I’m still trying to understand God’s word to the woman in Genesis 3:16, connecting the difficulties of childbirth, the woman’s desire for her man, and her man ruling over her. In the narrative context of Genesis, this connection clearly looks forward to the patriarchal households of Genesis, where a man’s belongings consist in living things (the kind of things listed in the 10th commandment) in an economy where the increase of wealth means the flourishing of living things in the household (the oikos, the Greek root of oikonomia, economics).
To see what is at stake in this patriarchal economy, it helps to see what the alternatives could be. So today I’ll turn to the most deeply imagined alternative in antiquity, which we find in Plato’s Republic. It’s interestingly modern, in all sorts of ways. Plato famously advocates a kind of egalitarianism within the ruling class. Setting aside the lower class (which in Plato’s republic means the rich and all those who are allowed to have private wealth) he aims to produce a ruling class in which all goods are held in common, with women and men sharing the same work and the same education. The aim is to form a city in which as many people as possible “say mine and not mine about the same things in the same way” (Republic 5:462c).
The great obstacle to this project is the family, where parents regard their children as “my own” in a unique and exclusive way. So Plato proposes that women and children are to be possessed in common, “so that no parent will know his own offspring or any child his parent” (Republic 5:457d). As in Genesis, children are the most precious of all possessions, but they belong not to a family or household (oikos) but to the state (polis). In fact there is to be no such thing as a family or household. From infancy children are raised in a state-controlled daycare in which children of the same age are grouped together and “no mother knows her own child” (Republic 460c).
The point of the daycare is to make it very easy for the women in the ruling class to have children (Republic 5:460d). The effect, as Plato realizes, is to minimize the one respect in which women are of a fundamentally different nature than men (Republic 5:454d). There is thus a deep connection between these two points: if all goods are to be fundamentally in common (so that we say “mine” about the same things in the same way) then women must not be allowed to be too different from men. We must make it as easy as possible for women to have children so that they may be as much like men as possible, so that all may share as equally as possible in the same work and the same goods, including the same children.
This is the best light I have found to shed on God’s word to the woman: “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth” (Gen. 3:16). It means God does not make it as easy as possible for women to be like men. God evidently wants women to remain other than men, so that greatest blessing comes to women and to men only through an other who is fundamentally different than oneself. In the biblical logic of otherness, each needs the other: women need men (hence “your desire shall be for your husband”) but men also cannot attain the most precious possession of all, the new life of their own children, without taking good care of their wives (which is the proper meaning of “and he shall rule over you”).
It is not good for the man to be alone: he needs an other, someone who is not the same as himself. Hence male and female are deeply other to one another, for the good of one another. This is what a rationalist project like Plato’s misses. The common good requires us not just to be the same, sharing the same work and the same goods, but to be fundamentally other than one another, with an otherness written into our own bodies.
For rationalists like Plato, this fundamental bodily difference within humanity, male and female, is a problem to overcome, not a source of blessing. It generates deep family loyalties that are pre-political and pre-rational, rooted in the bodies of women. Thus the lesson Antigone, with her ineradicable loyalty to her dead brother, tries to teach Creon, the king of Thebes: the power of the city goes only so far; it does not reach all the way into the life of the family or household. Plato, bold as he is, wants us to imagine ignoring Antigone’s lesson in the name of reason and justice. And down to this day, the family poses an obstacle to political projects that reduce the common good to what we can achieve by our own rational planning and legislation.
In Genesis, by contrast, family comes before state, oikos before polis, the economics of human life flourishing in the household before the politics of rational planning for the good of all. To think about God’s word to the woman is to think about how the deepest form of human otherness and difference give shape to human social life, and why this is a good thing.