Is Male Headship a “Curse”?

by Steve Golden on August 31, 2012
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Do women try to take over man’s authority? Is male headship a “curse”? Steve Golden, AiG–U.S., replies to a reader’s questions about his earlier article.

Regarding Steve Golden’s explanation of Genesis 3:16.

“Christians differ over what this verse means, but two likely interpretations arise: (1) Eve will try to usurp her husband’s role as head, but God is requiring Adam to keep her from doing so, resulting in conflict; or (2) Eve will try to usurp her husband’s role as head, and he will exercise unbiblical male domination over her.”

I’ve never heard of either of those interpretations, and maybe it’s just me but they seem in conflict with the verse. I interpret this to say: Women will/should desire their husbands and be under his authority. Where does it say women will try to take over that authority? Both interpretations seem to assume this.

I’m confused.

Thank you for your question. I hope to clear up your confusion by offering a more detailed explanation of how many evangelicals interpret Genesis 3:16, and I’ll also examine some faulty interpretations.1

To answer your question succinctly, a woman desired her husband and was under his authority before the Fall and the Curse, so these verses cannot mean that male headship was part of the judgment in Genesis 3:14–19. Male headship is not a curse; however, the spheres of responsibility for a husband and wife as well as their marriage relationship are cursed with conflict, which includes the wife trying to usurp her husband’s authority (see discussion below).

How do we reach these conclusions? First, let’s read Genesis 3:16, which is the Curse on the woman.

To the woman He said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in pain you shall bring forth children; your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

While the first part of the woman’s Curse is easily understood (“in pain you shall bring forth children”), the last part has been subjected to varying interpretations. However, I am convinced that both of the likely interpretations hold true in Genesis 3:16: (1) Eve will try to usurp her husband’s role as head, but God is requiring Adam to keep her from doing so, resulting in conflict; and (2) Eve will try to usurp her husband’s role as head, and he will exercise unbiblical male domination over her.2 In either case, the husband is called by God to rule his family appropriately (as Adam would have in the garden). But because of the Curse and the new sin nature, his wife will attempt to usurp his God-given authority, and he will be tempted either to respond with ungodly domination or to remain passive and allow his wife to rule him.

In order to reach these conclusions, there are three important points to deal with in regard to the account of Adam and Eve: the context of Genesis 3:16, the nature of the woman’s “desire,” and how the order of creation defined the marriage relationship before the Fall.

The Context of Genesis 3:16

When reading any passage of Scripture, we must take into account its context. In the case of Genesis 3:16, context is key to understanding the effects of the Curse.

Leading up to Genesis 3:16, we read that God created a perfect world in six days, that He rested on the seventh, and that He placed in the Garden of Eden a perfect man (Adam) made from the dust of the earth and a perfect woman (Eve) made from the man’s rib. And God gave them everything in the earth, except for a single tree—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eat from that tree, God told Adam, and “you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17).

We all know what happened next. The serpent tempted Eve and she ate from the tree:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings. (Genesis 3:6–7)

God then came to find the couple in the garden. That is our context for Genesis 3:14–19, where God details the effects of the Curse. It is important to remember this is a judgment passage, so we can conclude that any resulting effects of the Curse will not be enjoyable blessings from God. Therefore, any interpretation that attributes a blessing to the effects of the Curse is very likely incorrect.

The Woman’s “Desire”

A second issue surrounding the interpretation of this verse is how to properly understand the Hebrew word for desire: teshuqah (תשׁוקת). Teshuqah appears only three times in Scripture.

“Your desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16, emphasis added)

“If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it.” (Genesis 4:7, emphasis added)

“I am my beloved’s, And his desire is toward me.” (Song of Solomon 7:10, emphasis added)

The obvious parallel to Genesis 3:16 is Genesis 4:7, where God told Cain that sin’s desire (teshuqah) was for him (i.e., it desired to master or rule him), but he must rule over sin. Cain, as we read in verse 8, did not rule over sin—he instead murdered his brother, thereby allowing sin to rule him.

If teshuqah in Genesis 4:7 indicates a desire to master or rule over Cain, then we can safely say that teshuqah in Genesis 3:16 should indicate something similar: the woman’s desire (teshuqah) is for her husband (i.e., she will try to master or rule him), but he is called to rule over her appropriately. Song of Solomon 7:10 does not carry as close a parallel, but the use of teshuqah still carries a sense of driving or urging someone, which is consistent with the woman’s desire to have power over her husband (see discussion below).

The Order of Creation

A final element to understanding Genesis 3:16 is the order of creation. What do we know about Adam and Eve’s relationship in Genesis 1–2? We know that Adam was created first, and then Eve. When God created Adam, He placed Adam in the garden to work it and keep it. Furthermore, God gave Adam the responsibility of naming the animals:

Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them. And whatever Adam called each living creature, that was its name. (Genesis 2:19)

Adam clearly had a leadership role in the Garden of Eden. Not only was he the garden’s caretaker, but he also demonstrated his authority over the animals by naming them.3 At this point, God declared, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him” (Genesis 2:18). So God created Eve.

Adam’s immediate response to meeting Eve, his suitable helper, was to declare that she is his counterpart, made from him, and to name her: “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Genesis 2:23). Here, as above, naming reveals an authority relationship between Adam and Eve.

Adam’s statement that Eve was “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” made it clear that she was just as human as he was. By calling her woman, Adam acknowledged that she was female—different from him—but that she was literally his own flesh, a part of him, and therefore equal before God. Paul reinforced the fact that men and women are equal before God when he taught that men do not receive salvation any differently than women do (Galatians 3:22–29)—but we learn from Adam and Eve’s marriage that husbands and wives do not share equal authority. Adam, the husband, is the head, and Eve, his wife, is his helper.4 Clearly, male headship was a reality before the Fall.5 And if it had been properly exercised by people without a sinful nature—in the absence of the conflict, power struggle, and distrust that began after they sinned—that headship would have been a blessing to both Adam and Eve.

A final point of consideration concerns the circumstances surrounding the Fall. Eve ate of the tree before Adam, and her husband followed her into that sin. And yet, when God came to the garden, knowing what the couple had done and who had sinned first, whose name did He call? He called for Adam, because Adam had not exercised godly leadership by protecting his wife from this sin. Not only did He call for Adam, but He also clearly expressed that Adam should not have followed his wife and eaten of the tree:

“Because you have heeded the voice of your wife, and have eaten from the tree of which I commanded you, saying, ‘You shall not eat of it’: Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life.” (Genesis 3:17)

God also reminded Adam that the command not to eat of the tree was given to specifically to him—and he was being called to account for what occurred under his leadership. All of these things lead us to conclude that Adam held an extra measure of responsibility as the leader and head of his family. And under a God-given system of male headship, we would expect the husband to be called to account for the moral actions of his family, which is exactly what we find in Genesis 3.6

Evangelical Feminism and Other Faulty Interpretations

Because of the influence of evangelical feminism on the church (and the influence of feminism on the culture as a whole), some in the church balk at the idea of male headship in the family. In an attempt to conform to the popular ideas of the culture, evangelical feminists and others have proposed alternate interpretations of the meaning of the woman’s “desire” and the Curse’s affect on the marriage relationship.

One alternate interpretation is based on the parallel use of teshuqah in Song of Solomon 7:10, “I am my beloved’s, And his desire is toward me” (emphasis added). Because the use of teshuqah in that verse is sexual in nature, this interpretation claims that the woman’s “desire” in Genesis 3:16 is a greatly increased sexual attraction to her husband. This interpretation may take two forms: (1) as a result of her increased attraction, the wife will willingly submit to her husband, making it easier for him to achieve a tyrannical, ungodly dominion over her, or (2) the husband will have a stronger desire for his wife as a companion, in response to her increased sexual attraction.

One problem with the first form of this interpretation is that the willing submission of the wife to her husband is not a punishment for sin. Eve as Adam’s helper submitted willingly to him before the Fall. Part of the punishment is the wife’s new temptation to usurp her husband’s God-given authority. Regarding the second form, as I stated above, we have to remember that Genesis 3:14–19 is a judgment passage, so any resulting effects of the Curse will not be enjoyable blessings from God. To say that a couple’s love for one another and their fidelity in marriage are increased as a result of the Curse simply is not logical.

Furthermore, if teshuqah is sexual in nature in Genesis 3:16 and Song of Solomon 7:10, then should we conclude that it is in Genesis 4:7 as well? But it does not make sense to say that sin had a sexual desire toward Cain. Indeed, Susan Foh examines the use of teshuqah in these passages and concludes, “the proper etymology in Arabic would be saqa, to urge, drive on, impel,”7 all giving the sense of attempting to gain power over someone or something.

In the evangelical feminist’s alternate interpretation of the marriage relationship in Genesis, scholars such as Gilbert Bilezikian argue that words such as head or helper in Scripture are misunderstood. Bilezikian says of headship, “Head is never given the meaning of authority, boss or leader. It describes the servant function of provider of life, growth and development.”8 In one sense, Bilezikian has it right—the husband absolutely should desire to aid his wife and children in their spiritual growth. In fact, Scripture (Ephesians 5:28, 33) commands husbands to love their wives as they love themselves and as Christ loved the church (i.e., to the point of being willing to die for her). However, Scripture still clearly places the responsibility for leadership on the husband, both before and after the Fall.

Any sort of “team” must have a leader. In a marriage, that leader, by God’s design, is the husband. Ephesians 5:22 states clearly, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Here Paul uses an analogy: As a woman submits to the leadership of the Lord, so should she also submit to the leadership of her husband. The type of leadership a husband is called to model is hardly the picture of ungodly, dictatorial leadership often painted by evangelical feminists. Rather, a godly husband’s leadership is born of love for God and of love and respect for his wife, to the point of laying down his life for her (Ephesians 5:25). First Peter 3:7 even shows that a husband’s own prayers are hindered if he fails to honor his wife and seek to understand her needs.

Bilezikian argues elsewhere, “There is not a hint, not even a whisper about anything like a hierarchical order existing between man and woman in the creation account of Genesis, chapters 1 and 2. … The creation order established oneness, not hierarchy (2:24). The first indication of a hierarchical order between man and woman resulted from the entrance of sin into the world (3:16).”9 Those claims have been addressed already, but it is unfortunate that Bilezikian is willing to place male headship under the umbrella of the Curse, when Scripture clearly does not.

The New Testament treats a harmonious marriage that is led by the husband as a blessing for both members. In fact, the properly functioning marriage full of love, mutual respect, and properly exercised authority is a picture of the blessed relationship we (both men and women) are to have with our Lord Jesus Christ, who is surely the Head of all Christians. Ephesians 5:23 says, “For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body.” As believers (both men and women), we follow the leadership of Christ, who is our head. In the same way, a wife follows her husband’s leadership, because God has placed him as head of the family—and we can trace this male headship even to the perfection of the Garden of Eden.

Steve Golden, AiG–U.S.


  1. For more a more detailed approach to gender roles and a biblical view of the family, see John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2006); and Andreas J. Köstenberger, God, Marriage, and Family: Rebuilding the Biblical Foundation, 2nd ed., with David W. Jones (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2010).
  2. Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship: Genesis 1–3,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds. (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2006), p. 108.
  3. Ibid., p. 102.
  4. To be clear, the kind of submission being discussed in this article is within the context of marriage. Biblically, a woman is commanded to submit to the leadership of her own husband (Ephesians 5:22), but that submission does not extend past the marriage relationship. She is not required to submit in that way to other men.
  5. In 1 Timothy 2:13 Paul used the created order of Adam before Eve as one of his arguments for male headship.
  6. This is not to say that wives and children are not held responsible for their actions—they are. Scripture clearly states that every believer will stand before God to give account for how they lived their lives (1 Corinthians 3:10–15). However, there is an indication in Scripture that the male head has the added duty of giving account for the actions of his family while under his leadership. Paul alludes to this added responsibility in Ephesians 5:23–33 when, directly addressing husbands, he writes that the “husband is head of the wife” (v. 23); that wives are to be subject “to their own husbands in everything” (v. 24); and that “husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies” (v. 28), even to the point of dying for her.
  7. Susan T. Foh, “What Is the Woman’s Desire?” The Westminster Theological Journal 37 (1974/75): 376–383.
  8. Gilbert Bilezikian, “I Believe in Male Headship,” Christians for Biblical Equality,
  9. Bilezikian, “A Challenge for Proponents of Female Submission to Prove Their Case from the Bible,” Christians for Biblical Equality,


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