The idea that childbirth is excruciatingly painful is cultural norm in America. It is the topic of jokes. I was told in my first pregnancy by one of the OB’s providing my care that I would be “begging for drugs in the parking lot [of the hospital]“-which of course only made me more determined NOT to ask for drugs. The idea that birth is meant to be painful even led to some religious groups opposing the use of pain medications in the 1800’s. I’ve even heard it mentioned during sermons as being Biblical.
So where does the Bible say that childbirth is meant to be excruciating…or does it REALLY say that?
Genesis 3:16 states:
To the woman He said, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth, in pain you will bring forth children …”
Or at least that is what the New American Standard Bible (NASB) says. Most modern versions of the Bible have a similar rendition of this verse. The “truth” of pain in labor is so ingrained that the average reader will think nothing of the difference found in the King James (KJ) version:
Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.
Is this difference significant? And which version is more accurate?
To get to the bottom of this issue, perhaps a look at the original Hebrew text will help:
Hmmm…well since I took Spanish, not Hebrew in school (and I barely remember my Spanish), that isn’t going to help me much, I don’t know about you. So I use a handy tool called the “Blue Letter Bible“–which, BTW, is where I got that text above. Its a handy website that allows you to view multiple versions of the Bible, concordances, commentaries…and a word for word translation from the original Hebrew and Greek texts.
The Blue Letter Bible shows that the first phrase is “‘ishshah ‘amar rabah ’itstsabown herown” The key words here are “‘itstsabown and herown,” which are translated as “‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth” in the NASB and “greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception” in the King James.
‘itstabown is a word that is used to mean pain, labour, hardship, sorrow, toil. It occurs two more times in the Old Testament. It occurs one verse later in Genesis 3:17:
NASB: in toil you will eat of it [the ground]
KJ: in sorrow thou shalt eat of it all the days of your life.
It also occurs a few chapters later in Genesis 5:29:
NASB: Now he called his name Noah, saying, “This one will give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the LORD has cursed.”
KJ: And he called his name Noah, saying, This same shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands, because of the ground which the LORD hath cursed.
Only one of the 3 interpretations of “‘itstabown” is translated as “pain,” the one referring to women–and only in newer versions of the Bible. Interestingly, its also the only one that is translated as “sorrow”–in the KJ. The others refer to toil-work-which no doubt childbirth is work. Sometimes hard work will result in pain…but only in extraordinary circumstances would work be expected to be so painful that the pain would be described as “greatly multiplied.” Is ”sorrow” an appropriate translation here? It doesn’t appear so to me considering that it is not used in the other passages.
But is this passage even talking about childbirth? The KJ uses the connector work “and” which sets up the phrase to have two separate subjects, where the NASB and many other versions use “in,” reducing the number of subjects to one. Moreover, there is the question of whether this passage is referring to “childbirth” or “conception,” two distinct events, which brings us to…
herown which is a masculine noun which is used as “conception” or possibly “pregnancy.” In addition to the use in this verse, it is also used in Ruth 4:13 referring to Boaz and Ruth conceiving Obed, and in Hosea 9:11 where 3 distinct Hebrew words are used to describe conception-herown, pregnancy-beten, and childbirth-yalad.
The question of the “and” vs. the “is” can not be conclusively determined since the Hebrew language often leaves out such words, but I think it is pretty clear that this phrase is talking about conception, not birth.
Does it really make sense that God would have cursed women to experience conception as “pain,” especially multiplied pain? I think not, which leads me to believe that “and” is the correct word here. Eve was told that due to her sin she would have to toil-or work more, and also she would conceive more. Why would she need to conceive more? I have read a theory that it is because with the harder life people had to live after being kicked out of the Garden of Eden, more children would need to be conceived to ensure adequate population. Interesting…I don’t have any theories of my own.
Of course we aren’t out of the woods yet…there is still the second phrase!
‘etseb yalad ben
This translates to “in pain you will bring forth children” (NASB) or “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children” KJ. The key Hebrew words here are ‘etseb and yalad.
Well, we already mentioned yalad above…which was used to refer to childbirth in Hosea 9:11. It actually has a very complex meaning, being used a total of 498 times in the Old Testament, the vast majority of which do refer to labor and childbirth. So this one clearly is referring to childbirth, not conception.
But what does ‘etseb mean? Other than the use in this passage, it is used 6 times in the Old Testament. One is in Proverbs 15:1 where it is translated to “grievous” but in context could also mean ”emotionally hurtful.” One use is as “sorrow” in Proverbs 10:22. Proverbs 5:10 and Proverbs 14:23 use it to refer to work. The use in Proverbs 127:2 is translated as sorrow in some versions, but work in others–I think work makes more sense in the context. The final use is in Jeremiah 22:28 where it means “idol,” which seems not to fit the context, unless you consider that an idol is a man-made object–a result of work or toil.
So the count there is one use as grievous/emotionally hurtful, 1-2 uses as sorrow which is an emotional pain, and 3-4 uses that refer to work.
So how should it be interpretted in Genesis 3:16? Well obviously physical pain is not the connotation that is given to it in other verses. I think any of these definitions could fit. Labor can be emotionally hurtful to a woman who considers the difficulty of life she is bringing a child into…but I don’t think this is the over-riding emotion women are feeling in labor, do you? I think that the use as “work” fits better. So I would translate the second phrase differently than either version, I would translate it as “with work you will bring forth children.”
In any case…I really don’t think there is any indication that the Bible declares that childbirth is meant to be excruciating as a result of Eve’s sin. In fact, if you read carefully you will find that Adam and Eve are never cursed…the serpent is cursed and the ground is cursed. Adam and Eve are given consequences for their sin…not a curse.
Oh, and for Dr. F who told me I would be begging for drugs…I’ve had 5 babies now, and never once have I felt even remotely close to begging for drugs. I have had clients who have had particularly difficult births where the availability of an epidural was definitely a blessing. But I think we do women a disservice when we tell them that labor is *meant* to be terribly painful.