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For, Against, or Absent? Gen 3:16 and the Case of the Missing Desire

September 27, 2016

After reading a few posts here and elsewhere, and especially after reading About That Desire over at Women In Theology, I decided to check the Vulgate to see how the preposition in question was translated there. Whatever its flaws, the Vulgate was extremely influential in the Western church for about a thousand years, so I often check it out for an early Catholic perspective.

Given that the discussion of the Hebrew focused on “desire for or towards” as the dominant and traditional English translation; and given the prevalence in Catholic thought that things are ordered towards certain teloses (ends, purposes), I fully expected to see a nice little ad in the Vulgate.

Not only didn’t I find ad, I didn’t find desire!

Here’s the Latin, per the Blue Letter Bible:

mulieri quoque dixit multiplicabo aerumnas tuas
et conceptus tuos in dolore paries filios
et sub viri potestate eris
et ipse dominabitur tui

To the woman he said,
I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth,
and in sorrow you will bear children
and under the power of the man you will be
and he will have dominion over you

There’s no desire in this passage. None. There’s no reference to the woman’s agency at all, in fact: she is the passive object, not the active subject, of the last half of the verse.

As our coblogger Suzanne wrote:

The Vulgate was basically Jerome and Paula’s translation from the Hebrew, made while they were living in Bethlehem in the 4th century with the aid of local Jewish scholars which they were able to smuggle into their convent from time to time. Jerome made a point of saying that it was translated from the Hebrew in contrast to the Old Latin versions, which were translations of the Septuagint.

So what happened to the desire?

Did Jerome, or Paula, censor it from their translation? It was unusual enough that Jerome was collaborating with a woman. Perhaps they feared that a translation that openly discussed sexual desire would have pressed the bounds of propriety too far.

Is it hidden, implicit, in that “under his power”? Are we meant to read that as if the woman’s sexual desire for the man is so strong that it controls her, so that she has sex again and again despite the pain of pregnancy and childbirth? (And if so, is it possible there’s more than a little fantasy, wish fulfillment, self-aggrandizement going on here on Jerome’s part here?)

Was it omitted from the text, along with the woman’s agency, to double down on the patriarchy? As Kurk has written, Jerome certainly seems to have had sexist views of at least some women (unsurprisingly for a man of his time and place).

Or might “desire” actually have been absent from the Hebrew text they were using? Jerome’s Vulgate was translated from the Hebrew text several centuries before the Masoretic Text, which is the source text for most modern translations of the Hebrew Bible, was written down. The second half of the verse has power and dominion, potestate and dominabitur, in a parallel construction typical of the Hebrew scriptures: that’s awfully suggestive.

What do you think?

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