In 1974, Susan Foh wrote an article for the Westminster Theological Journal on the meaning of Genesis 3:16, “What is the Woman’s Desire?” From the beginning, Foh’s article was intended as a response to the 2nd wave feminist movement. The article begins, “The current issue of feminism in the church has provoked the reexamination of the scriptural passages that deal with the relationship of the man and the woman” (376). Her focus in the article was how to interpret the second half of Genesis 3:16: “Yet your desire will be for your husband, And he will rule over you.” (NASB)
For such a short article, it has had a profound influence on conservative Christian teaching. 40 years later, numerous books, articles, sermons, and even Bible translations have adopted Foh’s unique interpretation of Genesis 3:16. Even those who swear they’ve never heard of Susan Foh teach her interpretation as if it is the best or only understanding of the passage.
My concern is that Foh’s interpretation is an example of eisegesis with dangerous implications. I’m always wary of “novel” or “unique” interpretations of Scripture especially when they arise in response to some contemporary situation. What I’d like to do here is summarize Foh’s main points and then lay out my objections to her article.
Foh begins her article with 3 common interpretations of the woman’s desire. They are:
- Sexual desire: “. . . thy desire shall be to thy husband– thou shalt not be able to shun great pain and peril for childbearing, for thy desire, thy appetite, shall be to thy husband. . .” (Adam Clarke, Commentary on the Holy Bible, Kansas City, Mo., Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City, 1967, p. 22. )
- Pathological craving: “the desire that makes her the willing slave of man.” (John Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis (International Critical Commentary), Edinburgh, T. & T. Clark, 1930, p.82.) or “immense, clinging, psychological dependence on man.” ( Gini Andrews, Your Half of the Apple; God and the Single Girl, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1972, p. 51.) or “a desire bordering upon disease” (C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament in Ten Volumes, V. 1: The Pentateuch, Grand Rapids, William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., n.d., p. 103. Cf. H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis, Columbus, The Wartburg Press, 1942, p. 172.)
- Desires made subject to her husband: “The woman’s desires are wholly subservient to her husband’s, as a result of God’s judgment.” (377)
Foh summarizes all three common interpretations: “In other words, because the woman desires the husband in some way, he is able to rule over her” (377.) She objects to all three of these interpretations.
- She states that the word teshuqah (desire) has a similar root to an Arabic word that doesn’t mean sexual desire but “to urge, drive on, impel” (378).
- Because the husband’s rule over the wife is “part of the created order”, it can’t be part of the curse (378).
- Foh does not object to the interpretation that wives are to be completely subject to their husbands. “[T]he tyrannous rule of the husband seems an appropriate punishment for the woman’s sin” (379). Her objection is that there is no “hardship of punishment” in these interpretations because”a willing submission contradicts the context of judgment” and doesn’t fit “the New Testament commands to submit.” (379)
Foh then points out that teshuqah only shows up 3 times in Scripture: Genesis 3:16, Genesis 4:7, and Song of Songs 7:10. She dismisses the Song of Songs occurrence by saying the context is “ambiguous” and that “it is not possible to determine the precise meaning” of teshuqah there (379). But she believes her interpretation of desire “is credible in Song of Solomon 7:10,” noting “that the immediate context is that of possession: ‘I am my beloved’s'” (379).
Having dismissed Song of Songs, Foh compares the similarities between Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7. She notes, “[i]n Genesis 4:7 sin’s desire is to enslave Cain — to possess or control him, but the Lord commands, urges Cain to overpower” (380). Foh points out that other commentaries have addressed the similarity, but that they neglect the context and don’t arrive at her conclusions on interpreting the meaning of desire.
Foh’s interpretation is that the desire in Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7 is the same, “a desire to possess or control” (381) and that Adam’s command is the same as Cain’s, “to rule over” (382). Thus, Foh interprets the woman’s desire to be a desire to usurp or control her husband:
These words mark the beginning of the battle of the sexes. As a result of the fall, man no longer rules easily; he must fight for his headship. Sin has corrupted both the willing submission of the wife and the loving headship of the husband. The woman’s desire is to control her husband (to usurp his divinely appointed headship, and he must master her, if he can. So the rule of love founded in paradise is replaced by struggle, tyranny and domination. (382)
Foh believes this interpretation is borne out by experience. She believes that if “he shall rule over you” was meant as an indicative, then it’s false because Cain didn’t rule sin and not all husbands rule their wives. She also points out that not all wives desire their husbands contrary to other common interpretations of the text. In contrast to those interpretations, she states:
The two clauses, “and your desire to control shall be to your husband” and “but he should master you,” are antithetical. (382)
Therefore, the proper way to interpret the passage is:
Her desire is to contend with him for leadership in their relationship. This desire is a result of and a just punishment for sin, but it is not God’s decretive will for the woman. Consequently, the man must actively seek to rule his wife. (383)
Foh gives four reasons to support her interpretation over others:
- “It is consistent with the context” (383). The husband’s rule is made harsh because of the wife’s attempts to usurp control.
- It’s a consistent interpretation for the uses of teshuqah in the Old Testament
- The parallel between Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7 is highlighted.
- “It explains the fact that husbands do not rule their wives as a result of God’s proclamation in Genesis 3:16b” (383).
Ultimately, Foh believes that Genesis 3:16b can’t be an indicative statement that husbands will rule their wives because not all husbands rule their wives, and “if God states that something will come to pass it will.”
That ends the summary of Foh’s argument for her interpretation of the woman’s desire. As I said at the beginning, I’m wary of new and novel interpretations. The fact that Foh’s interpretation was motivated by a desire to combat feminism in the church is concerning, especially since it is still used for that purpose today. Our doctrine should not be reactive. We might need to seek the Scriptures to determine how to address new challenges and issues, but we don’t need to change our understanding of passages in reaction to those challenges.
Foh’s article demonstrates sloppy research, weak and inconsistent reasoning, and poor exegesis. She misrepresents the three common interpretations of the woman’s desire by reducing them to a cause and effect (the wife’s desire makes the husband’s rule possible) that she then argues against.
Foh dismisses a sexual component to the woman’s desire by using an Arabic word with a similar root to determine the proper meaning of teshuqah. This is poor exegesis as it relies primarily on extrabiblical sources instead of using Scripture to interpret Scripture.
Foh states that “[t]he rule of the husband, per se, is not a result of or punishment for sin” (378). I agree, however, I would argue that neither is the wife’s desire. Like childbirth and work, the wife’s desire and the husband’s headship are pre-Fall realities. All are affected by the Fall. Childbirth would be painful, work would be hard, wives would desire their husbands, and their husbands would rule over them. It’s inconsistent to argue that of all four only the wife’s desire is new and the result of sin.
Foh clearly likes the idea of “tyrannous rule” as a punishment for woman’s sin, but only if a wife is forced to submit. It is disturbing that she believes a husband’s tyranny would be an appropriate punishment for his wife’s sin. Nowhere in her article is there any mention of God’s grace or mercy in forgiving sin. There is also no mention of Christ or salvation or the gospel, which is striking given that God promises a Savior in Genesis 3:15 directly preceding the passage in question.
Since the word teshuqah only appears 3 times in Scripture, it seems inappropriate to dismiss one of the occurrences when attempting to determine the meaning of the word. Following after this passage in Song of Songs, it’s hard to agree with Foh that the meaning of desire is ambiguous. It is clearly a desire that includes sexual longing:
“Your head crowns you like Carmel,
And the flowing locks of your head are like purple threads;
The king is captivated by your tresses.
“How beautiful and how delightful you are,
My love, with all your charms!
Your stature is like a palm tree,
And your breasts are like its clusters.
“I said, ‘I will climb the palm tree,
I will take hold of its fruit stalks.’
Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
And the fragrance of your breath like apples,
And your mouth like the best wine!”
“It goes down smoothly for my beloved,
Flowing gently through the lips of those who fall asleep.
“I am my beloved’s,
And his desire is for me.”(Song of Songs 7:5-9, NASB)
Despite Foh’s assurances, her interpretation of desire is not “credible” in this passage. Controlling, contending with, and usurping are not possible meanings of desire in Song of Songs. There is no context in which desire in Song of Songs can be so negatively interpreted without doing violence to the passage.
Having limited the possible occurrences to Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7, Foh discusses the similarities in the Hebrew between the two passages. It’s true, of course, that there are similarities in the words used. However, I believe that Foh forces a parallel between Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7 beyond what is clear from the text.
For example, the woman does not equal sin. Pastor and Hebrew professor, Sam Powell, explains in his article on Genesis 3:16:
The fact is “sin” and women are not the same thing, and their desires are not the same thing. I wonder why we make the assumption that women’s desires are always for domination and manipulation even when the text doesn’t say so. Simply saying “Sin desires to manipulate and dominate and since the same preposition is used this applies to the woman as well” simply will not cut it. That’s not how language works.
Another striking difference between the two passages is that Genesis 3:16 is not addressed to Adam, it’s addressed to Eve. Adam is not being told to master sin/Eve. Eve is being told how the curse will change life for her. If the woman’s desire means she will try to control the man and that the man must master her, then all of the curses, except for pain in childbearing, are addressed to Adam. If that is true, we lose the parallel between the curse for the man and the curse for the woman.
As far as Foh’s explanation that sin’s desire is to enslave Cain, Cain, as a son of Adam, was already a slave to sin. Cain was certainly being tempted to sin in a way he had not yet sinned. But the only way he could have mastered it would have been to turn to God. In himself, Cain could not have mastered sin. Foh’s interpretation of desire reads into the text.
Interestingly, Foh quotes from E.J. Young who also discusses the similarities between Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7, but comes to a completely different conclusion:
As we examine the language of the Lord, we note that it is capable of two interpretations. First of all, however, it is well to compare it with the similar language in Genesis 4:7. In that verse we read, ‘and his desire is unto thee.’ The mean- ing in this context of the fourth chapter is that what sin desires is what Cain will carry out. His desire is unto Cain in the sense that Cain is a slave thereto, and must perform whatever sin’s desire may be. In the present verse Gen. 3:16 we may render, ‘and unto thy husband is thy desire.’ It is obvious that the meaning here is the reverse of what it was in the fourth chapter. Is it not clear that in this third chapter the meaning cannot be that the desire of the woman is unto the husband so that he must do what she wishes? Is it not clear that the woman is not here pictured as a despot who compels the man to do the thing she desires? Plainly this is not the meaning of the text. (Edward J. Young, Genesis 3: A Devotional and Expository Study, London, Banner of Truth Trust, 1966, p. 126-127, emphasis added)
Foh complains that Young “relies on certain presuppositions about the nature of the husband/wife relationship” (381). However, Foh has based her own interpretation on a different set of presuppositions. She presumes that all wives want to control and usurp their husbands’ leadership. That is the foundation of her interpretation. But this misses the context of the curse: the frustration of and breaking of existing conditions.
As I said before, Foh’s interpretation of desire is novel. She doesn’t cite a single commentary to support her new interpretation. What’s striking to me is that not even the early or medieval church scholars, who weren’t exactly known for being kind to women, attempted this interpretation of the woman’s desire.
Foh states that the husband must master his wife and that therefore “the rule of love founded in paradise is replaced by struggle, tyranny and domination” (382). However, if the husband’s mastery of his wife is commanded by God in the same way as Cain’s mastery of sin was, then why would the husband’s headship be tyranny and domination? Wouldn’t it be right and proper? If not, what does she think is being commanded?
In addition to the sloppy research and poor exegesis, Foh’s biggest weakness is the internal inconsistencies. She states that experience confirms her interpretation, that all women want to control their husbands. She says that “he shall rule over you” can’t be an indicative because not all husbands rule their wives.
While I’m not suggesting that wives don’t struggle with the application of appropriate submission, but in the history of the world, across centuries and countries and cultures, have men ruled over women or women over men? Foh sees no universality to husbands ruling wives, but she does think wives universally desire to usurp authority. This is contrary to the experience of most women.
Foh has fundamentally misunderstood the woman’s desire. As Barbara Roberts wrote:
Woman would desire to be cherished by her husband.
Eve would want Adam’s forgiveness and abiding love, to comfort her in her shame for having made that grievous mistake about the forbidden fruit. And more broadly, women in general would yearn for loving husbands, for cherishing and protection from their men.
Woman would long for closeness and companionship with that one special man, a closeness which would have a sexual component but it wouldn’t be limited to just sexual desire.
Eve had just been told that childbearing would now be painful. Despite that and despite the now broken relationship between her and Adam, who had moments before blamed her for his own sin, she would continue to desire her husband. And he would rule over her. This is a descriptive statement of the future of Eve and her daughters, not a prescriptive one. And that is very consistent with the experience of women across the centuries. It also fits the passage better.
Contrary to Foh’s claims, her interpretation is not more consistent with the context. It ignores Song of Songs 7:10. And it forces a parallel with between the two Genesis passages even when there are strong dissimilarities. As Foh points out, Cain didn’t win against sin. Does she mean to imply that neither will husbands?
Foh also misses out on the mercy and hope in the passage. As Matthew Henry points out in his commentary on Genesis 3:
Observe here how mercy is mixed with wrath in this sentence. The woman shall have sorrow, but it shall be in bringing forth children, and the sorrow shall be forgotten for joy that a child is born,Jn. 16:21 . She shall be subject, but it shall be to her own husband that loves her, not to a stranger, or an enemy: the sentence was not a curse, to bring her to ruin, but a chastisement, to bring her to repentance. It was well that enmity was not put between the man and the woman, as there was between the serpent and the woman. (emphasis added)
Foh’s interpretation of Genesis does exactly what Henry rejoices wasn’t done in the passage. She puts enmity between the man and the woman. And that is the great danger inherent in her interpretation and in those who have adopted it. Foh’s interpretation of desire creates, maintains, establishes an inherently antagonistic relationship between husbands and wives and between men and women in general. And all in a desire to bolster support for male headship in the home and the church.
The problem is we don’t need to change the meaning of Genesis 3:16 in order to teach a husband’s headship and a wife’s submission. There are plenty of New Testament passages that do so clearly. There are also several passages that teach the ordination of qualified male pastors and elders. Foh’s interpretation is completely unnecessary and extremely harmful.
I can’t count the number of modern resources that promote the teaching that a woman’s desire is to control her husband. It’s everywhere, whether or not they acknowledge Foh. It’s even been made an official translation of the passage.
So many women (and men) have been hurt by this kind of teaching. When women are inherently desirous of controlling their husbands and husbands are commanded to master such rebellion, it creates a system ripe for abuse to flourish. How is a Christian husband going to show love sacrificially to his wife if he believes his wife is trying to usurp control and that it’s his responsibility to rule her? How is a Christian wife going to submit to her husband as the church to Christ if she knows he views her with such suspicion?
Foh’s interpretation is unnecessary and dangerous. And the irony is not lost on me that so many men who believe that women desire to control men would continue to promote this unique translation which was written by a woman.
May we put aside such harmful teaching and seek to love each other and build each other up in light of the gospel. Men and women were cursed in the Fall. Our relationships with God and with each other were broken and damaged. But that’s not the end of the story! God in His great mercy and love has sent us His own Son to save us from our sins, to restore us to fellowship with Him, and to redeem even our broken relationships with each other.
For this reason, Paul tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, sacrificially putting her needs before his own. And wives are to submit to their husbands as the church to Christ. In all things, we are to show each other love and tenderness and respect, because we are joint heirs, brothers and sisters in Christ.
It is my prayer that more people would reject Foh’s novel interpretation and seek to repair the damage that it has done on men, women, families, the church, and society.