When did patriarchy–the system that puts men in authority over women–begin? Complementarians argue that patriarchy is embedded into creation. If that’s the case, then we should joyfully embrace it because it’s what God designed.
What about Genesis 3, when sin enters the Garden?
Complementarians argue there are two main things going on here:
- The Fall itself was an inversion of hierarchy and that the serpent’s scheme was to subvert the man’s headship over his wife.
- The Fall did not introduce hierarchy between men and women, but rather a harmful hierarchy.
Complementarians maintain that Christianity brings male-female relationships back into proper order (men over women) but should work against harmful hierarchy through servant leadership.
In this post, I’ll make the case that the Fall is not about an inversion of male authority or the introduction of a harmful hierarchy. Rather, Genesis 3 is where we see the birth of patriarchy.
Seeing What Genesis Does Not Say
Genesis 3 is a strange world. Complete with a talking serpent. It’s interesting that while the serpent seems to play a main role in the Garden, the Old Testament doesn’t spotlight him (it?) at all after this episode. Instead, the Old Testament chooses to focus on the chaos and evil that is ushered into God’s world. (See note 1.)
The text records the woman as the one the who talks to the serpent because he addresses her. But it doesn’t tell us why he initiates with her. It’s conjecture to claim that the serpent talks to the woman to subvert male headship, as Piper and others have written. That could be the case. At best, though, it’s a guess.
This kind of interpretation projects back onto Genesis how Paul uses the passage for application with struggling churches. We’ll focus on this when we get to Paul.
Some complementarians argue that it was the man’s job to relay the command to the woman. But the woman cites God in 3:3 as the one who gave them the command. That’s evidence she did hear the command from God, not via her husband. Of course, the addition of “you must not touch it” reveals she’s communicating her own version of the command.
From verse 1 on, all the Hebrew verbs are plural, even when the serpent speaks to the woman. Her use of “we” also shows the couple is together. The phrase “who was with her” in 3:6 likely means the couple was together during the temptation.
Why didn’t he step in and speak up? Why didn’t he choke the serpent to death? We could argue that he wasn’t doing the male-leader thing he ought to have done. Perhaps this was an inversion of male authority, after all.
We could easily argue, however, that both people abdicated their priestly roles by not guarding the sacred space.
We can’t answer these questions with 100% certainty, because the text leaves them unanswered! A subtle hint that our modern gender debates are missing the point.
As the narrative unfolds there are clues that a hierarchical inversion is not what’s going on in the Fall but something else.
A Couple Acknowledgements
Before we get into curses, I need to acknowledge two things. First, God does seek out the man first and asks him, “Where are you?” (“you” is singular here and in 3:11). The text doesn’t tell us why God seeks out the man first. This could point to some kind patriarchy in the Garden. But it could be a foreshadowing of the curses and patriarchy that will result. (Everything at this point is happening after sin had entered the sacred space.) It could also be a function of the narrative structure.
A decent explanation that’s worth considering is that the primacy of the male here may have more to do with the author and audience than with the people in the Garden. Remember, this was written much later (traditionally by Moses) for an Israelite audience, which was very much male-centric.
Nevertheless, I’m willing to concede that this may tip the needle a tad toward the complementarian position. Yet, this argument depends on a lot of assumptions not directly addressed by the text.
Second, there’s this little bit about the man “listening to/obeying the voice of his wife” in 3:17. Certainly that shows the woman was created to be subservient to the man, right?
I acknowledge this seems like God is cursing the man because he abdicated leadership by listening to the woman. But the text doesn’t demand we read it that way. Remember, leadership isn’t the issue at hand here. This aspect of the curse is connected to the eating of the fruit (the second half of v 17).
The problem is not that the man listened to the woman because she was a woman, but that in listening to her, he disobeyed God. Like the woman, the man should have known better. (They both knew God’s command, see above.) Since he was with her at the temptation. He was also morally culpable.
On to the curse.
Cues from the Curse
Genesis 3:14-19 is a “curse oracle.” A curse oracle is a part of Scripture that uses powerful words to pronounce woes or harm on someone or an entire a nation. These are spoken by God or a human.
Now, several features of the curse oracle give us clues that hierarchy appears after the Fall–that sin did not introduce a harmful hierarchy, but an original one.
The features I find compelling are: 1) curses bring a change in status, 2) curses bring conflict, and 3) curses don’t prescribe, they pronounce.
Curses Bring a Change in Status
William Webb shows that in Genesis the blessing/curse formula carries a change in status on an individual or community. Let’s look at three curses:
- Noah pronounces a curse on his grandson Canaan, Ham’s son. Canaan would be “lowest of slaves” to his brothers, while Shem and Japheth are blessed/raised (Gen 9:25).
- Isaac pronounces a curse on Esau, the firstborn, and indicates that he will serve his younger brother Jacob, who had already been blessed/raised (Gen 27:39-40).
- Jacob pronounces a curse on his son Reuben, lowering his status from firstborn, and blessing/raising Judah in the process (Gen 49:3-4).
Webb notes that the subordination in these curses “usually does not involve any particular abuse or distortion of hierarchy” but rather the formation of a hierarchy that was nonexistent before.
In Genesis 3:14-19, we see this same thing throughout the curse oracle as all three involved parties are “lowered.”
The serpent is first cast down among the rest of the animals.
The woman is then cast down beneath her equal, the man. She is now subject to her source, man. The man is also cast down to be subject to his source, the ground.
Alice Mathews, a theologian at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, agrees:
“This was the moment of the birth of patriarchy. As a result of their sin, the man was now the master over the woman, and the ground was the master over the man, contrary to God’s original intentional in creation.
Curses Bring Conflict
Curse oracles often introduce a new tension of conflict between the one who rules and the one in submission. We see this in 3:16 when God says there will be conflict between the woman and the man. Recall, too, that 3:15 says there will be ongoing hostility between the offspring of the serpent and the offspring of the woman.
Let’s zoom in on Genesis 3:16, when God pronounces the curse to the woman. The important Hebrew word for us to know is tešuqa (pronounced tesh-oo-kah’), translated “desire.”
To the woman [God] said,
“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.” (NRSV)
Tešuqa is only used three times in the Old Testament: here, Gen 4:7, and Song of Songs 7:10.
In Genesis 4:7, God approaches Cain, right before he murders his brother, and says, “Sin is lurking at the door; its desire (tešuqa) is for you, but you must master it” (NRSV). Here, it’s obvious that “desire” is a negative: “Sin wants you, Cain!”
Most complementarians take this understanding from Genesis 4:7 and use it to interpret Genesis 3:16. Susan Foh was foundational in advocating this view, saying that “desire” means the woman would “contend with [her husband] for leadership in their relationship. This desire is a result of and a just punishment for sin, but it is not God’s decretive will for the woman. Consequently, the man must actively seek to rule his wife.”
But is male leadership even the point of the curse or wider context? It doesn’t seem so obvious to me.
Wendy Alsup, who is a complementarian, points out that this way of using Genesis 4:7 projects onto Genesis 3:16 something it does not say. Tešuqa is a neutral word that means “to desire or long for,” and we need the surrounding context to help us understand what it’s communicating.
Let’s look at the Song of Songs reference. In 7:10 it says, “I am my beloved’s, and his desire (tešuqa) is for me” (both ESV and NRSV; the NIV also translates the second half as “and his desire is for me”). The context here is positive. It means the desire for romantic/sexual love. The woman knows her husband wants her.
So we have one negative use and one positive, both of which have to do with a basic desire–or instinct. Sin’s basic instinct is to enslave someone. A husband’s basic instinct is his sexual drive toward his wife. What about the woman in Genesis 3:16?
The context is not leadership at all. In fact, there’s nothing in the text about leadership! The context is actually childbearing which will be painful to the woman (see v 16a).
Taking this into consideration, “desire” in here may refer to the woman’s basic maternal instinct to have children. John Walton points out the symmetry in the curse. “Just as chapter 2 established the basis for the man’s need of woman, chapter 3 establishes the basis for the woman’s need of man. Her needs [of childbearing] will put him in a position to dominate.”
One more thing. It’s possible that tešuqa shouldn’t be translated as “desire” in the first place. Some believe “turn” is a better translation. The idea behind this is that in giving in to the serpent’s temptation, the woman did not turn from her husband, but from God. Because of that, the curse pronounces that she would continually turn away from God toward her husband, who would “lord it over” her. This possibility is very compelling to me. (See note 18 below for more on this.)
Even if we are a bit perplexed by tešuqa, it’s obvious that not only was there no conflict in Genesis 1-2, but that the man was never told to rule over the woman at all.
Curses Don’t Prescribe, They Pronounce
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that the text never says men should rule their wives. It tells us what will happen. That’s typical of curse oracles. They don’t prescribe what humans should do. They pronounce the woes or harm that will be present as a result of sin, but may be avoided through worship, obedience, repentance, reconciliation, etc.
Consider the curses pronounced on Israel if they fail to keep the Law of Moses in Deuteronomy 28:15-68. Verses 56-57a say, “The most gentle and sensitive woman among you….will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears” (NIV).
No one in their right mind would say this is what a wife and mother must do! It’s simply what will happen as a product of the Fall. The underlying idea is that sin destroys families by turning its members against each other.
Curses don’t prescribe activity, they pronounce impending harm that is outside of God’s ideal. Genesis 3:14-19 is no different.
Summing It All Up
Genesis 3:14-19, as a curse oracle, displays a change in the status of the woman and the man (and the serpent). This change in status is typical of curse oracles in Genesis. The woman was once equal with man, but was then lowered beneath him because of sin.
The curse also introduces conflict between the man and the woman. The sin in the Garden was not a result of the woman subverting her husband’s leadership. It was a result of the woman turning away from God and going her own way. One aspect of the curse is that women will turn away from God toward their husbands. Another is that husbands will dominate their wives.
Finally, the curse does not prescribe what humanity should do, but pronounces what is as a result of sin.
All this leads me to conclude that patriarchy is a result of the Fall. The patriarchy we experience today is a result of the curse and something we must work against. We’ll come back to this idea in the future.
Even if you aren’t convinced by my interpretation of Genesis 3, I hope you’ll acknowledge there are other options than complementarian explanations–which depend on a lot of assumptions not in the text! My interpretation is still faithful to Scripture and the cultural context.
The next post won’t be as nerdy or detailed. We’ll scan the Old Testament to see how God has worked through women to move his people from the patriarchal norm toward a better gender ethic.
 John Piper, “Satan’s Design in Reversing Male Leadership Role,” Desiring God blog, December 19, 1983. Piper’s article makes the case that it was Satan’s design to attack God’s created order and subvert the gender roles God gave to the man and woman. Never mind that Genesis never identifies the serpent as Satan. That is a New Testament development (Rom. 16:20; Rev. 12:9; 20:2) that would have been foreign to the original audience. I should take this opportunity, then, to mention that the original Israelite reader, the serpent would have been considered a “chaos creature” from the non-ordered (i.e. morally neutral) realm who promoted chaos. Compare this with the chaos of the “deep waters,” an ancient symbol of chaos, in Gen 1:2, which God begins to put in order in Gen 1:3ff. (Later on, Isaiah 27:1 makes the connection between serpents and the chaos of the sea.) Now, I’m going way beyond the scope of this post–even this note! But the point is interesting to ponder: what if, as a chaos creature, the serpent did not bring “harmful hierarchy” into an already hierarchical world, but “disordered chaos” into a world that did not have hierarchy to begin with? If you’re interested in exploring this idea, see John Walton, “Proposition 14,” The Lost World of Adam and Eve (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2015).
 As an example, see Owen Strachan, “The Gender of Genesis and Ecclesial Womanhood,” 9Marks, July 1, 2010.
 John Walton comments, “Why does the woman do the speaking then? Because she is addressed (v. 1). Why does the serpent address the woman? The text does not say. Why does the man not correct the woman’s statement? Again, the text offers no explanation.” See John Walton, “Adam’s Role (3:6),” Genesis, NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), on BibleGateway.com.
 See Thomas R. Schreiner, “May Woman Serve as Pastors?”, 9Marks Blog, July 1, 2010.
 Dave Miller, “Genesis 3: Temptation, the Fall, and Gender Roles,” SBC Voices, January 14, 2011, is representative of how most complementarians explain this.
 Walton, “The Temptation (3:1b-5),” Genesis.
 Notice the serpent-woman-man / man-woman-serpent / serpent-woman-man pattern in Genesis 3:
- Serpent talks to woman.
- Woman eats the fruit.
- Man eats the fruit.
- God speaks to man…
- Who blames woman…
- Who blames serpent.
- God curses serpent.
- God curses woman.
- God curses man.
 This doesn’t mean what is written didn’t happen! But the author may have emphasized certain aspects of the story because of the audience to whom it was written. The Gospel writers did this often and that’s why we see multiple accounts with divergent details that appear contradictory at first glance.
 William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001), 117-118.
 Ibid., 119.
 Quoted in Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2021), 29.
 Webb, Slaves, Women, Homosexuals, 119.
 Susan Foh, “What is the Woman’s Desire?” in WTJ 37 (1974-75), 383. Even though this is from 1974-75, it has had incredible influence in the evangelical complementarian community over the past several decades. Piper says something similar here: “When it says, ‘Your desire shall be for your husband,’ it means that when sin has the upper hand in woman, she will desire to overpower or subdue or exploit man. And when sin has the upper hand in man, he will respond in like manner and with his strength subdue her, or rule over her” (Piper’s emphasis).
 Walton, “Woman” (3:16),” Genesis.
 This doesn’t mean women only want children. It also doesn’t mean all women will want children.
 Walton, “Woman” (3:16),” Genesis.
 “Turn” is how Kaiser understands the word traditionally translated “desire” in Genesis 3:16. He notes, “It is in a curse passage that predicts what will happen when women ‘turn’ toward their husbands instead of turning to God.” See Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Correcting Caricatures: The Biblical Teaching on Women,” Pricilla Papers 19/2, 2005. Allison Quient also observes that tešuqa was translated as “to return/turn” in the Septuagint (the Greek copy of the Old Testament, which was used by Jesus and the Apostles). In fact, there are seven uses of tešuqa in the non-biblical portions of the Dead Sea Scrolls and each time “turning” or “returning” makes more sense than “desire.” See Allison Quient, “Defining Desire,” CBE International, December 4, 2014.