rss search

Topic 2: “And he shall rule over you”: What does this mean?


Genesis 3:16: “And he shall rule over you”:  What does this mean?

[1] What does this mean?  This study will look at Genesis 3:16 and ask if this verse about “ruling,” “dominating,” “mastering” presents a prescription or a description. The question can be posed thusly: Is the “ruling of man over woman” something in place before the Fall by the design of the Creator — a prescription — or is the “ruling” the result of something that happened as a result of the Fall — a description?

[2] One interpretation: The Commission on Theology and Church Relations of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in its “Women in the Church: Scriptural Principles and Ecclesial Practice” (Sept. 1985) [CTCR-WIC] states “Man was woman’s head from the first moment of her creation,” and “When the New Testament talks about the subordination of woman to man, it does so on the basis of Genesis 2 and not on the basis of Genesis 3.  The foundation for this teaching is not the ‘curse’ of the fall but the original purpose of God in creation” (pg. 24). “The ‘curse’ pronounced in Genesis 3:16 does not institute subordination as such, but it does make this relationship irksome for both parties” (pg. 24).

[3] Let’s look at Genesis 3:16.  Note the various translations of this verse listed above.

KJV (1611): “Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”

Moffatt (1922): “…yet you shall crave to have your husband, and he shall master you.”

RSV (1952): “…yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

NASB (1960, 1997): “Yet your desire will be for your husband, And he will rule over you.”

NEB (1961) : “You shall be eager [feel an urge] for your husband, and he shall be your master.”

NIV (1973): “To the woman he said, ‘I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children.  Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’”

TEV (1976): “In spite of this, you will still have desire for your husband, yet you will be subject to him.”

NJB (1985): “Your yearning will be for your husband, and he will dominate you.”

NRSV (1989): “…yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

[4] Unpack your understanding of what these translations suggest.

[5] Then read the following about the interpretation of the Hebrew word teshugah, a word most often translated “desire”:

Walter Kaiser translates the Hebrew teshugah as “You are turning away to your husband and he will rule over you.” He discovered that the Hebrew teshugah, almost universally translated as “desire,” previously was rendered as “turning,” not desire, in the twelve known ancient versions of the Bible: the Greek Septuagint, the Syriac Pashitta, the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Old Latin, the Sahidic, the Bohairic, the Ethiopian, the Arabic, Aquila’s Greek, Symmachus’ Greek, Theodotion’s Greek, and the Latin Vulgate.  Thus the Hebrew conveys: “You are turning away (from God) to your husband, and (as a result) he will rule over you (take advantage of you)” (see Walter Kaiser, “Hard Sayings of the Old Testament” (Intervarsity Press, 1988, pgs. 34-35).

“…and he shall rule over you.”  The Hebrew verb is future tense, not imperative.  God is describing a future condition, the result of the woman’s rebellion.  The implication is not “should” (prescriptive) but “will”  (descriptive).  The text “does not say that the man would continue to rule but would now do so in a cruel and domineering fashion.  The news to the woman was simply that the man would rule, not that he would rule differently” (Groothius, Good News for Women, pg. 140).

Teshuga can justifiably be translated ‘to turn’: ‘Yet you shall turn to your husband, and he would rule over you.’  Here teshuga can refer to when a woman turns to her husband for her needs and does not turn to God for them.  If a wife looks to her husband for everything, rather than to God, then she places tremendous power in her husband’s hands, which he can easily use to rule over her” (Pereles, Hidden Voices: Biblical Women and Our Christian Heritage, pg. 12).

The will of God for his human creatures is described in terms of “made in the image of God,” companionship, partnership, “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.”  The accounts suggest equity-with-differences, beings-in-partnership, as God’s creation design and intention.  In the perfection of Paradise there is no need for superordination or subordination; both “walk with God.”

When sin enters, all relationships are now ruptured (Genesis 3:7ff.).  Enmity sets in; the delight in each other is no longer present.  A struggle for dominance ensues.  The man blames the woman (and God!) for his own participation in the fall (“…the woman you gave me…she…”).  The woman blames the serpent.  All self-justify at the expense of the other, fracturing God’s intended unity.  Each is now corrupted by the desire to set oneself up “as gods” (Genesis 3:5), a desire which causes humankind once again to be “alone” (Genesis 2:8).  A hierarchy of blame and control is established.

[6] Another interpreter: Luther sees the Fall as instituting subordination: “…she is the mistress of the house just as you are its master, except that the wife was made subject to the man by the Law which was given after sin” (this and the following Luther quotes are from Luther’s Works, “Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 1-5” [Concordia, 1958], pg. 138).  “Now the seat of the face is imposed upon the man, and woman is given the command that she should be under her husband” (pg. 138).  “This means that Eve’s sorrows, which she would not have had if she had not fallen into sin, are to be great, numerous, and also of various kinds” (pg. 200).  “Now there has been added to those sorrows of gestation and birth that Eve has been placed under the power of her husband, she who previously was very free and, as the sharer of all the gifts of God, was in no respect inferior to her husband” (pg. 202).  “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 a partner in the rule which is now entirely the concern of the males” (pg. 203).

The TEV translates vs. 16 as saying “…yet you will be subject to him…”  This lays the weight of responsibility on the obedience of the woman.  The translation “…he shall rule over you…” puts the responsibility where it belongs, on sinful domination by the male.  

The above understanding of teshugah suggests that the “ruling” and “dominating” are a result of the Fall and not the original intent of the Creator.  Translators often wrongly focus on the sexual desires of woman (“…your yearning will be for your husband”) rather than on the god-issue (“…you are turning [away from God] to your husband…”).  The woman is choosing a substitute god.

[7] Let’s look at the larger context, Genesis 3:14-19.  The situation of the serpent, the woman, and the man all change or suffer consequences after the Fall which are not intended in creation.

A. 3:14: After the Fall, the serpent is cursed and set apart from all the animals: he will now “crawl on your belly and you will eat dust” (synonymous with defeat and humiliation).

B. Read 3:15: There is now “enmity between the woman and serpent,” not the implied “peaceful kingdom” relationship where there is no sin; cf. Isaiah11:6-9, especially vs. 8.

C. Read 3:16: Now the woman will suffer pain in childbirth.

D. Read 3:16: Now the woman will turn (from God) to her husband, and he will rule her.  Previously (in Genesis 1:26), both male and female made in the image of God together will “rule over the earth.”

E. Read 3:17: Since the fall, work for the man becomes painful toil because the cursed ground produces thorns and thistles. The man’s relationship to the earth, originally as intended by the Creator, “…let them [plural] have dominion” (Genesis 1:27-28– joint rule; “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” = equity with differences, beings-in-partnership), is altered because of sin.

F. In the self-centered pride is conceived for the first time the desire to “rule over you” (James 1:15).  The command of God was to subdue (Hebrew: kabash) the earth.  After sin entered, humanity began to subdue (Hebrew: mashal) humanity.  The verb in vs. 16 (mashal) is not the same as is used for humanity’s dominion over the animals in Genesis 1:26 and 28, which uses the verb radah, “to tread down, have dominion over.”

G.  “…I will greatly multiply your pain…” (vs. 16).  The Hebrew issalon (pain) used here is the very same word used in vs. 18 for the consequence of the man’s action: “In toil (issalon) you shall eat it.”  The consequences of the man’s sin is the same as the woman’s.  Both are treated equally.

[8] Let’s talk about these changes.

A. Read 3:16a: Many women use the Lamaze method of childbirth as well as drugs to reduce the pain of child birth.  Is this altering God’s intention?

B. “Consistency holds that if prior to the Fall the serpent had not traveled on its belly and the ground had not born thorns and thistles, then man had not ruled over woman.”

C. Read 3:18-19: Farmers seek to eliminate the “thorns and thistles” in their fields, and many ride in tractors and combines with air conditioning.  Is it sinful then to get rid of thistles and sweat through modern technology?

D. Now read 3:16b again: And based on what you understand about the previous passages, what is God’s intention for male and female in relationship?

E.  The pain in childbirth, the desire for substitute gods, the tendency to set oneself up to rule over another are all symbolic of all the pain in the world (physical, emotional, spiritual, social).  Whenever anyone exploits another, whether by gender, race, or sexuality, this pain is evident.

[9] Evaluate this statement: “The ‘curse’ pronounced in Genesis 3:16 does not institute subordination as such, but it does make this relationship irksome for both parties” (Commission on Theology and Church Relations, “Women in the Church,” p. 24).

A. Does verse 16 constitute a curse?  Or is it a consequence?  A prescription of what God wants?  Or a description of how people will behave because of sin active in the lives of people?

This brokenness and pain is humanity’s condition when it chooses to live apart from God and his holy purposes (Romans 1:24, 26, and 28 [“…God gave them up…”] is a Pauline commentary on Genesis 3:14-19).

“No cursing language is used in this verse.  God does not issue the command, ‘You must experience great pain in child birth.’ Rather, the simple future tense form of the verb is used to describe what will happen to the woman, not what must be.  She must pay the consequences of her actions; she brought the pain upon herself” (Pereles, pg. 11).

If dominion by male over female is part of God’s intended “order of creation,” then by the same logic we must also conclude that pain and brokenness are part of God’s intention for humanity. But note Jesus’ miracles of healing throughout the Gospels.

Our innate tendency now is to dominate, “rule over the other.”  Living with a Gospel of forgiveness, a gospel which seeks the best for the other, is it wrong to suggest equality between male and female, between husband and wife, and for women to resist male dominance?

[10] Genesis 3:16 does not speak of God’s intention — prescription — for humanity, but describes the consequences of our own sin.  “Headship” in a relationship is necessary only in so far as people live in a fallen and sinful world, where each “seeks to be a god” and dominate others.  Police and armies are needed only in a fallen society.  God’s people will endeavor with the aid of the Spirit to return to God’s original intent of parity, of equity honoring differences.

A. Read Galatians 3:28 and discuss.

B. Read Romans 8:1-8: What has Christ done for us?  (Set us free from the law of sin and death)

C. Read Philippians 2:5-11: What is the “mind of Christ” in terms of “ranking” and “ruling” over others?  (In the new creation in Christ, ranking and ruling have no sway)

D. “Pain is invariably an outcry of God’s natural law against abuse; and pain must be contrary to God’s will.”

E. “This brokenness (pain) is humanity’s condition when it chooses to live apart from God and his holy purposes; Romans 1:24, 26, and 28 [“…God give them up…’] is a Pauline commentary on Genesis 3:14-19.”

F. Read Genesis 2:23 and 1:26-31: What do these passages suggest about the relation of male and female?  Is there any word in these verses about one having any sort of rank or rule or authority over the other?

G. Compare Genesis 2:23 with 3:11-13: what has changed? (A hierarchy of blame is established in place of “the delight in each other.”) (The tempter says, “you will be like gods…”)

H. Read Revelation 21:5: What is God doing with what is broken and under the power of sin?

I. Read Romans 8:22: What is the condition of the earth, including relationships? (In bondage to decay)

J. Read 2 Corinthians 3:18: What is God doing? (Transforming us into his likeness)

K. Read 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”