A Pepper Grinder Post

Curses – Part 2

In the , we started looking at the passage in Genesis 3 where man and woman are told of the consequences of their disobedience of the only prohibition they had been given by God. We saw that before the Fall, Adam and Eve enjoyed a very close relationship with God. There was no shame or fear, and God took on human form when relating to them, because this was how he could be closest to them. After Adam and Eve disobeyed, God still took on human form and sought them out, but now they were frightened and ashamed. We saw that already, humans had started to learn the sad art of shifting blame. We also looked at the beginning of God's pronouncements of the results of Adam and Eve's fall.

Notice that I didn't speak of the curses placed on Adam and Eve because or their disobedience. One interesting thing about this passage is that God does NOT curse Adam or Eve. The Hebrew word Arur (cursed) is used twice in this passage, but once it is the snake being cursed, and once it is the ground. In the pronouncement to Eve, which we're going to look at today, it isn't used at all. Let's take a look again at what God does say to Eve.

And to the woman he said, "I will greatly increase your sadness in having children. In sadness you will give birth to children, and you will want to control your husband, but he will rule over you." (Genesis 3:16, my translation)

woman in laborIndulge me for just a minute while I talk about an interesting quirk of the Hebrew language. If we want to say that someone didn't just do something, but REALLY did it, we'd use a word like really or very to intensify the meaning. Hebrew speakers in the time of the Old Testament didn't do that. (I'm quite ignorant about modern Hebrew, so I won't even guess how it handles this type of thing.) Instead, they would use repetition. R.C. Sproul gave a fantastic talk about the holiness of God, where he explained the phrase, "holy, holy, holy" in light of this. When it's a verb (an action word), this is done slightly differently. If we wanted to say that someone didn't just wash the car, but WASHED the car, we'd say something like, "he really washed the car thoroughly," but an Old Testament Hebrew speaker would say, literally, "washing the car, he washed it." In the verse above, the Hebrew literally says, "increasing, I will increase your hard work in having children."

Did it seem surprising to read my translation saying "sadness in having children?" This brings us to a very interesting point about the Hebrew word etsev. Let's look at how the Revised Standard Version translates this. It says, "I will greatly multiply your pain in having children." However, in the next verse where judgment is pronounced on Adam, the RSV says, "in toil you shall eat of it [i.e., the ground] all the days of your life." So what's the big deal about that? The big deal is that the word the RSV translates as "pain" in verse 16 is the exact same Hebrew word it translates as "toil" in verse 17--etsev. This is a big translation no-no. You have the same word, being used in the same way, in the same passage. You had better have a darn good reason for translating it two different ways. As far as I can tell, the only reason here is that the translators just "knew" that childbirth was painful, and that work was tiring. Lest you think that all older translations fell apart on this, I want to point out that in the King James Version, God tells Eve, "in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children," and says to Adam, "in sorrow shalt thou eat of it." The NIV tries to keep the meaning of pain ("with pain you will give birth to children"), but then makes the man have "painful toil," to be a little more consistent.

This brings us to the tricky question of what etsev* really means here. Some of the possible meanings of the word we can easily exclude. For example, it is sometimes used to refer to an idol, especially in the prophets, but that would make no sense here. Having looked at all the uses of this word in the Old Testament, I would say there are three prime candidates for how this word might be interpreted.

  1. Pain. This is how the NIV, the RSV, and a number of other translations interpret it. In the case of the sentence on the woman, it fits quite neatly. God is telling her that he will change the way she has children and make it much more painful. Most people know that childbirth is painful, so now we have a tidy reason for it.
  2. Hard work. I don't know of a translation that uses this option, but I have read people who make a convincing argument for this. For one thing, childbirth IS hard work. For another, the same translation fits VERY neatly when it is used for the sentence passed on the man. It is also true that some natural childbirth types would make the point that childbirth does not have to be painful. The idea is that the woman tensing up because of the pain she knows is coming actually causes the pain. These people point to societies where they don't have the same fearful expectations of childbirth, and show by example that childbirth there, while not easy, is not normally painful.
  3. Sadness or sorrow. This is the translation adopted by the KJV and NKJV. When I first did my translation of this passage, I chose the option of hard work. However, as I studied etsev and how it is used elsewhere in the Old Testament, I came to believe that this last option was the best translation.

Let's look at some passages where the word is used. In Genesis 6:6 (before God wipes out all humanity except Noah and his family), we read that God was sorry he had made man, and that "his heart was filled with pain." (NIV). In Genesis 34:7, Dinah's brothers were filled with grief after she was raped. In Genesis 45:5, Joseph told his brothers not to be distressed because they had sold him into slavery. As we move on in the Old Testament, we read of Jonathan being grieved because of the way Saul treated David, David grieving for Absalom, and Nehemiah commanding the people not to grieve when Ezra read the words of the Law to them after they returned from exile. By far the most common meaning of the word is grief or pain.

worker with oily handsIf this is the case, you might ask, how could I possibly have considered using the meaning of hard work or toil? Well, there are three passages, where etsev clearly has this meaning. In Proverbs 5:10, Solomon warns the reader to keep away from the adulteress lest his "toil enrich another man's house." (NIV) Later in Proverbs, we are told that "all hard work brings a profit." (14:23, NIV) Finally, in Isaiah 58:3, a particular form of etsev is used to mean workers.

The main reason I decided to ditch my first translation of "hard work" was that the passages where the word clearly means this are much later in the Old Testament. If you came across a passage that was written in 1915, where someone described a painting as "cool," you would NOT assume that the writer meant that the painting was impressive or captured his fancy. Instead, you might guess he meant that the painting had an abundance of cool rather than warm colors. Even though the meaning of "cool" that came into vogue in the 1960s would seem to make a lot of sense in the passage, you would pretty much rule it out because that meaning wasn't used back in 1915. It may not be quite so clear-cut with the meaning of "toil" for etsev in Genesis, but it is much more likely that the word means something like what it does in other passages from a similar time period.

This leaves us with "pain" and "sorrow." On the plus side of the pain meaning, it seems to make good sense when we are talking about childbirth. There's just one problem. In places where pain is a good translation, it never or almost never means physical pain. Think about the closest use of the word to our passage where we are told that God's heart was full of pain because of his creation's rebellion against him (Genesis 6:6). Pain is a fantastic translation in my opinion, but it doesn't mean that God was having chest pains. There is only one passage where etsev is used besides ours where you might be able to make the case that physical pain is being described. In 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 we read:

Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, "I gave birth to him in pain." Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, "Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain." And God granted his request. (NIV)

woman holding her head in painBoth the words that the NIV translates as pain in these verses are etsev in the Hebrew. Although these certainly could mean physical pain, a lot of the reason for choosing that meaning is, once again, our own cultural ideas about the experience of childbirth. To me, it seems quite possible that Jabez was asking to be free from sorrow. Even if the translation of pain in these verses is the best one, however, these are just two out of the 49 times the word is used in the Old Testament.

The other reason I steer away from the meaning of physical pain is that it doesn't work nearly so well when we get to the sentence pronounced on Adam. I mean, sure, physical labor can be painful. We may get blisters on our hands. Our arm muscles may burn with exhaustion. Our backs may be killing us. But is physical pain really such a salient characteristic of work? And why does God throw in the phrase about eating food by the sweat of our faces, if he is predicting pain instead of hard work? This is why translations that think the word means pain for women having babies, want it to mean hard work, or at least "painful toil," when talking about men working.

I really believe that, taking everything into consideration, sorrow, sadness, and grief are the best English translations of etsev in our verses. But does that even make sense? No one would argue that childbirth isn't hard, and, whatever you may think about how childbirth could or should be, everyone will admit that it is quite painful for some (even many) women. But is it sad? Many women feel elated after the baby is born, no matter how they felt when they were in labor.

I think one of the most important things to understand in this passage is that God is talking about something broader than just the act of having a baby. If he were talking only about childbirth, women could completely escape the results of the Fall of Mankind simply by not having babies. I believe that in what God says to both the woman and the man, he is using a kind of shorthand. He uses "childbirth," probably the most unique and defining act a woman can do, as a shorthand for all she does. He uses the work surrounding the provision of food as a representation of all that a man does. This is why, although I sit in front of a computer all day, instead of growing crops in the field, I have not escaped the judgment on Adam. I have recurring problems with software, instead of weeds. I have viruses or careless users destroying data, instead of grasshoppers eating my crops; but I still am suffering because of the Fall of Man.

moon on a wintry nightWhen you think of what God says to Adam and Eve in this way, I think a translation of etsev as something like sadness makes a lot of sense. I am struck, both in my own life, and in what I hear and see in the lives of others, by how much sorrow pervades what we do. Are there joyful moments? There certainly are. But in my life, it seems it is so easy for those times of happiness to fade to boredom, or frustration, or disappointment. You could say this is because I have a gloomy temperament, but think of other people. Think of Abraham Lincoln, rising from relative obscurity to become President of the United States, and a president who would later be thought of as one of the greatest presidents of all time. But then remember the tremendous stresses that were placed upon Lincoln as he tried to lead the U.S. through a brutal civil war. Think of the huge amount of criticism and ridicule aimed at Lincoln during his life. Think of the pain of seeing his son, Edward, die in 1850, and then his son Willie die of a fever, during one of the many times when the Civil War was not going well for the Union. Think of the pain of watching his wife move toward mental instability, and think, finally, of Lincoln dying with an assassin's bullet in his brain just when the war was finally won. Think of the apostle Paul languishing in a dungeon after a powerful but turmoil-filled ministry, unable to do anything but write letters when people were misleading the churches he had helped found. Finally, think of Christ, dying a shameful, painful death.

I think it is safe to say that sorrow and disappointment are never far from any of us. I believe this is a direct result of Adam and Eve disobeying God.

My great plan was to finish talking about what God said to Eve in this post and move on to Adam next time. However, I still have more to say about the single verse addressed to the woman. Tune in as we continue to unpack God's response to the disobedience of Eve.


*In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that I am actually clumping two different forms of etsev together in this discussion: etsev and etsevon (rhymes with telephone). When God says that he will greatly increase Eve's sadness in having children, and when he says that Adam will eat from the ground in sadness, the word etsevon is being used. This particular variation of etsev is only used one other place in the Old Testament: Genesis 5:29 (which explains Noah's name through a reference back to God's pronouncement to Adam). All other uses of etsev I looked at were the shorter form, including the other time the word is used in the verse I'm looking at today, when God says to Eve, "In sadness you will give birth to children." The closeness of the two forms of etsev, the way both are used, and the way they are used interchangeably in Genesis 3:16, lead me to believe that there is no difference in meaning in the two forms, and thus, I am treating them as one word.

**Photo Credits: woman in labor from , workman with oily hands from , woman holding her head in her hands by