“He will rule over you”: three views of what God was telling Eve in the garden

Gen1.27“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:27)

Gender goes back to the beginning. Male. Female. That’s how God made the human race.

But what about the relationship between those genders? As we read through the first few chapters of Genesis, we find a shift in that relationship. After Adam and Eve eat of the forbidden fruit, God says to the woman:

“Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16)

How we view God’s statement to Eve greatly affects how we view the relationship between the sexes. Our understanding of this pronouncement can even shape how we approach the roles available to each sex within the church.

There have traditionally been two views regarding Genesis 3:16. I want to look at each, then propose what I see as a better understanding of the dynamics of this passage:

“It was the woman who was deceived…”

A very traditional view sees the principle of male leadership as being a mandate of God based on Eve’s sin, sort of a safeguard to keep Eve (and women in general) from messing up again. Those who hold to this view find some support in Paul’s words to Timothy:

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.” (1 Timothy 2:12–14)

Male authority, according to some, was established in response to the deception of Eve; men were given the lead to keep such things from happening again. (Apparently, Adam is relatively blameless for what went on)

“There is neither male nor female”

Proponents of a more egalitarian relationship between the sexes tend to see in Genesis 3:16 a curse that Christians are to work to overcome. Before the Fall, they say, men and women were completely equal. It was only when men and women sinned that God cursed humankind by making women subordinate to men.

Many take Galatians 3:28 as a rallying verse:

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

Where the Old Law and old traditions made a difference between the genders, these have been wiped out in Christ, the argument goes. That’s why Peter said what he did at Pentecost:

“‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.” (Acts 2:17–18)

Because God’s Spirit was poured out on both men and women, both sexes receive the same gifts and perform the same roles. Male-only leadership is eliminated in the age of the Spirit.

Most who hold to this view admit that this age of full equality was not fully realized in New Testament times. (This is the point in the conversation where many would insert a discussion about slavery) The idea is that Christians were growing in their understanding of how Spiritual giftedness would affect the church. In addition, we do see some women in prominent positions in the church in the New Testament; it would merely take time for people to stop resisting the Spirit’s leading.

“Whoever wants to be first must be slave of all”

It seems to me that neither of these views deal rightly with God’s words to Eve and to Adam. The first view seems to ignore the fact that the things that God was announcing were negative. While some over the years, have argued that labor pains are the will of God and should not be alleviated, few hold to that today. I’ve never heard people argue that thorns and thistles are the will of God and should be allowed to grow freely. We understand that those consequence of the couple’s sin were negative; why should we see the part about man ruling over women as something positive?

In the same way, the second view fails to note that the curses affected things Adam and Eve were already doing. Reproduction wasn’t new; God had already told men and women to multiply. But now childbirth would involved pain. Agriculture was already a part of their lives. But after the Fall, the earth would no longer work with them; food would be produced only through intense labor. It would only make sense that male leadership also existed before the Fall.

A better understanding of Genesis 3:16 recognizes that man was already supposed to be leading his wife; after the Fall, he would do so through domination. Servant leadership would be replaced by a dictatorial approach.

This view looks to Ephesians 5 to see how the relationship should be:

“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Ephesians 5:22–26)

The example is Christ. Men are to lead, not through chest pounding and intimidation, but through service and sacrifice. The Fall transformed this benevolent headship into rulership. Leaders in general ignored God’s will as to how to lead:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25–28)

Leadership and rulership are not the same. After the Fall, men would act as rulers instead of the leaders they were supposed to be.

For we see in Genesis that God had already given man a responsibility for taking care of his wife. In Genesis 3, after the couple have eaten the forbidden fruit, they hide from God. The text tells us:

“Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?”” (Genesis 3:8–9)

Both had sinned. Both were hidden. But God calls to the man. Why? Because the man had failed his family. He had not provided spiritual leadership. Instead, he allowed his wife to be deceived. (It’s worth noting that Genesis 2 only tells us that the man received God’s instructions regarding the forbidden fruit. Was he responsible for teaching his wife? Had he failed in that area? Is that why she misquotes in Genesis 3:3 what God had said? It’s possible.)

So just as mankind’s previous responsibilities of working the land and reproducing were made more difficult by the Fall, so this relationship was also transformed. Where man was supposed to lead through service and sacrifice, he would now do so by “lording it over” his wife.

I would suggest that male leadership was part of God’s plan from the beginning. I think we see that throughout the Bible, though that leadership is expressed in different ways at different times. From the Patriarchs to the Kings to the Twelve to the elders who are “husband of one wife,” the leaders of God’s people are assumed to be males. This leadership has often been abused and misapplied, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist. It’s up to God’s people to recover the practice of servant leadership, resisting the effects of the Fall and following the example of Christ.

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  1. I understand what the you’re trying to say here, but I’m having trouble agreeing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this argument and I have several concerns with this line of thinking.

    It sounds good, yes. Who wouldn’t want a servant leader directing her spiritual life, keeping her pure, keeping her out of trouble, keeping her from making the same mistake that Eve made? This post argues that servant leadership–true benevolent male headship–means service and sacrifice. It means teaching your family the “proper” way to worship. It means taking the fall and responsibility for your family’s sins. See, it sounds good.

    But this is insidious. It assumes several things about men and women, things that ultimately, promote the opposite of service and sacrifice.
    First of all, I have never heard a good explanation of servant leadership. Sacrifice and service are good words, but what does that truly mean for our relationships? Nothing seems to indicate that “servant leadership” should be primarily male, reserved only for males, and expected only of males. Where the phrase “servant leader” came from, I don’t know, but I do know it doesn’t appear in Scripture.

    Does that mean we shouldn’t be servants or lead by humbling ourselves and becoming the last? Not at all! But to say it is only expected of the husband, father, elder, or preacher, is a pretty selective reading of the Bible.

    There is an assumption here that women need leadership, and men do not. There is an assumption that women are growing and learning but never maturing, and men are not. There is an assumption that male headship is benevolent, and because of this, “lovingly” excludes women from decision making, service, and sacrifice. There is an assumption that men are responsible for the hearts and actions of their family members, and women are not.

    This is shaming language, couched in pretty words, but basically belittles the service and sacrifice of women. It says, “Who wouldn’t want this kind of leadership? Get happy with it!”, but fails to recognize, affirm, or support the Holy Spirit in each and every person.

    We constantly see the words of Paul used against the words of Paul. His command of “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” is ignored to hastily discuss “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands as you do to the Lord.” Yet, I don’t know any man who would say he is the Christ-figure to his wife. That would mean wives not only need Jesus to be saved, but their husbands as well.

    Where do single women fall into this? Divorced women? Abused women?

    I would like to offer up a new phrase. “Servant.” Let’s be servants. Not servant leaders. Not benevolent heads. But servants. I will submit to my husband, and he will submit to me, and IN MUTUALITY we will lead our family, participate in our church, praise our God, and embrace the Holy Spirit. That is true leadership. When we do it together. When we replace hierarchy with equality. When we both, male and female, be Jesus to each other and others.

    This does not mean women and men are exactly alike with no gender distinctions. This means that each person is uniquely gifted and uniquely called, and with that, participates differently in the community of God. I would love to see the day when women are appreciated and respected for their relationships with God as much as men.

    • Hi Katilin. Thanks for the response. Some pushback always helps me advance in my thinking.

      I’m interested that you’ve heard this argument many times. I frankly haven’t, so I guess we run in very different circles. You said little about what was said to Eve in Genesis, so I’m not sure what your thoughts were on that part of the article, which was intended to be the focus.

      But you expressed some concerns. I’ll try to deal with them, at least somewhat.
      You are concerned that “servant leadership” doesn’t appear in the Bible. While it’s true that the exact phrase doesn’t appear in Scripture, Jesus taught that those who would act as rulers in his kingdom should do so through service.There is room for some to be leaders, according to Scripture; those that would do so should lead through service, not by “ruling it over” others.

      You stated, “There is an assumption here that women need leadership, and men do not.” I make no such assumption. Surely the story of Adam and Eve shows that to be false. You also say, “There is an assumption that women are growing and learning but never maturing, and men are not.” To that I can only say, “Wow!” That’s so far from anything that I believe that I don’t know where to begin. It’s patently untrue. To be honest, that goes for every sentence in which you began, “There is an assumption…” Those assumptions may exist out there, but they aren’t mine.

      You ask about single women. I’ll confess that I think the Bible assumes that God’s community of believers will be built around the family unit. I’m one who believes that elders must be married and must have children. That’s not to say that single Christians or childless Christians are less spiritual. It just means that God designed the church around the family unit.

      The idea of a church body without leadership is not biblical. Yes, we are all to be servants. But some are to be in leadership positions.

      It’s my belief that God made mankind with two genders for a reason. Neither is superior to the other. Both are to be appreciated and respected for their relationships with God. That can still happen in a body where each gender is allowed to live out a different calling.

      Thanks for making me think. I promise to keep thinking and to keep studying. For I hope to be ever growing and learning. God bless.

      • Thanks for your reply!

        I have heard many individuals talk about women’s roles and submission under the theme of being servant leaders. I heard it all the time among my friends in college (when that word started to become popular) and it never sat well with me.

        I totally agree that the curse was a negative thing, and related to the Fall. And you’re absolutely right—as people looking to participate in the redemption of this world, we need to strive for the restoration of God’s Kingdom, rather than sin’s brokenness. Rulership and hierarchy are corruptions of God’s original design.

        But where I differ is the concept of pre-Fall male headship. Both Adam and Eve worked together to rule together over his creation. (Gen. 1:26). God created male and female together, in His likeness. (Gen 1:27). It’s interesting that many times we look at the second creation story in Gen. 2, and miss the mutuality beginning in Gen. 1.

        I think the concept of primogeniture is a human construct. Just because Adam was created first, does not mean he was identified as the primary leader of the family. God overturns this idea throughout all of Scripture. Cain and Abel. Jacob and Esau. David and his brothers. Plus, the leadership positions assigned to Huldah, Miriam, Deborah, and Isaiah’s wife, not to mention the example of the mutual leadership of husband and wife team, Priscilla and Aquila. God cursed both Adam and Eve, he struck down both Ananais and Sapphira. He sees husbands and wives as a mutual team, both with responsibility for leading the family. Even Paul speaks of the Fall as being Adam’s fault (Romans) and then Eve’s fault (1 Timothy).

        You say those who lead do so through service. Most definitely! My concern is that we only seem to assign this role to men. If we believe that women serve too, then why not assign them leadership roles as well?

        The assumptions I gathered are not yours, but many of the individuals calling for male headship. Again, I don’t think leadership is inherently evil, and I don’t believe we need to flip it, and call for female headship. I believe this should be done together. As a team. Without one or the other having the “final say.” At times, my husband will decide what’s best for our family. At times, I will. We make those decisions based on the gifts and experiences we were given.

        The idea of the Church being built around the family unit is another discussion altogether! 🙂 I will say that neither Paul, nor Jesus, nor the widows, were excluded from participating and leading the community of God due to their lack of family. When we leave single people out of the mix, we are doing a great disservice to our body.

        Leadership is a very biblical concept. But that doesn’t mean that only men are supposed to “take the helm.” Service and sacrifice is open to all!

        I completely agree that God made two genders for a reason. Because it’s in BOTH genders that we reflect God’s image. Not one or the other, but together. Man and female He created us. I also agree that neither is superior to the other and both are to be respected. But I don’t see calling as being prescribed by gender, where women serve children and other women only and men serve all. I see calling as being prescribed by the Holy Spirit based upon God’s will for each person and each church. And that may cross gender lines.

        Finally, to your last paragraph, me too! Thank you for allowing me to speak and be heard. May God continue to bless this conversation and bring peace to our churches.

          • I’m hesitant to say that God can’t do much of anything, except go against his nature.

            I guess my question is, why would God feel compelled to disregard gender when gifting people? He created gender. That’s emphasized in regards to humans in Genesis 1, when it’s not mentioned regarding any other species. Why wouldn’t the Spirit look at the whole person, including gender, when giving gifts?

          • I’m not sure if I understand. Would God feel compelled to disregard race? Location? Family of origin? I don’t think you’d agree that poor people, black people, people from different countries, or single-parent homes are excluded from leadership or giftedness. Why does this only translate to gender?

            Please realize that people who claim egalitarian are not denying gender DISTINCTIONS. No one is saying that men and women are exactly the same or should be androgynous. But does being female preclude women from leadership roles based on their sex organs or some undefinable “female” characteristic? I don’t think so.

            If male leadership is service and sacrifice, as you say, then my question back is can’t women equally serve and sacrifice? Men who teach children and nurture and cook meals and serve widows aren’t seen as “usurping” authority or corrupting their God-given role. Why are women?

          • Kaitlyn, I see a big difference between those social constructs and something that has been inherent in humanity from the beginning. Before the fall, humanity was already divided into two genders. There was no race, social status, nor family background, but humankind has had two genders from the very start.

            We serve a God who is in relationship. He exists as three in one. The Son submits to the Father, even as he does many of the same things that the Father does. There’s no inferiority in their relationship, that is, Jesus is not of less worth than his Father. Difference in roles does not equal difference in value.

            Finally, there’s no reason why women can’t serve and sacrifice in the church. As you aptly pointed out, men can do many of the things that women do in the home without having to become mothers. There is much room for women to be active in the church while maintaining the principle of male authority.

          • I have a hard time explaining my thoughts on this, because as a woman, I experience this idea a lot differently than you do as a man. I know it doesn’t help to hear that, but it doesn’t make it untrue.

            When you say “male authority,” but then act as if there is no hierarchy, inferiority, differences in worth, I am thrown. What is authority if it does not have some sense of “final say?”

            (Actually, I would like to know your definition of male headship. Practically, what does that mean and what does that look like? How is it played out day to day? Is it preaching? Teaching? Praying? Making the final decision? Being the “buck stops here”? What is male authority?)

            Let’s compare men and women to God and Jesus. God is the head of Jesus and Jesus is the head of the church. The church submits to Jesus and Jesus submits to God. The implication is top-down. God never submits to Jesus or the church. It’s only one way.

            So, does that work with male and female? God is the head of males, males are the head of females. Females submit to males, and males submit to God. It’s only one way.

            But we know it’s not. We submit to each other.

            I guess part of it is understanding Trinity, which I don’t at all and won’t even try to act like I do. But I do believe that when God said in Genesis, “let us”, he was talking to the three-in-one. In a mutual relationship, they participated in creation.

            What I hear you saying is that women being mothers is analogous to men being authorities. Since men can’t bear children, then women can’t be leaders. (I don’t know what that does to the gender identity of infertile women, widows, or single women.)

            Am I understanding it correctly? Help me get there.

      • Throughout human history females have always been valued more than males. (Note: I’m not claiming females were always treated that way.) You see, males are expendable. Females are not. Many females are needed and are absolutely essential for the survival and continuation of the species through successive generations. You don’t need that many males. In theory, just one will do. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes perfect sense that a male would have an instinct to give his life to save the women and children. He is not needed!

          • My point is that they SHOULD be valued because of their need. Fertility rates in the U.S. and most developed countries are at sub-replacement levels. This means Christianity is on a path to extinction. On the other hand, the Muslim rate is much higher. It is far above replacement levels and continues increasing. In 100 years the Christian population will be gone. Christianity will only be saved through childbearing.

      • Kaitlyn, Wendy, I don’t think you should blame these men for simply reflecting the attitude of the bible towards women. The bible states that husbands will rule over their wives and that wives should be in submission to their husbands. It also states that because the woman was deceived in Genesis and not man, that women should not teach or usurp authority over men but should be in silence (1 Timothy 2:12-14). It also states that women are “unclean” “in the days of her menstruation” and after giving birth. It also states that if she gives birth to a boy that “she shall be unclean for seven days” “But if she bears a female child, then she shall be unclean for two weeks”.

        Deut 22:28-29 reads, “If a man finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her and they are discovered, then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days.” So if a man rapes a virgin girl then he must give her father some money for the girl and she will become his wife… so he can rape her some more. But he’s paid for her so it’s ok now.

        Now, if you still have any doubt that females are worth less to Yahweh than males then you should read these verses that actually give a money value on males and females and, surprise, surprise, women are valued less than men. I’ll say it again, women are literally valued less than men by the god, Yahweh. Leviticus 27, 1-8, “Again, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When a man makes a difficult vow, he shall be valued according to your valuation of persons belonging to the Lord. 3 If your valuation is of the male from twenty years even to sixty years old, then your valuation shall be fifty shekels of silver, after the shekel of the sanctuary. 4 Or if it is a female, then your valuation shall be thirty shekels. 5 If it be from five years even to twenty years old then your valuation for the male shall be twenty shekels and for the female ten shekels. 6 But if they are from a month even up to five years old, then your valuation shall be five shekels of silver for the male, and for the female your valuation shall be three shekels of silver. 7 If they are from sixty years old and upward, if it is a male, then your valuation shall be fifteen shekels, and for the female ten shekels.”

        The bible clearly favors males over females. I can give you many, many more examples if you would like. You should give these men here a break though because they’ve actually displayed a relatively tame version of the bible’s attitude towards women. Considering how the bible views women, it could be much worse.

        • Kaitlin:

          Please consider that Ephesians 5 makes clear–I feel sure–that husband and wife mutually submit to Christ’s headship. If, then, both man and woman voluntarily place themselves under Christ’s loving, sacrificial authority (a hierarchy) . . . and the man is to love his wife as Christ loved the called out (redemption through sacrifice/ resurrection)
          . . . why is it so difficult for the woman to place herself voluntarily under the authority of the loving leadership of the man to whom she is married (also in the chapter)?

          And the operation of the church–meant to resemble this marriage model in Ephesians 5–why would men or women object to that very clear teaching? If the objection is motivated because militant feminism has been on the front burner since the ’60s in our culture, then that seems a very weak popular-culture, non-biblical rationale. Is that sufficient reason to reject the fact that there actually is a hierarchical structure in scripture . . . beginning at the top with the Trinity?

          The unspoken problem is not women usurping but men failing to lead.

          • I think you said it in your first sentence: mutual submission.

            I don’t think the problem people have is with the concept of *Godly* hierarchy. Every single Christian should be placing themselves under the authority and rule of their Creator. And wives should submit to their husbands. And husbands should submit to their wives.

            As you said, *both* place themselves under Christ’s loving, sacrificial authority (a hierarchy). Wives should love their husbands and husbands should love their wives. Again, this is mutual. Equal. Loving and sacrificial.

            I’m interested in the phrase “loving leadership.” That wording is not used in Ephesians, so I’m unsure of its meaning. What does that look like? Does the man have the final say? Does it mean that he is responsible for the faith and holiness of his wife? To me, “loving leadership” is wrapping the concept of control and power in a pretty box.

            Of course I want my husband to lead me with love. And I want to lead him with love. Why is it so hard for us to believe that no one has to be “steering the ship” in the relationship. That role is for God and God alone. As men and women, we have equal responsibility for each other and for our own faith.

            If men, as you say, are failing to lead, then what is your solution? What does male headship look like to you, and how would it reform the church? What are the nitty-gritty details of that?

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  5. Kaitlin, I don’t understand why you keep claiming that women are equal to men according to the bible. You shouldn’t just ignore verses that tell you what you don’t want to hear.

    “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Ephesians 5:22–26)

    The bible says nothing about husbands submitting to their wives and it does not claim that men and women are equal, in fact it claims the opposite. If husbands are the head of their wives and yet they’re equal then is Christ equal to the church even though he’s the head? It doesn’t make any sense.

    Women are literally valued less than men in the bible. About half to be exact. I’ll repeat the verses from Leviticus that I quoted earlier that proves this:

    Leviticus 27, 1-8, “Again, the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘When a man makes a difficult vow, he shall be valued according to your valuation of persons belonging to the Lord. 3 If your valuation is of the male from twenty years even to sixty years old, then your valuation shall be fifty shekels of silver, after the shekel of the sanctuary. 4 Or if it is a female, then your valuation shall be thirty shekels. 5 If it be from five years even to twenty years old then your valuation for the male shall be twenty shekels and for the female ten shekels. 6 But if they are from a month even up to five years old, then your valuation shall be five shekels of silver for the male, and for the female your valuation shall be three shekels of silver. 7 If they are from sixty years old and upward, if it is a male, then your valuation shall be fifteen shekels, and for the female ten shekels.”