Like most little girls, I loved to play house as a child. Growing up in the 1970’s, this often meant putting on my big girl white vinyl go-go boots, using sheets and clothesline to construct the “house” in the back yard, and making sure my essential baby doll and tea set were in tow. Once I entered the world of my imagination, the storyline evolved into an elaborate display of feeding and rocking my baby, serving tea to make-believe guests, and decorating and cleaning the dwelling before my loving, albeit invisible, husband arrived home. On those days when my unfortunate younger brother acquiesced to playing house with me, he inevitably endured the nonsensical conversation of a young girl dreaming of a day when she would have a husband, baby, and home of her own. Where laughter, smiles, hugs, hospitality, and love abounded.
My true-life reality in those years was nothing like the idyllic scenario that played out in the back yard during the hours outside.
Home inside, just feet away, was anything but peaceful. My father had been sexually abusing me since infancy and physically assaulting my brother, while emotionally and verbally tormenting my mother. He cheated on her numerous times and had addictions to both pornography and gambling, creating enormous financial strain at times. To exacerbate the situation, he also suffered from bipolar disorder but would not stay in treatment. My mom had never received healing from her own horrific childhood of physical, sexual, and verbal abuse and coped with the revictimization as an adult by often escaping after work through vodka, valium, TV, and sleep. Her neglect and emotional neediness produced an upside-down relationship with me, where I was often the parent and she the child. She loved me and my brother fiercely but did not know how to wrestle against the demons that plagued both her memories and real-life adulthood. I would later come to realize how this family dynamic especially predisposed me to being revictimized myself as an adult in an abusive marriage.
Back in 1975, while I was choreographing my imaginary productions in the back yard, Susan Foh was on another mission with a much less benign outcome. Through an article published in the Westminster Theological Journal, Foh put forth a novel interpretation of Genesis 3:16 that would send destructive ripple effects through the faith community for decades to come and is still inflicting harm today. In response to the perceived threats within evangelicalism to the second wave of feminism in the United States, Foh was the first to formally suggest that the “desire” in Genesis 3:16 is a woman’s longing against her husband to dominate him, meaning enslave, possess, control, or usurp authority. Before then, the most common interpretation of “desire” was an immense, clinging, morbid yearning. In other words, an idolatrous longing for something from the man that the woman was created to receive from God alone.
This seemingly subtle shift in perspective produced monumental negative consequences for abuse victims.
Abuse-related blog, A Cry For Justice, does a great job exploring in greater detail Foh’s damaging explanation of Genesis 3:16 here. Although I believe God continues to enlighten our minds and understanding of His Word over time, and that sometimes means revisiting traditional interpretations of Scripture, this must always be done in the broader context of who He is, who we are, and the overarching biblical themes of redemption and grace as He calls us to greater intimacy with Him and greater love of others.
Nonetheless, Foh’s rendering was rapidly adopted by conservative churches seeking to stop feminism from gaining ground in their midst and is now a view commonly accepted among complementarians and patriarchal authoritarians. Many pastors and other spiritual leaders drank Foh’s Kool-Aid over the past 40 years and continue to dispense its poison through sermons, teachings, writings, and counseling. The faith community is even seeing the view disseminated further via changes to the actual translation of Genesis 3:16 in the English Standard Version (ESV) Bible, one commonly used in conservative circles and whose main editors are staunch complementarians highly invested in promulgating their point of view. (This codifying of Foh’s proposition through Bible translation is troubling for many reasons, including those explained here and here.)
And, this is where the rubber meets the road for abuse victims. Confused survivors who love God and want to obey Him question whether their longing to be loved properly and not abused amounts to a desire to enslave, possess, control, or usurp authority. The A Cry For Justice blog, however, calls it as it is – “Susan Foh’s interpretation provided the perfect theological excuse for abusive men to shift the blame for their evildoing to their wives.”
I would like to believe Foh did not have malevolent intent and simply did not foresee how her proposition would impose another layer of imprisonment and gaslighting for women who wanted to follow God but suffered in abusive marriages. The church system I began attending in junior high (and continued to through my early 40’s) believed and taught Foh’s supposition, establishing women as adversaries with hidden agendas and over whom the men must exert control lest they be systematically emasculated. My abusive husband used Genesis 3:16, along with many other verses commonly distorted by abusers, to justify his maltreatment and punishments. Unless he was in an especially benevolent mood or wanting to make a good impression in public, even the most minor disagreement, request, complaint, or difference in perspective verbalized by me was often dismissed or characterized by him as my desire to “control” him. I was regularly told that I was wicked and should submit to his authority.
Yet, even in the fog of my own confusion and soul-searching to try to do the “right” thing, an internal dissonance screamed out silently but clearly within my heart –
“No, no, no!!! You don’t understand . . . I don’t want to control . . . I don’t want to usurp authority . . . I don’t want perfection . . . I simply want to stop being hurt and to be loved instead.”
I wanted in those moments what I dreamed of as a child, a peaceful home filled with caring and kindness and to be my husband’s beloved. This longing for my husband’s love and approval, however, clouded my decision-making as I increasingly focused on trying to please him instead of God.
Especially pronounced over time was the discord between the teaching I was receiving about women as it related to Genesis 3:16 and not only my own internal thought mechanisms but also those of my family, friends, and even cinematic and literary culture. Four of the top ten highest grossing movies of all time included love stories as major thematic elements. Perennial favorite classic books by Jane Austin and Louisa May Alcott that sold millions of copies reflected the centuries-old longings of women’s hearts to be cherished by the men they loved. Silly little love songs consistently were chart-toppers. And this was just the tip of the iceberg. Even observing my own daughters at play when young, seeing their imaginations reflecting storylines much like my own decades before, prompted me to seek clarity on the misrepresentation of Genesis 3:16. My reality, like that of many other abuse survivors was this – “The gravitational pull woman feels towards her man can easily make her vulnerable to his mistreatment.” I eventually came to realize my sin was not a lack of submission or longing to usurp authority, but rather the idolatry of my husband. The profound truth of the common interpretation of Genesis 3:16 held by theologians for much of church history, long before Foh’s recent reinterpretation, became crystal clear.
An exercise in Chapter 2 of the Mending the Soul Workbook for Men and Women asks the participant to paste a picture of herself or himself as a young child and then list at least ten characteristics of his or her original design discerned from that picture. This is a profound exercise for many group participants and sometimes difficult. It calls upon them to go back to that moment in time and see that little girl or boy through their own eyes instead of the abuser’s. Often, this process results in one of the first significant healing steps in the group because there is power in understanding our identity in God as His child.
Wendy Alsup addresses the importance of identity in her blog and provides this powerful conclusion regarding the need to speak up against Foh’s damaging construal of “desire” in Genesis 3:16 and those who wish to continue to promulgate it through various means, including revising Bible translations –
When William Tyndale translated the English New Testament, he did so, in part, to break the power of spiritual abuse. He wanted to give the most vulnerable members of the Church the power to defend themselves through truth. We believe the straightforward translation of Genesis 3:16 . . . helps pastors, lay leaders, and women themselves to understand the larger context in which women find themselves in this broken world. This in turn, aids in promoting the spiritual growth that is necessary to break the bonds of emotional, physical, and spiritual abuse. In many cases, only when a woman grows in her understanding of her God-given agency and identity as an image bearer can she finally step away from such abuse. As well, only when the godly men around her have a healthy understanding of her God-given agency and identity can they help free her from abuse.
Psalm 73:25-26 NKJV –
Whom have I in heaven but You?
And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You.
My flesh and my heart fail;
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.