An Anguishing Process: Genesis 3:16

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1) Gen 3:16: The Lord told Eve, “I will increase greatly your anguish (itsabon) and your conception (herayon). With pain you shall bear children.”

Notably, God did not curse Eve but instead spoke of the outcome of her foolish choice (Gen 3:1–6). He cursed only the snake and the ground (Gen 3:14, 17).[1]

Nevertheless, the arrival of the seed which the woman would conceive would cause her agony (Gen 3:15).[2]



Moses likely chose the word for pain used here (etseb) for its resemblance to the word for a tree (ets), rather than using the typical term. Ultimately, a tree led to the woman’s trauma,[3] hardship, pain, and distress (Gen 2:16–17).[4]

The consequences of sin produced difficult labor for both Eve and Adam, for itsabon occurs in both verdicts of judgment (Gen 3:17).[5]

Although the only other Old Testament use of itsabon appears in Gen 5:29, nouns using the same Hebrew root connote agony, difficulty, grief, and anxiety.[6]

Childbirth itself involves the pain and toil associated with strenuous work.[7] However, emotional anguish accompanies the physical pain.



Commentators disagree whether the correct translation is “conception” or “pregnancy,” as the Hebrew term herayon can refer to either one.[8]

Even conception can evoke pain, for attempting to conceive can certainly produce misery and anxiety. Most likely, this is another example of merism, where the entire process from conception to childbirth causes emotional travail and/or physical pain.

Walton paraphrases Gen 3:16a as, “I will greatly increase the anguish you will experience in the birth process, from the anxiety surrounding conception to the strenuous work of giving birth.”[9]



Without the blessing of modern medicine, people in the ancient world deemed the pain accompanying childbirth the worst of agonies (Mic 4:9–10; Isa 13:6–8; Isa 21:3).[10]

Due to the high rate of miscarriage, stillbirth, and infant mortality in Mesopotamia, people considered expectant mothers and newborns prime targets for attack by the demons Lamashtu and Pazuzu. In the later months of pregnancy, many women wore an amulet depicting the head of Pazuzu, often inscribed with an incantation.

Lamashtu appears as a hideous nude woman with long talons, the head of a bird or lion, and dangling breasts. This demon slithered through a small crack into a house and, upon finding an unattended infant, would suckle the baby to kill it.[11]

People also attributed the pain of childbirth to her.[12]



The second half of verse 16 says, “and for (el) your husband your longing (teshuqah) shall be,[13] and he will rule (mashal) over you.”

A recent revision of the ESV has ignited controversy by departing from all other major translations in translating el as “contrary to,” rather than depicting movement from the woman toward her husband.



While Eve longed to reestablish their relationship of equality and partnership,[14] Adam would seek to rule over his wife (Cf. Gen 2:18–24).

This verb mashal means simply “rule, have dominion, reign” without any sense of tyrannical behavior.[15]

It describes how the sun and moon govern the day (Gen 1:17–18), while also depicting how God and people can have dominion over humanity (Judg 8:23; Ps 89:8–9).[16]

No longer reigning in unity as co-equals over creation (Gen 1:26–28), fierce disputes would characterize their marriage.[17]

Eve’s subordination to her husband resulted from a broken creation,[18] rather than as a punishment from her creator.[19]

Image via Wikimedia Commons


a) Read Gen 3:16. How did Moses express similarities between what the man and the woman experienced? Why did he likely choose an unusual word to express the nature of the woman’s pain? How was the experience of childbearing altered? What does this verse imply about Adam and Eve’s prior interactions?





Go to A Renewed Covenant (Gen 3:20)


[Related posts include Made in the Image of God (Gen 1:26 cont.); Stewards of the Earth (Gen 1:26 cont.); Male and Female He Created Them (Gen 1:27); and The Blessing of Fruitfulness (Gen 1:28); Forbidden Fruit (Gen 2:16–17);  Not Good! (Gen 2:18); A Parade of Animals (Gen 2:19–20); An Equal and Adequate Partner (Gen 2:21–23); A Transfer of Loyalty (Gen 2:24); Serpents in the Ancient Near East (Gen 3:1); A World-Altering Conversation (Gen 3:2–5); Succumbing to Temptation (Gen 3:6); A Day of Reckoning (Gen 3:9–13); God Curses the Serpent (Gen 3:14); The First Good News (Gen 3:15); Thorns and Thistles (Gen 3:17–18); A Restoration of Status (Matt 28:10); and Author and Date of Genesis]

[Click here to go to Women and Marriage Throughout Redemptive History; or to Chapter 8: Pain and Desire (Genesis 3:16, 20)]



[1] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 81.

[2]Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 200.

[3] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 81.

[4]Holladay, “עִצָּבוֹנ” (itsabon), CHALOT, 280.

[5]Brown, Driver, and Briggs, “עִצָּבוֹנ” (itsabon), BDB, 781,

[6]Walton, Genesis, 227.

[7]Brown, Driver, and Briggs, “עֶ֫צֶב” (etseb), BDB, 780,

[8]M. Ottosson, “הָרָה” (herayon), TDOT, 3:436,

[9]Walton, Genesis, 227.

[10]Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 81.

[11]Erle Lichty, “Demons and Population Control,” Expedition , vol. 13, issue 2, Winter 1971: 23–4, This includes a sketch.

[12]Matthews, Chavalas, and Walton, IVPBBCOT, Gen 3:16.

[13] Brown, Driver, and Briggs, Brown, Driver, and Briggs, “אֵל” (el), BDB, 38–40,,

and “תְּשׁוּקָה” (teshuqah), BDB, 1003,

[14]Janson C. Condren, “Toward a Purge of the Battle of the Sexes and ‘Return’ for the Original Meaning of Gen 3:16b,” JETS 60, no. 2 (April 1, 2017): 227–45, 245,

[15] Brown, Driver, and Briggs, “מָשַׁל” (mashal), BDB, 605,

[16] Philip J. Nel, “mashal”, NIDOTTE, 2:1137.

[17] Hamilton, Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 202.

[18] Howard N. Wallace, “Eve (Person),” ABD 2:676–7, 677.

[19]Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (IBC; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 51.