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Can Desire be Divorced from Need? The World's First Murder, Part 10

May 9, 2009 | by David Fohrman

Eve's desire for her husband is not necessarily based on her needs.

I have a favor to ask of you. It is an unusual request, but I have my reasons. Trust me.

The request is this:

If you happen to be flipping through these articles and you opened kind of randomly to this one, you need to promise me that you'll read the whole thing, all the way to the end. If you can't make that commitment, I am going to ask you to stop right here.

I make this unusual request because what I am about to discuss is both theologically explosive and easily misunderstood. It concerns the Bible's view of masculinity and femininity and the relationship between them. Many have seen the Bible as a tome written by men seeking to safeguard their patriarchal power, and seeking to keep the women in their lives subjugated and docile. I do not myself share this view. But if someone with that agenda wanted to find grist for the mill, he would need look no further than the two verses to which I am about to direct your attention.

It is easy to overlook just how astonishing these two verses are. Each verse on its own seems fairly innocuous. But when you put them together, they are positively combustible.

In reality I think the verses provide only an excuse, not real evidence, for the charge that the Bible bashes women. But that's why I need you to keep reading past the middle of this article. If you are going to let me show you the explosive part, you owe it to me, and to yourself, to think carefully about what the words really mean. When I've had my say, take some time to think about it, and then you can make up your own mind.

Okay, so we have a deal?

If you're with me this far, I'll assume we do.

A Fearsome Analogy

I mentioned to you earlier that there is one final, parallel to the world of Eden tucked away in the Cain story. It makes its appearance within the lines of God's speech to Cain. Part of this speech has been said before, back in Eden, not thirty verses earlier. Can you find what I am talking about?

Listen to the words of God's speech to Cain carefully. As you do, ask yourself where you have heard these words before.

Why are you angry and why has your face fallen? Is it not the case that if you do well -- lift up! And if you do not do well -- sin lies crouching at the door, its desire is unto you, yet you can rule over it. (Genesis 4:6-7)

The telltale words are the very last ones, "Its desire is unto you, yet you can rule over it." This concluding phrase is lifted almost verbatim from something God said earlier, just after man and his wife ate from the Tree of Knowledge. The original words are troubling enough on their own. But when you take into account their reappearance in the Cain story, they become downright fearsome.

The first time these words appear, God is speaking to Eve. After telling her that she will experience pain in childbirth, He concludes by saying to her, "...your desire will be to your husband, yet he can rule over you" (Genesis 3:16).

You hear the resemblance? God says to Eve that her desire will be to her husband, yet he can rule over her. That's bad enough for us modern types. But then He says to Cain, thirty verses later, that the Evil Inclination's desire is to Cain, yet Cain can rule over it.

It sounds like Cain is analogous to Adam, and Eve is analogous to -- make sure you are sitting down for this -- Cain's Evil Inclination.

Well that just takes the cake doesn't it? I mean, the Bible seems to be suggesting some sort of analogy here. And it's a profoundly disturbing analogy, at that. Those of you who took the SATs to get into college are no doubt familiar with these kinds of analogies. If you add it up, it sounds like Cain is analogous to Adam, and Eve is analogous to -- make sure you are sitting down for this -- Cain's Evil Inclination.

It seems too horrible to believe.

When It's too Good to Be True...

An old adage says that when something seems too good to be true, it usually is. In this case, I think the converse is so as well: When something seems too horrible to believe, it usually is exactly that – not to be believed.

In this vein, I think some healthy skepticism is in order here. Is it really conceivable that the Bible considers Eve, or womankind, tantamount to "sin," the anthropomorphic title given by the verse to Cain's Evil Inclination? Is the Bible viewing femininity as some evil force threatening to overtake the masculine; something he must keep at bay lest it devour him?

Again it seems too horrible to believe. But what then is the Bible trying to say to us with its not so subtle link between one phrase and the other?

OK, just in case you were wondering, this is the part where you're not supposed to stop reading. The fact is that we've committed a subtle, but understandable, logical error in interpreting the analogy. In general, analogies are notoriously easy to misinterpret -- that, after all, is why they put them on the SATs -- and this analogy is no exception. Let's step back, take a deep breath, and try again.

Let's say I tell you that whales desperately need plankton and that cars desperately need gasoline. Both these statements are true, and we might say that an analogy exists between them. But, bear with me here, it does not follow from this that whales are basically the same as cars, or that plankton is pretty much identical to gasoline. Marine biologists would be pretty offended by that conclusion. Rather, what follows is that the relationship between whales and plankton bears similarity to the relationship between cars and gasoline. In each case, the latter provides the fuel that makes the former go.

And so it is with our analogy. When the Bible uses similar language in these two verses, it does not follow that Cain is like Adam, nor does it follow that Eve is like Cain's Evil Inclination. Rather, what follows is that the relationship between Adam and Eve -- or more broadly, between man and woman -- is analogous on some level to the relationship that Cain is asked to develop with his Evil Inclination. And while this might not seem any better than the previous alternative, just hang in there, we're just beginning to see what's going on.

The Four Primal Desires

Over a thousand years ago, the rabbis of the Midrash noticed the analogy we have been wrestling with, and they had something quite intriguing to say about it.

They observed that the word which the Bible uses for desire in each of our two verses is the Hebrew term teshukah. While this fact may seem unremarkable in and of itself, they noticed that this word reappears in Scripture a number of times. They traced these various appearances -- beyond Eve and Cain, the word reappears in connection with rain and with God Himself -- and formulated what they saw was a pattern. Here is what they had to say:

There are four basic] 'teshukot' in the world. The teshukah of Eve for Adam, the teshukah of the Evil Inclination for Cain, the teshukah of rain for land, and the teshukah of the Master of the Universe for humanity. (Bereishis Rabbah 20:7)

Again they cite verses (which I have not reproduced here) to substantiate each one of these conclusions. But look at these four statements carefully. What are the rabbis really saying here?

It seems to me that they are defining the word teshukah -- and they are making a sweeping, almost radical, statement in the process. Look carefully at the four examples they give -- the desire of Eve for Adam, of the Evil Inclination for Cain, of rain for land, and of God for humanity -- and see if you can isolate a common denominator between them.

While you are musing about that, you might notice that some of the "desires" which the verse speaks about don't sound much like desires at all. Let's look, for example, at the last two: the desire of rain for land, and the desire of the Almighty for humanity. If you were given the words "rain" and "land", and someone asked you which of these two "desires" the other, what would you say?

I would say land. Land needs rain to nourish its crops; rain doesn't need land at all. And the same holds for God and humanity. A basic tenet of theology states that God is a perfect Being, and that He has no needs at all. So if we are thinking about God and humans -- if anything, it would be humanity that desires God. Why do the sages have it the other way around?

When Desire is Divorced from Need

When you and I normally talk about desire, we associate desire with "need."

I would argue to you that the sages are defining teshukah as something entirely different from what we normally think of when we use the word "desire." When you and I normally talk about desire, we associate desire with "need." Think about the synonyms we use for desire. When we desire a new car, we say "I need a new car" or "I want a new car." The words "need" and "want" are both connected to the idea of "lack." When I am wanting or needful, I am missing something; when I get it, that hole in my life is filled, and my want or need is satisfied. Usually, when we talk about desire, we are really talking about getting our needs fulfilled.

The question I want you to think about is this: Is that the only kind of desire there is in this world -- or perhaps, is "desire" a larger concept than this? Is there such a thing as a desire that is not based on a sense of need, that doesn't come from some kind of lack that I have? If all my needs and lacks were taken care of, would that be it -- or could I still have some sense of desire?

I think the sages are answering that question with a resounding yes. Yes, it is possible to desire something even when you don't need anything. Rain doesn't need land a whit -- but somehow, it still "desires" land. God doesn't need people a whit either, but somehow, He still desires them. The sages are arguing, I think, that teshukah is a code name for this special kind of desire. And it is this very kind of desire, this teshukah, that the feminine has for the masculine. And that the Evil Inclination, whatever that is, has for Cain.

What, exactly, is the essential nature of teshukah? How do we make sense of a desire that is divorced from need? And how does this shed light on the other two primal teshukahs that exist in the world -- the "desire" of the feminine for the masculine and the "desire" of the Evil Inclination for Cain?

We'll talk about that when we return next week.





This series is excerpted from Rabbi Fohrman's new book, "The Beast that Crouches at the Door: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Beyond." To purchase a copy visit or visit


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