The Role of Women – Genesis 3:16

This is my last article looking at the role of women from the creation standpoint. Next week, I will move into looking at things from the new creation perspective, specifically passages like 2 Corinthians 6:16-27 and Galatians 3:27-29.

Thus far, I have posted three articles with regards to the role of women with the beginning creation:

While I don’t believe these should give us the final word on the role of women, I do believe they should give us great insight into everything that would follow in salvation history. And I believe we can easily see that some passages are misunderstood, reading our own perspectives back into the ancient near eastern culture of the Hebrews. Yet, there are still many passages to deal with, not least being this particular statement by God to the woman following what we usually term as ‘the Fall’:

To the woman he said,
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16)

What some would suggest is that, when this verse speaks that the woman’s ‘desire shall be for [her] husband’, this is in regards to her desire to rule over him, this being connected with the final words of vs16, ‘and he shall rule over you’. Thus, the conclusion comes that, though the woman desires to rule over her husband, he will actually have the ruling responsibility over her.

So, let’s consider this debated Scripture.

In his Christian Theology, Millard Erickson gives some interesting thoughts to consider in regards to the translation of the Hebrew in this verse. He points out from the famous Brown, Driver and Briggs’ Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament that the Hebrew word mashal is usually translated in our English versions as ‘rule over’. This is true not only in Genesis 3:16 but also in many other passages (e.g. Genesis 4:7; 24:2; 37:8; Deuteronomy 16:5).

Yet, mashal is not exclusively translated as such. It can also be translated as ‘to be like’ or ‘to be similar to’.  Keep this translation of mashal in mind as we consider one more thing. As a side note, after looking at your lexicons, for those wanting to dispute this translation, please make sure you look at the Hebrew number 4911a in your lexicons.

In the greater context of Genesis 3:16-19, we must note the parallel nature of the passage in which God speaks judgment on both the woman and the man. The curse on man is not work itself, but pain and sweat while working the ground, while the woman was cursed with her own pain in childbirth. They both received the judgment of pain and toil.

Knowing that both man and woman were cursed with sorrow and anguish, Erickson, therefore, suggests that translating mashal as ‘to be like’ or ‘to be similar to’ is a very likely rendition in this context. Thus, the last line of Genesis 3:16 would be better translated as: ‘and he will be similar to you’.

Why would God end out this pronouncement of judgment on Eve with the words, ‘and he will be similar to you’, as in this rendition of the verse below?

To the woman he said,
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he will be similar to you.” (Genesis 3:16)

The reason is this: God had first pronounced judgment on the woman. The devastating news had just come to her ears. Therefore, God made such a statement at the end of vs16 to let the woman know that her husband would also be receiving judgment. They already stood on equal footing from the standpoint of creation, as I pointed out in Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:18-22. But, in this statement in 3:16, God is now declaring that they would also be on equal footing in receiving judgment for their sin. Both would go through pain and anguish. Accordingly, God’s final words to the woman, ‘and he will be similar to you’, would actually lead into His words of judgment on Adam.

Now, many theologians might prefer the more regularly used translation of mashal as ‘rule over’. In doing so, such advocates will note the similar wording between Genesis 3:16b and God’s words to Cain in 4:7b. Both passages use the words desire (Hebrew teshuwqah) and rule over (Hebrew mashal).

In the fuller context, Genesis 4:6-7 specifically contains the words the LORD spoke to Cain before Cain finally killed his brother, Abel.

6 The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4:6-7)

Thus, we can see the similarities between the usual translation of the final words in Genesis 3:16 and the final words of Genesis 4:7. From such a framework, complementarians conclude: The woman will have the desire to rule over her husband, just as sin desired to rule over Cain. And, whereas God has commanded Cain to rule over that sinful desire in Genesis 4:7, God is pronouncing in Genesis 3:16 that the husband would rule over the woman. Thus, precedence is given for the man to have the lead responsibility in the home, as well as in the church.

Interestingly enough, one theologian, who does hold to the more customary translation of mashal in Genesis 3:16, comes to this conclusion in regards to the connections between these two verses in Genesis 3 and 4:

‘Sin is like an animal that “desires” to control and dominate Cain, but God challenged Cain to “rule” the unrestrained desire of sin. If, as seems likely, the author of Genesis intends us to read these verses together [Genesis 3:16 and 4:7], the desire of Eve for her husband corresponds to sin’s desire to pounce on Cain. It is a desire to break the relationship of equality established at creation and transform it into a relationship of domination and servitude.’ (Bill Arnold, Encountering the Book of Genesis, p39, italics mine)

The point is this: Even if Genesis 3:16 communicates to us that the woman’s desire would be to rule over the man, but the man was to rule over the woman in the end, this is not teaching us that woman was trying to usurp her own authority and move from a position of inferiority to a position of superiority. It would be speaking about her desire to move from a position of equality to superiority, for we already established the equal role of the man and woman back in both Genesis 1:26-28 and Genesis 2:18.

Therefore, if one holds to the usual translation of Genesis 3:16 as does Arnold, one could only argue for female subordination in the home and church from a post-Fall perspective, not a pre-Fall, Edenic perspective. Thus, it would have never been God’s intended purpose for one to rule over the other or one to have the authority over the other. Such was a result of sin.

Yet, how are we to understand the last phrase, ‘and he shall rule over you’, if one sticks with the conventional interpretation of Genesis 3:16? Well, one could argue that the ruling responsibility is thus given to the male figure post-Fall. But, should we stop there? Of course not!

We are to remember that men and women were of equal standing from the beginning, before the Fall. And knowing that Christ came to redeem us from the curse and restore things back to their pre-Fall condition, then we must be challenged to not build a theological cornerstone around the last phrase of Genesis 3:16 in regards to the role of women in both the family and the church. To argue the subordination of women to men might be a probable conclusion from post-Fall to pre-Christ. But Christ and the new covenant have come to reverse the curse! That is of great importance in this discussion.

But I will start next week on the new creation and what this all means in Christ.