Perhaps most revealing of the depth of the divergence in egalitarian and complementarian thought is the divergence in the very definitions of 3:16’s key vocab: “rule over” (mashal be) and “desire for” (teshuqah ‘el). The two phrases on their own carry little to no inherent connotation— what’s certain in their definitions is simply that they’re:

  • a ruling by governing— most often used neutrally, occasionally negatively (Neh. 9:37), and sometimes positively in a caretaking sense (Gen. 24:2, Gen. 45:26, Pslam 105:21)… and,
  • a very passionate, fixated kind of desire— intended for good in Songs 7:10 and for evil in Gen. 4:17

The most we can say from the vocabulary alone is that man will govern woman and she will fixate on him in the post-fall marriage dynamic. Contextualizing God’s statement to woman within the larger creation account, however, is tricky.

With a hierarchical view of male and female function leading up to the fall, assigning connotation to their desire and ruling is essential. Otherwise, we’re left with what sounds like the introduction of man’s station as head and woman’s submissive followership in disproportionate yearning for him. This would present headship and submission as a post-fall deviation from the ideal. The connotation on these otherwise neutral words must show a perversion of the preexisting complementarian hierarchy to be consistent through early Genesis, so the woman is usually assigned a usurping desire, and the man— depending on who’s interpreting— will either domineer her sinfully, or lovingly reign her in to keep his rightful headship.

But there is a valid reason to leave “desire” and “rule” in vague neutrality: unlike many of the other usages of teshuqah and mashal, 3:16 doesn’t present the clearest context or explicitly elaborate on the concepts, other than predicting divorce from God leads to suffering. How exactly does a governance and a passionate desire equal a corruption of harmonious marriage appropriate for a judgement verse?

And to Wendy Alsup I am eternally grateful for doing the math and pushing woman’s neutral desire into complementarian conversation. Where I struggled to understand how neutral desire could leave us with a distorted version of marriage, Alsup lays it out plainly: “The problem with our desires is always that they are either FOR the wrong thing or FOR the right thing but out of proportion to what is appropriate.”

That is: the problem with woman’s desire is not an issue of quality (what kind of desire? edifying? conquering? good? bad?). We aren’t told that in Gen. 3. Rather, it’s an issue of quantity (how much does she need her husband? how great is her desire for him compared to her desire for the Lord?). And that, to spin off Alsup, is specified immediately: she yearns for man so badly that he governs her life. “The curse is not that women want to dominate the men in their lives. Women’s problem is that they worship the men in their lives and look to them for affirmation and provision emotionally and spiritually for things that God alone is supposed to provide. Their problem is IDOLATRY.”

This connects woman’s curse fluidly with its effects, ties beautifully into man’s judgement, and depicts a complete reversal of the original ideal.

When God first oriented His people for their relationships to one another, He set them off toward harmony, unity, and interdependence. Just when the earthling was set up for an awesome life in his own mini paradise, with peak physical fitness and the world for his conquering, the Lord held an animal parade to demonstrate what he lacked: community, relationship, and emotional intimacy. And just as his mate was set to enter the partnership with the relational and emotional upper hand, having never known loneliness, God formed the female in a smaller body that came with the cumbersome duty of pregnancy and nursing. By pairing the physically vulnerable with the emotionally vulnerable, God undermined each spouse’s independence in complementary ways to produce interdependence and make possible the joint mission of populating and cultivating the world in community.

But now, childbearing duties would make woman even weaker, and her vulnerability plus the farming conditions outside Eden would skyrocket the value of man’s brute strength. The relationships among people and with creation are broken, the power dynamics have tilted, and men pull ahead.

The man had a good desire in Gen. 3:18 (getting food from the earth), but when the Maker of that earth was carved out of the humans’ lifestyle, His blessing for the soil’s cooperation went with Him. His specialization as cultivator in a sin-riddled world is frustrating, painful, and yet consuming because it is also vitally necessary. It rules him. The human relationship with earth is no longer a cooperative held together by the Lord’s providence; it is a battle that consumes man’s energies and defines his life’s purpose: to win out against the resistant soil. And when he does, he is in the perfectly disastrous position to believe that purely by his human strength, cleverness, and willpower, he extracted his own sustenance. Without Jehovah Jireh in his sights, man finds success, confidence, assurance, purpose, and identity in toiling for his dirt-god. He’s an idolater of work. Today, we call these folks workaholics. Today, we glorify busyness.

The woman had a good desire in Gen. 3:16: a husband and children. Family is an excellent object of one’s attentions. But when the Maker of life was carved out of the humans’ lifestyle, His allowance for easy childbearing went with Him. Her specialization as life-giver in a sin-riddled world is heart-wrenching, painful, and yet consuming because it is also vitally necessary. As a result, the human family is no longer based on a cooperative of two equals held together by the Lord’s providence and direction; it is the lop-sided joining of a vulnerable and a powerful — a smaller, weaker woman hobbled by the incapacitating job of childbearing, and a larger, stronger man who produces and controls the family’s food. The survival of woman and her children in this new, dangerous world depends on her maintaining her connection to the more capable man for provision and protection. And when she does, she is in the perfectly disastrous position to believe that it was purely her allure, her personality, her sentimentality, her sexuality, her own performance– that secured her protection and provision. Without Jehovah Jireh in her sights, woman finds security, sustenance, assurance, purpose, and identity in catering to her husband-god. She is an idolater of the man that fulfills her. Today, we call these folks emotionally needy. Today, we’re a casually-dating, frequently-divorcing hook-up culture.

Plenty of opportunity for scathing reviews of the new humanity, and none required narrowing the scope of 3:16 to “usurping wife” and “oppressing husband.”

So what’s this mean for our application? It means a lot. And it gets me amped.

When we interpret the fall of humanity, we define the problems at the root of our frustrations and discord, and that has immense ramifications for how we carry the gospel around our homes, churches, and out into the world. Alsup writes: “We are not going to really understand how the gospel equips us [sic] reclaim God’s image in us as His daughters until we understand clearly what our problem is. I can’t emphasize strongly enough that the problem in women created by the fall is deeper than control and domination. […] If you think that the foundational result of the fall of man in the average woman’s life is a desire to dominate, your ministry is going to miss … well … the vast majority of problems in a woman’s life.”

As much as this position sounds like a dismissal of complementarian ideas, it’s not. The popular hierarchical idea that women are prone to dominate men has its place as a symptom within the more egalitarian interpretation of women’s idolatrous fixation as the causal illness. A common, observable symptom, too. Nagging, nitpicking, control-freaky wives are a dime a dozen (as are harsh, self-important men) but! they’re not the only kind of sinful woman. Presuming that women’s judgement only destines them for hostile pushback misses the other shades of red flags that pop up when we trade God for idols.

More common, I think, are the women that face men’s power in their lives with breathless desperation. Rather than becoming combatants, they become what Alsup calls doormats. Rather than manifesting as arm-twisting her man, woman’s idolatry so often manifests in contorting herself to gain his affection or approval. In the worst cases, a man explicitly demands this of his partner — he’s abusive and demeaning and keeps her afraid of what he’ll do or the support she’ll lose if she doesn’t try to please him. And unempowered by Christ, she’ll allow it and internalize the problem as her own. (Here the complementarian interpretation of domineering husbands has its place, too.)

But even godly men can end up high on pedestals their desperate, insecure women build for them. No matter how much edifying love a good man pours out, he will never fill the cup of a woman not anchored in the Lord. The hole in her soul is a God-shaped one. The power she needs only her Abba can supply. When seeking assurance and sufficiency and identity and self-worth primarily from a man fails, the questions she once directed at him— Am I lovable? Am I beautiful? Do you need and appreciate me? Will you stay with me? — become demands from the combatants — Make me feel loved! Make me feel beautiful! Make me feel worthy! Make me feel secure!– or become desperate whimpers from the doormats — Does this make you love me? Do you find me beautiful like this? Does this make you happy? Will this keep you with me?

All this, when our spirits could be fixated on God’s power and responding with rest. It’s not until we stake ourselves on the firm truth of His power, grace, care, and love for us that the persistent waves of intimate relationship and emotional bonding can refresh us, rather than washing us out to the sea of sin.

And suddenly, Genesis 3:16 isn’t just calling out bratty, manipulative women who war with their idolized men — it’s snapping its fingers at the sexting teenage girl, at the bar-crawling college student, at the small group leader who wants nothing more than to find a guy and get engaged like everyone else. At the new wife running herself ragged with homemaking, at the 30-something hating her slowing metabolism and post-baby body, at the 50-something feeling irrelevant. At the battered woman who blames herself. At all the infatuated girls strung along by non-committal boys.

Instead of addressing just toxic feminism, it slices through diet culture, beauty industry, shiny Instagram veneers, achievement addiction, and the emotional porn epidemic that we call the “romance” genre. It diagnoses the sickness at the core of our desires no matter how they manifest — the idolatry disease behind all the ways women manipulate men and themselves to eek out a sense of purpose and worth from created things rather the Creator. A fresh look at 3:16 leaves us no room to think a woman is doing just fine because she’s reserved and respectful. It convicts of over-correction in the other direction too, reminding us that deference, service, and adoration are only appropriate when given to the right things in the right doses. It reminds us that fear and frantic need were not the circumstances in which God designed companionship, helps us to identify when women’s desire stems from those broken places, and allows us to inject an empowering gospel at the root.

And among ourselves, sisters, when we’re all caught under the same umbrella of idolater, there’s little room for comparing symptoms. There’s no pride in being the iron-willed, outspoken feminist (you know, with some actual self-respect?) if it’s symptomatic of the same condition as that other woman who continues to follow others around “like a whipped puppy,” as Alsup nailed it. And there’s no pride in being a dutiful, agreeable, mild-mannered servant (you know, a real biblical woman?) if it’s symptomatic of the same idolatry as that other frustrated, overcompensating trailblazer. We all self-medicate differently yet against the same insecurity, and remembering this helps us to better judge when to step up and flex our Spirit muscle, and when to step back in humility. Knowing the two directions of over-correction helps us keep our balance.

But maximizing the utility of 3:16 for our ministries and our self-policing depends on carving out some middle ground between the two side of the gender role debate. As is usually the case for hotly debated topics, the truth of the fall of marriage lies between the two extremes. If headship proponents can tolerate the imprecision of 3:16’s language and egalitarians can resist dismissing the power struggle interpretation as totally unfair to women, we come away from Genesis with a helpful, more sweeping diagnosis that makes Jesus all the more relevant as humanity’s spiritual apothecary.

The span of the Good News’ reach throughout womankind and their marriages largely depends on this middle ground. May we encourage in our women toward Christ by both fire-breathing moxie and genteel amenability.