Did God talk about the act of childbirth in either Genesis 3:16a or 3:16b?
by Bruce C. E. Fleming, Tru316.com
Most people think God punished the woman with multiplied pain in childbirth. Their translations from the Hebrew Bible of Genesis 3:16 give them that impression.
For example, the English Standard Version (ESV) reads, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.”
Twice they use the English word “pain.” Each time the reader is given the impression this is about birth pangs, pain in the delivery of the baby at childbirth.
But is this what the Hebrew words say? The ESV uses one English word (pain) for two different Hebrew words (‘itsabon in Line a of 3:16 and ‘etseb in Line b of 3:16). Is “pain” the correct word to use to translate the Hebrew words in either line?
1. In Genesis 3:16a. What about ‘itsabon? Is “pain” the right word? It is not. The best word is sorrowful-toil.
‘itsabon is used only three times in the Bible. In each case it talks about what fieldwork will be like as a result of the curse on the ground.
God told the man the ground would be cursed because of him and he would experience ‘itsabon. In Genesis 5:29 the curse on the ground is again the subject of discussion.
The parents of Noah hoped he would relieve them of their ‘itsabon as each of them worked the cursed ground with their hands. This is about a dirt-under-your-fingernails experience. It is not about birth pangs.
Would the first woman as well as the man also experience ‘itsabon when outside of Eden? Would she would work the ground with her hands? Of course.
The ESV incorrectly translates the opening words to the woman in Genesis 3:16 as follows: “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing” when the Hebrew words are not talking about pain in childbearing at all.
“Pain” is not the right word to use to translate ‘itsabon. It is more properly be translated as “toil,” or even better as “sorrowful toil” and it has to do with doing fieldwork of the cursed ground. Here is a better translation of Line 1 of Genesis 3:16:
I will greatly multiply your sorrowful toil and your conception.(1)
2. In Genesis 3:16b. What about ‘etseb? Is “pain” the right word here? No. “Pain” is not the right word here either. The best word for ‘etseb is “sorrow” or “grief.”
Line b is not about the act of birthing a child and is not about birth pangs. Line b of Genesis 3:16 can be translated as “with sorrow you will bring forth children.”
Dr. Iain Provan describes ‘etseb as follows,
“… is used of emotional pain and the pain involved in work. It can also be used of a more generalized kind of pain. It is never used elsewhere in the Old Testament, however, to refer to labor pains, or “birthpangs.” Conversely, there is a well-established vocabulary which is routinely used for labor pain: tsarar, khebel and khul…. If we take our lead for the meaning of ‘etseb elsewhere in the Old Testament, Gen. 3:16 refers to the agony, hardship, worry and anxiety of the circumstances in which children are conceived, born and raised, and in which they die.”(2)
This translation and interpretation of ‘etseb is strengthed by a look at the remaining words in Line b. They are not focused on the act of giving birth. Rather they are related to being the parent of a child. The same verb for “bring forth,” yalad, is translated by the New International Version (NIV) in Genesis 4:18 as “was the father of.” We could possibly render 3:16b in English this way, “with sorrow you will mother children.”
Nevertheless, the ESV and other English translations present Line b as follows: “in pain you shall bring forth children.”
The Hebrew words ‘etsev and ‘itsabon both are puns on the Hebrew word for tree, ‘ets, used in Genesis 3:1. To the Hebrew ear these words have a similar ring. The Hebrew reader hears the connection to the Tree and grimaces because all was not about “good.” It was about “good and evil.”
Dr. Joy Fleming points out that there is a good news/bad news rhythm to the words of Genesis 3:16. In Line b it would be good to have “children.” But it would be bad to have “sorrow” or “grief” raising those children.
How did this work out in the life of the first mother? Her first children were murderous Cain and righteous Able, who eventually was succeeded by righteous Seth. She experienced joy, as evidenced by her praise for God in Genesis 4:1, and she also experienced ‘etsev – emotional pain as she raised children.
Reverend Bruce C. E. Fleming is Executive Director of the Tru316 Foundation (Tru316.com)
(1) For an extensive study on this verse and the context of Genesis 2-3 see A Rhetorical Analysis of Genesis 2-3 by Joy Fleming, PhD, PsyD, available from Tru316.com/shop. For a more popular treatment of these same verses see The Book of Eden by Bruce C. E. Fleming.
(2) Provan, Iain; (2012). “Pain in childbirth?: further thoughts on “an attractive fragment” (1 Chronicles 4:9-10)”. In Let Us Go Up To Zion: essays in honour of H.G.M. Williamson on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday. Supplements to Vetus Testamentum. Vol. 153. Leiden ; Boston: Brill. pp. 285–96.