Retranslating “ … and he shall rule over you.” (Quick Comment Parashat Bereshit)

The verse is familiar: “And your sexual desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you!” (Genesis 3:16) I would like to put this translation aside because for millennia it has supported female subservience.

The Hebrew root משל mashal does mean “rule.” But it can also connote similarity. A mashal in rabbinic literature is a parable. It is often preceded by the question, “What does the matter resemble?” Literally, “To what is it like?”

Using this interpretation, I translate our verse this way: “Your sexual desire shall be for your husband, and (in that regard) he will be like you!”

An obstacle to this translation confronts us in the next chapter where the word תשוקה “sexual desire” appears with the root משל. (Genesis 4:7) Here God compares the strong urge to sin to sexual desire and declares to Cain that we have the power to “rule over it”.

Our Sages teach that sexual desire is an innate human feature. Without it, we would never marry or have children. (Genesis Rabbah 9:7) Like fire the sexual urge can add great meaning to our lives but unchecked it can cause great harm.

So we can say the inclination to evil is “like us” in that it is innate to our nature, and God wants us to embrace and harness it for positive purposes.

Real support for my translation of משל as “to be like” comes from the another use of תשוקה in Tanach. That is in Song of Songs (7:11) where the woman states that her lover’s sexual desire is towards her, a counterbalance to the Eden passage.**

All evidence considered, I think there is very good reason to scrap, “he shall rule over you,” in Genesis 3:16 in favor of, “he shall be like you.”

** In addition to its use in the two passages reference here, the only other time the Hebrew word תשוקה appears in the Bible is in the Story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:7)

5 thoughts on “Retranslating “ … and he shall rule over you.” (Quick Comment Parashat Bereshit)

  1. Thank you, Susan. This translation has percolated in my mind for quite some time. I’ am glad I put it out there and glad that it speak to you in a meaningful (I think I overuse that word a bit) way.


  2. Rabbi, Thanks for your thoughts on translating this passage. I’ve been teaching my college lit & philosophy students about the “he shall rule over” v. “he shall be like” translation of the passage for more than 20 years because I was convinced by Prof. Thomas McDaniel’s argument that “he shall be like” is a better translation given, in part, the parallel structure of the 2 punishments (pain in labor that Woman won’t be able to avoid, given her hunger for her partner sexually and pain in labor that Man won’t be able to avoid, given his hunger for food). I’m astonished that no version of the Bible that I’ve seen prefers “be like,” and I’m glad you’ve offered your thoughts here. I found your entire discussion interesting and am including what I’ve learned from you in the lesson I’m preparing today. Many thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you so much, Professor Piggott. I am so glad to hear from you and to learn that I am not the first to come up with this translation. What! Maybe I am. It is in my 1992 D.Min dissertation at Vanderbilt.
    Your comment also makes me see the need to note that there is one other use of תשוקה in Tanach. It is in the Cain and Abel Story. I will edit my essay now. The problem might have been I bound myself to a three hundred word limit for my :Quick Comments.” I hope we will have further contact.


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