The “Curse of Eve”—Is Pain Our Punishment? Part I

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I have been involved in several interesting discussions lately involving  friends asking me what I thought of the so-called “Curse of Eve.” This “curse,” which is generally used in reference to the pain of childbirth, is assumed from the text of Genesis 3:16a. On one side, I have had friends and colleagues argue that the pains of labor are a direct result of Eve’s sin, and thus all women who bear children will suffer them as a reminder of their inherent sinful nature. On the other hand, I have had friends question this interpretation: Why, they ask, would God use such an incredible event to punish us? And what about women who don’t experience any pain in childbirth at all? Or who do not have children? Is God’s punishment reserved for those who procreate? This doesn’t seem to make much sense in a larger spiritual framework.

Some additional questions have arisen from these discussions. I had a friend recently ask me, “If a woman is supposed to feel pain in childbirth, is she going against God’s will if she uses medication to ease her discomfort?” Another friend brought up the fact that God’s actions are seldom (if ever) random; therefore, what is the transformation that God is expecting from such a punishment?  What does Eve’s “punishment” have to say about how we interact with, communicate with, and love God (and likewise)?

I’d like to look closely at these questions in a series of posts on the so-called “Curse of Eve.” In these posts, I’d like to propose the following thoughts: 1) The modern translations of the verse greatly influence our interpretation that painful childbirth is a punishment from God; 2) The punishment (not curse) was rather that of relational damage than of literal, bodily pain; 3) The pain of labor is referenced many other times in Scripture without reference to sin, and in the NT that pain is referred to in a redemptive light.

Obviously, there is much to question for a seemingly simple verse. A close reading of the text indicates that not all is as it initially seems (a text like this is one of the reasons I fell in love with studying Scripture in the first place). One caveat here: I do not profess myself to be an exegetical expert, and my language proficiency is much higher in Greek than Hebrew. It is simply my intent to question the typically assumed meaning of the text and to offer possible alternatives to those assumptions.

As is often the case in textual interpretation, the translation used is important—and in this case is a very important place to start. Let’s look at several of the translations available for Gen 3:16a:

Upon first glance, the meaning of the text seems pretty straightforward—especially if you are reading one of the more modern translations. Yet a word study of the word “pain,” which in the KJV is translated “sorrow,”  shows that the word can be translated (both in Hebrew and in the LXX Greek) as “pain, grief, or sorrow.” This is a very important point—after all, increasing grief or sorrow in childbirth would put this verse in a very different context. In fact, the same word is used in 3:17 when referring to Adam’s curse—although most translations use the word “toil” rather than “pain” in that verse.

What would be the effect on our interpretation if we considered the translation of “sorrow” instead of “pain”? First, it would put the context of the punishment (again, not a “curse”—the only thing literally cursed is the serpent and the ground [3:14, 17]) in a different light. Childbirth would bring about sorrow—perhaps, seen in the larger context, because none of Eve’s offspring would ever have the same experience of God and of the land that she and Adam experienced prior to their disobedience. Her children would suffer the same punishment as she would; in essence, all of her offspring would experience the same severance from God, even though they did not commit the sin. Could it be that the punishment was not a punishment of physical pain at all, but rather the spiritual and emotional anguish that we all experience as a result of being unable to directly experience God’s presence in our mortal lives? I think this is a distinct possibility.

Consider, too, that the “toil” that Adam must experience (“…cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life” [NRSV 3:17]) can also be translated as “sorrow” but would have difficulty with the translation of “pain.” Furthermore, it is noteworthy that painful childbirth has been given the title of the “Curse of Eve,” but rarely is farming, gardening, or any other physical labor seen as the “Curse of Adam.” It would make more sense to recognize that, again, the sorrow that comes from the loss of Eden’s paradise is the true punishment rather than physical suffering.

There is much more to examine in this verse; in the next segment, I hope to more deeply explore the implications of the punishment as impacting the God/human relationship rather than condemning womankind to painful childbirth.  I also want to introduce some interesting supportive notes from Augustine (certainly a surprise considering his typical attitude toward women).  Finally, we’ll consider this alternative interpretation in light of God’s command to Abraham and Sarah to “be fruitful and multiply” as well as the subsequent effects of the relational severance in the Pentateuch.

Stacia Guzzo is a homesteading theologian/stay-at-home mother who received her Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Loyola Marymount University and is currently working toward a Master of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary. Stacia has been a teacher and speaker in the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese and has served as managing editor for Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality. Her areas of interest include embodiment theology, ecological justice, food ethics, and the spirituality of birth. Stacia’s perspective offers unique insight into the raw, fresh theological undertones of every day life; coming from a Jesuit background, she embraces the Ignatian attitude of “finding God in all things.” In addition to her theological studies, Stacia currently works part-time as a doula, childbirth educator, and apiarist.

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