Changing Genesis 3:16 to Rationalize the Subjugation of Women: A response to planned changes in the ESV Bible.

Immediately after both Adam and Eve choose to disobey God in the Garden of Eden, God predicts how this decision will impact the relationship between the sexes. He says to Eve, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16, NIV). The subjugation of women by men is depicted as a tragic outcome of humanity’s decision to turn away from God and try to make our way without Him.

Sadly, patriarchal theologians have interpreted Genesis 3:16 not as a consequence of sin, but rather as a reflection of God’s will for husbands and wives. One complementarian website offers the following interpretation: “Eve will try to usurp her husband’s role as head, but God is requiring Adam to keep her from doing so.”[1] There are two problems with this kind of thinking. First, the passage does not say in any language (Hebrew, Greek, English) that a woman would desire “to usurp her husband’s role as head.” Rather, the passage simply says that while Eve will “desire” (long for, turn towards) her husband, he will “rule over” her. In Hebrew, the word translated “desire” is teshuqa. The same word is used in the Song of Solomon, in reference to a man’s desire for the woman he loves: “I belong to my beloved, and his desire (teshuqa) is for me. Come, my beloved, let us go to the countryside, let us spend the night in the villages” (7:10-11, NIV). Is this man desiring to “usurp the authority” of his romantic partner? No, he is not. There is no suggestion that teshuqa, either in the Song of Solomon or in Genesis 3:16, is a desire to usurp someone’s authority. Second, a patriarchal interpretation wrongly assumes that God’s prediction, “he will rule over you,” is actually a divine command: “he must rule over you.” Eve is portrayed as rebelling against “God’s created order,” and Adam is allegedly appointed to “keep her in her place.” The Hebrew text says none of this. Through patriarchal commentary, a horrifying consequence of humanity’s fall into sin (the male domination of women) is wrongly depicted as “the will of God.”

To reinforce a patriarchal interpretation of the passage, the publishers of the English Standard Version of the Bible (ESV) have recently announced that they are making changes to the English text of Genesis 3:16. The text is being changed from, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you,” to “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”[2] In addition to ignoring the meaning of the Hebrew word teshuqa (desire for) as it is used in Song of Solomon, the ESV also ignores the meaning of the Greek word used for desire in Genesis 3:16 of the Greek Septuagint. (The Septuagint is a 2nd century B.C. Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.) The Greek word used to describe Eve’s “desire for” her husband is apostrophe. Writing in the first century A.D., historian Flavius Josephus used this word to mean turning to someone for deliverance. Here is an English translation of Josephus’ account:

But still, because there appeared no other way whither they could turn themselves for deliverance (apostrophe), they made haste the same way with the soldiers, and went to Claudius.[3]

Roman Senators who were previously opposed to the Emperor Claudius were deserted by the Roman army. With no other course available to them, they turned to Claudius for leniency, reaffirming their allegiance.

Born in the second century A.D., a Greek philosopher named Philostratus used apostrophe in a similar manner. In this account, servants of a man named Herodes turn to the people of Athens as a “haven”:

The terms of the will were as I have stated, and Atticus drew it up by the advice of his freedmen, who since they saw that Herodes was by nature prone to deal harshly with his freedmen and slaves, tried in this way to prepare a haven for themselves (apostrophe) among the people of Athens, by appearing responsible for the legacy.[4]

Expecting to be treated harshly by Herodes upon the death of his father Atticus, household servants turn to the people of Athens for refuge.

The use of apostrophe to mean turning towards someone for refuge or deliverance has a very long history. In the 5th century B.C., a historian named Herodotus used this word to explain that the Greeks had no one to turn to for water, but the god they called Zeus:

Greek land is watered by rain, but not by river water like theirs, they said that one day the Greeks would be let down by what they counted on, and miserably starve: meaning that if heaven send no rain for the Greeks and afflict them with drought, the Greeks will be overtaken by famine, for there is no other source of water for them [i.e. no one else to turn toapostrophe] except Zeus alone.[5]

The Perseus Digital Library from Tufts University explains that apostrophe was commonly used throughout the history of ancient Greek literature to mean, “when one turns away from all others to one, and addresses him specially.”[6] Reflecting this meaning, an apostrophe also became a literary device used in epic poetry; it occurs when a character turns away from one person (often a god or a judge) and turns suddenly to another person in a desperate appeal for sympathy, support or deliverance:

Apostrophe is turning away from the normal audience…and the addressing of another, second audience, surprisingly chosen by the speaker… Apostrophe is, so to speak, an emotional move of despair on the part of the speaker.[7]

Eve’s circumstances in the Garden of Eden mirror the contexts in which we find apostrophe used in ancient literature to represent a turning away from a god or a judge, and to an unexpected source for refuge. Eve (like Adam) had turned away from God by disobeying his command not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Soon to be expelled from the garden, she would turn towards Adam (apostrophe). Rather than being the support she hoped for, however, he would now “rule over her.”

The male domination of women is portrayed in the book of Genesis as a direct consequence of human sin. Rather than accurately reflecting this biblical truth, the new ESV translation misrepresents Eve’s desire as somehow contrary to Adam’s rule. She is made to appear resistant to what is portrayed as Adam’s divinely ordained authority. In other words, a tragic consequence of humanity’s sinful choice is wrongly portrayed as God’s design.

It should be noted that the mistranslation of the new ESV does not appear to be simply an error. Some founding members of the highly patriarchal Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) have served on the ESV Advisory Council and Oversight Committee.[8] On their website, the CBMW endorses the ESV as “unapologetically complementarian.”[9] In other words, they firmly believe that patriarchy–the rule of men–is God’s will for humanity, and they evidently plan to alter the Bible’s language to conform to this belief. Their approach to the Bible brings to mind the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

How can you say, “We are wise,
and the law of the Lord is with us,”
when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes
has made it into a lie? (Jeremiah 8:8, NRSV)

End Notes:

1 Golden, S. (2012). Answers in Genesis: Is Male Headship a “Curse”?


3 Josephus, Judean Wars,

4 Philostratus the Athenian, Vitae Sophistarum Carl Ludwig Kayser, Ed.,,0638,003:2:1:4&lang=original.

5 Herodotus, The Histories, A. D. Godley, Ed.,

6 LSJ, A III:\&la=greek&can=a%29postrofh\0&prior=th=sd%27&d=Perseus:text:1999.01.0009:card=742&i=1#lexicon.

7 Sebastian, B. (2013). Apostrophe to the Gods in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Lucan’s Pharsalia and Statius’ Thebaid,

8 ESV Translators,


(From Chapter 2 of “The Equality Workbook: Freedom in Christ from the Oppression of Patriarchy”)