In the story of Genesis, why do we hear of the woman’s desire for her husband only after the first disobedience? The answer must lie in the interlocking meaning of all three speeches in Genesis 3:14-19, where God speaks in sequence to the serpent, the woman and the man.
The common thread of the sequence is the theme of life and death. The serpent had lied about death; his life becomes a kind of embodied death. The man had been silent about the word of God; he will find its threat of death comes true in his own body as it returns to dust. The woman spoke as if her man were not there; her desire shall be for her husband, without whom she cannot bring forth new life.
The two great life-giving gifts of Genesis 1, food (1:29f) and procreation (1:28), will now come to humanity only with labor and pain. The justice in this seems to be more than simple retribution; it is a corrective to the way the man and the woman had despised the good things of God. They will experience how great a good is food when Adam has to earn it by the sweat of his brow. And they will experience how great a good is procreation when the woman must bring forth children in pain. In pain he eats (3:17), in pain she brings forth children (3:16); the greatness of pain they are willing to go through for the sake of having food and children teaches them how great a good these things are. The price they pay, as it were, teaches them the value of the good.
Adam had blamed God for his good gift (“ the woman you gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree . . . .”); he will learn the goodness of God’s gift of food by the pain it costs him now that it is no longer sheer gift from heaven to earth, but is earned by hard labor and pain from ground that is cursed. Something similar seems to be happening in God’s words to the woman: she will learn the goodness of the blessing of procreation by the pain it costs her, and also by another kind of price she will pay from now on: her desire shall be for her husband and he will rule over her. She will need him not only to conceive a child but also to care for her in the weakness of pregnancy, labor and birth. (In Scripture the image of a laboring woman is an emblem for weakness and helplessness, the opposite of the strength a soldier needs, as in Ps. 48:6, Jer. 6:24, 50:43, etc.).
This I think begins to explain the deep puzzle of God’s words to the woman, the first time that Genesis links sexual desire and procreation. Why do these words about the woman’s desire come after the first disobedience, whereas the man’s words of joy in the woman come before? It’s not that her sexual desire is a punishment. It is that the power of procreation in her is linked to her need for her man, so that she may experience this other as an indispensable good.
And so also the man, who had blamed God for giving him this other. Through her alone shall come the power of life that will be at enmity with the death-dealing serpent. It is the woman’s seed that will crush the head of the serpent and defeat the power of death. All his hopes for life rather than death must come into being through her.
And so, when God has finished speaking, Adam calls his wife “the mother of all living.” He seems to have begun, at least, to get the message.