Wednesday, August 04, 2021

Bible Study 05 — Comparison [Part 5]

Another instalment in the re-presentation of our 2013-2014 series about studying the Bible using methods deduced from the Bible itself. The series introduction can be found here.

The first Bible study tool we are discussing is comparison, specifically comparison of words and phrases in the original language.


The Example

We have been studying Genesis 3:16 as an example (see parts 2, 3 and 4):

“To the woman he said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.’ ”

The Results

We are looking for the most reasonable interpretation of the phrase “Your desire shall be for your husband”. We Googled the verse to see what other people say about it and chose four different interpretations of “desire” we encountered. (Normally I consider it bad practice to look at the interpretations of others before developing a working hypothesis about the meaning for myself, but we’re using Google to illustrate the variety of interpretations possible in certain situations, in order to demonstrate why we need to study the Word for ourselves.)

We used Strong’s concordance (online or hardcover) to find a four digit number that references the Hebrew word for desire and looked up that number (8669) in the Wigram Englishman’s Hebrew-Chaldee Concordance of the Old Testament, to discover that the Hebrew word used for “desire” is the Hebrew t’shookah, a word used only three times in the entire Bible, one of which is the verse containing the phrase we’re trying to understand.

Something to Compare With

The other two verses where t’shookah appears are Genesis 4:7 and Song of Solomon 7:10 (which George Wigram mysteriously refers to with the abbreviation “Cant.”, presumably for “Canticles”, but since George first published his Hebrew Concordance in 1843, I think we can forgive the antiquated language).

In Song of Solomon 7:10

Looking up this verse first, we find the following:

“I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me.”

Now, as a Christian who has been worshiping with fellow believers for forty-plus years, I’ve heard this verse a lot, usually to illustrate the relationship between Christ and his church. However, if you look at in context, it is clear that t’shookah here describes sexual desire. The writer admires his beloved all through chapter 7, and his description of her is both physical and sexual. Elsewhere, no doubt, he dwells on her admirable character qualities; here is he concerned, to be blunt, with how good she looks and how much he wants her. The sexual aspect is not between the lines, it IS the primary meaning.

Looks good for Trevor here, doesn’t it? (Trevor is the blogger who believes the meaning of “desire” in Genesis 3:16 is sexual desire.)

Except we have a problem with that interpretation. Two problems, in fact:

  1. “Sexual desire” doesn’t explain the immediate context. The verse says, “Your desire shall be for your husband”, but adds this, “and he shall rule over you”. What does sexual desire have to do with the husband ruling over the wife?
  2. “Sexual desire” doesn’t make sense in the larger context either. Genesis 3:16 is not an isolated statement. It is part of God’s curse that resulted from original sin. His words to Eve sit right in the middle of his curse on the serpent (v14) and the punishment to come for Adam and mankind because “you have listened to the voice of your wife”. The whole thing, from v14-19 is a curse due to the consequences of sin. But we know sex is a good thing and a gift from God. The entire Song of Solomon (and many other things beside) is nonsense if sexual desire is a result of the curse.

Any satisfactory interpretation we get from our word comparison is going to have to fit comfortably and credibly into both our immediate context and the larger context. The meaning of “desire” here needs to relate to both the rule of the husband over the wife and to the curse itself. It has to be something that would cause the woman frustration and sorrow, just like pain in childbearing, the ground bringing forth thorns and thistles, and death.

On to our next verse, then.

In Genesis 4:7

This chapter deals with Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. The word t’shookah is translated “desire” in the following context:

“The Lord said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.’ ”

Interesting, no? It’s pretty clear here that the Lord uses a figure of speech to Cain called personification. We have personification in English too; it is simply a device of language by which one assigns the qualities of personhood to something that isn’t human (or, in some cases, isn’t even alive). We know that sin is not an animate force: it does not actually have desires, nor can it crouch, since sin doesn’t possess legs. But the Lord speaks of sin like it were a person. In addition, the “door” at which sin is crouching can only be metaphorical.

But the force of the Lord’s words to Cain is to warn him that that he is in imminent danger of being overpowered by sin. He is about to lose control of his actions and behave in a way that he will regret. There is a struggle for control in Cain’s life. Cain must choose to either “rule over” sin, or in the alternative, sin will “rule over” him. We then read that Cain fails to rule over his desires, and subsequently kills his brother Abel out of jealousy.

I take the time to go over this is because, in the story of Cain and Abel, the inferences we draw purely from the language used are not polluted with the modern sexual-political agenda that inevitably threatens to taint any honest discussion of Genesis 3:16, where relationships between fallen men and fallen women and the (presumptive) will of God in that context are in view. In God’s warning to Cain, the meaning of “[sin’s] desire is for you, but you must rule over it” is unambiguous.

Ask Wendy, our randomly Googled interpreter who prefers the meaning … well, frankly, I’m not sure what Wendy prefers. You’re probably better to read what she says and consider if it makes any sense to you. But it’s evident Wendy dislikes any suggestion that women characteristically have a tendency to struggle with their husbands for control of their marital relationships.

Anyway, whatever one’s view of sexual politics, it seems to me that the language of Genesis 4:7 is remarkably similar to that of Genesis 3:16. Most conservative Bible scholars would also agree that it was written by same author, from which I would conclude that what he meant in the one instance, he probably meant in the other as well.

Remember that any satisfactory interpretation we get from our word comparison is going to have to fit comfortably and credibly into both our immediate context and the larger context. Does my suggested meaning of “desire” here relate to both the rule of the husband over the wife and to the curse itself? I believe it does:

  1. The meaning we assign to “desire” needs to account for the fact that the words “he shall rule over you” are appended to the phrase. It does.
  2. Because this is God’s curse and not a blessing, the meaning we assign to “desire” has to be something that would cause the woman frustration and sorrow, just like pain in childbearing, the ground bringing forth thorns and thistles, and death. The disposition to struggle for dominance against the very person for whom you are supposed to be a “fit helper” certainly fits the bill.

Sound like a curse to you? It sounds like a curse to me, one that would impact both parties.

Therefore, based purely on an assessment of the language used in the Genesis 3:16 vs. the best possible point of comparison in scripture, Genesis 4:7, my personal conviction is that, just like sin wanted to rule over Cain and “its desire” was “for” him, so the woman’s “desire” in 3:16, brought about by sin entering the world, is a desire to rule over her husband. To call the shots. To make the final decisions. Like, for instance, eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

It may be an entirely benevolent desire, borne from the certainty that her husband is incapable of making the right choices. We are not commenting on the motive of any individual woman in this position since we can’t know what that might be.

But far from being a sexual desire, it is a desire for control. This, to my mind, is the most faithful and consistent interpretation of the language in the verse.

Next: Conclusions on the relative value and proper use of word/phrase comparison

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