The Curse of Genesis 3: A Lament

Gail Wallace

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Genesis 3 Lament SL

Genesis 3 A Lament

In doing some research on Genesis 3, I came upon this provocative poem by Carmen J. Bryant [1]:

God said to man, “The earth will bring forth thistles.” Man replied, “I’ll weed them out. I’ll develop weed killers and make my garden a paradise.”

God said to man, “You will work by the sweat of your brow.” Man replied, “I’ll invent tools that will make my work easier: the plow, the hoe, the tiller and the John Deere tractor.”

God said to woman, “You will have pain in childbirth.” Man responded, “Yea, so be it, let her suffer so my quiver can be full. It is God’s will. My work was made hard because of her.”

God said to woman, “Your husband will rule over you.” Man responded, “Of course that’s the way it should be. I am to be her master. I was created first.”

And woman bowed her head and said, “I am indeed under a curse.”

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The poem prefaced an academic paper on Genesis 3 and was accompanied by this note:

“Although none of the consequences of what is sometimes called ‘The Curse’ is stated grammatically as a command, man has successfully turned 16b—and only 16b—into one”.

I didn’t agree with everything in the paper that followed [2], but several things in her commentary did resonate with me. Here are a couple points that are helpful for refuting the complementarian assertion that male hierarchy is part of God’s original creation design.

God never commands Adam to “rule over” Eve

Genesis 3:16b is a statement addressed to Eve alone, in the same way that the other statements in this chapter are addressed to Adam (3:17-19) and to the serpent (3:14-15).  I think it’s significant that God used this same phrase in Genesis 1:28 when the joint mandate is given to Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” God was quite intentional about giving Adam and Eve instructions at creation; if he had a gender hierarchy in mind we would expect to find it spelled out long before the events of Genesis 3.

In the creation accounts, there is no hint that God intended for Adam to rule over Eve – we see only the command for the two of them to rule over creation. When we get to the words of Genesis 3:16b it is obvious they were intended for Eve, not for Adam.  As Bryant points out, “commands may be either direct or indirect, but in Genesis 3, God speaks directly to all parties” (p. 4). We should not interpret this verse as a command for husbands to be in authority over their wives.

The historical application of Genesis 3 has been inconsistent

I also appreciated Bryant’s observation that the pronouncements in Genesis 3 have been applied inconsistently, with one type of interpretation and application given for men and another for women.  She explains:

The historical interpretation of the curses in Genesis 3 has been exasperatingly inconsistent. Thorns and thistles, hard labor, and man’s return to dust are accepted as curses against which we may fight. Man’s invention of tools has made his labor less burdensome. The return to dust is delayed as long as possible through medicine and prayer, and in the end, through embalming and freezing. Man endeavors to offset the curse’s worst aspects in order to make life on this imperfect planet more bearable and even enjoyable.

The same cannot be said of the curses to the woman. It has only been in modern history, for example, that the Church has looked favorably upon any attempts to alleviate the extreme pain of childbirth, instead sentencing women to experience the full measure of the punishment inherited from Eve. In some western countries, physicians who tried to ease labor pains were attacked not only by their colleagues and educators but also by the clergy because ‘the use of anesthesia in labor [is] an attempt to contravene the decrees of Providence, hence reprehensible and heretical.’ (see note 3 below)

…The last half of Gen. 3:16 has suffered from an even more glaring inconsistency.  The traditional view would have God suddenly switching from a pronouncement of judgment to the issuing of beneficent commands: ‘Your desire shall be for your husband, and he will rule over you.’ But the overall context of Genesis 3 necessitates God’s pronouncements be interpreted as tragic consequences of sin.” (pp. 18-19, emphasis added)

When considered in context, the passage in Genesis 3 is obviously a recounting of God’s rebuke to all parties involved after the advent of sin. Yet the pronouncement “he shall rule over you” continues to be presented by those who believe in gender hierarchy as something “good” for women. The logic just doesn’t play out.

It’s irresponsible to portray Eve’s “curse” as something beneficial for women.

The pronouncement to Adam about “painful toil…all the days of your life” doesn’t get that same treatment, does it? If this passage is all about God’s ideal plan, what is the corresponding teaching for men?

 Bryant’s poem ends this way:

God said to woman, “Your husband will rule over you.” Man responded, “Of course that’s the way it should be. I am to be her master. I was created first.”

And woman bowed her head and said, “I am indeed under a curse.”

It would be a great exercise to rewrite the ending in a way that more accurately reflects how we should live in light of the fact that Christ came to overturn ‘the curse”.

Any suggestions?

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Notes:

[1] Bryant, Carmen J. (2003). Command or Curse? Women’s Position: A Look at Genesis 3:16 in the Light of Abuse http://www.languageinindia.com/march2009/commandorcurse.html

[2] I didn’t agree with everything in the paper, although I do agree with her assertion that a misinterpretation of this passage can lead to abuse in the home.  But Scripture doesn’t ever say that the man and woman were cursed (just the serpent and the ground). Also, the author presents a traditional position on male headship that is inconsistent with her conclusions.

[3] The paper included this note about the use of medication in childbirth:

Bernard Seeman, Man against Pain (Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1962), 123. According to author Seeman, after the rise of Christianity and the fall of the Roman Empire, much of the knowledge of medicine as practiced by the Greeks and Romans was lost. The population of Europe tended to rely more on miracle cures and superstition. In the Renaissance, knowledge of anatomy and medicine was revived, but the Church was slow to endorse new methods to treat the sick. Church leaders were especially slow to agree to the use of painkillers because suffering was perceived to bring merit. Women in childbirth especially experienced the unreasonableness of this dogma because Gen. 3:16 was used to justify any alleviation of pain. An article in the Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal in 1847 censured “those bold enough to administer the vapor of Ether” during surgery and especially during childbirth, “forgetting it has been ordered that „in sorrow shall she bring forth‟”.

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26 Comments

  • Gail – I ran across your post on 1 Timothy 2 while searching for Paul on women; it’s over a year old, and the comments seem to be closed. But the point I wanted to make is serendipitously related to this recent post – that is, in the 1 Timothy post, unless I missed something, all the attention is focused on how to translate and understand 1 Tim 2:12 – “I permit no woman to have authority over a man, she is to keep silent” (NRSV) – and nothing on the following two verses, which ground this teaching in the creation story: “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.” That the author (I’m among those who don’t hear the authentic Paul in the Pastorals) uses this particular reading of the Genesis story to support his teaching about women certainly suggests he’s making a point about their fundamental inequality – in a way, actually, that conflicts with the interpretation of Genesis 3 offered here! Blaming women for the entrance of sin into the world is at the heart of much of the church’s teaching about women through the centuries. I fully agree that the text of Genesis itself suggests no such thing. So my observation/question is actually twofold – Doesn’t 1 Tim 13-14 compel a reading of v. 12 that is much closer to the “traditional” translation (as reflected in the NRSV)? And second, don’t we have to say, in light of your reading of Genesis 3, that the author of 1 Timothy has done some very poor, very tendentious (and damaging) exegesis? If so, what are the implications – both for the question of gender relations and the authority of Scripture?

  • “Of course that’s the way it should be. I am to be her master. I was created first.”

    Just as the birds and the cows, created before me, are my masters…and just as Esau who was born first was Isaac’s master, so I am her master…

    • Haha. Nice Judy! I think you mean Jacob but yes, there is no evidence of God preferring the oldest 🙂

  • then Jesus came, and healed the woman who could not stand up straight
    and she rejoiced and said “I am set free!”

  • God said to woman, “Your husband will rule over you.” Man responded, “I will fight any tendency to rule over her. I will love her because God has loved me and shown me mercy for my sin. I will intentionally treat her like the equal God created her to be and not let the curse rule our relationship.”

    And woman bowed her head and said, “I love you.”

    • Love that! I think a small revision might make it work better for me. It seems like the woman bowing her head was a reaction of sadness. Imagining her with bowed head after God speaks what about something like this: And the woman stood side by side with the man and said, “I love you”. Not great, but a start maybe? I really like the response you gave to the man!

  • “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

    Notice it’s not “shall rule over you,” as if God is enacting a change in hierarchy. “He will rule over you,” means that women will take that desire for their husbands and subjugate their needs to that of receiving love from their husbands. Look at the rampant use of the word, “codependent.” Women are far more frequently codependent than men. Women have a desire for their husbands, and that desire clouds our judgment. We neglect ourselves for the sake of our husbands.

    This is the curse of women who love their husbands. I do find encouragement in how men have found ways to mitigate their respective curse. And I agree with your evidence to suggest women do the same. Women should continue to work toward scientific and spiritual solutions for childbirth pain, as well as this attachment we have to our husbands.

    Just because Eve was cursed, doesn’t mean her descendants should suffer equally.

  • Gail, I personally think the whole concept of a curse on the woman in Genesis 3 needs to be challenged. If we look at the passage it is only the serpent and the ground that God curses. There is no curse on either the woman or the man. There are consequences of their fall spelt out by God, that’s for sure, and God is prophesying, but He is not cursing them.

    God actually blesses the woman by proclaiming she shall instrumental in bringing forth a promised “Seed”. Fast forward to Mary’s beautiful song of praise in Luke 1:46-49 where she basically pronounces the foretold blessing on womankind is about to be fulfilled: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me– holy is his name.”

    Those who believe women are under God’s curse, using Genesis 3 as evidence, are in great error. Firstly, God never cursed the woman, in fact a word study reveals He used the same Hebrew word for ‘toil’ for both the woman and the man in declaring the consequences of their fall. But translators have chosen to make the woman’s consequence sound much worse than the man’s.

    Secondly, I believe when Mary proclaimed ‘from now on all generations will call me blessed….” she was speaking not just for herself but as a descendent of the first woman and a representative of all future women. Women are to be called ‘blessed’, not ‘cursed’. The idea of a ‘curse’ on women in Genesis 3 needs to be challenged and put right.

    • I completely agree! I think the author of the original article was making the point that the impact of traditional teaching is that the consequence essentially functions as a curse. Yes, we need to challenge the misconception that men and women were cursed. I probably should have put the word curse in quotation marks.

      • Thanks Gail. I wasn’t meaning to question your use of the word ‘curse’….just responding to the last line of the poem really. I think an alternative last line is a great idea. Thanks for sharing this thought provoking article!

        • No worries, Cheryl – I have never liked it when people don’t make that distinction and wish I had been more clear about that in the post. Blessings!

    • This has been a fascinating article and the comments are just as interesting. Thank you for a unique look at this passage. One more nail in the coffin of complementarianism.

  • God said, “You will have pain in childbirth,” and Woman said, “Someday, they will invent the epidural, and C-sections will save lives.”

    God said, “Your husband will rule over you,” and Woman said, “Ah yes, but someday egalitarian blogging will be a thing…”

  • Gail, thank you for this post.
    I had recently been struck that patriarchs/comps treat 16b as if it is a *blessing*, and not as a part of the curse, i.e. the bad consequences of sin. They regard it as a good thing that should be maintained and protected – they are calling evil, good.

  • And Eve said “But then Lord, I will take your love and better educate Adam to be a proper partner. Then the pain of childbirth will be easier for me to bear, And one day through my seed, we both will become a better image of you.”

    How’s that Gail?

  • Looking at them all side by side (as it is in the original text, of course) leads to only one conclusion from the context – God spoke to the man and woman in the same vein. Thanks for laying it out, Gail.

    • That’s one thing that struck me when reading her poem. Of course it had always been evident to me but something about how she calls it out stuck with me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  • As an interesting aside, Queen Victoria was instrumental in turning around attitudes to the use of pain relief in childbirth. Her eighth and ninth children were born with the assistance of the alarming modern invention of anaesthesia, which upset some folks in the church of her day. However, the queen’s examble was nothing to be sneezed at! It was the beginning of a change of attitudes in the British Empire.

    • Love learning that! I was a childbirth instructor for many years so enjoy reading about the subject. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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