Genesis 3:16 God told Eve, “
will surely multiply your pain in
childbearing; in pain you shall
bring forth children; your desire shall
be contrary to your husband, but he
shall rule over you.”
Some evangelicals interpret this to mean that male headship is a “curse” on women. The correct interpretation has a huge impact on discussions about the role of women within marriage, so we need to be careful.
To answer the question succinctly, a woman desired her husband and was under his authority before the fall and the curse, so this verse cannot mean that male headship was part of the judgment in Genesis 3:14–19.
Because sin has entered the relationship, however, the spheres of responsibility for a husband and wife, as well as their marriage relationship, now face conflict, and this includes the wife trying to usurp her husband’s authority.
How do scholars reach these conclusions?
First, look at the context of Genesis 3:16. When the serpent tempted Eve to disobey God, she ate the fruit that he had forbidden, and Adam did too. God then details the effects of their sin. It is important to remember this is a judgment passage, so any interpretation that attributes a blessing to the judgment is likely incorrect.
Second is the meaning of the Hebrew word for desire, used only three times in Scripture (Genesis 3:16, 4:7; Song of Solomon 7:10). The obvious parallel is Genesis 4:7, where God told Cain that sin’s desire was to master or rule him, but he must rule over sin. Given this meaning, we can safely say that the woman’s desire is to master or rule her husband, but he should “rule over” her appropriately.
Third is the order of creation. Adam was created first and placed in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. Adam clearly had a leadership role in the garden. He also demonstrated his authority by naming the animals (Genesis 2:19) and then by naming his wife (“Woman,” Genesis 2:23).
When God came to the garden to investigate, whose name did he call? Adam. He also clearly expressed that Adam should not have followed his wife and eaten of the tree (Genesis 3:17).
All of these things lead us to conclude that Adam held an extra measure of responsibility and would be called to account. And under a God-given system of male headship, that is still true today.
For more details and scholarly resources, see the expanded version of this article.