I’m not done puzzling over God’s word to the woman in Genesis 3:16, connecting pain in childbirth, desire for her husband, and his ruling over her. So far I’ve been thinking primarily about the connection between the first two, procreation and sex. But now it’s time to think about how they’re connected to the third. For a simple, provocative but accurate enough label, just call this connection “patriarchy,” and you’ll see why it’s taken me some time to work up to it.

My assumption has been that God’s word in Genesis 3 aims at a justice that sets things right. So how does patriarchy, the rule of a man over his wife, set things right? I’m thinking: it is not yet a solution, but neither is it simply punishment. It’s the beginning of a long process in which God directs the knowledge of good and evil to the goal of wisdom. It is a story of sin and redemption. And it begins by creating a framework within which life is to triumph over death.

The first word in this story sets the woman’s seed at enmity with the seed of the serpent who represents the power of death (Gen. 3:15). The use God makes of the patriarchal framework has to do with how he fulfills that word. Patriarchy is the ancient framework for procreation, through which the promise of life’s victory over death is eventually fulfilled, as we follow the story of patriarchs through the story of Israel to the birth of Christ.

To understand the patriarchal framework, we can begin by looking ahead in the book of Genesis itself: to Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, and especially Rachel, Leah and Jacob. Here we see the woman’s desire for her husband, which is inseparable from her desire for children (sexual desire is unmistakably procreative desire in Genesis) brought together in a patriarchal household.

What we’re seeing when we look at these people in Genesis is so unfamiliar that it helps to jump ahead in the Bible to the 10 commandments, which legislates for the patriarchal household, and think about why the final commandment is so hard to apply directly today. Think how much you have to explain, expand and extrapolate in order to preach today on a text like this: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or his ass or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17).

“Your neighbor” here is clearly a man. He has a wife, not a husband. We have to extrapolate (and are right to do so) when we apply this commandment in our present context to both wives and husbands. But in the immediate context—without extrapolation—what can be coveted here is wealth that belongs to a patriarch, the male head of a household that includes women and children, male and female slaves, and animals. Everything mentioned as belonging to the patriarch is a living thing. It is not really different when the later version of the 10 commandments mentions also “his field” (Deuteronomy 5:21), i.e. the place where your neighbor grows his crops.

So here’s the key point about this patriarchal framework that is so unfamiliar to us: because the property of the patriarch consists fundamentally of living things, the increase of wealth and the blessing of procreation are nearly the same thing in Genesis. Jacob’s wealth, to give the most important example, consists in proliferating flocks and herds, male and female servants, as well as women and children.

Seeing this gets us one step forward to understanding why “your desire shall be for your husband” is connected with “and he shall rule over you” in Genesis 3:16. It means, to begin with, that the man who rules over his wife has a deep economic interest in seeing that she lives well, is healthy and flourishes together with her children, being fruitful and multiplying. Indeed, this is very close to the original, ancient meaning of “economy,” as we shall see.

Articles by Phillip Cary

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