I’m trying to understand why God’s word to the woman in Genesis 3:16 connects “your desire shall be for your husband” with “he shall rule over you.” The meaning of the connection becomes clearer as we look ahead to the narrative continuation of Genesis and its patriarchal households. I’m also thinking the connection is economic, in the original sense of the word.

We have ancient treatises on economics attributed to Xenophon and to Aristotle. They envision quite a different discipline from the one we are familiar with now. They are treatises on household management, just as the Greek word suggests: “economics” is a Latinization of the Greek oikonomia, from oikos and nomos, “house” and “law.” Hence also an oikonomos, in the New Testament and elsewhere, is a steward, one who manages the wealth of a household.

The task of economics is to increase wealth, and the original social location for this task is the household. There is no discipline studying the wealth of nations until the invention of modern economics in the 18th century, most prominently in Adam Smith’s famous treatise by that title. It is worth bearing in mind that originally this new discipline was called “political economy,” precisely because it was the study of wealth in the polis rather than the oikos.

If we re-focus our understanding of economics in this ancient way, we can see the patriarchal households in Genesis a good deal more clearly. The wealth of these households consists primarily of living things: flocks and herds, women and children, manservant and maidservant. In the economics of Genesis, the increase of wealth is the increase of healthy living things. It is the fruit of the blessing: “Be fruitful and multiply.”

Good economics here means more than the proliferation of money and material goods; it means life prevails over death. I suppose this is still the root meaning of wealth: people get to eat and their children get to eat, as the two great life-giving gifts of Genesis 1, food (1:29) and procreation (1:28) abound. All else is leisure and luxury.

What makes the patriarchal households of Genesis most different from us is how close to the bone this all is, how little clothed in leisure and luxury. Yet for us too economics is still ultimately a matter of life and death. So that is the framework within which I think we can begin to make sense of patriarchy, where procreation, wealth, and the father’s rule of the household coincide. And that in turn is the initial framework we need to see the meaning of God’s word to the woman about her desire for her husband and his ruling over her.

Articles by Phillip Cary

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