One of the deepest puzzles I find in the book of Genesis is its treatment of sexual desire and procreation. Whereas the man’s joy in his wife is an expression of the goodness of creation that takes place before sin and death enter the story, the woman’s desire for her husband is mentioned only after they have eaten the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:16). The man speaks of his own desire, whereas God speaks of the woman’s—as if it were a punishment.
And puzzle upon puzzle: This punishment is the first time Genesis connects desire between the sexes with procreation, as God’s word to the woman begins with “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth”—using the same verb that he had used in the blessing of procreation, “Be fruitful and multiply.”
And then to deepen the puzzle yet further, both childbirth and the woman’s desire for her husband are linked to a third thing that will overshadow the relation of male and female from now on: “and he shall rule over you.”
I want to spend some time on this deep puzzle. To begin with, I think what God is doing in the sequence of three speeches in Genesis 3:14-19 (to the serpent, the woman, and the man) is not simply punishment. It is justice in a biblical sense, which is more than retributive, more than giving everybody what they deserve (or “to each his due,” as the classical conception of justice has it). Biblical justice is a judgment that sets things right, which can certainly include giving people what they deserve, but may also include mercy and the restoration of what is lost and broken. I propose reading these three speeches as the beginning of a very long story about how God will restore the good that the man and his wife have lost.
The word God speaks to the woman, with its focus on sex and its consequences, is in the middle of the sequence. Each of the speeches ends with a reference to the next person to whom God shall speak, until he arrives in the end of the sequence at a word about death, which returns us to his own word of command and warning in chapter 2.
So it’s a sequence leading to death, with childbirth in the middle. The thematic thread of the whole sequence is life and death. Hovering over it is the unspoken name of the tree of life, the tree that is “in the midst of the garden” (2:9), which the woman mistakenly identified as the one from which they may not eat (3:3). Unknowingly, she spoke the truth: The tree of life is the one from which they will not eat, because they have eaten of the forbidden tree of knowledge. They will have knowledge of good and evil, but this is a wisdom that will not give them life. The life-giving wisdom will have to come another way, a harder way. That harder way and its wisdom is what the sequence of speeches is about.