Contextual and Historical Analysis
Two other uses
The word עִצָּבוֹן (ʿiṣṣāḇôn) itself is only found 3 times in the Hebrew Scripture, all in Genesis. Here in 3:16, then in 3:17, and finally Gen 5:29.1
The use in Gen 5:29 is actually a clarifying commentary on 3:17. The NKJV (used for all English translations herein) translates 3:17 and 5:29 as:
3:17 Then to Adam He said, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’:
“Cursed is the ground for your sake;
In toil [עִצָּבוֹן] you shall eat of it
All the days of your life.
5:29 And he [Lamech, father to Noah] called his name Noah, saying, “This one will comfort us
concerning our work and the toil [עִצָּבוֹן] of our hands, because of the ground
which the LORD has cursed.”
So Lamech interpreted the עִצָּבוֹן related to the curse of the ground in 3:17 as the labor or pain of the hands involved in bringing forth food.2
This does not particularly help in determining if toil or pain is more the idea, partly because the pain of the hands would be from the toiling in labor to work the ground. The following context of Gen 3:18-19 also does not help distinguish one or the other idea:
18 Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you,
And you shall eat the herb of the field.
19 In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
Till you return to the ground,
For out of it you were taken;
For dust you are,
And to dust you shall return.”
The v.18 reference of thorns and thistles relates directly to plants that cause extreme pain to the hands when dealing with clearing the land, yet v.19 relates directly to labor itself by mentioning "sweat of your face."
But what does seem apparent is that the עִצָּבוֹן is the painful/unpleasant side of laboring in both cases.
Applying to Gen 3:16
That final point, I believe, argues in favor of Meyers's view that it is not a hendiadys (which is the question this comment had). Having also established that the word has the idea of "hard work" along with the notion of "unabating difficulty" with that, Meyers then supposes for the sake of argument the word was to refer to labor pains, but concludes on page 345:
As a matter of fact, it would hardly be appropriate to use a word for the pain or anguish of childbirth in this first part of v 16b, even were an argument for hendiadys to be sustained, since the second object of this clause is "pregnancy" or "conception," not "birth." That is, even if pain were an appropriate description of the birth process, it is not an accurate or suitable description of pregnancy.
The word she is keying in on here for pregnancy/conception is הֵרוֹן (hērôn). Unfortunately, technically speaking, it is a hapaxlegomenon, though all the lexicons relate it directly to הֵרָיוֹן (hērāywōn) as a synonym, which itself is only used two times. If synonymous, then the ideas of "conception" and "pregnancy" are valid, but for Meyer's argument to logically be valid, it must be "conception" specifically, rather than "pregnancy" generally, that is in view. Why? Because there are thousands/millions of women who can testify that nine months of "pregnancy" itself indeed can be quite laborious and painful in its own right (mourning sickness, complications, etc.), and so her argument in trying to prove the idea of painful hard work could not be applied in cases of pregnancy does not hold much force.
However, one use of הֵרָיוֹן helps establish the usage of these terms more specifically. Hosea 9:11 walks backward in the whole process of pregnancy using three terms:
BHS אֶפְרַ֕יִם כָּע֖וֹף יִתְעוֹפֵ֣ף כְּבוֹדָ֑ם מִלֵּדָ֥ה וּמִבֶּ֖טֶן
As for Ephraim, their glory shall fly away like a bird—No birth, no pregnancy, and no conception!
The terms used are:
- לֵדָה (lē·ḏāh) = the end of the process, where the child comes forth
- בֶּ֫טֶן (běṭěn) = the middle of the process, where the belly/abdomen/womb are showing
- הֵרָיוֹן (hērāywōn) = the start of the process, the conception
The other use, Ruth 4:13, also contextually points to conception, though without the Hosea clarification later readers such as us might still not be able to distinguish pregnancy versus conception for the usage:
So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife; and when he went in to her,
the LORD gave her conception, and she bore a son.
The term bore is ילד (yālǎḏ), a fairly flexible term used for various stages of "having a child," but conjoined with הֵרָיוֹן indicates the birth in contrast to the conception, which is implied again as the proper meaning of the term by the fact that Boaz וַיָּבֹ֖א אֵלֶ֑יהָ ("and ... he went in to her"), a common phrase in Hebrew referring to sexual intercourse, the time of conception.
Conception appears to be the idea of הֵרוֹן /הֵרָיוֹן, and that adds much weight to Meyers's argument against hendiadys, for the term does not make nearly as much sense in a combined usage with conception for purposes of communicating a single idea (as hendiadys does) of "painfully laborious conception." While some women may have health issues (physical or emotional) that make sexual intercourse painful, it is not the norm of what sex is considered to be, but further, it is not sexual intercourse that is the topic still, it is the actual conception of the child, which (scientifically speaking) is not "painfully laborious" for the sperm and egg to meet, nor do I believe a pre-scientific people would consider whatever "mystery" caused conception be to something they themselves labored at.
So Meyers's argument is sound as to the two concepts of painful labor and child conception are distinct.
However, that does not mean the two concepts are meant to be wholly distinct from each other. The following part of the verse states:
BHS בְּעֶ֖צֶב תֵּֽלְדִ֣י בָנִ֑ים וְאֶל־אִישֵׁךְ֙ תְּשׁ֣וּקָתֵ֔ךְ וְה֖וּא
In pain [עֶ֫צֶב (ʿěṣěḇ)] you shall bring forth [ילד (yālǎḏ)] children;
The term ילד is the same used in Ruth 4:13 in conjunction with the conception term there, and the term עֶ֫צֶב is the root of the key term here, עִצָּבוֹן, used for "painfully laborious" in the first part of the verse. So the idea would seem to be that "in/at" the birth of a child, the painfully laborious work of the woman would begin, and the multiplication of that labor comes through the multiplication as well of the conceptions.
That the labor of birthing itself is painful is true, but the work involved in feeding, cleaning, nurturing, and protecting that child would be every bit as painfully laborious as that of the man out working the fields. The implication is this labor would not have been nearly so painful and hard had she been able to give birth in a world without sin (where danger of death would not lurk, food would be available to eat, etc.).3
Contextually, this "curse" fits with the promise of Gen 3:15, in that the woman's seed (i.e. one she would conceive and bear forth) would be under attack by the serpent; ergo, an attack in part that she will now have to painfully labor to keep guard against.
Meyers offers the best point of view on the text with respect to the two ideas being distinct, but moves too far in considering it broadly as the "woman's contributive role to production tasks" (346) and divorcing it fully from the idea of childbirth and the process of raising children.
From this study, my translation would be something like:
To the woman He said, "I will greatly multiply thy painful labors and conception, and in difficult labor you shall bring forth children."
1 The lexicons examined for this answer were:
- Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles Augustus Briggs, Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977).
- Ludwig Koehler, Walter Baumgartner, M. E. J. Richardson, and Johann Jakob Stamm, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994–2000).
- James Swanson, Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains : Hebrew (Old Testament) (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
2 And if one takes the lifetimes of Genesis 5 literally, then Lamech was 56 years old in the year of Adam's death. That would be plenty of time for Lamech to have possibly heard directly from Adam, his great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather, about the events in the garden.
3 Many commentators balk at the multiplication of conceptions being the idea, yet if the two points are distinct, then that fact seems unavoidable, as both would be the objects of the multiplication (הַרְבָּ֤ה אַרְבֶּה). Is such a curse? Only if the painful labor was in fact tied in some way to the birthing/raising of children. The multiplying of conceptions was, I believe, both an act of grace on God's part and a means to fulfill His original will for mankind in spite of sin. More children would have to be born into a sin affected world than one not so affected, since death would be coming upon the former and not the latter; so multiplying conceptions helps to populate the earth even though people are facing death.