Desiring to Rule Over Genesis 3:16

There are a number of reasons why I have been following with great interest the debate over the ESV's recent change of translation of Genesis 3:16 (see this and this). First, it is clear that the complementarianism debate will necessarily push exegetical considerations to the forefront of disagreements (something for which we should all be thankful and from which we should all be the beneficiaries); and, second, the meaning of Genesis 3:16c-d has been one of the most highly disagreed upon by biblical scholars throughout all of church history. It is the second of these reasons to which I wish to give consideration. 

In his excellent book Flame of Yahweh, Richard M. Davidson posits that biblical scholars have put forth six major interpretations of the short trophe at the end of Gen. 3:16. The first of these views proposes that the later part of verse 16 teaches the following:

"The subordination/submission of woman and the supremacy/leadership of man are a creation ordinance, God's ideal from the beginning (Gen. 1-2) and part of the fall consisted in the violation of this ordinance when Eve sought to get out from under Adam's supremacy/leadership and Adam failed to restrain her (Gen 3). God describes in 3:16 the results of sin in the continued distortion of God's original design for ontological hierarchy or functional leadership/submission between the sexes--with the man's exploitive subjugation of woman and/or woman's desire to control the man (or her "diseased" desire to submit to his exploitations )"1

Davidson goes on to make the important observation that among proponents of this view there are "liberal-critical" and "evangelical" distinctions to be made. He explains:

"Liberal-critical scholars tend to use the terms 'supremacy' and 'subordination' to describe the relative status of Adam and Eve respectively, arguing that in the understanding of the narrator there existed a divinely ordained ontological hierarchy between the sexes. Most evangelicals who hold this view, on the other hand, argue for an equality of ontological status between Adam and Eve at creation but propose that the text presents a divinely ordained functional hierarchy (their preferred term is that it is a "complementarian" relationship) consisting of the roles of male leadership (or "headship," as many hierarchical complementarians prefer) and female submission respectively."2

The second major view "also understands the hierarchical relationship between the sexes (submission of woman to the leadership of man) as a creation ordinance (Gen 1-2) and agrees that at the fall this creation ordinance was violated (Gen 3); 3:16 is viewed as a divine prescription that the man must 'rule' that is, exercise his 'godly headship'--to restrain the woman's desire, that is, her urge get out from under his leadership and control/manipulate him."3 This was clearly the view of John Calvin who wrote: "The woman, who had perversely exceeded her proper bounds, is forced back to her own position. She had, indeed, previously been subject to her husband, but that was a liberal and gentle subjection; now, however, she is cast into servitude."4

The third major view of the passage suggests that "Genesis 3:16 is seen as a divine reaffirmation of the subordination/submission of woman to the supremacy/leadership of man as it was in the beginning."5 Davidson further explains this reading when he says:

"According to the evangelical version of this view, Eve at the fall had broken loose from her role of submission to Adam and is now redirected to her former position under the leadership of Adam, not as a punishment but as a continued blessing and comfort to her in her difficulties as a mother. The meaning of v. 16c-d may be paraphrased, "you will have labor and difficulty in your motherhood, yet you will be eager for your husband and he will rule over you (in the sense of a servant leadership to care for and help and not in the sense of domination and oppression)."6

This is no novel interpretation. A form of it was also taught by Aquinas in the section titled "Man Made to God's Image" in Thomas' Summa Theologiae, as well as by Ambrose in Hexameron, Paradise, and Cain and Abel

A fourth major interpretation involves the idea that "the subordination or subjection of woman to man did not exist before the fall but the original egalitarian relationship between the sexes as designed by God was disrupted at the fall."7 Davidson explains that, according to this view, "the mention of such a subordination/subjection in Gen 3:16 is only a description of the evil consequences of sin--the usurpation of authority by the man and/ or the woman's desire to rule or be ruled (to be removed by the gospel)--and not a permanent description of man-woman relations after sin."8 This view is almost wholly espoused by feminist scholars. Davidson further observes that "proponents of this position underscore the culturally conditioned nature of this passage and vigorously deny that it represents a divinely ordained normative position for sexual relationships after the fall."9

The fifth interpretation of this verse "concurs with the fourth view that God's original design was for an egalitarian relationship between the sexes(Gen 1-2) and the fall brought a rupture in their relationships."10 According to proponents of this view, "this verse presents husband leadership and wife submission as God's normative pattern for the marriage relationship 'after the fall.'"Interestingly, Martin Luther supported a similar reading of Genesis 3:16. In his lectures on Genesis, he wrote: "If Eve had persisted in the truth, she would not only not have been subjected to the rule of her husband, but she herself would also have been partner in the rule which is now entirely the concern of males."11

The sixth reading of this verse is sort of an amalgamation of the previous three possibilities. Davidson explains: "The sixth view agrees with the fourth and fifth views that God's original plan was an egalitarian relationship between the sexes. It also agrees with the third view that v. 16c-d is a blessing and not a curse, but differs in denying that subordination/subjection of woman to man is a creation ordinance."9 According to this sixth view, "in Gen. 3 no hierarchy (leadership/submission) between the sexes is either prescribed or described. Among proponents of this view, the word for 'rule' (v. 1 6d) is often translated 'to be like,' emphasizing the equal rank of man and woman."12

To help summarize and categorize these six major interpretations, Davidson includes the following chart: 

Genesis 316 chart.jpg
I would place myself among the vast number of evangelicals who hold to the first view. Additionally, I would agree with those who promote view 2--those who hold that the latter Divine pronouncement concerning the relationship between Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:16 is "a description of the perversion of hierarchical relationships (woman seeking to control man and/or man exploitively subjugating woman)." However, I would take issue with a blanket application of this view to any and all relationships between men and women after the fall. I would limit it to the marital relationship. Furthermore, it should be noted that Calvin's statement could easily be highjacked by those who wish to defend abusive male headship in the marital relationship. The third view fails to adequately take into account the context of the pronouncement--namely, the breached relationship between the husband and wife, as well as the curse pronounced by God on the woman in the previous part of the verse. I heartily reject views 4-6 on the grounds that they lead with the assumption that Adam had no headship before the fall (this is, in my opinion, to miss the teaching of the Apostle Paul in 1 Tim. 2:12-13).

All of this is meant to show how much is involved in coming to a settled position on Genesis 3:16c-d. It is in no way whatsoever meant to relativize this discussion or to suggest that there are many "possible interpretations" from which to choose. I believe that Gen. 3:16c-d has one Divinely intended meaning, but that it is a prime example of that to which the Westminster Confession of Faith is referring when it so helpfully says,

"All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them" (WCF 1.7).

This should at least give those who enter into this debate pause and encourage a great deal of humility as we seek to interact on these more difficult portions of God's word. 

1. Richard M. Davidson, Flame of Yahweh p. 60
2. Ibid., n.19
3. Calvin, Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: CCEL) 
4. Flame of Yahweh, p. 61
5. Ibid.
6. pp. 61-62
7. p. 62
8. pp. 62-63
9. p. 63
10. p. 64
11. Ibid.
12. Ibid.