Editor’s Note: This article is one of a series on difficult Bible passages entitled “What to Say When…”
Since the fall, women have suffered enormously under patriarchy. In the church, in the world, and in the home, women have always been subordinate to men, and as a result, they have been abused, oppressed, and silenced. Some say gender hierarchy is God’s perfect design—a pristine plan for women and men’s good and flourishing. They point to Genesis, arguing that God clearly intended patriarchy from the start. But the text tells a different story. If we look closer, it becomes clear that patriarchy was never God’s plan for humanity.
Is Patriarchy God’s Will or the Consequence of Sin?
Genesis 3:16 says, “in pain you will bear children.” It doesn’t say, “in pain you must bear children.” The distinction is there in Hebrew, too. This is an imperfect statement, not an imperative. This means that God is speaking of what will happen or is happening, not what ought to happen.
In Hebrew, this is clear in the second person (you), but not always clear in the third person (she or he). This is because the third person imperative (the jussive), looks just like the imperfect. However, in a series of clauses, like we have here, they should match. Since the first clause (“you will bear children”) is not an imperative, the third clause (“he will rule over you”) should not be an imperative either. To make it more compelling, the parallel consequences Adam receives in verses 17-18 are also imperfects, not imperatives. This means that God isn’t telling men to rule over women, he’s telling women that men will rule over them. Why?
When the humans sinned in the Garden of Eden, God told them what would happen to the world as a result of disobedience. Because people disobey God, there is constant toil (3:17-18), we’re aware of our mortality (3:19), childbirth is painful (3:16), and there is patriarchy (3:16). We don’t often hear that God’s good plan for the world is useless work, death, and pain, because we know that God’s work in Christ is always against the forces of sin and death. In other words, God didn’t curse us with death; instead, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). God didn’t curse us with patriarchy either, but many complementarians go even further—without any basis in the text—and call it a blessing! Why do we so often hear that patriarchy is God’s best for us?
As followers of Christ, we are called to holy living—fighting against the forces of sin in ourselves and in the world. We seek a better life for all people. We use technology and good stewardship to make work efficient, purposeful, and good for the earth, we work through the medical field to alleviate pain and fight sickness, and we work for gender equality.
What Does “Your ‘Desire’ Will Be Toward your Husband” Mean?
Most translations say “desire” here (see more on this below). There are many interpretations of this phrase. The words before it are about conception and childbirth. For this reason, some interpreters have said this refers to sexual desire, saying something like, “even though you will be constantly pregnant, you will still desire your husband.” This is possible, especially since the same construction is used in Song of Solomon 7:10: “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is toward me.” Since it says “but your desire will be toward your husband,” it also makes sense that this would refer to the previous clause. This “but” doesn’t always show up in English translations.
Those who support male hierarchy often say that this phrase means women are opposed to men and want to dominate them. However, the translation they offer—“your desire will be contrary to your husband” (ESV 2016)—is a stretch. The Hebrew word ’il means “toward.” Even in situations where ’il might be translated “against,” the sense of the word is still “toward,” for example, “anger toward/‘against’ Israel” (Numbers 32:14). Furthermore, the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation that was considered authoritative in the time of Jesus, translates ’il as pros. Pros also means “toward.” The translation “contrary to” reflects anxiety about female influence that isn’t present in the text.
The word commonly translated “desire” is from the Hebrew teshuqah. Katharine Bushnell, a 19th century scholar, found that teshuqah was first translated “desire” in 1528. Before that, it was usually translated “turning.” In fact, the Septuagint uses the word apostrophe here, which means “turning away.” From whom might sinful women turn away, hoping that their husbands, or anyone else, will fill the void? Turning away from the rule of God means turning toward the rule of man—patriarchy.
So What Should You Say When Someone Says Patriarchy is God’s Plan?
1. Gender hierarchy is a result of sin, not a command of God. God’s work in Christ is against the effects of sin.
2. One result of sin in human relationships is that people will turn toward each other instead of God.
3. The final destruction of sin will also mean the final destruction of patriarchy and sexism.
 Katharine Bushnell, God’s Word to Women (Minneapolis: Christians for Biblical Equality, 2003), XVI.124-XVIII.145.