We left the man and woman, naked and unashamed, delighting in one another, the man worshipping his wife, bathing her heart in words of praise and celebration. A man has the power to leave his wife much of the time walking six inches off the ground if only he will use it. [Have you noticed how in life the woman has always been and is still today and much more than the man the beloved not the lover, the object of devotion, the recipient. It is simply another remarkably important and fascinating artifact of the creation of men and women in consequential differentiation. The money spent in this world on gifts for men pales in comparison to the money spent on gifts for women and this is precisely as it ought to be. Shame on the man who wants as much for himself as he desires to give to his wife! Let me offer but this one example among many that might be offered. Gifts are simply less important to men. How many women here have been frustrated trying to get something for your husband because it never seems to be that important to him, he can’t think of what he would want, etc. She gets the ring, she gets the wedding dress (he rents his suit!), she gets a trousseau, she gets the jewelry, and so on. The florist industry would disappear if it were not for men buying flowers for women. This is precisely as it is supposed to be! It started to be so in Eden and it has been so ever since. And this is so important. What is the use, what is the purpose, what is the glory of being a man if, in fact, he is no longer the lover whose calling it is to lavish attention on the beloved; if the sexual differentiation of mankind no longer provides for the unique and distinct roles of giver and receiver?  Society, for all its feminist philosophy still recognizes this distinction; it is the basis of large sections of our commerce; and it still lies close to the heart of both man and woman.]

The conclusion we drew as we reached the end of the account of the creation of man and woman in Genesis 2 was that God gave the sexual life of men and women (v. 25 nakedness without shame) a context: viz. the passionate (also suggested by “stick-to”; as Shechem’s heart “stuck-to” Dinah’s in Gen. 34:3) and permanent (“bone and flesh”; family) relationship of marriage.

It is important to say, again and again through this class, that the biblical paradigm of an erotic marriage, of sexual fulfillment in a permanent relationship of committed love, remains everyone’s dream (especially every woman’s dream), no matter the suggestion frequently made in the pornographic dimensions of our culture that sex for entertainment is now cheerfully accepted by almost everyone – man and woman alike – as a dream come true.

The movie The Holiday that came out last Christmas is very typical. It begins with one heroine kicking out her boyfriend because he has cheated on her. In the middle the other heroine does the same for the same reason. It ends for both women with the hope of a committed relationship with a man who would love her and prove himself loyal to her. The folly of the film – and the reason why Hollywood typically ends the story before the wedding and certainly before the marriage – is that along the way the film depicts these people pursuing their quest for committed love by giving themselves to disposable relationships and easy sex. These are people who, desperate for real love, find it nevertheless easy, natural, inevitable to sleep with various people along the way. No matter that few people are actually as promiscuous as they are in Hollywood films. Everyone wants the Bible’s picture of a sexual life as the effulgence of a committed, romantic, loyal and permanent relationship. But they no longer know how to find that relationship. They dare not admit that the sexual revolution has been a catastrophe! But the brutal fact of our modern life is that one does not find permanent and passionate romance by giving oneself to sexual flings. They very much want what the Bible offers them; but they have been taught to be unwilling to wait for it as the Bible says they must and to place the Bible’s own conditions upon it.

Text:  Genesis 3:16-19

Now we know that the history of Genesis 2 and 3 is not ordinary history, but supra- or meta-history.  I don’t mean, of course, that the events did not happen as they are reported here; of course, they did.  It is real history.  What I mean by “meta-history” is that this history is representative or archetypical.  When God gave Adam his wife that was archetypical of every marriage, as the narrator, in that case, makes explicitly clear in 2:24.  What is true of Adam and Eve is true of every husband and wife.  Jesus said as much himself in Matthew 19.  After citing 2:24, the Lord says of all marriages, “Whom God has joined together…” Similarly, the Devil tempts people now in the same way he tempted Eve: “You surely shall not die.” Go ahead, do what God forbids, there will be no consequences! And similarly, when God cursed the woman, we all understand that Eve is every woman and the shape of her curse applies to women in general, as the curse pronounced against Adam applies to men in general.

Now it is a fascinating thing that God did not curse the man and woman in the same way.  Think about it.  Most of the cursedness of life in this world since the entrance of sin, applies as well to one sex as to the other, and certainly this is true of the most terrible and weighty aspects of the curse: estrangement from God, the liability of punishment for our sins, the prospect of death, and the general degradation of life – frustration, illness, etc. All of that is as much the curse of women as men.  Indeed, the curse of the man is not only the curse of the male, but of mankind as a whole – he being the representative human being – as is clearly indicated by the fact that it is to him that the promise of death and returning to dust is made, a fate that equally awaits the woman.

But God does not address the man and woman together.  He says very different things to each.  Obviously he is not denying that the man suffers in some of the same ways the woman is cursed or vice versa.  But, obviously, there is something specific being said about the distinctive ways in which men and women experience the fall and the world and life of sin.  3:16b is the proof of that, as the woman is addressed in striking contradistinction to the man.

The Curse of the Woman: 3:16

It is to be noted, in the first place, that the curses on the man and woman take the form of disruptions of their appointed roles.  In 2:15 the man was placed in the garden to work it and take care of it.  And, as we will see, that work and care now become frustrating, difficult, and unpleasant.

In the woman’s case, she was created to be man’s helper and the mother of children. God tells her, in the first half of v. 16 that her maternity will be now accompanied with suffering.  And we could spend a long time elaborating the meaning of that – the menstrual cycle, the ravages of pregnancy on the woman’s body, the pain of childbirth itself, the death of mothers giving birth – still multitudes today but in former days vast multitudes of women –, the death of children once born, the pain of a mother’s heart in the troubles of a child’s life or the disappointments that come as he or she grows up, and on and on. A mother suffers a great deal because she is a mother and because she has a mother’s heart.

The second half of the verse concerns the woman’s relationship with her husband, which we saw celebrated in 2:23-24 as a romantic, deeply fulfilling personal affection leading to the deepest conceivable attachment (“one flesh”) producing true wholeness of human life (“it was good”). But, exactly what is meant by “Your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you”?

There are broadly two possibilities.  First, it could mean that the man will now exercise his rule over the woman – remember, her subordination to the man is found already in the creation account, it is not part of the curse but of the divine will – in a harsh and exploitive way.  “To love and to cherish,” which the husband promises at the wedding, becomes too often “to control and to dominate.” [Kidner, 71]  She becomes, in this way, not the object of his admiration, his love, and his worship, but simply the object of the selfish desires of his flesh for various gratifications, from food to sex. Women, on the other hand, often allow themselves to be exploited in this way because of their desire for their husband.  The wife’s desires for her husband’s love, her sexual needs, or her insecurities, lead her to submit to unreasonable and harsh treatment from her husband.  The word translated “desire” or “longing” [קהָוּשׁתְ ] appears but twice otherwise in the Hebrew Bible. One use is in Song of Songs 7:10 (She says, “I belong to my lover and his desire is for me.”)  Taking desire that way, it makes this interpretation possible though the particular sense, complicated as it is and with so much assumed, must be derived from the context. What is more, this interpretation does not make very natural sense of the last clause: “and or but he will rule over you.”

A second interpretation builds on the only other use of this Hebrew word, which happens to occur in the very next chapter and in the very same sort of phrase or idiom.  In Gen. 4:7 God says to Cain, downcast because of God’s preference for Abel’s offering, “…sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you (lit. “its desire is for you”), but you must master it.”  The equivalence of idiom is a powerful argument for taking the two phrases in a similar way.  But “its desire for you” in 4:7 clearly refers to sin’s desire to control, to dominate Cain, to have its way with Cain.

In 3:16b, then, the woman’s desire for her husband would be her desire to control, to get her way in a situation where she remains, by nature, the second sex and subject to her husband.  Her desire for her husband is not, then, her craving for her man no matter what he demands, but a desire for independence, even for dominance, the getting of her own way, a particularly natural and understandable passion for a person who is naturally in a position of subordination, weakness, or inferiority.  In other words, the order that God established between her and her husband, which was to be for the blessing and fulfillment of both, will now begin to chafe.  She will want things to go her way, but she will not have to power to make it so.  The battle of the sexes here begins and, as well, the frustrations of the woman, and particularly, those frustrations that touch her most deeply, those that pertain to the two great centers of her life and interest: her children and her husband.  It is a powerful, almost insurmountable argument for this view of 16b that, in that case, the curse would amount to a corruption, a reversal of what has already been revealed as normative in the creation account itself.  Male headship is present in Gen. 2; the woman’s passion for her husband is not.


The man is addressed in regard to his toil, the responsibility as a worker that God gave him at the outset (2:15).  (First use of “Adam” as a proper name, by the way.)

Note the beginning:  “because you obeyed your wife” (i.e. instead of the Lord).  Milton, remember, in Paradise Lost explains the fall as the result of the man falling prey to feminine wiles.

She gave him of that fair enticing fruit
with liberal hand; he scrupl’d not to eat,
against his better knowledge, not deceiv’d,
but fondly overcome with female charm.[IX]

Well, the Bible doesn’t say that specifically, though Paul does make a point of saying that it was the woman, not the man who was deceived.  But there is, very clearly, in the narrative, the implication that the man was culpable precisely because he laid down the responsibilities that were his, directly his.  We note in 3:6 that Adam was present with Eve through the temptation, and allowed his wife to exercise the leadership in the matter.  Paul returns to that point in 1 Tim. 2 and makes it an argument against female leadership in the church.  The man had responsibilities to rule, to protect, to direct his wife and he did not.  He laid them down; she took the initiative, and in the most literal way, all hell broke loose!  This view of the matter is confirmed in 3:12 where, clearly, the narrator wants his readers to be appalled at the man’s shifting of blame from himself.  The responsible party won’t take responsibility for what was done on his watch – indeed, for what was done right before his eyes.

Now, once again, the emphasis seems to fall on man’s responsibilities and the difficulties that he is now going to face in fulfilling them.  Work itself, toil, is not the curse, for he was given work to do before the entrance of sin (2:15).  Rather it is the hardship and frustration of the work.  The woman’s punishment struck at the deepest root of her being as a woman – mother and wife –; the man’s strikes at the innermost nerve of his life, his work and provision for himself and his family.

What sin is going to do, in other words, is reverse the goodness of life as God made it and in ways peculiar to men and women.  Men were made to rule and now they become shifty and irresponsible, the difficulty of the task makes them unwilling to undertake it.  Women are now going to want another arrangement for life.  Depending upon and helping their husbands, in a fallen world, is going to seem to them a hard lot as will being a mother.  They cannot escape these lots in life, for God had made nature inflexible, but they can resent them and try as they might to escape them.  Feminism is simply one more, large-scale effort of women whose desire is for their husbands. There is so much more here we haven’t time to mention.

But now we must apply this way of seeing the curse in its endemically feminine and masculine consequences as it relates to our subject, the sexual life of mankind.  We said the battle of the sexes begins here in 3:16. The sexual woe of human life, of course, begins here as well.

  1. The weakness and vulnerability of the woman will be seen subsequently in so many depressing ways.
  1. Dinah’s rape (Gen 34, by a man who was infatuated) or Tamar’s by a half-brother who thought he “loved” her); and so many women by conquest or crime;
  2. Leah’s loveless marriage; and the untold multitudes of such women in history;
  3. Tamar’s prostitution; Rahab’s; and countless women and girls since. Child prostitution in today’s world. Untold numbers of concubines who will receive so much less than exclusive love and loyalty from their husbands and will serve as pawns in masculine power struggles (David and Absalom, e.g.). Concubinage today!
  4. In war woman’s sexual vulnerability has led to untold suffering; the brutal candor of the Bible on this point: from lifting up of the skirts to ripping open of pregnant women to the rape of many others.
  5. Childlessness;
  6. So many children and so many who died; and the death of women in childbirth.
  1. But so will be her use of her sexual charms to entice and to seduce.
  1. Tamar with Judah;
  2. Potiphar’s wife;
  3. The prostitute in Prov. 7, reducing the man to a loaf of bread;
  4. Bathsheba? Apparently didn’t scream!
  1. The same evidence, of course, reveals the man to be a sexual predator, to be interested in a woman in only the most superficial way, and to be heedless of the true interests of the female human being he uses to satisfy his own lusts; or to be an indifferent husband either heedless of his wife as a lover or actually disloyal to her.
  1. And, especially for the believing man, the maintaining of sexual purity and honor has become the great moral challenge and the wearying effort of his life. (Commentators on Paul in Romans 7:14-25).

And on and on. The naked and unashamed of 2:25 has for so many women and men become a nightmare and the sexual dimension of his or her life a large part of their misery and woe.

But I want to say at this point that the general practical point to be carried away from the curse of the woman and the man in distinction bears mightily on the sexual life per se. You find universal human experience written and explained here in Gen. 3:16-19.  The quintessentially feminine sin is discontent, especially discontent with her relationships (all relationships, for children and husband are but the most fundamental of a woman’s relationships).  The quintessentially masculine sin – and all the more in regard to his wife and children – is irresponsibility, laying down the responsibilities God placed on his shoulders.

Illustrations of this may be found wherever you look.

  1. We mentioned last week Eph. 5:22-33.  And what did we find there.  Men were ordered to exercise their headship in a responsible, that is to say a truly Christian way.  Women were ordered to be submissive and respect their husbands.  Gen. 3:16 lies behind that entire treatment.  Women are unhappy in their marriages, they seek to change things, they manipulate, they complain.  Paul says they are to respect their husbands.  The Apostle addresses each sex in precisely that way that would seem typically necessary after reading Gen. 3:16ff.  It is interesting and important what Paul does not say there.  He doesn’t command women to love their husbands.  That is not usually, or, at any rate, not first the problem.  Women have a breathtaking capacity to love their men, even when those men are undeserving.  Remember the report a few years ago about the woman – I think she lives in Scandinavia – who sought a divorce from her husband after his absence of 36 years.  They had been married 43 years, but he left her and never came back in the seventh year of her marriage.  She had waited for 36 years before pulling the plug!  That’s a woman for you!  (Just as Paul doesn’t tell men to rule their wives.  But to exercise their headship responsibly, that is, lovingly, sacrificially.)
  2. Take my neighborhood, the Hilltop.  What do you find in a community like that where you find the character of the sinful human condition written in bolder strokes and brighter colors?  Well you find irresponsible men and unhappy women.  Who keeps kith and kin together in the Hilltop?  It is the women.  They make sure the children are fed, the kids are clothed, that they get off to school.  And where are the men?   They are standing on the corner in a crowd at 2:30 in the morning.  Now you might suppose that those fellows are deeply unhappy about their lot, grieving that their lives are not going anywhere.  But, by and large, they are not.  They might wish for something else, but, all in all, they are reasonably content with their pleasures and their activities.  It is the women who are unhappy, who want more than they are getting.  I’d never heard so many angry women before I moved into my neighborhood. And the source of so much of that anger is their men and their children.
  3. We reflect these realities in our language.  “Bitch” is a feminine term.  “Couch potato” is a masculine term.
  4. You see it already in the behavior of teenage boys and girls.  The girls despair and the boys betray their responsibilities.  How does a teenage fellow let a gal he has dated know that he’s no longer interested?  He stops calling.  Already he is making a habit of failing to protect and care for a woman.  He cares more for himself than for faithfulness to his calling as a man.  Which is why, also, he takes care to ensure that the girl will say yes before he ever asks her out.  He doesn’t want to expose himself to the rejection, but he doesn’t mind at all, never thinks about, putting a gal in the unenviable position of having to decline an invitation she really has no interest in accepting
  5. My own experience in the ministry confirms this.  Almost all the time, when a marriage is brought to me, it is the wife who brings it.  She is the one who can’t stand the condition of her marriage, who is agitating at home against her husband, who wants things to be different so much that she can’t stop complaining, manipulating, and, to be sure, praying.  Her husband, to tell the truth, may wish for more in his marriage, may know at some level that it is not what it ought to be, may even be quite disappointed about it, may find his eye wandering, but he has his work, his hobbies, his TV football, his buddies.  He fits the facts of his marriage into the larger picture of his life, and goes on reasonably content.  And why is the wife so miserable; just because the husband on whom she so much depends, has laid down his responsibilities for her, for her heart and her happiness.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I know there are exceptions to this.  I have dealt with them myself.  But, as a generality this is so true, so universally true, not only in Christian life but in human life, that it is the general assumption of our culture.  The man pays far too little attention to his responsibilities for his wife and his children and the woman grieves for the attention that she does not get, the love that is not given to her, the affection and celebration and appreciation of her husband that should be any woman’s crown and reward and, without which, other things don’t count nearly so much.  And so we hear the umpteenth joke about the disinterested man who cares more for lots of things than for cultivating the needs of his wife; and the woman who talks endlessly about what’s wrong with her relationships. Dave Barry makes a living writing about this.

And, as I said, this general anatomy of life bears mightily on the sexual life. Irresponsible boys and girls wanting more from their relationships are tinder and spark in adolescence and young adulthood.  You know the adage: boys give love to get sex; girls give sex to get love. But irresponsibility and discontentment are driving all of this from below.

And in the adult life that follows, male irresponsibility and feminine discontent is writ large over the sexual life of both. You cannot reverse it. While we could certainly say that there are respects in which men are discontented with their sexual life and women are irresponsible with theirs, the brute fact is that in the sexual life male irresponsibility and female discontent are realities greater and more pressing by many orders of magnitude. They are public realities of human culture.

Sex is, in sum, a dimension of human fallenness, an aspect of human life deeply affected by the Fall and corrupted by human sin. The answer to that is the grace of God that alone can drag life in Genesis 3 back into life in Genesis 2 where the men and women are once again naked but not ashamed.