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An intriguing reading of Gen 3:16

I recently reviewed The Gospel-Centered Woman. Much of its content was developed on Wendy Alsup’s blog Practical Theology of Women. In this post I want to zoom in on one discussion I’ve been following pretty closely. It’s about Genesis 3:16 ‘Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you.’

I’ve mainly heard this interpreted as ‘your desire will be to rule over your husband but he will rule over you’. Wendy argues against such an interpretation and in favour of simply reading ‘desire’ as ‘desire’, as in ‘to want’. So the ‘curse’ is not about women seeking to dominate men, but women placing their desire in men, looking to them to fulfil what only God can.

Let me encourage you to read the whole argument here.

A fascinating thing she points out is that the desire=desire to rule interpretation is quite new. It gained popularity in the 1970s in response to feminism. Now, being new isn’t necessarily a problem – we expect the Holy Spirit to bring new things to light as we are ‘always reforming’. However, theology is inevitably contextual and so it’s worth factoring the context in as we evaluate an argument.

There’s a lot that’s compelling about this argument, especially its similarity to 1 Peter 3’s encouragement to women married to unbelieving husbands to put their trust in God. However, what particularly resonated with me was that it also made sense of world history. For the vast majority of history, women have been oppressed as they have looked to men for provision and protection and have been mistreated as a result. The women-dominating-men trope can only be true of 21st century western women (and I reckon even that is stretching it!)

Here are my remaining questions about this interpretation:

1. Is there a contrast in Gen 3:16?

The strength of the desire=desire to rule argument is that there’s symmetry in Gen 3:16 i.e. your desire will be to rule, but he will rule instead. In this case, the husband’s rule can still be viewed positively (even though it frustrates the wife.) The desire=desire interpretation reads something more like ‘Your desire will be for your husband and he will mistreat you.’ Wendy has previously argued for this interpretation of ‘rule’.

2. How do we understand this concept of fulfilment in God, not men, without over-spiritualising or individualising?

From ‘The Gospel-Centred Woman’

We cry out… ‘God provide for me physically!’ God answers, ‘You can trust me, child. Do not worry for your physical needs. As I provided or the birds and flowers, I will provide for you.”

“God, help me emotionally!’ God says, ‘Yes, child. Meditate on all I have declared over you through Christ. You have received the full rights of a child of the King. I will receive you one day into my arms with the affirmation, ‘Well done good and faithful servant.’ Find joy and rest in me.”

There’s a whiff here of the ‘God is all I need’ sentiment that I find quite difficult. Of course God is the provider of all things, physical and emotional, but that sometimes his provision of those things is worked out through humans. This isn’t a criticism of Wendy’s argument so much as a question about the practicalities of language: how do you encourage ‘reliance on God’ while taking into account God’s good creational gifts?

This issue comes into sharper focus for us as we head to Tanzania. On one hand, many African Christian women attest to having nothing but God, and him providing for them. On the other, many Christian women die from starvation or maltreatment. In an eternal sense, God is all that they need, there’s eternity, etc. But in a very real sense, they needed more than God – they need his people, their resources and transformation of their society by the Holy Spirit.

I’m intrigued by Wendy’s interpretation of Gen 3:16 and I feel there’s something intuitively right about it so I’m keen to continue the discussion, both of the verse itself and its application.

Categories: Bible Tanzania Woman Written by Tamie

Tagged as:

Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

3 replies

  1. A nice article Tamie! having read the discussion over at Wendy’s blog, I note that she seems to want to break up the verse, having God’s curse only apply to childbearing, not to the desire/rule pair, which is simply God’s declaration of what is. While I can see the theological argument of ‘God does not make people sin’, it seems texually difficult to make that distinction from this passage, and wondered if you might comment?

    PS. Perhaps the other Sam C could somehow clarify her (?) name – I just get confused when I look at the blog and think ‘hang on, I didn’t write that!’

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