations below and note that the only difference between the two is one letter.

…and toward your husband will be t’shuqatekh

…and toward your husband will be t’shuvatekh

Below are the actual Hebrew words in question. Note that they differ in only one letter (colored red):

תְּשׁוּקָתֵךְ

תְּשׁוּבָתֵךְ

Given the similarity of these two words, the probability of making a copying mistake is higher than if they contained completely different letters. Of course, close similarity is not evidence of a copying mistake. For that, we examine how the writers of the Septuagint (LXX), the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, translated this text.

But, first some background: the LXX was completed sometime between 300 B.C.E and 100 B.C.E. By contrast, the oldest Hebrew text, known as the Leningrad Codex (LC), available to scholars today dates back only to 1000 A.D. In other words, the translators of the Septuagint were working from a Hebrew text that was about 1300 years older than the texts the Hebrews used in A.D. 1000.

Now, here’s the English translation of the relevant text from the Septuagint, but with the problematic word highlighted in red:

…but to your husband will apostrophe, and he shall rule over you.

The word apostrophe is a transliteration of the Greek word, ἀποστροφή. The verb form of this word normally means to return, to turn back, to change course. Indeed, in the LXX, apostrophe and its variants are always used to translate the Hebrew word shuv and its variants, of which t’shuvatekh is one. What appears to have happened is that at some point during the transmission of the text, the copyist mistakenly read (and copied) t’shuqatekh instead of t’shuvatekh. Such errors are not uncommon and professional translators call this kind of mistake a parablepsis.

If we correct for this mistake, Gen 3:16b can now be read,

…but to your husband will be your turning…

A more meaningful, less literal translation, would be along these lines,

…but towards your husband you will turn…

Now the translation begins to make more sense. Here, God is depicted as telling the woman that she will turn to her husband when distressed – especially during child birth. But, how are we to understand the use of the word ‘rule’? The observation that no obvious (or even subtle) semantic relationship exists between “turn towards” and “rule over” suggests that something may be wrong with this translation. Let’s look more closely.

the husband’s rule:

The issue here is not as obvious as the use of ‘desire’. The Hebrew word translated as ‘rule’ derives from the root Hebrew word, mashal. Mashal, however, can have a number of meanings. Derivatives of the root mashal most often mean some sort of rule or reign. In fact, this meaning is far and away the most widely used in the Hebrew Bible and so it is no wonder the early translators chose ‘rule’. However, mashal and its derivatives can have two other meanings. in at least seven verses mashal is rendered as “speaking proverbs”, ‘resembling’, or “to be similar to”.

Interestingly, among other closely related Semitic languages, mashal cognates are never used to mean ‘rule’. This use seems to be unique to the biblical Hebrew. In these other languages, the translation “to be like” or “to resemble” is more widely attested.

So, what happens when we render mashal to connote similarity or semblance? A straightforward literal translation yields,

…but towards your husband you will turn and he will be similar to you.

The translation of prepositions in biblical Hebrew can be non trivial, but by reworking this literal translation into a more meaningful one, while remaining faithful to the grammar and vocabulary, we  can render the text as follows:

…but towards your husband you will turn and he will do likewise.

This makes more sense and is consistent with the context of the verse as well as the context of the chapter. Here God is conveying to mankind the consequences of the fall and He is saying, in so many words, that the husband and the wife will turn to (and rely upon) each other.

To the woman He said, “I will surely multiply your pain and sorrow in childbearing; in pain and sorrow you shall bring forth children. Yet, towards your husband you will turn and he will do likewise.

Now, go and study

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