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Published Date: April 30, 2006

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The Legacy of Pain: An Analysis of Genesis 3:16a


I consider myself a Biblical feminist who has both appreciated and benefited from the scholarship of the past twenty-five years regarding the role of women in ministry, society, and the home.

I sensed the call of God to ministry as a youngster at the age of eight, but due only to my gender, when I became a Christian as a teenager, I was consistently discouraged from such a “professional pursuit.” I could marry a minister or become a missionary, I was told, but never fulfill the niche of an ordained minister, as that slot in God’s design was reserved only for males. About fourteen years later, I discovered, much to my relief and joy, that scholarship abounded—responsible, exegetical research from those, like myself, who held to a high view of Scripture. And this scholarship refuted the age-old teaching of the subordination of women. I ingested it and immediately began my pursuit of seminary training in 1979. I have read little, if anything, however, about the first half of Genesis 3:16, about which I should like to suggest an expanded understanding in the article that follows.


To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16, NIV).

Much deliberation and controversy have been focused on the second half of the above verse, as attested by the myriad of titles and articles published in the recent two decades, not to mention those of past centuries from Augustine to Calvin to modern-day scholarship. Particularly challenging has been the troubling meaning of the phrase, “desire will be for your husband.” Even in researching this project, I discovered a rendering new to me, shedding further light on this curious verse. Yet, in all of my study, I have read only cursory comments on the first half of verse 16, as though its meaning were prosaic and superficial. Since Eve gave birth to Cain (Gen. 4:1) “with the help of the Lord,” pain in childbirth has remained an undisputed reality.

Labor pain does, in fact, involve excruciating pain for most mothers—writhing pain that often has been fatal, though thanks to modern medicine, posing far less of a threat in Western culture today. Often, extraordinary measures are taken to reduce the pain, such as epidurals, spinals, sophisticated birthing techniques, and anesthetics. Nonetheless, natural pain experienced in giving birth remains.

An Overview of Genesis 3

It is intriguing that God’s first judgment on the woman is in direct correspondence to her sexuality, her gender-specificity as the counterpart to the first “earth creature” (as Phyllis Trible has called adam).1 The woman was created in the first place to complete and fulfill adam. Her gender complemented and completed God’s creation of humanity. Now, in God’s judgment on her disobedience, her femininity is the direct object of God’s wrath and punishment. Why was her judgment not that of chronic sinusitis, or green facial fur, or spasmodic speech, or a reversionary cranium? Surely, her judgment was limited only by God’s “imagination.” Why, then, did God focus immediately on her reproductive function, her sexuality—that which is borne upon and born from the most sacred, intimate convergence of her nephesh (soul) with that of her counterpart, the man? Had not God said, because they were created of the same “stuff,” the same ingredients, that:

For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame (Gen. 2:24-25).

Childbirth is, after all, experienced in privacy, or at the least semi-privacy. Perhaps in some cultures it has been a more semi-public event, but certainly is an experience of paramount consummation. It involves the physical bodies of the mother, father, and child. The infant emerges from the mother’s naked body. Regardless of how modest the woman may be, she cannot give birth clothed! It is a “naked experience.”

In the closing lines of Genesis 2, both earth creatures are naked and unashamed. There is absolutely nothing abnormal or lewd about their mutual nudity. There is a sense of profound complementarity, joy, satisfaction, and acceptance of one another in the pronouncements of “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh,” “united,” “one flesh,” and “no shame” (Gen. 2:23-25). Surely, sexuality was intended by God to be good, natural, normal, healthy, and mutually fulfilling. We have here a picture that beckons us to observe the first, pre-fallen humans, with a touch of embarrassed admiration and deep respect.

Thus, this is the scene with which chapter 3 opens: an innocence and purity unparalleled since the fall. The serpent enters the drama and, interacting with the woman, hints that God may know something that she does not know—namely, the distinction between good and evil. Until this moment, there has been no suggestion that such an entity exists. Evil? Eve must reason, “You mean there’s a dichotomy here? Something other than ‘good’ exists? And, thus, to become ‘godlike’ is to experience this dichotomy?” (In fact, Bledstein has proposed that perhaps Eve was, in effect, striving to become a goddess who “unlike women, bear children easily—after nine days of pregnancy in a Sumerian paradise myth, according to Sumerologist Samuel Noah Kramer.”)2 The tantalizer is more than the woman can bear, and so she and the man partake. Immediately, as we know, their eyes are “opened,” like God’s, in fulfillment of the serpent’s words (Gen. 3:5, 7). The phrase that follows is most telling: “. . . and they realized they were naked.”

Was not their sexuality the pinnacle of God’s creation, both for procreation and oneness of flesh between the two earth creatures? Why now does their nakedness pose a problem? Suddenly, with the first act of disobedience and the advent of sin, nakedness immediately loses its innocence and its freedom. Again, it is curious to me that they were not stricken immediately by a guilt manifested in some other corporeal or emotional way, such as an impulse to cover their faces or mouths or fruit trees or serpents! Why their gender-specific anatomical parts? As opposed to a tainted sexual awareness, why did not their disobedience lead to a gastrointestinal disorder, cardiac disease, mental retardation, scoliosis, or any of the myriad of physical, emotional, and social maladies that plague our world? Instead, they become shockingly discrete and alarmed. They have lunged from innocence to ignominy, from purity to putrefaction, from freedom to fraud.

Initially, they hastily make coverings, albeit inadequate, to hide from each other and from themselves. Their shame overwhelms them, and their first impulse is to mop up the mess with a puny rag when an industrial mop is required. Their feeble attempts to hide in the wake of their sin invokes what Jeffrey Niehaus has suggested is the “thunder of Yahweh God as he was going back and forth in the garden in the wind of the storm.”3 When God inquires of the man as to his whereabouts, adam answers with great fear, not, he alleges, because he has disobeyed in eating the fruit, but because he is naked. Nakedness has assumed a new connotation, for adam has been nothing but naked since his creation! God responds, “Who told you you were naked?” (Gen. 3:11)—implying that, previous to the tragedy of disobedience, sexual awareness and consciousness of nakedness were banal and certainly nothing about which to be embarrassed. God links, of course, adam’s awareness of his nudity with his disobedience, and hence the curses and judgments follow.

The serpent is cursed to bondage to the land (erets), in that it is doomed in perpetuity to live with its face in the ground, and the ground is cursed with annoying, molesting botanical and arthropodal aggravations. The man’s judgment is to survive via hard work, which undoubtedly extends to economic and occupational frustrations. The woman’s judgment is, first, to bear children in pain, and, second, to long for and need her husband chronically.

As Genesis 3 draws to a close, the man and the woman find themselves adequately clothed by their Creator God but banished from their garden of innocence—the man to work out his curse and the woman to become the mother of all living. It is noteworthy that the Hebrew word for “pain,” spoken to the woman, and for “toil,” spoken to the man, bear the same root, ʾtsb. We know that their pains were not of the same physical dimension, yet both are destined to experience much agony and suffering. Regardless of which specific nerve fibers conduct the pain, it is clear that some commonality of suffering was to be endured by each gender. Certainly, toil, work, and employment are gorged with setbacks, competition, abuse, loss, and an endless host of frustrations. The pain associated with being the bearer of children is more than physically endemic, but is generalized to the very core of the female identity.

A Telescopic View of Nakedness and Pain

The first act of disobedience to God leads immediately to a shameful consciousness of sexuality—not sexual consciousness per se, for that was inherent in creation itself, but an awareness replete with potential evil. “The eyes of both of them were opened” (Gen. 3:7), and tragically, they viewed their own bodies, as well as each other’s, through new lenses. Perversion, exploitation, abuse, and lust are now such imminent possibilities that visual and tactile suggestion must be barred with coverings. Both the man and the woman instinctively, almost in a panic, realize the essentiality of covering their sexual nakedness.

Sexual privacy becomes critical and rises to the norm, as opposed to nakedness; coverings become instruments of protection to prevent abuse and misuse. Modesty and guardedness replace trust and nakedness. The man and the woman look at each other differently now, even though they are still the only humans in existence. Though they are alone, the realization of their nakedness brings a surreptitious, even clandestine, aura to their relationship—one that manifests itself in shame, fear, and awkwardness.

And, with the second pronouncement of judgment upon the woman, that, woe and behold, the man would rule over her, comes the disparaging reality that males could and probably would exert power over their female counterparts in sexual ways. While this was undoubtedly terrifying for the woman, it must have been equally unnerving for the man to sense that he was spinning out of control. Bledstein offers an alternative translation to the second judgment on the woman: “You are attractive to your man; yet he can rule over you”—not that he must or will, but, given the choice, he can.4 Original sin, then, led directly to sexual enlightenment of a fearful, exploitive nature. Evil, newly birthed, immediately assumed the identity of sexual deviance in attitude and action.

“Pain” in Scripture and Extrabiblical Literature

When citing a few of the women in the Bible who experience “pain,” it is noteworthy that their sufferings directly proceed from their femininity, their nakedness, their sexuality. Hagar is impregnated by Abraham as his concubine, then endures the intense jealousy of Sarah over the birthing of Ishmael, Abraham’s first but not chosen seed (Gen. 16, 21); Jephthah’s daughter is sacrificed to the Lord in a bizarre turn of events (Judg. 11); the Levite’s concubine is gang-raped (Judg. 19); having innocently attracted King David, Bathsheba loses her husband to assassination for the sake of pure lust (2 Sam. 11); Tamar is incestuously raped and then hated by her brother Amnon (2 Sam. 13); and so on.

The Hebrew word ʿetseb is translated variously: in the Tanakh (Jewish Publication Society), it is “pangs and pain”; in the King James, “sorrow”; in the New English Bible, it is “labor and groaning”; in the Jerusalem Bible, it is “pain.” Strong’s Concordance cites ʿetseb as “pang, sorrow, grievousness, labor—whether of body or mind.”5

Throughout the Old Testament, ʿetseb in its various noun and verbal forms has been understood to mean far more than physical pain. In Psalm 139:24, its rendering is “any offensive way,” that is, a hurtful or wicked habit. In Proverbs 15:1, it is “a harsh word/a word that hurts,” while Proverbs 10:10 points to the grief caused by a malicious wink, and Proverbs 15:13, a spirit crushed by heartache. Isaiah 14:3 depicts “cruel bondage,” the emotional and social pain of exile. Isaiah 58:3 describes an exploitation of workers.

Furthermore, in the Joseph narrative, the connotation is one of being downhearted or dismayed (Gen. 45:5). In Psalms 56:6, 78:40, and Gen. 6:6, 34:7, the verb form deriving from ‘etseb connotes grieving, a deep sorrow of spirit.

The Septuagint Greek rendering of the word lupei for ʿetseb can mean “physical exertion and trouble,” and also “pain,” but more often, according to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, connotes sufferings of an inner anguish, lamentation, or anxiety. In the Old Testament and in Judaism, joy and sorrow are intertwined—sorrow enduring for a season, with joy following (Ps. 126:5). Always, however, the origin of pain and sorrow is of prominent preponderance. “For this reason,” states R. Bultmann, “pain stands under the question of theodicy [a vindication of the justice of God in permitting evil]. For it is obvious that suffering and pain are things which ought not to be . . . as a punishment for the sin of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:16f). From the time of the fall the world stands under God’s judgment, and this aeon is full of trouble and sorrow.”6There is no dispute here. Rather, the question surrounds the broader inference of the “pain” inflicted on female humanity at the fall.

Had the inspired writer intended Genesis 3:16a to convey pain of a purely physical nature, he or she could have chosen one of several other Hebrew words, including:

tsir = pang (Isa. 13:8, 21:3)

hil = pain, writhing (Jer. 50:43, Mic. 4:9)

hebel = pang, cord (Isa. 26:17, Jer. 22:23)

Instead of selecting any of the above verbs, the inspired author of Genesis chose ʿetseb to point to what I believe is a much more encompassing experience of pain, stemming from the woman’s sexuality. It is striking that all of the above references where ʿetseb is cited point to a pain juxtaposed with emotional and spiritual suffering sustained from relational trauma.

Ernest Klein’s etymological analysis of ʿetseb from the Arabic ghadiba traces its meaning to “was angry, vexed, irritated; wrath, rage, anger.”7 Again, evidence emerges to suggest that ʿetseb connoted more than physical pain. Perhaps the strongest support for an expanded definition of ʿetseb can be found in the Theological Word Book of the Old Testament, where ʿtsb and its derivatives signify physical, mental, and spiritual anguish ranging from sorrow to bitterness or despair, to feeling disgust, trouble, turmoil, indignation, even terror. It is used less of physical pain than of mental pain.8

From extrabiblical literature, James Pritchard offers a reference to pain in childbirth from “Enki and Ninhursag: A Paradise Myth.” When the question is posed, “What hurts thee?” the female answers, “My jaw . . . my mouth . . . my arm . . . my rib . . . for the little ones I have caused to be [born] for thee” (lines 240-270).9 Perhaps such a citation could be seen as more than a specifically localized pain experienced in childbirth to that of generalized pain permeating the whole body and spirit.

David Tsumura wrestles with the Akkadian and arrives at a translation for “your pain and your conception” as “your trembling pain,” as the Akkadian word araru (Hebrew form hrn) is “to tremble, to become agitated, panic-stricken.”10 Certainly, agitation and panic accompany all forms of abuse and oppression beyond the event of childbirth.

Given the linguistic and lexical breadth of the Hebrew word ʿetseb, its meaning cannot be limited to physical pain in childbearing. Rather, its deeper connotation and even prophetic declaration, as pronounced by God to the woman in judgment, must encompass the entire scope of suffering experienced by women as a direct result of their sexuality.

Very loosely stated, Genesis 3:16a could be read:

To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; because you are the human specie who will conceive, nurture, and deliver all human progenies, you will often be taken advantage of by males. Your pain will include the hours of labor and delivery required for birthing a child, but it will also extend to your relationship with males. They will often look down on you, belittle your procreant role, inflict pain on you in indescribable ways, and cause you great vexation of spirit. Overall, it will not be preferable to be born a female.”

The Pain of Nakedness

In God’s judgment on the woman, “with pain you will give birth to children,” I posit that women’s pain extends far beyond the physical discomfort of labor and childbirth. The “pain” experienced by the woman does indeed emanate from her gender specificity, that is, her female sexuality. Were the woman not the bearer of children and her body not constructed in such a way as to be vulnerable to the domination and exploitation of males, her pain would be far more innocuous. Consider the historical plight of women around the world.

Seager and Olson’s Women in the World: An International Atlas, a complete guide to the global status of women, presents a staggering set of statistics. A cursory skimming of its contents reveals the bulk of woman’s “pain” as issuing from her sexuality, with such headings as Patriarchy, Contraception, Abortion, Birth Care, Families, Illness and Health (especially breast cancer),11 Refugees (single-parent families),12 Women in Words and Higher Education (illiteracy among women due to domestic confinement),13 School Days (parents not wanting their daughters to mingle with boys),14 Access to Means (women lacking equal property rights to their husbands and brothers),15 Job Protection (spurious maternity policies for working mothers in many countries),16 Earnings (the increasing “feminization of poverty”),17 Job Ghettos (typically defined “women’s work” nets low wages and limited employment opportunities),18 Migrant Workers (“migrant women are among the poorest of the poor, triply burdened by race, class, and gender barriers”),19 Out To Work (“the strongest constraints on women being active outside the home exist in Islamic countries”),20 Birth and Death (worldwide statistics for girls’ mortality beyond infancy surpass that of boys),21 and, of course, the more sordid topics of Beauty Beat, Sex for Sale, Rape, Young Brides, Domestic Disorders, and Social Surgery.22 Indeed, the vast majority of oppressive recitals in which women find themselves cast are overtured by their sexuality.

The very act of intercourse for a woman (potentially culmina-ting in childbearing), unless mutually enjoyed, is always an invasive act, commonly accompanied by physical pain and discomfort, and often deep emotional and psychological pain. Then, in many cultures, upon providing pleasure for the male, she bears a child in pain and becomes despised by him, taking the form of a slave and underling. From there, her lot in life is very often one of enduring anguish as she lives under unspeakable male domination.

Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, in describing the permeation of the fall, states that, “the Bible is ruthlessly democratic [in asserting that] not only are we all equally fallen, but there is no function within any of us—be it cognition, emotion, perception, or . . . gender—which is not in some way, much of the time, distorted by the ravages of the Fall.”23 And certainly, the oppression of women and the “pain” that they experience is causally linked to their sexuality by the Edenic “realization” of nakedness.

Hope in Jesus Christ

I have painted a rather bleak view of female-male relationships in light of the pain enjoined on women at the fall. However, all things are, or can be, made new in Jesus Christ. Surely, Jesus came to reverse the effects of the fall, and thus, in him lies our hope. As Mary Evans has pointed out in her very fine book, Women in the Bible, Jesus expected his disciples to get a handle on their lust. He did not exclude women from his circles, because he did not consider it inevitable that men would be susceptible to temptation in the presence of females. The women were not punished by Jesus in exclusionary male elitism, but rather, the men were called to account for their own attitudes and actions. Women were included on the basis of their equality, not their sexuality.24 In fact, Jesus responds in Luke 11:28 to a woman who lauds his mother’s role in bearing him, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

None is exempt from the pain imbued on the human race at the fall, which is precisely why a Messiah was required. Only the perfect Son of God could eradicate the eternal poison infused by sin and begin to reverse its effects. Jesus set the model par excellence of mutual respect for women and men, not the least of which is found in his reply to Martha of Bethany as her sister Mary sat at his feet. Never did he differentiate between genders in his commission to go into all the world and propagate his saving work. The Apostle Paul eloquently theologizes Jesus’ life-example in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Only as individuals, cultures, groups, and generations grasp the equality of females and males intended by God at creation can the legacy of pain inherited by all women from the fall continue to be reversed. When Jesus returns to establish a new creation, then and only then will the pain of all women (and men, for that matter) be eradicated completely. Until that great day, we strive to enlighten one another and hold each other accountable to justice and to as painless an existence for women and girls as possible by the grace of God.


  1. Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia, Pa.: Fortress, 1978), 76.
  2. Adrien Janis Bledstein, “Was Eve Cursed? or Did a Woman Write Genesis?” Bible Review 9 (Feb. 1993): 44.
  3. Jeffrey Niehaus, “In the Wind of the Storm: Another Look at Genesis 3:8,” Vetus Testamentum 44 (Apr. 1994): 265-66.
  4. Bledstein, “Was Eve Cursed?” 44.
  5. James Strong, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (New York, N.Y.: Abingdon, 1890), 6,089.
  6. Rudolf Bultmann, “Lupē, Lupeo, Alupos, Perilupos, Sullupeomai” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 4, Gerhard Kittel, ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1967), 318.
  7. Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English (Jerusalem: University of Haifa, 1987), 262.
  8. R.L. Harris, G.L. Archer, and B.K. Waltke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 2 (Chicago, Ill.: Moody, 1980), 687-88.
  9. James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University, 1969), 40d.
  10. David Toshio Tsumura, “A Note on hrnk (Genesis 3:16),” Biblica 75:3 (1994): 400.
  11. Joni Seager and Ann Olson, Women in the World: An International Atlas (New York, N.Y.: Simon and Schuster, 1986), 25.
  12. Seager and Olson, Women in the World, 26.
  13. Seager and Olson, Women in the World, 24.
  14. Seager and Olson, Women in the World, 22.
  15. Seager and Olson, Women in the World, 21.
  16. Seager and Olson, Women in the World, 20.
  17. Seager and Olson, Women in the World, 19.
  18. Seager and Olson, Women in the World, 18.
  19. Seager and Olson, Women in the World, 17.
  20. Seager and Olson, Women in the World, 16.
  21. Seager and Olson, Women in the World, 10.
  22. Seager and Olson, Women in the World, Table of Contents.
  23. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, “The Christian Mind and the Challenge of Gender Relations,” Reformed Journal 37 (Sept. 1987): 19.
  24. Mary J. Evans, Women in the Bible (Westmont, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1983), 44-45.
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