Zelophehad’s Daughters

Eve and the Pain of Childbirth

Posted by Kiskilili

Artemis’s pain post has got me wondering. Eve’s curse is famously (at least, depending on how one parses it) twofold: “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Genesis 3:16). Eve is punished both with painful parturition and with marital subordination.

Granted, we’ve softened the language of that second mandate somewhat. But, I wonder, by what hermeneutical criterion have we rejected the first section entirely while adopting the second, even in modified form? Why do Church leaders not issue statements reminding women that God has always intended for childbirth to be painful, and therefore to avoid epidurals (or anything else that might unnecessarily ease the process)? If, on the other hand, we contend that the first statement to Eve is nothing more than a description, on what basis can we maintain that the second is meant prescriptively?

32 Responses to “Eve and the Pain of Childbirth”

  1. 1.

    I think it definitely depends on how you choose to take that passage. Some people see it as a curse, others see it as a statement of consequences. Adam was told “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life.” Yet no one (save perhaps the Amish) objects to plows, tractors, cars, computers or any of the other myriad things that make the work of earning a living easier.

    On the other hand, when anesthetics first began to be used for birth, many preachers (not the LDS churc as far as I’m aware) did raise exactly the point you’re asking about. Don’t you just love double-standards? Not. :)

  2. 2.

    Proud Daughter of Eve, that’s interesting; I hadn’t realized there was ever contreversy over anesthetics in childbirth, though it makes sense!

    I’ve sometimes wondered myself why, for example, men don’t formally take upon themselves the obligation to work by the sweat of their brows. It looks very much to me as though we’re picking and choosing our commandments when it comes to this story.

    (I’m in favor of understanding all these statements as mere descriptions of consequences, though that leaves open the question why women would covenant to behave in a fallen, natural-world way. You might think that would be a) how we “naturally” behave anyway, and b) something we were meant to rise above.)

  3. 3.

    Good question, Kiskilili. Certainly some Bible versions other than the KJV make it sound a lot more like husbands ruling over wives was a description and not a prescription.

    For example, the second half of Genesis 3:16 in the NET Bible (http://www.bible.org/netbible/) reads, “You will want to control your husband, but he will dominate you.”

    In the English Standard Version (from http://www.biblegateway.com): “Your desire shall be for [footnote: or "against"] your husband,and he shall rule over you.”

    Or a slightly different reading from The Message (also available on http://www.biblegateway.com): “You’ll want to please your husband, but he’ll lord it over you.”

    I realize that there are lots of Bible translations that don’t take this reading. I don’t read Hebrew, so I can’t judge them. But I agree with you, Kiskilili: I like the descriptive reading better. Men “ruling over” women isn’t a good thing; God was just warning Eve that the fallen world was going to be like that.

    Tangentially, this reminds me of Matthew 26:11, where Jesus notes that the people have the poor with them always, but that he will not always be with them. Isn’t it the case that people have sometimes read this as a basis for not helping the poor? After all, Jesus said (prescribed) that they would always be with us, so it would be evil to go against him and try to reduce poverty.

  4. 4.

    Random question for you, Kisiklili–the “in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children” of the KJV sounds a bit vague to me. I looked it up in the NRSV and it says, “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children,” which sounds like a clearer link to the process of childbirth (as opposed to perhaps just feeling sorrow that you had children.) I’m obviously way out of my area of expertise here; is the Hebrew definitely talking about childbirth?

    In any case, I do think there’s a real inconsistency going on if we read the first part of the curse (bringing forth children in sorrow) as being an aspect of the fallen nature of mortality, and the second part (being subordinate to your husband as he “rules” or “presides” or whatever we call it) as a statement about eternal gender relations.

  5. 5.

    (1) I like to think of the statement about pain as the divine version of What to Expect When You Are Expecting. It isn’t a punishment, it isn’t a natural consequence, it is “I know you are about to start having kids and I want to warn you about this because otherwise you might think you are dying.” As for what that reading does to our understanding of the rest of that statement, I’ll leave that to the rest of you.

    (2) Ziff on the Matthew verse: It is important to realize in that passage that Jesus is actually quoting the first half of Deut 15:11. Just like someone who says, “The grass is always greener . . .” isn’t talking about grass but is encouraging you to fill in the second half of the statement and think of the meaning of the whole phrase, Jesus’ point is to be found in the second half of that verse. Jesus is absolutely NOT prescribing poverty OR encouraging us to ignore it.

  6. 6.

    Interesting Julie. Why don’t you feel it’s a natural consequece? To me, it looks like “Eve couldn’t have children before the Fall. She ate the apple and fell, becoming mortal and gaining the ability to bear children.” Thus the pains of childbearing were indeed a natural consequence. On the other hand, I can see and agree with also your stance of a “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.”

    (Poor Eve. Have you ever wondered how she managed with just herself and Adam? No midwives, no doctors, no detailed pregnancy books…)

    Going back to the topic of anesthetics, I plan to have natural childbirth when the time comes. (Taking into account that no plan survives contact with reality.) I may well change my mind once I’ve done it but I feel that something special and sacred goes on when a woman is “travailing.” She’s working with God to bring another spirit into the world. I don’t want to miss that. I know full well it will be painful. Christ knew that His task would be painful as well but knew also that it was worth it. I can’t do less than He.
    (Which is not to say that I look down on others who do choose epidurals or other painkillers– everyone has their own feelings and their own choices.) I know my viewpoint is starry-eyed but that’s just the way I feel about it.

  7. 7.

    Even if the physical part of childbearing were to be rendered completely pain-free, there would still be more than enough *mental* anguish involved in the raising of children and the possibility of failure in that endeavor. (Which do you think was worse for the biblical Eve: labor pains, or having to live with the knowledge that one of her sons had slaughtered the other?)

  8. 8.

    By the way, my first kid is due in October. I have mild sensory integration disorder and really do NOT do well with even ordinary levels of pain. (I whimper and moan during ordinary teeth cleanings, and you don’t want to know what happened when I got my travel shots for study abroad.)
    I’m definitely using whatever painkillers they will let me have during labor.

  9. 9.


    I apologize for not being clearer. I wasn’t endorsing the reading of Matthew 26 that says that Jesus wanted for there always to be poor people. I was just saying it seemed similar to the reading of Genesis 3:16 that says God wanted men to rule over women. In both cases, people may have taken a description as a prescription.

  10. 10.


    I think you it is useful to make a distinction between (1) having children and (2) having pain in childbirth. Clearly, (1) was a ‘natural consequence’ of the Fall, but i can think of no airtight reason why (2) should have been. That’s why I don’t think of it as a natural consequence.

    “I can’t do less than He.”

    I have several problems with this statement. First, Jesus asked that if it were at all possible, the cup would pass from Him. In other words, he suffered because it was the only way. Suffering is *not* the only way to bear a child. I recognize that there are legitimate reasons why women choose to suffer in childbirth when they don’t have to, but thinking that you are someone following Christ isn’t one of them. He didn’t ask us to suffer in childbirth, and we aren’t performing an act of atonement if we do.

    I don’t know if you have been following the FMH thread on this topic, but I commented there that I think choosing pain in childbirth solely to suffer as Christ did comes close to mocking the atonement and puts you into Opus Dei (a la Da Vinci Code, if not real life) land.

  11. 11.

    I liked your comparison to the scripture in Matthew, Ziff, because although it’s a misreading (thanks for mentioning that link to Deut 15:11, Julie–I never knew that!), it has unfortunately been historically read that way, as a justification for inaction in the face of poverty. Which does seem somewhat similar to citing Genesis 3:16 as a basis for subjugating women.

  12. 12.

    I think that any “experienced” father would tell you that the decision about epidurals or C-sections or drug-free births are a choice clearly left to the mother.

    The decision to medicate during birth is one to be made between a woman and her doctor.

  13. 13.

    We believe that women should be punished for their own sins, and not for Eve’s transgression…

  14. 14.

    We believe that women should be punished for their own sins, and not for Eve’s transgression…

    I’d very much like to believe that, but certain doctrines in the Church indicate otherwise, which is what I find curious. I do feel very much that I’m held accountable for Eve’s transgression.

    There are several difficulties in making sense of the verse. One is that disjunction in Hebrew is frequently indicated semantically; in other words, the particle “and” can also be translated “but” if it connects contrasting elements. This might influence whether we give it a descriptive or prescriptive spin. Is it “your impulse/craving will be to your husband, AND he will rule over you” or “BUT he will rule over you”? What you take the “impulse” to be influences how you read the conjunction; this is partly where the translators are going different ways.

    (This is in addition to the fact that it’s not clear the second thing God greatly increases: pain and x. Pregnancy? Pleasure? The meaning of the word is disputed.)

    The Hebrew is definitely talking about pain in childbirth, though–that part is clear.

    VL, congratulations–I hope all goes well and the painkillers are effective! Your point about mental pain in child rearing is an interesting one. Of course, women aren’t actually commanded to suffer in child rearing as their divine duty, any more than men are.

  15. 15.

    Ziff, I didn’t think you were endorsing it, but in your comment you did sound like you weren’t sure what to do with it. No offense intended.

  16. 16.

    “We believe that women should be punished for their own sins, and not for Eve’s transgression…”

    Aye, there’s the rub. Men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression. We know that women should be punished for their own sins, but whether or not that ends up happening is another question altogether, unfortunately.

  17. 17.


    I thought of Christ’s request for the cup to pass from Him as I wrote. Yes indeed that was the only way. And for thousands of years that the only way for women to give birth was in pain. Anesthetics have only been on the scene for a hundred years, give or take a couple decades. Does that mean that women today have some kind of duty to choose it, that otherwise they’re just “pious freaks” like Dan Brown’s Opus Dei? I feel the way I feel about birth. You feel the way you feel about it. Fine. -I- feel that this is a challenge for me, as Christ’s challenge was for him, and I want to know that I can face my challenge as well as He did. That doesn’t mean I expect everyone else to do the same! Some, like Veritasliberat, have good reasons to accept medical intervention. Others don’t but that’s not for me to judge and I don’t. I specifically said that I don’t.

  18. 18.


    If you feel that you *personally* are called to do this, fine. (I do think there are some cases where mothers are either inspired to choose to suffer or end up suffering despite their own choice and it is for the needs of the baby.) Your original comment gave the impression that you thought it should apply to all women, but it sounds like we are on the same page now.

  19. 19.

    I think that the passage is just God stating what the mortal world would be like. We work for our food. Bearing children is painful. Menstration is annoying and painful. Pregnancy is painful. Childbirth is painful. Recovery is painful. Postpartum depression is literally sorrow.

    I think someone should start a thread about a how a mother’s body changes. If you REALLY want to experience childbirth don’t lose any of the pregnancy weight. And suffer years of painful sexual intercourse from scar tissue. And get lots of varicose veins that are unsightly and painful. And make sure you show off all your stretch marks that hopefully don’t fade very much. And make sure nursing is as painful as possible and you get lots of infections.
    Lets celebrate each and every difference in our body after pregnancy. It is all natural and was for a purpose. It brought us that beautiful baby.
    And the more you sacrificed your body to give birth, the more you love your baby.
    Those women whose bodies seem to bounce back to pre-pregnancy weight are really trying to SKIP the real experience of childbirth. They just don’t understand……

  20. 20.

    While childbirth is probably the most physical pain that most women will feel, what about the spiritual pain that comes with bringing forth children? I’m going to have my first child in November, and I’m scared of the birth process, but I’m also scared of many other things: will I be a good mom, will I be able to raise these children in a good environment, with a stable household, with both healthy and productive parents, will I be able to survive the trials my child will bring into my life? I think that this spiritual pain will be far worse, yet the reward will be far more uplifting because I will be able to watch my children learn and grow and I will learn and grow as well. The kind of love between parent and child can not be described only felt, and there is devine pain in that love.

    At least, that’s how I interpret that passage.

  21. 21.

    I was just going to say something similar to Lindsey’s comment — that bringing forth children is a challenge far beyond the birthing process. I’m reminded of something Elder Hafen said about 2 Ne. 2:23 And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.”
    He connects childrearing with misery! :) But also, note that we couldn’t do or know good without opposition. Lindsey, there is so much joy and wonder in parenting. Just the fact that you CARE about the kind of parent you are going to be says volumes about the kind of parent you can (and I suspect) will be. Perfect? Of course not. If the Atonement is for anyone, it’s for parents! We mess up every day. But it’s a wonderful, wonderful blessing. Blessings to you!

  22. 22.

    Thought this might be interesting, FWIW:

    “the identical curse was placed on Adam also. For Eve, God “will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception. In sorrow shalt thou bring forth children.” (Genesis 3:16.) The key is the word for sorrow, atsav, meaning to labor, to toil, to sweat, to do something very hard. To multiply does not mean to add or increase but to repeat over and over again; the word in the Septuagint is plethynomai, as in the multiplying of words in the repetitious prayers of the ancients. Both the conception and the labor of Eve will be multiple; she will have many children. Then the Lord says to Adam, “In sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life” (that is, the bread that his labor must bring forth from the earth). The identical word is used in both cases; the root meaning is to work hard at cutting or digging; both the man and the woman must sorrow and both must labor. (The Septuagint word is lype, meaning bodily or mental strain, discomfort, or affliction.) It means not to be sorry, but to have a hard time. If Eve must labor to bring forth, so too must Adam labor (Genesis 3:17; Moses 4:23) to quicken the earth so it shall bring forth. Both of them bring forth life with sweat and tears, and Adam is not the favored party. If his labor is not as severe as hers, it is more protracted. For Eve’s life will be spared long after her childbearing–”nevertheless thy life shall be spared”–while Adam’s toil must go on to the end of his days: “In sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life!” Even retirement is no escape from that sorrow. The thing to notice is that Adam is not let off lightly as a privileged character….”
    Collected Works of Hugh Nibley, Vol.1, Ch.5, p.89 – p.90

  23. 23.

    Thanks for providing Hugh Nibley’s perspective. It sounds to me like he’s reading the entire passage prescriptively, but the interesting thing is that, at least in the section you quote, he does not even mention what I consider the most offensive part of the text, and the only part that’s effectively enshrined in our liturgy: that Eve is to be ruled over by her husband.

    Of course, there are a number of inconsistencies in the text that we rarely address. For example, Eve is created deritavely from Adam specifically for Adam; she is thus subordinate to begin with, and yet the passage metes out subordination as punishment for her transgression.

    In Hebrew the verb “to multiply” actually means “to make great” (I’m not sure why Nibley is favoring the LXX). My point is that this need not be understood as a commandment–it sounds like a simple description of the fact that in our recent evolutionary history our brain size increased precipitously and (fortunately) the size of women’s hips did not increase sufficiently to easily accommodate our enormous heads through the birth canal, resulting in painful childbirth. (Only primates even have brains that continue to grow outside the womb.) And Adam’s curse could likewise be viewed as the natural result of the Neolithic Revolution and the shift to sedentary agrarian communities (a public health disaster). In fact, an increased disparity in power between the sexes can be observed as another effect of domestication and sedentism.

    What this all looks like is a crude attempt at articulating the differences between civilized humanity and the natural world. But if this were all just the “natural” experience of life in the mortal world, we wouldn’t need to enforce any of it. So my question is, on what basis can we enforce one of the consequences and not the others?

  24. 24.

    Taking off from your question, Kiskilili, one might ask on what basis we enforce one of the consequences while we actively work to ameliorate the other? If the pain of childbirth can be lessened without offending God, why can’t the subordination of women be similarly lessened without incurring his wrath?

  25. 25.

    M&M, if I might run the fearful risk of putting words in Ziff’s mouth, my guess–based on knowing him for his entire life, as his only older sister :>–that he meant the question rhetorically. In other words, I think he was suggesting that as a culture we don’t seem to have any qualms about ameliorating the first part of Eve’s curse with epidurals, so, to be consistent, we shouldn’t have any qualms about ameliorating the second part–sexist domination–either.

    In other words, I think he was making a point about consistency, not about the current state of Church rhetoric. Or, for that matter, God’s wrath.

  26. 26.

    why can’t the subordination of women be similarly lessened without incurring his wrath?

    Why do you think the subordination of women hasn’t been lessened? (It has to a great degree, hasn’t it?) What would need to happen for you to feel that women aren’t subordinated anymore? (I think we hear a lot about the concept of equal partnership, for example, in the Church. I feel there is a lot being done even in the Church to help us remember that women aren’t lesser creatures.) What constitutes God’s wrath? (I’m not sure I have seen God’s wrath for the fact that women can vote, that they can get an education, that they can pray in Church, that they can have worldwide Church meetings….) It seems that your question is on the side of hyperbole, unless I’m missing something….

  27. 27.

    Thanks, Eve, for interpreting me. Next time I’m about to speak in an unknown tongue, I’ll check first to make sure there is an interpreter available.

    You’re right, M&M, that my reference to God’s wrath was hyperbole. So to make my question a (clearer, I hope) statement, how about this? We don’t worry about offending God when we try to make childbirth less painful for women. For that matter, we also don’t worry about offending God when we make obtaining food less physically taxing for men. Therefore, we should also not worry about offending God if we try to reduce women’s oppression. Thanks, M&M, for supplying examples of opportunities now available to women that didn’t used to be. I hope that just because some progress has been made, that this doesn’t mean hope of continued future progress and opening of more opportunities for women, particularly in the Church, might not continue.

  28. 28.

    Therefore, we should also not worry about offending God if we try to reduce women’s oppression.

    The challenge is that this general concept of “women’s oppression” in the Church is, in many people’s minds, non-existent for all practical purposes. For those people, oppression may be acknolwedged at an individuals’ level, and I think our leaders are constantly trying to ameliorate this (addressing family abuse issues, teaching the doctrine of the priesthood, etc.) But in a general sense, this concept is very subjective; we can’t speak of “women’s oppression” in the Church (again, at the general level) and have it be Fact that it exists, because for many, it just doesn’t. How do we decide what is “good change” if the core issue has such a range of perceived (or individual) realities? It seems impossible to find an appropriate “new” way of doing things that would fit and appease everyone’s sense of reality.

    Besides, there are plenty who would argue that we shouldn’t change the whole pain-in-childbirth thing (another subjective, it-depend-on-the-person kind of thing). (I also tend to look at that scripture as perhaps more broadly than just the few hours of labor — that bringing forth children is HARD WORK!) And few and far between are the families with father and mother for which the man doesn’t do the work-for-your-bread thing (after all, there are very few men who don’t have to work to put bread on the table, so I tend to think your interpretation of that part of the scripture is too narrow).

    I rejoice in the blessings that women enjoy in many respects that weren’t as available 50 years ago. I have personally benefited in many ways because of them. And I realize that there are some women who deeply feel that there needs to be more of that kind of change, particularly in the Church. I don’t happen to be one of them, and I know I am not alone, either. I have a hard time figuring out how we can expect change that is so not-agreed-upon and not anywhere near universally-desired? And yet, I have a hard time with the pain that some of my sisters feel. It pains me to know that pain exists. Again, we come back to that point of different points of view, as different, perhaps, as those related to childbirth. Don’t we each, at least to some degree, have to find peace, not dependent on external changes or possibilities, but with God and with life as we have it? It does nlittle good to wish for a mode of childbirth with no pain, no risk, (and while you’re at it, can you take away the “hard work and exhausiont part of parenthood as well?”). Does it really do good to want something at a general level in the Church that is most likely outside the realm of control? I suppose this really goes to Lynnette’s recent post, and everyone has to come to a place of peace herself.

    AND, (and this is an important and, IMO) I think we all have trials that invite us to find peace in our pain — we just each have different things that cause the pain. Perhaps this is part of the test of life — to take the pain and figure out what to do with it to find peace. That is the way I view things right now, anyway. I have had my own heart-wrenching, feeling-abandoned-by-God kinds of trials, just with different issues. The meta-lesson I am mulling and musing over is that perhaps the specifics of the trials, in the end, aren’t the issue. The issue is how we respond and what those trials can help us become. Perhaps it’s not about avoiding God’s wrath, but finding His love, no matter the cause of our pain. This is most certainly a process, and not an event. Perhaps it’s just the process of life. And we can’t judge each other, because our journeys are our own, perhaps even tailored to some degree, but at least known by God.

    Ah, long post. Sorry. Been thinking about this a lot. Mulling and musing — that’s my name. :)

  29. 29.

    The point of my previous post was that even if a woman has an epidural, she still has a LOT of pain associated with bringing a child into the world. It is still possible for a woman to die in childbirth. Very few of us have a pregnancy without it taking a toll on our bodies (I’m not just talking about weight gain).
    The point is a little epidural isn’t a lot in the scheme of things. Whether a man actually sweats at his work or works a desk job, the point is he works (or if he manages his investments, he doesn’t eat unless his financial house is in order and can pay).
    God never says we can’t try and make things better. He doesn’t say we are required to work sweaty jobs, or die in childbirth. He simply is giving the reality of what it means to be mortal. It means we have to work for our food and shelter. It means we feel pain and die and we feel sorrow. I think he EXPECTS us to better our condition. He expects us to figure out better ways to grow food so less of our population has to be farmers, and more of us can do other jobs. He expects us to learn how to give birth with less damage to baby and mom. He expects us to learn how to save lives with medicine.
    I think that a woman being dominated by a man has to do with mortality and physical strength and what would happen on the earth in mortality. But I think God expects us to improve our lot in life, and with better laws we can make so many things better.
    Since I don’t have a problem with women & priesthood & church leadership, I don’t see any reason to go into that argument. I am fine with the way the church is set up so I don’t see that the Garden of Eden story is all that applicable. I agree that we should reduce women’s oppression. I just believe that it can be done without changing the church and the gospel. If people lived the gospel more, there would be less oppression.

  30. 30.

    Thanks, JKS. I completely agree that God expects us to better our condition by (1) reducing women’s pain in childbirth, (2) reducing men’s (and women’s for that matter) physical labor required to obtain food, and (3) reducing how much women are dominated by men.

    I guess it’s clear that where I disagree with you and M&M is that I think the Church is currently an instrument of men dominating women, and that (3) could be better accomplished if it would not act as such an instrument.

  31. 31.

    I think I largely agree with you, JKS. As I understand your comment, you’re claiming that all of the passage should be read descriptively.

    Where I see the Church selectively interpreting part of the passage prescriptively, however, is in statements to the effect of “inasmuch as Eve was the first to partake of the fruit, then . . .” Such statements indicate consequences that are, beyond being merely a natural part of mortality, imposed and prescriptively maintained.

  32. 32.

    M&M, thank you for a very thoughtful and empathetic comment.

    The heart of our disagreement, I suspect, is that, while I acknowledge the unfortunate reality of individuals oppressing women in the Church, I personally find the doctrine itself much more oppressive than anything any individual has ever done to me.

    I also tend to look at that scripture as perhaps more broadly than just the few hours of labor — that bringing forth children is HARD WORK!

    This is where our hermeneutics differ. Although I recognize that I inevitably bring my own personal experience to my reading of the text, I feel obligated to attempt to make sense of the text on its own terms. In Hebrew, the verb quite clearly denotes childbirth. So although I agree with the point you’re making that much of the pain of motherhood may stem from childrearing, I have no textual basis on which to claim that such a statement has a scriptural foundation.

    I have a hard time figuring out how we can expect change that is so not-agreed-upon and not anywhere near universally-desired?

    Ah, but how can we expect things to stay the same when they’re so not-agreed-upon and not anywhere near universally desired? ;)

    Don’t we each, at least to some degree, have to find peace, not dependent on external changes or possibilities, but with God and with life as we have it?

    I actually believe that, until we’re in heaven, we should refuse to find absolute peace with “life as we have it,” simply because the ethical life should entail trying to improve our fallen situation.

    Does it really do good to want something at a general level in the Church that is most likely outside the realm of control?

    I actually think it does. I think there’s value in articulating and refining our ideals.

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