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

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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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