Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.
— Gen 3:16

You know the text. It’s a portion of God’s response to that tragic moment when Adam and Eve brought ruin and shame upon the whole human race by their disobedience. If you’ve run in evangelical Christian circles and been involved in churches as I have, you’ve likely heard this passage used countless times to support the notion of male leadership.

I don’t pretend one text will settle all gender role disputes that divide the Christian Church (for a robust defense of a biblical egalitarian view, see my series of posts on Phil Payne’s magisterial book, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul’s Letters). I will, however, offer an angle on this passage that has been traditionally understood to approve male leadership. The terms “desire” and “rule” are critical in shedding any such light. In the end, let the reader decide.

One such understanding has been to view the term “desire” as connoting some sense of domination. This interpretation is supported by noting that the same word is used in God’s warning to Cain that he must not let his hatred (“desire”) dominant him (Gen 4:7). The point is then made that Eve’s desire is to dominate Adam, illustrating that a woman’s desire to dominate is sinful.

Another approach suggests that the “desire” in question has sexual connotations, where the woman seeks to sexually dominate the man. Of course, there is hardly a conceptual connection with sex in Gen 4:7 (notwithstanding some strange Freudian angle), so this maneuver is more difficult to see. However, it is not too far removed. The only other Old Testament reference where the term “desire” is used is in Song of Songs 7:10, which does speak to male sexual drive.

John Walton in his commentary on Genesis, has some excellent insights in providing a fair reading between the three passages (Gen 3:16; 4:7; SS 7:10). He opines that “desire” …

simply refers to one’s basic or inherent instincts. Song of Songs refers to the male sexual drive, a basic instinct. Genesis 4:7 refers to the basic driving instinct of sin, which is to deprave. In 3:16, then, since the context has already addressed the issue of reproduction, that can easily be identified as a basic instinct of woman.

Based upon usage of the terms “desire” and “rule” elsewhere in Scripture, the verbless clause in the latter half of Gen 3:16, along with literary and syntactical analysis of Gen 3:16, John Walton concludes:

If the statement in the last half of verse 16 is descriptive, there is no need to see it as part of a curse and no need to see it as imposed…As description this is not imposing gender roles but identifying what is inevitable. Eve’s desire to fulfill her mother role will inevitably result in her husband’s domination. Finally, and significantly, note that 4:7 uses similar vocabulary and syntax, and there the verbless clause is clearly descriptive.

Therefore, Gen 3:16 is likely not a judgement against women because they wish to dominate men, nor is it God endorsing male leadership as a response to alleged female domination.

Spread the word (please & thank you) 

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for the solid exegetical insight into this text. It is one, I think, that is often misinterpreted on other side of the debate over women in the church.

  2. Thanks, J.w. I ran out of steam and should’ve been more thorough, but glad you enjoyed it. There’s much more to say and perhaps I’ll come back to it and do some updates.

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