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Pain in childbirth?

The common notion of a special "curse upon the woman" involving childbirth is based on one single verse in the Bible, where God says to Eve:

"I will greatly multiply thy sorrow (etsev) and thy conception; in sorrow (etsev) thou shalt bring forth children" (Gen 3:16).
The word "curse" does not appear in this verse, and neither does "pain". It is a fact, of course, that the combined sins of Adam and Eve did bring a curse upon the earth, all creation, and also themselves -- in the sense that they were now subject to mortality and other related difficulties and labors. But it is a fallacy derived from medieval ignorance and Catholic superstition that a special curse of pain during childbirth came upon Eve as a result of her sin.

"Women, because of their closer affinity to their children, suffer more keenly than do men, when their offspring go astray... An example is provided in the events narrated in Gen 4. How keenly Eve must have felt the sorrow caused by her firstborn's sin in murdering his brother. Her high hopes for him when he was born (Gen 4:1) were completely shattered . The sentence (of Gen 3:16) related to this sorrow rather than an increase in the pain of childbirth" [HP Mansfield, Christadelphian Expositor, Genesis, (Vol 1, No 3), p 82,83]. In Gen 3:17, for example, Adam is told that it will be "in sorrow" (etsev, again) that he will henceforth eat of the earth. So the sorrow to be experienced by Eve in her role as a mother is the same as, or at least analogous to, the "sorrow" of Adam in tilling the ground -- a "sorrow" which is equivalent to labor and sweat (v 19).

"Pain", or "sorrow"?

The Revised Standard Version presents in this passage a curious example of "interpretive translation", to put it mildly -- possibly brought about by the prevalent belief in Western cultures (at least until the last generation) that the birth of a child should be expected to cause its mother great pain. In the RSV, Gen 3:16 reads:

"I will greatly multiply your pain (etsev) in childbearing; in pain (etsev) you shall bring forth children", whereas Gen 3:17, in the same version, reads:

"To Adam he said... Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil (etsev) you shall eat of it all the days of your life."
The word "etsev" has the root meaning of labor or toil, or giving of oneself in the fashioning of a work -- which is a wonderful definition for the process of carrying, giving birth to, and raising children which is uniquely a mother's role. But the word and its derivations hold no implication of pain in a physical sense, and only (inferentially) of sorrow in a secondary, spiritual sense.

Is suffering "desirable"?

This passage in Genesis 3, and a few others similarly deficient and inconsistent in their translations, have supported a faulty Catholic "theology", to the effect that sexual intercourse in marriage is a necessary evil, and should be only for the purpose of procreation, and that intense suffering in the act of child-bearing is the just and reasonable punishment for sinful woman. At one time it was even taught that a woman's cries and screams in childbirth pleased the ears of God, and two women were once burned to death by the Church in France -- one for accepting a pain-killer during childbirth, and the other for administering it (ES Cowles, Religion and Medicine in the Church, p 18). On the other hand, it has never been considered necessary that man refrain from using labor-saving devices to alleviate the "sorrow" of Adam's "special curse" in agriculture!

It is clear that ignorance, fear, and the "conditioning" of erroneous church doctrine have all played a part in producing this very pain in childbirth. The woman, fallaciously taught that she must suffer, and possibly even that suffering is desirable, is psychologically prepared to expect pain. This nervous expectation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; it creates a tension that magnifies normal discomfort into serious pain, pain which is most likely unnecessary. (This information is from competent medical authorities, and is not derived from personal experience!) And the mother, at least until the last generation, has not often been taught any technique to minimize this pain and facilitate delivery.

The Scriptures portray the birth process as involving hard labor and pressure, but only in unusual circumstances as involving intense pain. More enlightened methods of childbirth are now helping to free mothers (and fathers) from this unnecessary fear. And a sharper look at some faulty translations can just as easily remove the Biblical "basis" for this expectation of suffering.

Other mistranslations

Other passages as well as Gen 3:16, on closer inspection, are seen not to warrant the necessity of pain in childbirth. This notion has been forced upon the passages by mistranslation -- perhaps not intentionally, but due to the mistaken idea that women should suffer. One common Hebrew word for giving birth, "yalad", is used not only of mothers, but also of fathers "begetting" children! But it is only when "yalad" is used of a woman that it is ever translated "travail" (ie, Gen 38:28; Jer 13:21; 1 Sam. 4:19; Jer 31:8; Mic 4:9,10; 5:3)!

A second common word, used almost interchangeably, is "chul" -- with the root meaning of whirling or twisting (as in dance: Jdg 21:21, or perhaps a workman shaping a piece of pottery). Not only is "chul" used of a mother, but it is also used of God's part in a birth, and in His creation of all things. When used of God in His creative acts, "chul" is generally translated by the AV. as "form" or "formed" (Job 26:13; Psa 90:2; Deu 32:18; Pro 26:10), but when used of the mother in the part she plays in the creative process it is most often translated as "travail" (Isa 54:1; 66:8) or "to be in pain" (Mic 4:10; Isa 13:8; 26:17)!

The misrepresentation is similar in the New Testament -- for example, John 16:21: Here, the AV makes Jesus to say:

"A woman when she is in travail ('tikto') hath sorrow ('lupe')... but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish ('thlipsis')..." (The RV, RSV, NEB, and NIV, are all substantially the same as the AV here.)

"Tikto" simply means "to bring forth" or "produce", usually children; but it can also refer to the earth "bringing forth" herbs (Heb 6:7).

"Lupe", like "etsev" in the Hebrew, refers only to a state of the emotions, not to physical pain. It probably has to do with the mother's anxiety in her labor, or toil, until the task has been successfully accomplished.

And "thlipsis" is the ordinary word usually translated "tribulation" or "persecution". The root meaning is pressure or squeezing, as in pushing something out of its place!

Literally translated, then, John 16:21 should read:

"A woman when she is giving birth has anxiety, but as soon as she has given birth, she no longer remembers the pressures... "
The three New Testament words for childbirth, "tikto", "gennao", and "odino", are virtually interchangeable. All three are used at one time or another in the Septuagint to translate both "yalad" and "chul" -- which indicates how closely related all five words are. "Tikto" was discussed above; "gennao" means to beget, and is used of both fathers and mothers, just as is the Hebrew "yalad".

Childbirth and "destruction"

The third word, "odino", is the New Testament word most often mistranslated as the "pain" or "travail" of the mother, but the original Greek does not bear such a meaning. It is best translated as "labor": the act of giving birth. One example of its use is 1Th 5:3:

"For when they say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them as travail ('odino') upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape."
At first glance, the verse seems to picture childbearing as a terrifying, death-like experience. But this is reading too much into the text. The points of comparison between the "destruction" and childbirth are as to time and certainty. This destruction will come "suddenly", without warning, as labor may begin unexpectedly. And the destruction will be certain, "without escape" or postponement -- again, just as the labor process, which, once it has begun, cannot be put off to a "more convenient season". Other Scripture passages that link together childbirth and destruction or the like should be considered in this way, not as justification for expecting suffering and "destruction" in childbearing.

Death during childbirth

All of the above is not meant to say that pain was never present in a birth in Bible times. It is intended instead to indicate that severe pain was not and is not an essential part of normal childbirth. In the few times in the Bible that difficulties arose during childbirth, additional description -and not the ordinary words -- conveyed this. And, in every case, the additional information shows that the mother is suffering from exhaustion, from not being able to work, or "labor", any longer -- for example:

"The children are brought to the birth, and there is not strength to bring forth" (Isa 37:3).
With Rachel's second pregnancy, all did not go well. The fact that her midwife knew the sex of the child during the progress of delivery (Gen 35:17) implies that it was in a breech position, which could explain her difficulty. With no modern medical remedy available, Rachel toiled at length to give birth to her son, until she was completely exhausted, and she could not recover from the strain. This is the only instance of death caused directly by childbirth in the whole Bible, a fact that might startle some. [One other death at childbirth is mentioned -- that of Eli's daughter-in-law (1Sa 4:19). But this death was caused by the shock and sorrow of her husband's and her father-in-law's violent deaths and the capture of the ark (v 21).]


The common association of childbirth with pain, death, and woe in general is not Biblical. It is a state of mind conditioned by imperfect translations, which in turn can be attributed to the apostasy's flawed views of sexuality and marriage and women. Childbirth in the Bible is primarily spoken of as a beautiful and blessed event. It is true that all of human life, including the bearing and raising of children, partakes more or less of the sorrows of Edenic judgment. But this general condition of fallen humanity cannot invalidate the fact that children are a "heritage" of the Lord and a "reward" (Psa 127:3). And since this is so, then it is surely reasonable that the means by which they are brought into the world -- both conception and delivery -- must also be blessings!
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