Genesis 3:16: Is patriarchy a curse of the fall?
Genesis 3:16 seems to say that male headship was established as a curse on Eve, so did not exist in God’s original good creation. A closer look at the language of the text reveals otherwise.
Genesis 3:16 is the one and only passage of Scripture where patriarchy might be read as a curse. Many modern interpreters see in it direct proof that gender inequality, complementarianism, patriarchy, gendered piety—whatever you want to call it—was not built into creation, but came as a result of the fall.
The argument is as follows:
In Genesis 3, God confronts Adam and Eve after they eat of the forbidden tree. Both are given a set of curses: new realities not present in the ideal world of Eden. The last of these curses is presented in verse 16b, where the Hebrew reads literally:
And to your husband will be your desire, and he will rule over you.
The second half, "and he will rule over you," clearly refers to the patriarchal norms of human society. Since this is listed among the curses of the fall, it would seem that patriarchy itself is a curse which we should work to reverse. As believers in Jesus, through Whom all things are being made new (Revelation 21:5; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17), we ought therefore to labor against patriarchy in our world, and towards total gender equality.
This is the argument in sum, as made by egalitarian scholars like Philip Payne. In Man and Woman, One in Christ, for example, he argues the case against patriarchy as follows:
Since the text identifies this as a consequence of the fall, it must describe something new and not preexisting, just like all the other results of the fall in 3:14–19. Furthermore, all the other results of the fall are future; none are obligatory ("should").
Virtually all versions of the Bible translate this as future, just like the other effects of the fall. Everything in 3:14–19 is disastrous news for the party addressed, and every other result of the fall for humankind is something people should try to overcome, such as pain in childbearing (through medical techniques) and removal of thorns and thistles (through weeding and farming). People should not foster, but rather alleviate, the consequences of the fall, including the husband's rule over his wife.
The fall transformed the relationship of Adam and Eve from equality into a power struggle. "Far from being a reign of coequals over the remainder of God's creation, the relationship now becomes a fierce dispute, with each party trying to rule the other. The two who once reigned as one attempt to rule each other". (Philip B. Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul's Letters, ePub edition, 2015. Pg. 33, with quote from Victor P. Hamilton, "The Book of Genesis 1–17," 1990; New International Commentary on the Old Testament Series. Pg. 202.)
On the face of it, the argument seems strong. It does at least track with the text, which is more than can be said for the interpretive contortions egalitarians must perform on passages like Ephesians 5:22–24; Colossians 3:18; Titus 2:5; and 1 Peter 3:1–6. Here in Genesis 3:16, the text does admit of being read as they argue: patriarchy as a post-fall curse.
But this surface reading requires an atomistic approach to Scripture that ignores a great deal else. To understand this, we need to simply compare Scripture with Scripture, on three key points:
The Hebrew word teshuqah, used of the "desire" that the woman will have for her husband, has a primary meaning of a passionately negative urge. Although some commentators take a positive view, most—including, as Payne documents, some egalitarians—correctly hold that the word is negative here. Usually it is understood as a desire to dominate Adam in some way. Aside from its simple lexical meaning, there is a second, very compelling reason for this: teshuqah is used only three times in the Hebrew scriptures—with the second use occurring in a very similar passage, hard on the heels of the first. Compare Genesis 3:16, speaking of Eve…
And to your husband will be your desire, and he will rule over you.
…with Genesis 4:7, speaking of Cain's sin, which reads literally:
And to you is its desire, and you must rule over it.
The statements are obviously parallel—not just in the words that they use, nor only in their structure, but also in what they are saying. The subject has a “desire” towards another person, but that person is to rule over it. Even the syntax of the clauses in the Hebrew text are identical, adjusted for differences in the subject and object. It is hard to imagine how Moses could have more obviously signaled the theological connection between these two passages. The desire of sin in Genesis 4 instructs us in how Moses intended that we understand the desire of Eve in Genesis 3: it is of such a nature as to be overpowering and corrupting; a desire to illicitly dominate. This fits seamlessly with it being a curse. Exegetically and theologically, we would be obtuse to read Eve's desire in Genesis 3 as a positive affection rather than a corrupted grasping.
You can probably see how this starts to attenuate the reading of "he will rule over you" at the end of the verse. But the central word there, the pillar that props up the egalitarian argument, is mashal, "rule"—so we would be getting ahead of ourselves if we did not look at that next.
There is nothing complicated or contested about this word. Mashal refers to the simple act of ruling. The Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament defines it as "rule, govern, gain/exercise dominion over." In the same way, Brown-Driver-Briggs says "rule, have dominion, reign."
Unlike teshuqah, "desire," this word mashal does not easily carry negative connotations—here, or anywhere. Most obviously, in the parallel passage of Genesis 4:7, the command for Cain to rule over (mashal) his sin is a command to do something good. Similarly, in Genesis 1:18, when God sets the lights in the sky to rule over (mashal) the day and the night, "God saw that it was good."
Ironically, complementarians, who believe in pre-fall male headship, often argue that the rule referred to here in Genesis 3:16 is something negative—something new introduced by God: a sort of oppression or subjugation as a result of the fall. Yet the aforementioned Philip Payne, a feminist, quite easily refutes this view by observing that such a negative connotation would be utterly unique in the Scriptures (pg. 33). Although he pays perhaps too little attention to some rare passages, like Psalm 19:13 and Nehemiah 9:37, he is nonetheless correct to note that the term mashal never, in itself, has a negative connotation—it must be placed into a clear negative context, which is the opposite of what we find when comparing Genesis 3:16 with 4:7. The only reason to ignore this is because one has blindly assumed, in the teeth of language used, that everything God says while cursing Eve is intended to be negative.
"He will rule over you"
What we have seen so far takes some of the wind out of the egalitarian sails. In fact, it takes it all—but to see this, we need to now turn to the most acute exegetical difficulty for a traditional understanding of gendered duties as "very good" creational structures.
We have shown that woman's desire is negative, and man's rule is not. This makes the feminist position nonsensical already: to argue that we should labor against man's good rule, which is clearly set as a corrective to woman's evil desire. Nonetheless, although their position appears self-contradictory—a good rule given as a curse is hard to understand—we do need to do a little more work to fully demonstrate the incoherence, because their logic that the rule is a result of the fall remains unaffected. After all, if, at the time God pronounces the curse, man only will rule over woman, then surely at that time he does not yet rule over her. Surely the implication is that he will only rule over her from now on—which would mean that masculine headship was not in fact a creational hierarchy.
This argument that man merely gained authority over woman as a curse against her is certainly a modern innovation, but the basic logic makes sense. There are, however, two fatal problems with it. These are hard to spot when we atomize Genesis 3:16, declutching it from the rest of the Bible. But they are brazen if we stop reading the passage as an isolated text, and consider its place in the larger shape of Scripture:
Problem #1: the rest of Scripture denies the implication
Both the Old and New Testaments teach very plainly that patriarchy was the natural, created hierarchy, before sin entered the world. This is beyond dispute. It is demonstrated implicitly in the creation account itself:
Then the LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. The LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones,
And flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called Woman,
Because she was taken out of Man.” (Genesis 2:18–23)
Here, God brings all of the animals to Adam as potential helpers. Adam's naming of the animals is something we take for granted given our familiarity with the text, yet really quite notable if we step back to consider it. What clearer sign of his authority over them could there be? We already know that he has this authority from Genesis 1:28, but here we see him exercising it for the first time. As any parent knows, naming is a uniquely potent imposition of headship. That is why, in a culture which hates hierarchy and authority, you start to see people doing insane things like letting their children name themselves. But naming is also a uniquely meaningful way of establishing belonging. Only a culture deeply sick from sin believes that acts of authority cannot be acts of love. The Bible knows of no such distinction, and so it is that Adam calls his wife—or more correctly, his wife's "kind"—woman. This comes at the apex of his naming his helpers. Eve, finally, is the helper suitable, fitted to him; the helper no animal could be. But though she is greater than the animals, as Adam is, she is nonetheless named as they are. Are we to believe that this one act of naming is unique among every other, in that it does not signal headship? Does Genesis not clearly presuppose and demonstrate Adam's headship over Eve from the moment of her creation?
That is certainly not how Paul reads it. He plainly states that women may not exercise authority over men in the church, precisely because the church must adhere to the greater creational pattern: "it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve" (1 Timothy 2:12–13). Paul clearly sees that the very order of creation signals Adam's headship:
For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head… (1 Corinthians 11:7–10)
There is simply no question that Paul regards Eve as subordinate to Adam, by design, by nature—the same design and nature that God pronounced "very good." If Paul is mistaken about this, then Scripture disagrees with itself. But if Scripture disagrees with itself, then it is not breathed out by God, who is one (2 Timothy 3:16; Deuteronomy 6:4)—so why are we even bothering to debate it?
Problem #2: "Will rule over you" is used elsewhere without implying a new hierarchy
Before we throw out the infallibility of scripture, consider how the same phrase, "will rule over you," is used in another passage:
And the men of Israel said to Gideon, "Rule over us, both you, also your son, also your son's son. For you have delivered us from the hand of Midian." And Gideon said to them, "I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. Yahweh will rule over you." (Judges 8:22–23)
Why does Gideon say Yahweh will rule over Israel? Does he not know that God already rules Israel?
Here is where the egalitarian case falls apart. The Hebrew word, mashal, does not necessarily refer to abstract authority, but to the de facto state of rule. Someone may have de jure authority—legitimate, rightful rule—yet not have mashal; not have an actualized rule. Likewise, someone may have mashal, yet not have rightful authority (cf. Isaiah 3:4, 12).
In the case of Gideon, Yahweh did indeed rule, in the sense of having authority over Israel—but He did not rule, in the sense of immediately controlling Israel, because He had handed them over to the Midianites for their evil ways. So Midian had mashal over Israel, not Yahweh, and this is why Gideon must declare that Yahweh "will rule" over them, after having delivered them from the Midianites.
We can likewise see how this works in Genesis. Man, by virtue of his prior creation as the chief image bearer, already held authority over woman in marriage. Nonetheless, as we know all too well in the modern day, he may temporarily lose direct rule, mashal, in her times of rebellion, and afterward need to restore it. Hence, he “will” rule over her. It is precisely because of the desire that God curses Eve with, to grasp or dominate, that He must also reiterate man's rule over her. Certainly this rule will sometimes be oppressive, because of the man's sin, but more pertinently, it will seem oppressive because of hers. What God is telling her is not really something new about man's rule, but something new about her relationship to it, which will make that rule all the more necessary, important—and difficult.
What Genesis 3:16 is actually saying
When Adam joined in Eve’s disobedience, man fell. They would no longer enjoy the paradise of Eden, nor the fruits of the Tree of Life. God leveled curses on each party involved, and their seed; Adam, Eve, and the Serpent.
On Eve, and thus on women, he laid two curses: the pain of childbirth, and a sinful desire to dominate their husbands. Yet the curse is laced with grace: God reminds her that when she yields to this desire, Adam, and thus husbands, will come out victorious and restore their rightful rule. This rule may be overbearing or wicked, as we see in 1 Peter 3; yet at its best, redeemed, it is not tyrannical, but gracious—as husbands seek to be lords in the likeness of their One Lord (Ephesians 5:22–24; 1 Peter 3:6).
The importance of this is all-encompassing. It is more than simply getting the historical facts of Genesis right. It is more even than understanding and honoring our places and duties in the household that God designed. Getting this right has implications for the whole of redemptive history. God's words in Genesis 3:16 are a microcosm of the entire story of salvation. They symbolically point to how Christ establishes His reign over us. We rebelled against Him, rejecting His rightful rule over us and instituting other gods in His place, those gods being little more than bigger versions of ourselves; errant, malicious, and lustful for power. In effect, we proclaimed ourselves as gods, just as woman would establish herself as an authority over and against her husband. And yet this rebellion would not last; God would call out His elect and draw them into repentance. Likewise, the righteous man reestablishes his rightful authority over a once rebellious wife, and cleanses her by water through the word (Ephesians 5:25).
Egalitarians claim that Genesis 3:16 contradicts a pre-fall hierarchy of masculine authority. But while their interpretation seems initially plausible, it crumbles before the total, cohesive biblical witness. Their interpretation requires taking one passage in isolation, then pitting it against the witness of the whole of God's Word. If you are following this method, bite your tongue and reconsider. Do not approach the text as an enemy, slicing and dicing it to divide and conquer. Let the full counsel of God's word speak. Only in this way can you understand it and submit to it at every level—from the smallest personal application, to the greatest sweep of redemptive history.