BIBLICAL FOUNDATION: Genesis 3:16
Evangelical feminists use Genesis 3:16 to argue that God’s statements to the woman introduce a new distinction in the roles of male authority and female subjection. The following exegesis will demonstrate that this is not an accurate interpretation of the text. Rather, the consequences to the woman introduce a distortion of the established roles given at Creation of male headship and female submission. The following four sections will be examined: Context (3:1-3:19); Pain in Childbearing (3:16a); Desire and Rule Over (3:16b); and Headship and Submission: Introduction or Distortion?
Context (Genesis 3:1-3:19)
At the Fall of humanity, the woman was deceived by the serpent and chose to eat of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3:1-6). She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate (Gen. 3:6). Though they tried to hide from God, He called them to account, questioning the man first, then the woman (Gen 3:8-13). In response, the man blamed the woman, and the woman blamed the serpent (Gen. 3:12-13). Therefore God declared the consequences of their sin first to the serpent (Gen. 3:14-15), next to the woman (Gen. 3:16), and finally to the man (Gen. 3:17-19). In each case, the consequences point to essential aspects of the function of the serpent, the woman, and the man. There are two major aspects of the statements to the woman: pain in childbearing, and a desire for her husband and that he will rule over her. The consequences underline two essential functions of woman: to be in relationship with man in order to help him be fruitful and multiply, and to submit to man’s leadership in order to help him with all that God has entrusted to him.
Pain in Childbearing (Genesis 3:16a)
“To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth, in pain you will bring forth children’” (Gen. 3:16a). While the woman was given a natural privilege of bringing forth children, she will now experience pain and difficulty in this role. The Hebrew word herown (childbirth) refers to physical conception and pregnancy. There is much consensus that this part of the consequences includes physical pain and discomfort in the actual labour and delivery of babies. The Hebrew word ʿitstsabown (pain) refers to labour, hardship, sorrow, and toil. Some interpret ʿitstsabown (pain) as alluding to difficulty in the three stages of conception, gestation, and birth. Walton identifies the first use of ʿitstsabown (pain) with its other uses in the Old Testament and suggests a more inclusive interpretation: “This includes anxiety about whether she will be able to conceive a child, anxiety that comes with all the physical discomfort of pregnancy, anxiety concerning the health of the child in the womb, and anxiety about whether she and the baby will survive the birth process.” There is a small range of possibilities for what type of pain is involved, but the basic principle is clear that the woman will now experience difficulty in bearing children. Furthermore, since humanity will be born with a sin nature, it can be implied that the woman will experience labour, hardship, sorrow, and toil in raising totally depraved children as well.
Desire and Rule Over (Genesis 3:16b)
“Yet your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16b). There is some variation within the debate on how to interpret the Hebrew word tâshuwqah (desire), which refers to a desire, longing, or craving. Song of Solomon 7:10 reads, “I am my beloved’s and his desire is for me.” Thus, many scholars understand tâshuwqah (desire) as the woman having an increased sexual appetite for the man. Some nuance this by suggesting it to mean the most basic instinct of the woman is to have children, which requires her husband to fulfill that. It is argued that even though the process of bearing children will become painful, the woman’s sexual craving will cause her to continually pursue him.
The more likely interpretation considers the one other place in the Old Testament that uses the term tâshuwqah (desire) with the term mashal (rule over). The Hebrew word mashal (rule over) is to rule, have dominion, or to reign. The use of these terms together occurs in very close proximity to Genesis 3:16 within one generation of the Fall with Cain and Abel. Cain is angered with the Lord for disregarding his offering, at which point God questions his anger then cautions him, “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7b). Kassian notes the identical use of the Hebrew terms in these two verses and rightly suggests that these depict similar patterns. “Thus the curse on the woman is that she would desire to conquer/devour/have her husband in the same way sin desired to have Cain. At the same time, the husband would attempt to rule/have dominion/reign over his wife in the same way Cain was to rule over sin.” This is the most responsible interpretation of the pairings, desire and rule.
There are five main reasons why it is unlikely that tâshuwqah (desire) is referring to an increased sexual appetite in Genesis 3:16. First, both the proximity of the same word in Genesis 4:7 is much closer than that of Song of Solomon 7:10. Second, the words tâshuwqah (desire) and mashal (rule over) occur together in Genesis 4:7, yet only tâshuwqah (desire) is present in Song of Solomon 7:10. Third, the discussion above has demonstrated that the pairing of tâshuwqah (desire) and mashal (rule over) can be used to interpret the meaning of Genesis 3:16. However, if one imports the Song of Solomon use of tâshuwqah (desire) as an increased sexual appetite, it does not make sense when it is imported to Genesis 4:7. It is unlikely that God would caution Cain that “sin is crouching at the door. Its desire [sexual appetite] is for you, but you must rule over it”. Fourth, the context of Genesis 3:16 is God describing the consequences of sin. It does not make sense that a woman having a sexual desire for her husband should be a negative result of the Fall. Finally, human experience suggests that wives have a sin nature that causes them to want to control their husbands, far more than they have an increased sexual desire for their husbands. In my years of experience giving marriage counselling and discipling women, I have encountered very few marriages where a women’s constant sexual desire for her husband is a problem. Whereas, I am constantly encountering couples where the wife is leading and desires to have control over her husband in a variety of ways.
Therefore, given the connection with the uses of tâshuwqah (desire) and mashal (rule over) in Genesis 4:7, it is evident that this portion of the statements in Genesis 3:16 introduces a negative aspect of the relationship between man and woman. The woman will now want to lead and control, rather than help and submit. Some have suggested that the man ruling over the woman is merely an affirmation of the created order of male headship. Even though woman will want to lead and control, man will maintain his intended role as leader and head. The Hebrew term mashal (rule over) does not have an inherent negative connotation, yet the context of God’s discipline must be taken into account. The consequence of sin results in a power struggle in which man will not exercise his intended loving leadership role, but will assume a domineering and controlling posture.
Headship and Submission: Introduction or Distortion?
There is one important question that remains: Did the consequences in Genesis 3:16 introduce the roles of male dominance and female subjection, or did it distort the pre-Fall roles of male headship and female submission? Egalitarians assert that statements to both the woman and the man in Genesis 3:16-17 introduce new roles of male dominance and female subjection. Some argue that man and woman will return to and be dominated by their origins, the man being controlled by the earth, and the woman being controlled by the man. Payne identifies that these statements describe something new as a consequence of the Fall, which caused a power struggle between man and woman. Although complementarians can agree that Genesis 3:16 introduces something new, Payne’s logic breaks down when he suggests, “Since man’s ruling over woman is a result of the fall, man must not have ruled over woman before the fall.” Payne fails to consider the broader context of the Creation narrative by suggesting that functional sameness was lost in exchange for a power struggle. The new aspect in Genesis 3:16 is not the introduction of new roles but rather the distortion of pre-Fall identities of man and woman.
As discussed above, a careful consideration of Genesis 1:26-30 and 2:15-25 affirms the ontological equality and functional difference of male and female at Creation. Therefore, the consequences in Genesis 3:16 indicate a distortion of God’s original design. This demonstrates that man’s headship was not a result of sin but was established before the Fall. Blomberg rightly observes, “God’s word to the woman in 3:16 is thus not a prescription of how men and women should behave; it is a prediction that this is, sadly, how they often will act. Neither is it the initial introduction of headship and submission into humanity; it is a description of its distortion due to sin.” The distinct roles of man and woman were created by God’s design. When sin entered the world, the consequences introduced a fallen representation of those roles. Genesis 3:16 indicates three important aspects of God’s discipline that introduce conflict into the male-female relationship. Woman will experience pain and difficulty in bearing and raising children, she will want to lead and control man, and man will abuse his position of headship.
Summary (Genesis 3:16)
The discussion on Genesis 3:16 has demonstrated that the consequences to the woman introduced a distortion of the pre-Fall roles given at Creation of male headship and female submission. The two aspects of the consequences underline two essential functions of woman: to be in relationship with man and to help him be fruitful; and to submit to man and to help him with all that God has entrusted to him. The first part of the statements indicates that woman will experience pain and hardship in conception, pregnancy, labour, and the raising of children. The second part of the statements indicates that woman will desire to control her husband, yet he will rule over her in a domineering manner. The statements to the woman did not introduce new roles, but rather distorted the distinct function of male headship and female submission given by God at Creation.
See Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 49-51; and Richard S. Hess, “Equality With and Without Innocence: Genesis 1-3,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, edited by Ronald W. Pierce, et al., eds., (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 92.
One exception is Hess who argues that the pain the woman will experience results from the burden of both working alongside her husband as well as bearing children. Hess, “Equality With and Without Innocence: Genesis 1-3,” 91; For the wider consensus on pain in physical childbirth, see Kenneth O. Gangel and Stephen J. Bramer, Genesis, Holman Old Testament Commentary (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2002), 45; and Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 94.
Walton, Genesis, 228. Lohr interprets desire as “an action involving the return of the subject or thing. Despite increased pain in childbearing, Eve would actively return to the man.” Joel N. Lohr, “Sexual Desire? Eve, Genesis 3:16, and תשןקה,” Journal of Biblical Literature 130, no. 2 (2011): 244.
See Gangel and Bramer, Genesis, 45; Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 94; Craig L. Blomberg, “Women in Ministry: A Complementarian Perspective,” in Two Views on Women in Ministry, eds. Stanley N. Gundry and James R. Beck (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005),131; and Raymond C. Ortlund Jr., “Male Female Equality and Male Headship,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, eds. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 109.
“The word rule over (משל, mashal) does not convey the negative associations of ‘dominate’; if that is present, it comes from the context, not from the word itself (see Gen. 1:16; 2 Sam. 23:2).” John C. Collins, Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2006), 159. Ortlund acknowledges the possibility of both interpretations, that ‘rule’ could suggest either godly headship or ungodly domination. Ortlund, “Male Female Equality and Male Headship,”109.