The "desire of the flesh": It's not what you think it is

This morning I’ve been wrestling with the phrase ἐπιθυμίαν σαρκός in Gal 5:16: “Walk by the Spirit and you will not fulfill the desire of the flesh.” This is usually understood as Paul’s explanation of how sinful human beings can defeat their inherently bad urges. Two grammatical notes are leading me to a different interpretation altogether:

  1. This first occurrence of the term ἐπιθυμία, “desire,” is singular. (The subsequent use in Gal 5:23 is plural.) This caught me off guard, as I’ve normally interpreted this as plural. Even the NET Bible—my favorite translation ever!—translates this as a plural. The singular here implies that Paul has a particular desire in mind, not the various desires the flesh can manifest.
  2. The common understanding by most commentators and translations is that σαρκός, “flesh,” is a subjective genitive, that is, the flesh is performing the action of the verbal noun ἐπιθυμία. A short paraphrase will bring this out: “Walk by the Spirit and you will not do what the flesh desires.” A different understanding of the genitive is possible here, though, and perhaps even preferred given Paul’s prior use of σάρξ in the text to refer to the physical body. It is possible that this genitive is objective, that is, the flesh is the object of the desire: “Walk by the Spirit and you will not fulfill the desire directed towards the body.”

Taking these two things together—that “desire” is singular and “flesh” is the object of this desire—the phrase “desire of the flesh” would become a theologically picturesque way to refer to the Galatians’ desire for circumcision and more broadly for getting back under the Law. This makes a great deal of sense for two central reasons. First, it places the topic of discussion in this paragraph back where it has been all along, namely, the Galatians’ desire to turn back to following the Law. Paul is not here all of a sudden arguing for a robust theology of sin; he instead still seeks to motivate the Galatians not to turn to the Law. This interpretation fits better within Paul’s overall argument. Second, this interpretation fits within this paragraph better. Paul began the paragraph discussing how loving service towards others fulfills the Law, thus submission to its particular stipulations like circumcision is not necessary. After this sentence Paul restates his central thesis in Gal 5:18: “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.” Note that he does not say, “If you are led by the Spirit, you will not behave in morally evil ways.” Paul’s point here is not primarily to show how people are so intrinsically bad and sinful in their flesh that they need the Spirit, although that is a logical deduction of his argument. Rather, he desires to show how the practice of the Law is centered on the self, on the body, and not on the power of the Spirit. This mindset runs counter to what God has done in the Galatians by giving them the Spirit through their faith in Christ and in essence short-circuits the blessings he has graciously given to them.