1. The establishment of marriage and the creation of man and woman for marriage.
  2. Celebratory Speech as the primary means of the practice of married love.
  3. The Headship of the man in marriage and the submission of wives as realities of nature, and so divine callings, that are to be sanctified and practiced in a Christ-like way, to the mutual pleasure and blessing of man and woman.

The Endemic Temptations of Married Life

Text: Genesis 3:16-19

Now we know that the history of Genesis 2 and 3 is not ordinary history, but supra-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 “supra-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. 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 does 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 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 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.

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 affection leading to the deepest conceivable attachment (“one flesh”) producing the 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 desire and to dominate.” [Kidner, 71] Women, on the other hand, often allow themselves to be exploited in this way because of their desire for their husband. The wife’s desire for her husband’s love, her sexual needs, or her insecurities, leads her to submit to unreasonable and harsh treatment from her husband. The word translated “desire” [jqrvj ] 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.

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. 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 particular passion for a person who is naturally in a position of subordination. In other words, this 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 there 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 laid down the responsibilities that were his, directly his. You 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 also 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 with a certain inflexibility, 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. We must apply this way of seeing the curse in its endemically feminine and masculine consequences.

And, so I would say this: trace the issue through the rest of the Bible and then through the observation of human life, and 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. In the Bible. We considered 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. You may have heard the report this week of a woman – I think she lives in Scandinavia – who just sought a divorce from her husband. 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 he 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.
  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.

Now, what is the importance of all of this? Just this. In marriage certain things ought to be done. We have already spoken of the primacy of a husband’s loving and celebratory speech to and about his wife. However, in marriage certain things tend to happen instead, sin makes them inevitable, that are destructive to love and happiness and fulfillment, to all that God made marriage for in the life of mankind. Just as we must commit ourselves to doing what ought to be done, so we must prepare ourselves to resist the chronic tendencies of men and women to undermine a marriage – a man by his irresponsibility and a woman by her discontent. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.

You see, the purpose of grace in married life is precisely to restore a man to the responsible lover of his wife, protector and provider for her that he was made to be and commanded to be, but which sin makes him disinclined to be. You men, if you are honest with yourselves, will admit this. There is a tendency that rises up unbidden within you to lay down the responsibilities God has given you for your wife (and your children!). There are times, even Christian man that you are, when you resent being responsible! Why do I always have to apologize first? Why am I the one who has to keep everyone happy? Why does it seem that she always thinks that there is something that I am supposed to be doing that I’m not. That is what sin does to a man and makes of a man. [I should say, by the way, that the really terrifying aspect of modern feminism is what it is doing to modern men – it is consoling them and confirming them in a life of irresponsibility. It is making a virtue of male irresponsibility.] Well, men, that is what God made you, a man. And you have the wide shoulders precisely because God expects you to carry the greater weight. And when you think resentfully about your responsibilities – and I worry if you don’t resent them to some degree; I fear it must be because you hardly even realize how many responsibilities you have and so feel nothing of the guilt, the uneasy conscience you ought to have and will have if you think about what it must be to love a woman as Christ loved the church! – I say, when you think resentfully about your responsibilities, remember you are a man and God made you a man and he expects you to behave like one.

Remind yourself from time to time of the immense responsibility that has been laid on your shoulders – to love a woman as Christ loved the church. C.S. Lewis put it this way: “This headship, then, is most fully embodied not in the husband we should all wish to be but in him whose marriage is most like a crucifixion.” [The Four Loves, 148]

And the purpose of grace in married life is to restore a woman to a cheerful acceptance of her role in life as the second sex. In many cases that will mean refusing to complain when your husband is not all that he ought to be and showing respect even when it is not especially due [a requirement of all authority relationships]. And that is no small thing that Christ is asking of you.

As Ronald Knox, the perceptive Roman Catholic writer put it in speaking to the couple, the woman as well as the man: “Oh, you want to get married, do you? That means, you want to imitate the action of Jesus Christ in his incarnation [remember not just Christ’s self-giving but his absolute submission to his Father’s will]. Well, God bless you; you will want all the grace I can rout out for you if you are to do that; a whole trousseau of graces.”

But, don’t you see how the one is the solution to another. Let a man be responsible, take up his responsibilities gladly as a Christian and seek to love and care for his wife as Christ for the church, and the reasons for feminine discontent, by and large, melt away. The one is the solution to the other. Grace reverses the curse. But never the other way round. You can’t practice the curse in hopes of securing grace! A woman who complains in hopes of pushing her husband into responsible behavior will 99x out of 100 make matters worse. She will fix her husband in his irresponsibility rather than inspire him to be responsible.

So now, we have, from Gen. 2 found out how a marriage is to be practiced if it is to be a union of love and, from Gen. 3, what is likely to go wrong and where men and women are likely to find their problems.

How realistic the Bible is; and how helpful. It always has its finger on the pulse of life.