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I recently came across a translation of Genesis 3:16 that seems to reinterpret the pronouncement on Eve. Carol Meyers* translates the first part of the verse like so:

"I will greatly increase your work and your pregnancies; / (Along) with toil you shall give birth to children."

She seems to argue that the word עִצָּבוֹן translated often as pain doesn't have to do with pain, but with toil; and that therefore it is better seen as a separate concept alongside childbearing in this passage rather than something being imputed to childbearing.

Which translation better reflects the original text? Something like that above? Or something more similar to what is found in the NRSV?


* Carol L. Meyers, “Gender Roles and Genesis 3:16 Revisited”, in The Word of the Lord Shall Go Forth: Essays in Honor of David Noel Freedman, ed. Carol L. Meyers and M. O’Connor (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1983), pp. 337–54.

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  • Since it doesn't seem to have been addressed in answers so far: in addition to the meaning contained in עִצָּבוֹן (ʿiṣṣāḇôn =pain?, toil?), the answer to this depends on whether one takes ʿiṣṣĕḇônēk wĕhērōnēk as a hendiadys ("your ʿiṣṣāḇôn in childbearing") or not ("your ʿiṣṣĕḇôn and your childbearing"). The KJV, with Myers (and against most modern versions), goes with the latter, although it is not with her in understanding as "in addition to" (?) . – Susan Jan 13 '16 at 15:50
  • The link to the book. – Susan Jan 14 '16 at 21:20
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+100

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 וּמֵהֵרָיֽוֹן׃

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.

Conclusion

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."


NOTES

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.

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Carol Meyer's translation is spot on. It is my attempt to refute the notion that Eve and all later mother's birth pangs were multiplied, but it was actually the woman's conceptions and attempts (or efforts) to conceive the promised seed, that were increased. Let me explain.

After a causal reading of Gen 3 one may conclude that once Adam and Eve sinned, God called them, judged them, and issued divine curses for their transgressions. After a closer study a few things are clear.

  1. The serpent is the only creature that is actually said to be given a curse at that time (Gen 3:14). The word cursed is not mentioned in the woman's judgment (Important: notice she is not named Eve yet). And the ground is said to be cursed, not Adam. Adam and Eve's curse was announced earlier when they were informed death would result from disobedience. God explained to Adam that decay is the result of death in 3:19.

  2. All three announcements involved some sort of toiling, or better yet laboring: The serpent crawling on its belly, Eve's multiplied conceptions. The KJV rendered it somewhat better than most versions " I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception. And Adam laboring with the ground as he sows seed and separates good yield from its bad thorns and thistles.

  3. There is much by way of prophesy to examine in Gen 3. Most are aware that the seed of the woman of 3:15 is messianic. But the increased toiling/laboring of the woman is the means by which the messiah comes into the world.

The "efforts" and "toils" of the woman's childbearing is a theme we see throughout the scriptures. The reason why stems from God's announcement that her offspring would crush the head of the serpent, the very heart of the gospel. In Gen 3:20, Adam names his wife Eve. It's clear that name giving in the Bible was not arbitrary. Adam named her Eve because she was to be the mother of all living. She in fact was a representative of all women that would follow until the true Seed was born. Following Adam and Eve's banishment from the Garden, Genesis records Eve's first births.

Gen 4:1 And the man knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD. Gen 4:2 And again she bare his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.

You an almost hear the enthusiasm in Eve's voice in Gen 4:1. She bares two sons, probably twins, and she thanks the Lord for the blessings. But her joy turned to sorrow after the elder murders the younger, meaning neither was the promised seed. Back to work. In Gen 4:25 she conceives another child, a boy.

Gen 4:25 And Adam knew his wife again; and she bare a son, and called his name Seth: For, said she, God hath appointed me another seed instead of Abel; for Cain slew him.

Here again she anticipated the promised seed, but to no avail. For the sake of brevity below is a very brief outline of efforts at bearing the promised seed.

1) Lot's daughters ambitious but ill advised efforts to continue their father's seed. 2) Barren Sarah finally bears Abraham a son after many ill fated attempts to provide a seed for him. (Gen 21). 3) Rachel begs Leah for Mandrake plants to assist in her bareness. She once told Jacob, "Give me children lest I die" Gen 30:1. She would later die in while in labor. 4) Tamar's efforts in bearing a child which continues line of Judah. Gen 38. 5) Childless and widowed Ruth's labors to secure Boaz.

In each case a child was granted to the above women. We see in the case of the barren women that a long period of time transpired until a child was given by God (see Sarah). This points prophetically to the elapse of time until the promised seed would be born. The OT scriptures pointed towards the saviors birth coming not by natural means, that is by human efforts, but by the miraculous.

There is the issue of sorrows that I have not mentioned so far. This can be said to speak of Eve's sorrows as she dealt with the murder of her son Abel, or of other women throughout biblical history. Yet the sorrow spoken of is specific to a particular mother's pain as she witnesses her Firstborn's murder. This was also spoken of in another prophesy.

Luk 2:34 and Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the falling and rising up of many in Israel; and for a sign which is spoken against; Luk 2:35 yea and a sword shall pierce through thine own soul; that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed.

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There are two types of sorrow or pain the LORD spoke of:

To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your עִצְּבוֹנֵ֣ךְ pangs in childbearing; in בְּעֶ֖צֶב pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16 NRSV)

The difference between the two may be seen in how the two words are used elsewhere:

he named him Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the וּמֵעִצְּב֣וֹן toil of our hands.” (Genesis 5:29 NRSV)

Bringing a child into the world is difficult; pregnancy is difficult; the birth is a painful experience. After birth the physical pain will subside but the real work begins. The infant is helpless and the requires full-time care. All of this work is an addition to the daily work before the birth. Raising children is hard work and the first woman had no family or relatives to help.

There is a second type of pain or sorrow much different from the first:

Unless the LORD builds the house, They labor in vain who build it; Unless the LORD guards the city, The watchman stays awake in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, To sit up late, To eat the bread of sorrows הָעֲצָבִ֑ים; For so He gives His beloved sleep. (Psalm 1271:2 NKJV)

This is the type of pain that occurs when something happens to a child. Even after the child is grown, a mother can experience sorrow or pain when her child is hurt or hurting or in trouble. She has no physical injury, no nerves which have been damaged, yet a mother can experience pain or sorrow.

For example, consider the condition of the woman who heard the words the LORD spoke after she learned of Abel's murder. No doubt her pain at that moment was greater than she experienced at either birth or the years of raising them.

At their births and as they grew the mother experienced the toil עִצְּבוֹנֵ֣ךְ of child bearing. After Cain murdered Abel she experienced the pain בְּעֶ֖צֶב of bringing forth children. The first type is physical; the second might be called mental anguish or seen as a spiritual condition. The first can be relieved; the second likely never goes away.

The Psalm paints a picture of the type of pain a mother experiences when her children leave: she woke early and stayed up late. For the first mother, she very likely had questions, wondering if she could have raised her boys differently and prevented the murder.

There is also a connection between the Psalm and the subsequent events in Cain's life. If reports of Cain's city, named after his son, filtered back how would the mother respond? Would she be encouraged that Cain had "turned his life around?" Or does the Psalm describe a mother who once again is losing sleep over the way her son is living his life?

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The best way is to find out how this word is used elsewhere in the Bible.

Let us first presume we have no idea what the word means. Let us tentatively encode it as "repugnant", because we know it is something that repulses us.

The candidate meanings are

  • horrid
  • repugnant
  • repulsive
  • revolting
  • abhorrent
  • unpleasant
  • nauseous
  • undesirable
  • dreadful/dreaded

Psalm 139:23, 24

חקרני אל ודע לבבי ודע שרעפי
וראה אם דרך עצב בי

Examine G'd and know heart in me and know my trickling (of thoughts?)
and see if repugnant way in me ...

Prov10:22

ברכת יי היא תעשיר
ולא יוסף עצב עמה

Blessing of the LORD is enriching
and will not add repugnance with it

Prov 14:23

בכל עצב יהיה מותר
ודבר שפתים אך למחסור

With all repugnance will come excess
and speech of lips yet is wantonness (literally that which is made lacking)

Prov 15:1

מענה רך ישיב חמה
ודבר עצב יעלה אף

Gentle answer will turn away rage
and repugnant talk will raise anger

Hosea

4:17 חבור עצבים אפרים - Ephraim's association with repugnance
8:4 כספם וזהבם אשו להם עצבים - their silver and their gold they make for themselves repugnance (repugnance=idols?).

1Sam 20:34 (passive participle)

ויקם יהונתן מעם השלחן בחרי אף
..... כי נעצב אל דוד
כי כלמו אביו

And arose Jonathan from the table hot in anger
.... because being dreadful(passive) to David because of his father's shamefulness

2Sam 19:2

... כי שמע העם ביום ההוא לאמר נעצב המלך על בנו

Because the people heard on that day
being said being horrid about his son

1Chron 4:9

ואמו קראה שמו יעבץ לאמר כי ילדתי בעצב

And his mother called his name "shall-ABZ"
saying for I gave birth in-AZB

This is interesting because his mom must be literate enough to reverse the characters. This cannot be a transliteration error, because [יעבץ] occurs three times. His mom probably wanted to ensure she did not see him as horrid or repugnant.

Daniel 6:20 (This part of Daniel is in Aramaic):

וכמקרבה לגבא לדניאל בקל עציב
זעק ענה מלכא ואמר לדניאל

And as nearing the cage to Daniel with a dreadful sound
king shrieked a response and says to Daniel

Conclusion

From these verses I wish to conclude the word means

  • עצב = dread, dreadful
  • נעצב = experiencing dreadfulness

Therefore, all the tentative encoding of "repugnant" above should be replaced with dread, dreadful.

Gen 3:16

אל האשה אמר הרבה ארבה עצבונך
והרנך בעצב אלדי בנים

To the woman He said increasingly I will increase your dread
and your conceiving in dread you will give birth of sons

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