It is an interesting question to ask: What does Genesis 3:16 mean when it says that, as a consequence for her sin, the woman would now have pain in childbearing? (“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”) On one level the answer is very clear, but I think we do well to see that there is more to it than what is most obvious.
After Adam and the woman sinned (she is not yet named Eve–that will come soon), God was forced to pass judgment on them–to provide oracles, judgments about the way the world would now be. God’s first word to the woman, the first consequence, looks back to her very creation. When God created human beings—when he created them as male and female—he blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” His command to them was to bear children, to fill the earth with people, and in that way to exercise dominion over all of it. Adam and the woman were to have children and their children were to have children and soon enough the earth would be populated with more people, created in the image of God and doing the work of God. This is a critical and primary component of the Creation Mandate—God’s command to the creatures he formed in his own image.
People were to multiply by childbearing. But now, after the woman listened to the serpent and led her husband into sin, something else, something far more sinister, would multiply alongside those children. Here in Genesis 3:16 God says to the woman, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.” This is not an arbitrary consequence. Rather, there is a kind of poetic justice here, what theologians may refer to as a talionic justice. God looks back to his original plan for humans and shows that the punishment will fit the crime, so to speak. Where God meant to multiply what was good, sin would now multiply what was evil. “In pain you shall bring forth children…”
God’s original plan was that women would bear children painlessly. When God said to the woman that she would bring forth children in pain, this would have been a shocking pronouncement. The word he uses here—the word translated childbirth—actually refers to conception and not just the act of giving birth. “I will surely multiple your pain in conception.” Since there is no pain associated with conception, I think we need to extend this word–or at least the application of this word–so that it points to the entire process from conception to birth and even to the raising of children; it points to motherhood more than it points merely to childbirth. All of these were meant by God to be free from pain. It would be a joy to get pregnant, it would be a joy to be pregnant, it would be a joy to give birth, it would be a joy to raise children. There may be joy in all of those things still, but there is also pain. There is pain and trouble in conception as so many couples can testify; there is pain and danger in pregnancy; there is pain and danger in giving birth; and there is pain in raising children. After sin’s entrance into the world, all of these good things would now be attended by physical, mental, emotional, even spiritual pain.
Now the occasions of the greatest joy would also be occasions of the greatest pain. This pain would always remind woman of the existence of sin and of her role in bringing that sin into the world. We can imagine that with every labor pain Eve thought of the sin she had committed. God would continue to bless the woman, he would continue to allow her to multiply, but her numbers would only multiply as her pain multiplied. She would continue to fulfill her God-given mandate, but only in pain. After the fall into sin woman would no longer be immortal; she must now die. But through children she could maintain the existence of the human race. Woman would not be able to save herself from her sin, but from her line would come the one who would smash the head of the serpent. So as she gave birth to those children, she also would have trusted in the great promise that one would eventually come who would deliver us from all pain. Would he come from Cain? From Abel? From Seth? She didn’t know. But she knew he would come. Obeying God’s Mandate would bring dominion to the earth, but it would also eventually bring the Messiah, the one who could undo all of the pain.