Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Feminine Curse

So when I said yesterday that I wasn't thinking about anything, I was lying. I've been thinking about differing interpretations of the curse in Genesis 3:16. When I told my husband this he said, "Do people think about that kind of thing?" Read: "Who cares?" Isn't this the kind of theological hair-splitting that divides people and leads nowhere? My answer is no. I think our interpretation of this particular verse has serious ramifications, and so I am jumping in.

I'll give you the short version: Genesis 3:16 is right after Adam and Eve sinned, and God is telling them the consequences of their choice:

"To the woman he said, 'I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.'"

The first part of this curse is pretty obvious: Having babies hurts. The second part, however, has two or three different interpretations. In the last 10 or so years, I have primarily heard the modern interpretation: That our "desire" for our husband is actually a desire to control our husbands and usurp their positions. This interpretation was born relatively recently as a reaction to the feminist movement, but has become prevalent in evangelical churches.

The more traditional understanding of this verse is the more straightforward one - and the one that I personally subscribe to: That the curse is that women desire men - an unhealthy, oversized attachment to men. As Wendy Alsup puts it: "The woman's root problem is that, even though child birth is painful and the man rules her, she still has a morbid craving for him, looking to him in completely unhealthy ways that do not reflect her status as image bearer of God. The woman wants something from the man that he was never intended to provide her, that he even on his best day is not equipped to provide. He becomes her idol."

You should read Alsup's analysis of the verse for a linguistic look at different interpretations of it. (And my post probably wouldn't be complete without reading her post first.) What's more interesting to me is the evidence we see around us of the curse and the implications for our understanding.

If the Scriptures are true, it seems that the curse should be a pretty obvious thing to detect, right? This is certainly so with man's curse: "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food" (Genesis 3:17-19).

There is a reason farmers have high suicide rates. The story of man is very much the story of people struggling to feed themselves with an uncooperative land.

So shouldn't it be fairly obvious what the woman's curse is as well? If we look at history, what do we see? If the modern interpretation is correct, we should see history strewn with stories of women attempting to control and subvert men. If such stories exist, they are the footnotes of history. What is quite easy to see from a cursory glance at history and our current world is something altogether different: It's the story of a woman's morbid co-dependence on her man, even as he dominates and abuses her. This story has been told over and over again. And if I take down the drama level for a moment, even in women in healthy relationships, there is a tendency for a woman to seek her all in men: to spend her teen years longing and over-romanticizing men, to spend her dating years utterly preoccupied with the finding of that man, and spend her married years seeking to find complete satisfaction in that one romantic relationship. It's the reason so many women spend far too much energy on gaining the affirmation of the opposite sex.

The curses, seen this way, have a lot in common. Both of them are curses because they both represent things that should be a normal part of a healthy life, but instead they become massive, all-consuming, utterly-distracting, obsessions. Hard labor is a curse because work becomes something that drains men, that consumes their energy and their love, becomes and idol and an obstacle, an open wound that drains their vital force and can drive them to do things of which they are not worthy. Women do the same things with relationships: they obsess, they put in huge amounts of time and money and effort, they're pushed to do things they know they shouldn't, their hearts become utterly wrapped around them. For men, the curse is work, for women, the curse is relationships. But both struggle with them in the same way. (This is a general truth, of course. Obviously there are men who go wrong in the same way with relationships and women who go wrong in the same way with work. We can all go wrong in every way, given the opportunity.) The obsession can even become so complete for a woman, that, finding that long-strived-for ultimate relationship to somehow be less than ultimate, that she makes the modern interpretation come true by trying to reshape and reform her relatoinship (and her mate) to make the fairytale come true, so that even the object of her love becomes merely another means to meeting that goal. Men do this too, in their own way, working and obsessing to the point that they subjugate or lose they thing that they were working for (to support a life, to support a family, and do good). They get so lost in it that they find they've worked the thing they were working for right out of existence.

For a woman, the curse at its worst, of which there are a painful number of examples, is the woman who can't seem to leave or stay away from the man who hurts her. The curse in its seemingly mildest form is the nice Christian wife whose husband has become her ultimate source of happiness, ambition, hopes - in short, her god.

Am I unfair to my sex? I think the other interpretation is even more so.

That preachers have resonated with the interpretation of Genesis 3:16 of women's desire to control men isn't all that surprising. Am I wrong in guessing that some men would read "her desire will be for her husband" and secretly wonder to themselves, "What's wrong with that? Sounds awesome!" From a man's perspective, the curse looks like a boon.

But might the interpretation of women as thirsting to seize their power be more understandable to men? This may sound snarky and unkind, so please give me the benefit of the doubt, but we are more readily able to see - or suspect - our own faults in others, whereas we can be quite blind to flaws in others that aren't problems for us at all. A greedy woman can easily suspect others around her are also greedy and out to get what is rightfully hers. Whereas, if you don't particularly struggle with greed, you might naively assume that no one else does either. Mightn't men - whom history has shown thirst for power and dominance - too readily suspect that women are waiting to take over, while overlooking the fact that women can tend to be overly dependent on their affirmation?

It would be easy to oversimplify here, and say, "Men are the dominant ones" or "Women are the controlling ones." The truth is that neither tendencies are strictly gender-specific. Alexander the Great, arguably the most dominating man who ever lived, had a very dominant mother. But in general, it seems odd that this modern evangelical culture paints women with the fault that has long been known as the domain of man. As Abigail Adams wrote to her husband in 1776, "That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute."

You might say, "Yes, but isn't it difficult for a woman to submit to her husband, as Ephesians instructs her to?" The answer is, yes, it is certainly difficult for her to do so. It is difficult for both men and women to submit to the headship of others - it isn't a particularly feminine vice. It's why climbing the corporate ladder is so prevalent - many men spend their prime years trying to get higher and higher on that ladder with fewer and fewer people above them and more and more below them. But while the distaste for submitting to others is a particularly human problem, and not only a feminine one, the deep need and longing for the affirmation of the opposite sex is a particularly feminine struggle. Women want to spend their Saturday nights watching movies in which women gain the affection of men. Men want to watch things blow up.

The question remains: what effect is this modern interpretation having on evangelical culture? I think it can be summed up in one word: Suspicion. Whereas the more traditional understanding of Genesis 3:16, that of women's "morbid craving" for man, would prompt us to compassion, the modern understanding of women's supposed coup for power prompts suspicion and rivalry between men and women.

The secular culture is ripe for suspicion, if you listen to conservative Republican shock jocks, which many evangelical men do. According to those such as Rush Limbaugh, feminazis are lurking behind every corner to take down the men. Whether or not the alleged feminazis exist, this suspicious, paranoid attitude toward women leads to misogyny. Limbaugh's recent accusation that a woman is a "slut" based on her opinion on the government's role in health care leaps to mind.

I think this attitude of suspicion has bled into the church. And why wouldn't it? If men are repeatedly told that women are waiting to overthrow their rule, they would naturally look around in worry. Perhaps this is why we see men claiming that Christianity has become overly feminized and demasculated. Certainly, there are women (and men) who no longer subscribe to the teachings that church leadership should be male. However, this can't be oversimplified to mean that all women are desiring to overtake and control their men and churches. In many churches, and in many societies, women step up to lead because they feel have to - because the men simply can't be bothered to do so (they're not interested, or they're adolescent man-childs, or are simply off getting drunk). (This last comment courtesy of Mike.) (And my point isn't that there aren't women who exist who want to control, it's that I don't think this is the correct interpretation of this verse. -Amber's comment)

I won't be so bold as to claim that a suspicious attitude towards women's intentions leads to misogyny among male church leaders, but I think it wouldn't be too bold to say that it doesn't lead to cuddly thoughts. While the traditional understanding of the passage would, hopefully, prompt men to have understanding and protective feelings toward women, the modern one would prompt feelings of rivalry and threat. We need look no further than the Bible to see how leaders can react when they feel threatened (even falsely so). Saul, who once loved David and provided for him, when suspicious that David was secretly out to get him, became the bloodthirsty villain of dozens of psalms.

This is why the interpretation of this verse matters. The modern understanding brings on a double curse of enmity between men and women, a rivalry and distrust. And so what we really need to ask is, is this what the verse really means, or are we simply bringing double trouble on ourselves?


Amber said...

I fear that my post came out overly contentious. I really just think this is an interesting topic to think about!

Anonymous said...

I think it is interesting and thought provoking. I will be mulling this over for a while. :)

Aaron Armstrong said...

Really good post, Amber. I've been looking at this one for a while too.

The tough thing is that there's a degree to which both interpretations work (although not perfectly, certainly). Biblically, Jezebel would certainly typify the "control/dominate" interpretation. While historically it's arguably less common, it's not unheard of.

All that to say, I wonder if Matthew Henry doesn't capture the tension well in the following:

"Sin brought sorrow into the world; that made the world a vale of tears. No wonder our sorrows are multiplied, when our sins are so. He shall rule over thee, is but God's command, Wives, be subject to your own husbands. If man had not sinned, he would always have ruled with wisdom and love; if the woman had not sinned, she would always have obeyed with humility and meekness. Adam laid the blame on his wife; but though it was her fault to persuade him to eat the forbidden fruit, it was his fault to hearken to her."


Amber said...

Hi Aaron, I think your comment about the tension is what Mike was meaning too (he inserted some thoughts in my post) - that the one truth - that women overly look to men for happiness - leads to the other - that we therefore try to control in order to force that relationship into being what we need it to be.

I agree with what you say about Jezebel - it's definitely not unheard of and you could even argue that it's not uncommon. But my overall point is that, in my opinion, I don't think that is the best interpretation of this particular verse. At the same time, I don't think we can really fully understand this side of heaven, so we have to hold these things lightly!

I didn't get into Henry's commentary (and others, like Wesley), because it got overly complicated - when it comes to the "ruling" I just left that out altogether. :)

Staci Eastin said...

Excellent points. The modern interpretation has always puzzled me, this is a viewpoint worth considering.

Unknown said...

Interesting thoughts. What bearing does the use of "desire" in Gen 4:7 have? That seems to me to convey the idea of control. In Greek rather than Hebrew Luke 22:31 also comes to mind.

BTW: You misrepresent Limbaugh (who was way out of order). His comment was related to the amount of money the individual claimed was being spent on contraception and what that implied about lifestyle rather than the government's role.

Paul Goodfellow said...

Sorry I didn't mean to come out as Unknown. Hopefully that is fixed now.

Amber said...

Hi Paul, Since my post was already so long, I didn't go into "desire" in Genesis 4:7 and because Alsup had written about that in her analysis:

I think her thoughts are helpful on that topic, and to me the arguments for the control interpretation based on Gen 4:7 seem unconvincing, or at least inconclusive.