Women’s Lib or Women’s Fib: A Look at Genesis 3:16

Since the 1960s in the western world, a movement began that was initially designed to give women liberties that, supposedly unto that time, were restricted from them based on gender alone. “Women’s-Lib,” as it was often referred to, may have begun with laudable aims, such as the fair-pay of women in the work-force, or overcoming the oppression of women by the male-leadership-dominant society. But the reality is far from what was imagined. Ironically, one of the major tenets of this Women’s-Lib movement was the overthrow of perceived “religious” oppression by males. I say, ‘ironic’ as the authentic faith of Christian Scriptures leads to unprecedented equality of the sexes as made in the image and likeness of God. Certainly, this did not rule out a partnership with distinct complementary roles for Adam and Eve. Furthermore, when it comes to the blessings of the salvation heralded by Christianity, the sexes are indistinguishable: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, emphasis added). Of course, the Apostle Paul that penned these words also gave the Christian communities the rule of “Household Codes” in Colossians and Ephesians. The passage from Ephesians is noteworthy:


Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.

 [Eph. 5:22-33 (emphasis added)].

These highlighted verses are among the reasons for the thinking that Christianity is about dominating women. However, it is the exact opposite that is truly the sense of the passage. The context of the household codes is a “Christian Family Household.” Paul is writing to the believers and instructing them about how the faith is to be ‘played out,’ so to speak, at home. Why would these notions, about the submission of the wife to her husband and for the husband to love sacrificially and unconditionally his wife, emerge in the first place? The simple reason is that this is the only way to overcome and correct the real abuses that have become the “way things are” since the Fall of Mankind as recorded in Genesis. It is in the Old Testament book of beginnings that describes how and where the initial problems emerged. We shall examine the text from Genesis chapter three.

Now the serpent was more subtil than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden? And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden: But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die. And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil. And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons. . . . [Gen. 3:1-7]

Here is the account of the “Fall” from primitive innocence. Prior to the Fall, Adam and Eve lived in a mutual loving relationship. The order of creation shows that the equality of their sharing in God’s image did not contradict the roles of helper עֶזֶר (Heb. ezer) for the woman. In the New Testament, Paul argues about the order in the creation story to substantiate his view of gender roles in the home (1 Cor. 11:8-9; 1 Tim. 2:13). So, the Christian approach to gender roles is to reverse the curse and re-establish the harmony of complementarity as first experienced in the garden before sin marred matters. The initial disobedience was the sin that brought death into the world of humanity. This fall has brought innumerable woes to men, women, and children. Let us examine the results which emerge in the following remainder to this prelude:

And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day: and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God amongst the trees of the garden. And the LORD God called unto Adam, and said unto him, Where art thou?  And he said, I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself. And he said, Who told thee that thou wast naked? Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?  And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat. And the LORD God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat. And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. [Gen. 3:8-19, (emphasis added)].

It is not the intent here to examine the passage in all its details, but I want to draw attention to the highlighted section in bold. These verses are pregnant with meaning that has often been misunderstood.

First, we have to remember that these pronouncements from God are not the way Adam and Eve lived in paradise before the fall. These are results of the fall, and as such are partial punishments that ensue from the sin in the garden. From now on, in humanity’s experience, these patterns shall be the norm.

Second, the punishment that God issues forth is a kind of Talionic Justice (Lex Talionis). In both the male and the female, the manner of the transgression is linked to the manner in which the punishment will be meted out. For Adam, as we can see, he took and “ate” the forbidden fruit, and so now, he will eat his bread by the sweat of his brow. This is true in relation to the woman, as we shall examine shortly.

Third, it is important to see that the context of these punishments is within the sphere of God’s Sovereignly designed plan of redemption, in which the Covenant God, has provided the remedy to the problem in the words directed to the serpent [the Devil]: “And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” [Gen. 3:14-15, (emphasis added)]. This has rightly been termed the protevangelium (Latin for, First Gospel announcement).

One must not think of this as a plan B corrective but as the outworking of the eternal plan. According to Peter, Christ was foreordained to come and die (see 1 Peter 1:18-21). Though this has widespread significance for the development of history, we desist from this topic to focus on the words of God to Eve: “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children, and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”

The first part of this is fairly straightforward. As Ross notes: “In the oracle for the woman, one part deals with childbirth and the other with her relationship to the man. The first introduces great pain into the process of bearing and rearing children. The Hebrew construction must be interpreted carefully: “I will greatly multiply your pain in your conception.” “Conception” precisely locates the pain. That this is the correct interpretation may be seen in the rest of the verse: “in pain you shall bring forth children.”[1]

The second aspect of the punishment for Eve concerns her relationship with her husband.  It is the term desire (urge) to or for her husband that precipitates the ugly response from the man. Many take this to be akin to sexual urge or desire for companionship (with sex).[2] For example, Wenham puts it this way: “Women often allow themselves to be exploited in this way because of their urge toward their husband: their sexual appetite may sometimes make them submit to quite unreasonable male demands. Once again woman’s life is blighted at the most profound level.”[3]

A lexical argument has been utilized to bolster the sexual urge view. The Hebrew word תְּשׁוּקָה (teshuqah) is found only three times in Scripture (Gen. 3:16, 4:7, Song of Songs 7:10 [11]). Clearly, in Solomon’s love poem it is sexual desire as the context necessitates. But what of the text here? Obviously, child rearing and relations with her husband are all intimately connected with sexual union. This is why so many find this position attractive. However, I have some reservations. First, would it mean that there were no sexual desires before the fall? But Adam and Eve were given the mandate to populate the world. Even in the pre-fall state, children would be the results of sexual union, and sexual union would be the result of desire. Even now in the post-fall world, God deems the marriage between a man and his wife as a blessing and the marriage bed is undefiled.

Sexuality is beautiful within the bounds set by God. It is only the marring and perversion of sex that bears His scorn, and those who misuse God’s good gifts will face the unavoidable conclusion, namely, that adulterers and fornicators He will judge. Second, we must not miss the closer context of Genesis 4 with the mention of Cain and sin crouching at the door. The same word “desire” is here used for sin. As sin is personified, it acts as an animal about to ravage its prey. Sin wants to dominate Cain. It will subdue and master him. The parallel use of this term by the writer, Moses, about the judgment on Eve that will result in her desiring her husband is striking. Though Wenham favors the position that sees desire as sexual, he nonetheless mentions the alternative understanding propagated by Susan Foh.

Here are Wenham’s remarks:

“Susan Foh (WTJ 37 [1974/75] 376–83) has, however, argued that the woman’s urge is not a craving for her man whatever he demands but an urge for independence, indeed a desire to dominate her husband. Such an interpretation of “urge” is required in the very closely parallel passage in 4:7, where sin’s urge is said to be for Cain, but he must master it. Here in 3:16, the woman’s desire for independence would be contrasted with an injunction to man to master her. There is a logical simplicity about Foh’s interpretation that makes it attractive, but given the rarity of the term “urge” (תשוקה) , apart from Gen 3:16 and 4:7 occurring only in Cant 7:10), certainty is impossible.”[4]

Maybe not certainty, but high probability may be warranted.

Ross makes another suggestion along the same lines.

“The Hebrew word ‘desire’ (tesuqa),” Note Ross, “has some of the same uses that the English word has. In this passage it is commonly explained to mean that the woman would be drawn to her husband, probably so explained on the basis of the usage in Song of Solomon. But the word also occurs in this context of Genesis with quite another meaning. According to its use in Genesis 4:7, “desire” probably should be interpreted to describe prompting to evil. The idea of the verse would then be that, because the woman prompted the man to sin in giving him something to eat, that is, taking the lead rather than maintaining a partnership, the man would have dominion over her. I would thus translate, “Your desire was to your husband, but he shall have the mastery over you.” The punishment, then, would also be talionic for the woman. This view also finds support in verse 17 (“because you obeyed your wife”).”[5]

Finally, in a constant struggle, which has been aptly titled, the “battle of the sexes” men and women in marital relations or in the contemporary dating scene, where sin runs rampant, this back and forth between men and women persists. It is not that women are from Venus, nor that men are from Mars. Strife entered in as a result of the fall. So, when God told Eve that the husband will rule over her, it was no blessing in disguise. Some hold this “rule” over his wife as the norm as if this was tantamount to the male being the head of the household. This is absolutely false. This text is a negative result of the fall and can not be pressed into the service of normal familial relations in the Christian home.

Furthermore the Hebrew word: (מָשַׁל  the prime root: Mashal), here has the notion involving governing, lording over, subjugating, controlling, and ruling. For example, in the Genesis narrative, this term is used to describe how Joseph will rule over his brethren, and in how he did rule over Egypt (Gen. 37:8; 45:8). Later in the book of Judges, we see “at that time the Philistines had dominion over Israel” (14:4, cf. 15:11). Men will do to women what the Philistines did to Israel. Men, with no fear of God, will enslave women and treat them as chattel. This is the way of the unregenerate world we live in today. But in God’s mercy, He has given believers a mandate to live by a different standard. He equips us with the Gospel of Christ to live as those loved and forgiven, and as such we imitate those traits in our marital relations.

When a woman submits to her husband because she seeks to honor Christ, this is a beautiful image of the church yielding to Christ. When the man loves his wife and is willing to lay down his life for her, then in this too, is depicted the beautiful and sacrificial love that Christ had for the Church, His eternal bride. Christians are given the blessings of heaven to live as God’s ambassadors in this world. In the home, the husband and wife can, indeed, have a marriage ‘made in heaven,’ and by God’s grace, lived out in obedience to the household codes provided in the New Testament. Women, don’t kid yourselves with Women’s Lib.

Ladies, look to Christ, who befriended women, elevated them, honored them, and taught them the precious gospel of salvation. Women! Stop fighting for equality in the world, as God has given you equality in his word. Indeed, the Bible has books dedicated to women. Read Esther and Ruth. Look at the women in the gospels that ministered to the Lord and even witnessed for Christ. They were blessed, even as Mary the mother of Jesus. Finally, when you submit in your home and church, you become the reason for love unbounded to be reciprocated. We must all remember that order is ordained of God. Chaos is the result of the Fall. Yet, out of the chaos of the world, God redeems His saints according to His wise and eternal plan. Soli Deo Gloria.


[1] Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 145-46. Also, William H. Baker says of pain in childbearing: “it has been the bane of womanhood all these centuries.” (In the Image of God: A Biblical View of Humanity [Chicago, IL: Moody, 1991], 63).

[2] Baker, In the image of God, 63.

[3] Gordon J, Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary, ed. David A. Hubbard & Glen W. Barker. OT, ed. John D. W. Watts (Milton Keynes, England: Word, 1991 [1987]), 81.

[4] Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 81-82. I highly recommend Susan T. Foh, Women and the Word of God: A Response to Biblical Feminism (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1979). Her chapter on the OT includes her fine analysis of the Genesis narrative.

[5] Ross, Creation and Blessing, 146. Surprisingly, Evangelical commentator, John J. Davis, sees the desire in a positive light and comfort to lighten the sorrow of childbirth. His view of the man’s “rule over his wife is even more strange. He says, “. . .the woman would be ruled by the man. God imposed this order on society because of sin; without a chain of authority, chaos would reign. According to the New Testament, it is a sin for the wife to withhold obedience or for the husband to withhold love and kindness” (Paradise to Prison: Studies in Genesis, [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989 (1975)], 94. His view is not so much troubling but that he finds it in this passage. I believe Davis has missed the nuances of the text and has therefore, read the passage as warranting something positive rather than seeing that as a result of the fall, women shall constantly try to dominate their husbands and husbands will subjugate and rule their wives. Indeed, the Christian ideal (as seen in Eph., Col., 1 Tim., etc.) is a restoration to equality and complementarity of the pre-fall paradise, not the maintenance of the sinful status quo.




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