I have been trying to understand the justice in God’s speeches in Genesis 3:14-19. For this is the context in which to make sense of the great puzzle I find in his words to the woman: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (3:16). It is, strikingly, the first time sex and procreation are mentioned together. It is as if to say: We will never know what the connection between sex and procreation would look like for human beings in a state of untrammeled innocence.
In contrast to Adam’s joy over the woman in Genesis 2:23f, which looked forward to sexual union but not to procreation, here the connection with childbirth is explicit. God’s first words to the woman are: “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth” (3:16). If we may take the word “pain” broadly here, to refer not just to physical pain but to any kind of difficulty or trouble, then her desire for her husband clearly seems to be included in the difficulties of procreation. Unlike her husband’s joy in her before the first sin, it is not entirely a good thing. We could say, in our own resonant English idiom: Her desire for her husband can be a real pain. And in that respect it is linked to his ruling over her.
The question about justice is: What’s the good of this pain? Justice often has this structure: Some pain or difficulty is imposed on someone for the sake of some good. The pain is not itself a good thing, but when it is deserved, as well as imposed for a good purpose by someone in legitimate position to impose it (such as a lawful authority), then it serves the good of justice.
Thus for example, Adam’s death, which is not a good thing in itself, serves a good purpose in God’s justice. Because he cannot eat from the tree of life and become like a god, he is subject to the ultimate helplessness of death (you can’t be any more helpless than dead, we could say, borrowing a thought from a wonderful title by Flannery O’Connor).
The man’s helplessness forces him, if he has any wisdom at all, to put his hope in someone other than himself. His hope for human life to continue beyond his own death is possible only through the other whom God gave him, the one whom he had contemptuously described as “the woman you gave to be with me” back when he was blaming her and her Creator for his own disobedience. This is the other whom he finally recognizes, in a moment of wisdom in his last speech, as the mother of all living (3:20). She is the one whose seed will be at enmity with the serpent, who represents the power of lies and death, and will crush his head.
Something similar is happening with God’s word to the woman, I think. The pain of childbirth and her desire for her husband, who will rule over her, are first and foremost a form of helplessness, which offsets her great power. For to see the point of divine justice here requires us to see her in fact as immensely powerful. She is Adam’s helper, which in biblical terms means she is a strong ally, someone who can rescue him from death. In this respect she is like God, who is the person most often called a helper in the Bible. And in her body she is the bearer of the most powerful of all blessings, “Be fruitful and multiply,” which leads human beings closer to divine creativity, the ability to bring new beings into being, than any other power given to humanity.
The good in their helplessness, in sum, is that it enforces the biblical logic of otherness, according to which each one is an indispensable good for the other, without whom he or she is helpless, having no recourse against the power of death. But with the other, both male and female have a hope for life. There is something to learn here about the inherent human meaning of male and female.
Thus the justice of the woman’s pain in childbirth is, according to the overall logic of the story in Genesis, that it joins her to her husband, whom she had ignored. It ties her great power to him. She will have no untrammeled enjoyment of the procreative power of bringing new beings into being.
Nor will he, of course. For man ruling over woman in the course of human history shall hardly be innocent. The path to life-giving wisdom shall be difficult the whole way, and difficult for both.