God’s word to the woman in Genesis 3:16 continues to fascinate me. Yesterday I argued that in contrast to rationalist projects like Plato’s, it aims to deepen the difference between male and female rather than minimize it. For in Scripture difference and otherness are not things to be regretted but the source and means of blessing. The good does not come to us in common, treating each individual alike, but rather through a biblical logic of otherness, in which each of us finds the blessing of God only in an other who is different from us.
This reading depends on seeing God’s word in Genesis 3:14-19 (his sequence of speeches to the serpent, the woman and the man) as something more than punishment. It is a justice that sets things right that have gone wrong: the man who blamed God for “the woman you gave to be with me,” the woman who spoke as if her husband were not with her, and the serpent who lies about death. Most importantly of all, in this sequence the serpent is cursed, not the woman or the man. Beginning with the enmity God sets between the serpent’s seed and the woman’s seed, we must see God’s word here as Gospel, good news for the human race that aims to turn us back in the direction of life after we have believed lies about death.
It is hard good news, to be sure. It underlines the value of the good by showing us how much pain we are willing to go through for the sake of having children (Gen. 3:16) and food (Gen. 3:17). But it does aim at our good, not our harm. That is why it is so important to see that Genesis 3 does not put the human race under a curse. Death is accursed, not human life. And the curse on the serpent makes it clear which side God is on. He makes human life more difficult so that we may choose, however laboriously and painfully, to live not die. The wisdom of the tree of life remains the ultimate goal, but now there is no way to it but through the difficult wisdom of the knowledge of good and evil.
God’s word to the woman is particularly important because it is where difference and otherness in the human race comes to the fore. The difficulties God imposes on the man are common to both: the difficulty of getting bread from the earth, and above all the sheer helplessness of death. But death does not really have the last word here; it has already been cursed in God’s word to the serpent. But God’s word to the serpent, in turn, sets human hope for the triumph of life in the seed of the woman.
So God’s speech to the woman, which is at the center of the sequence, is where the future lies. In the context of Genesis in particular, it points ahead to the patriarchal household where the woman’s desire for her husband is inextricably both sexual and procreative, and the man rules over the woman so that she may flourish and have seed, that both may be fruitful and multiply. But that future will also be deeply problematic, as the women at the center of the story in Genesis are barren, and their men cannot give them what they want.
“Give me sons or I shall die,” says Rachel to Jacob her husband, the man who shall be named Israel. “Am I in the place of God?” he responds (Gen. 30:1-2). Notice what shows up here but not in the sequence of speeches in Genesis 3—quite simply, it’s God. Despite being a response to human disobedience to God, these speeches do not explicitly address the future of humanity’s relationship with God. Their aim is to deepen the contrast between life and death, as well as the difference between male and female, which has become the difficult source of life. This begins a long story in which God sets things right. To see how God enters the story, however, we have to look ahead in Genesis to those barren women. For in their seed is the life of Israel and therefore the blessing of all humanity—the one for the blessing of the other.
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