Saturday, January 03, 2015


I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children (Gen 3:16).

This post is primarily about the cursing of Eve, but I will make some preliminary observations before getting to the main point:

i) Unbelievers think this reflects the mythological character of Genesis. Just as 3:14-15 is an etiological fable about how snakes lost their legs, 3:16 is an etiological fable about the historical source of birth-pangs. 

ii) There's a grain of truth to that allegation insofar as Genesis is certainly a book of origins. It explains, in part, how events in the past gave rise to the present status quo. Of course, saying that doesn't mean I agree with how unbelievers construe the text.

iii) In addition, some interpreters think that all three curses involve a physical transformation. Because the cursing of Adam and the "snake" are physically transformative, the cursing of Eve is physically transformative. I'd just point out that there's no antecedent reason why if one or two are physical, all three must be physical. There's no moral or logical principle that demands physical punishment in all three cases. Punishment needn't be symmetrical in that respect.

iv) Moreover, I disagree with their interpretation. Cursing Adam didn't transform conditions in the Garden. To the contrary, it's because the Garden remained unchanged that Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden, so that they could no longer benefit from that idyllic setting. Likewise, they were banished to the wilderness precisely because conditions outside the garden were naturally less hospitable. 

Likewise, Walton has argued that cursing the "snake" trades on familiar imprecations. Due to the prevalence of venomous snakes in the ancient Near East, there were customary imprecations to render them harmless or docile. A cobra raises itself to strike. By contrast, a cobra that's flat on the ground is not in a hostile posture. So he thinks 3:14 plays on that symbolism. And it's plausible that that's how ancient readers, accustomed to such formulas, would understand it. 

v) Strictly speaking, it's not men, women, and "snakes" generally that are cursed in Gen 3, but Adam, Eve, and the Tempter. We move too quickly if we simply assume that this refers to men, women, and "snakes" in general. The curses are specific to Adam, Eve, and the Tempter. 

Now, one might argue that since Adam and Eve are prototypical, what happens to them happens to their male and female counterparts down the line. That's worth considering in terms of the continuing narrative. My point that we shouldn't jump to that conclusion. Tradition has conditioned us to automatically universalize the curses in Gen 3, but you don't get that from Gen 3 itself.

vi) It's often say that Christians opposed sedating women in labor because that subverted the divine punishment. But from what I've read, that's a malicious urban legend:

vii) Apropos (vi), many readers assume the cursing of Eve refers to the origin of birth-pangs. Apart from the Fall, childbirth would have been painless. Unbelievers then attack this  as prescientific nonsense. Childbirth is inherently painful. Unless the heads of babies were smaller, or the cervix was larger, before the fall, that's bound to be a tight squeeze. 

Now, I'm going to question that interpretation, but even on its own terms it's theoretically possible for the body to secrete a natural sedative that anesthetizes pain. In principle, there wouldn't need to be morphological changes for childbirth to be fairly painless. 

viii) Like the English word, the Hebrew word can denote either physical or psychological pain. The word itself doesn't select for labor pains.

As, moreover, one scholar points out:

The Hebrew that stands behind the NIV's "pains" ('tsp) is never used in the OT to refer to pain experienced during the process of giving birth. Birth pangs are referred to using quite different terms. Moreover, the Hebrew word translated in the NIV as "childbearing" (herayon) clearly refers elsewhere in the OT to conception or pregnancy, not birth. I. Provan, Seriously Dangerous Religion (Baylor U Press 2014), 117. 

ix) The original audience for Gen 3 had extensive, personal experience with infant mortality. Mothers expected some or many of their children to die before adulthood. When pregnant, there was always the apprehension that the baby you bore might be the baby you bury. This could happen in many ways. Miscarriage. Accident. Disease. Malnutrition. An infected wound. Pregnancy was full of foreboding. Mothers were used to outliving their children. 

Likewise, it was not uncommon for women to die in childbirth, leaving their children motherless. That's another maternal apprehension. And unless wet-nurse was available, a motherless newborn would quickly die of malnutrition. 

Dread of watching your children die. Dread of leaving your children orphaned. Dread of dying in childbirth. 

x) In addition, Eve did, in fact, experience the grief of outliving Abel. And he died under the worst imaginable circumstances. One son murdering another son. In a sense, she lost both sons. One was murdered, while the murderer was banished. Even if Cain hadn't been banished, there'd be the alienation of affections. She could never look at him the same way again.  

xi) Because many modern readers benefit from modern medical science, I think we overlook the possibility or probability that the curse in 3:16 concerns psychological pain rather than physical pain. There are, of course, many Third World mothers who experience all the forbidding that original audience knew all too well. 

Furthermore, in cultures where girls are married off before they are physically mature, childbirth can be physically destructive. 

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