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Is Genesis 3:16 About a Wife’s Desire to Control her Husband?

July 10, 2011


“you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you” Gen. 3:16 NLT

“your desire shall be against your husband, and he shall rule over you” Gen. 3:16 ESV footnote

The above translations have embraced the mapping of a wife’s desire (Genesis 3:16) to sin’s desire (Genesis 4:7) to the extent that they add words to the text which appear to color wives as control freaks (NLT), and enemies of their husbands (ESV, “against” him).  Much as I want to dismiss these translations as twisting the passage to say the opposite of its “plain meaning” and “putting the pants on” wives via bold-faced projection of a male inclination, the teaching is commonplace and needs to be addressed.

As far as I have been able to determine, this popular interpretation of “desire” as a wife’s enmity (“against” him) and desire to rule/control her husband originated with Susan Foh in 1974.  Preached from pulpits and repeated in marriage books, it has been embraced by complementarians (Ware, CBMW) and egalitarians alike (Hess, CBE ).

For the sake of presenting a thorough analysis, I will address the translations quoted above at face value, but in a way which is respectful to women rather than the demeaning, marriage killing teaching which perceives the wife as her husband’s enemy- the equivalent of “sin”- to be resisted, subdued, and mastered.

The ESV’s “against”, is compatible with the following view of ezer from the Torah Study for Reform Jews:

The Torah Study for Reform Jews says, “From the time of creation, relationships between spouses have at times been adversarial.  In Genesis 2:18, God calls woman an ezer kenegdo, a “helper against him.” The great commentator Rashi takes the term literally to make a wonderful point: “If he [Adam] is worthy, [she will be] a help [ezer].  If he is not worthy [she will be] against him [kenegdo] for strife.” This Jewish study also described man and woman facing each other with arms raised holding an arch between them, giving a beautiful picture of equal responsibility (source)

As for the NLT and a wife desiring to control her husband,  is a wife’s desire to control her husband a negative?  Should she have influence and authority within marriage?  You don’t have to look far to find the male propensity to control, rule, exercise authority baptized as good Christian husbandry.  I got nearly 8 million hits when I google searched “Bible husband ‘head of the household‘” (even though its a myth that the Bible ever designates the husband as the exclusive head of the household!  The husband is head of the WIFE but that is an intimacy metaphor, not an authority metaphor.)  But a wife desiring authority/control in the relationship? Can you  find any encouragement and support for that anywhere among evangelicals?

What are the results of a wife being denied any control/influence over her husband?  In developing countries, the results are a big problem, with men spending money on alcohol and other vices while neglecting their families’ welfare.  In my own background as a practitioner of Quiver Full teachings, I surrendered to my husband complete control over where we lived, how many children I had, whether I worked outside the home or not, whether I homeschooled the children or not, whether any of us received medical treatment or not, the “permission to participate in activities” of everyone in the family, how money was spent, what kind of vacuum cleaner we owned, etc.  And I had no control/influence over how he spent money or time (which turned to vices during several seasons of our marriage).  It was an oppressive lifestyle which sucked the life right out of me.

I submit that the high divorce rate among evangelical Christians is rooted in marriage killing doctrines which rob evangelical wives of control/influence within their marriages.

Are the NLT and ESV renderings used to “keep women in their place” (ie firmly under the control of their husbands; baptizing male control, and chastising female control)?  That approach will backfire. A wife will eventually break under the oppression of this paradigm and seek relief from her subjection to him.  Christian teaching on marriage should make sure that men and women understand that wives should have power/authority/control/influence within the marriage in equal measure with that of husbands; that husbands should be submitting in equal measure to wives.

I used to read CBMW uncritically but I recall the watershed moment when I read Ken Sande’s assumption that my Genesis 3:16 DESIRE was to “control my husband”.  This was so far removed from my personal experience in a woman’s skin that I began a journey of asking hard questions about the theology of womanhood which I had uncritically embraced and practiced- to the extreme- in my Quiver Full lifestyle.  I can testify from living in a woman’s skin that my desire was to please him.  It was a form of idolatry, and because of it my husband CONTROLLED (Ruled Over) me in a way which was extremely unhealthy for both of us.


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