A Bible Study by Jack Kelley
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. (Gen 1:28)
Why would God command us to be fruitful and then make women suffer so in childbirth? The usual answer to this question is a reference to Genesis 3:16, the so-called Curse of Eve. But let’s think about that for a minute. How could He have created a body with a procreation system so complex and intricate, designed to work so perfectly, and then introduced a flaw into the last steps of that system, causing one muscle group to work against another just to create pain?
Furthermore, why are there so many human cultures where intense pain in childbirth isn’t normal? And if there is supposed to be pain, why didn’t the Jewish sages have more to say about it in their writings on childbirth?
And The Answer Is …
Let’s take a good look at Genesis 3:16 for the fascinating answer to these questions. First a modern translation: we’ll use the NIV (they’re all very similar). To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.”
Now look at the King James Version, translated 400 years earlier. Unto the woman he said, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.”
In reading these translations, there are three things to consider. We’ll take the big one first, by comparing pain (NIV) and sorrow (KJV). Second, notice how the NIV reads: “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing.” Increase them from what? No children had yet been born. Do increase (NIV) and multiply (KJV) necessarily mean the same thing? And finally, what does the verse really mean and to whom does it apply?
First Things First
A word study shows that the KJV’s use of “sorrow and conception” is a lot closer to the intent of the Hebrew than the NIV’s “pain in childbearing.” The word translated sorrow in the KJV and pain in the NIV is used only 3 times in the Bible and while pain is a possible meaning, it isn’t translated that way anywhere else. The KJV’s sorrow is the preferred use.
By the way, the second time the word pain appears in the NIV’s version (with pain you will give birth to children) it comes from a different Hebrew word, used 7 times in the Bible. But that one isn’t translated pain anywhere else either. Again, sorrow is preferred as in the KJV rendering. Both these words come from the Hebrew root atsab. It appears 17 times, ten of which are rendered grieve, and once again pain is never used.
So how was pain chosen? Were the modern translators more influenced by their perceptions and/or personal experience concerning childbirth than by the intent of the Hebrew?
It’s All In How You Look At It
Suppose for a minute that they were and the KJV is more faithful to the original. Why would Eve feel sorrow in birthing children? The most obvious answer comes from the punishment she got. Due to their sin, she and her husband had been kicked out of the Garden and their lives will now be unbelievably different (read worse) than before. The children they bring into the world in fulfilling God’s commandment will never get to experience life the way they knew it, and it’s all their fault. Would that grieve a mother’s heart? Absolutely!
One of them, the Lord had promised, will be her redeemer but which one, and how soon? In Genesis 4:1-2, it’s implied that when she had Cain she expected him to be the one. So when Abel was born, she thought he was redundant (his name means meaningless). But then Cain killed him disqualifying both of them.
And that brings us to the second point of consideration. “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conceptions (literally pregnancies),” the Lord had told her. Here we see why increase and multiply aren’t equivalent renderings of the Hebrew word, which literally means to make many, or numerous. And notice the phrase “greatly multiply” modifies both sorrow and conceptions. How many children would she bear before the redeemer came to save them all? How much disappointment would she have to endure as one after another failed to meet the qualifications? How many times would she have to be reminded of the consequences of her sin? A literal reading of the passage indicates that it would take a huge number of pregnancies and that each one would make her feel worse about their situation.
And now, our final point to ponder. With all that in mind, could the so-called “Curse of Eve” refer to her sorrow over her sin, multiplied with each pregnancy, and not to her nor any other woman’s labor pains? Obviously, none of Eve’s direct sons redeemed them. The word translated offspring (seed) in Genesis 3:15 can also mean descendant, and so down through the centuries it became the secret desire of every Jewish woman to be the mother of the Redeemer. “The Desire of Women” even became a Messianic title (Daniel 11:37). For 4,000 years they were all disappointed, until Mary was finally chosen. Lots of pregnancies, lots of sin, lots of sorrow. It makes sense. Next time, Part 2 … So Why All The Pain?