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Pain in Childbearing (Hebrew Corner 8)
by John H. Walton
Today we want to look at an example where we have to consider the relationship of noun and verb forms. When Hebrew has nouns and verbs that are built out of the same root, the interpreter must be very cautious. What is known as the “root fallacy” is the mistake of thinking that if two words share the same root, then the meanings should be drawn together with each being informed by the other. This is a fallacy because it is simply not always true that words built out of the same root overlap in meaning (consider the English “adult” and “adultery”).
Having acknowledged that, however, it must also be admitted that sometimes there is an overlap in meaning. The synchronic method that we espouse contends that when we have nouns and verbs of the same root, each need to be studied in isolation from the other and the range of meaning developed independently. Based on those studies, the interpreter may then decide whether or not the words are located in the same range of meaning. The example I would like to use is the set of words deriving from the root ‘ṣb, with our target being an understanding of the opening lines of Genesis 3:16.
The noun translated “pains” [in childbearing] in NIV in the first line of Genesis 3:16 is iṣṣabon. It is used only two other times in the OT, Gen 3:17 and 5:29. Other nouns from the same root (‘eṣeb II, ‘oṣṣeb II, and ‘aṣṣebet) refer to pain, agony, hardship, worry, nuisance and anxiety. The verbal root (‘ṣb II) occurs in a wide range of stems with a semantic range that primarily expresses grief and worry. Here we can see that all of these derivative forms occupy the same general semantic domain (certainly study could be conducted to find out why there are then several different nouns and how they differ from one another in usage—but that must be done elsewhere).
What is important to note about this profile is that the root is not typically used to target physical pain, but mental or psychological anguish (though physical pain may accompany or be the root cause of the anguish). This is actually quite helpful, because despite NIV’s translation, “childbearing”, the Hebrew word in this first line is specifically concerned with conception, not with giving birth. Interpreters have understandably had trouble working out how conception is painful. It is the word translated “pain” in the second line (‘eṣeb), which is used elsewhere to refer to strenuous work, that is associated in this verse with giving birth. Where does this lead us?
A note regarding syntax can help us because the phrase in the first line, “pains in childbearing,” (NIV) can be seen as a hendiadys (two nouns joined by “and” functioning as a single entity, e.g. American “good and ready”), thus conveying something like “conception anxiety.” The conclusion to be drawn from these observations is that the first half of the verse is an extended merism (two endpoints used to refer to everything in between, e.g., “soup to nuts”) referring to the anxiety that the woman will experience through the whole process from conception to birth. This would include the anxiety about whether she will be able to conceive a child or not (major status issue in the biblical world); the anxiety that comes with all the physical discomfort of pregnancy; the anxiety concerning the health of the child in the womb; and the anxiety about whether she and the baby will survive the birth process. In all of these we must agree that anxiety defines the birth process, even in a world of modern technology and much moreso in the uncertain medical climate of the ancient world. The resulting paraphrase would be “I will greatly increase the anguish you will experience in the birth process, from the anxiety surrounding conception to the strenuous work of giving birth.” This cannot be viewed as an imposition of labor pains.
This is an appropriate discussion for God and Eve to have given that the blessing people had received in ch. 1 was the capacity to be fruitful and multiply. The obvious question is, “Is the blessing still intact?” The answer is yes, but childbearing will be a very different experience now.
How does God increase her anxiety? He does so when he imposes the death penalty on them. With death now in the system, the anxiety is unavoidable. Thus this word study leads us not only to a revised understanding of the text, but to a revised understanding of the force of God’s statement. He is not cursing Eve (and the text never suggests he is); he is indicating that as he is imposing death, he is also imposing anxiety into what was given as a blessing. He is not adding an additional penalty, he is indicating some of the implications to the penalty of death that he is about to impose.
Adapted from Genesis (NIV Application Commentary)
John H. Walton (PhD, Hebrew Union College) teaches Old Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School. He is the author or coauthor of several books, including Chronological and Background Charts of the Old Testament and the forthcoming A Survey of the Old Testament (Third Edition).
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