Rethinking Eve’s Curse: The Biblical Psychology Behind the Gender Wars

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Rethinking Eve’s Curse: The Biblical Psychology Behind the Gender Wars

Did God Create the Psychology Behind the “Gender Wars” in Gen 3:16?

The role of women in the church is swirling about the air these days. Yet there is a more important issue concerning gender in the Bible that transcends our church context, and it has to do with psychology. Society has well documented the differences and tensions that sometimes arise between men and women in what is sometimes called the “gender wars.” But our question today is, did God specifically authorize or create the gender wars in Scripture? In particular, should the words of Genesis 3:16 mark the beginning of the battle of the sexes? Or is there, hidden deep within this verse, a path to mutual victory over the gender wars?

Whenever I have the opportunity to share about the Bible in group settings, I often like to ask what verses people find to be their favorites, or perhaps the most inspiring, puzzling, etc. Depending on the audience, of course, responses vary. But one verse I just don’t seem to hear mentioned as a favorite is Genesis 3:16—especially with women (for those of you men who relish the standard reading of this verse, shame on you!).

If you need a reminder, sticking with the translation from the KJV:

Unto the woman he [God] said, “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.”

Or in the NIV:

To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

Yeah, not a favorite verse, is it? And I suppose as a member of the male half of our species, I’m hardly qualified to even begin analyzing the true experiential meaning of this verse. Indeed, I’ll . . . just keep very quiet about the first half! (I am sorry, ladies, but I don’t think there’s good news about what the first part means.)

Instead, we’ll focus on the latter half of Gen 3:16: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” There are two phrases in this last half of the verse that both need attention. We’ll address them both in due time, focusing on the relational/psychological aspects of them. What we really want to know is, did sin affect women (that is, the female gender) in some unique way psychologically? Is this verse describing how God cursed women psychologically, or how sin would somehow affect women psychologically, in a unique way for women? In other words, what is this female “desire,” and why or how does it relate to women being “ruled over”?

Previous Interpretations of Gen 3:16: Making the Gender Wars Worse?

Without doubt, the latter phrase, “he will rule over you,” dominates most interpretations of this verse concerning the situation that Adam and Eve would experience in their relationship after their Fall. I think it’s clear enough by implication that most husbands and wives, and men and women, are affected by the power of those simple words, “he will rule over you.” What we want to understand is whether or how anything good can come out of this, especially concerning how it relates to the psychological side of things.

It may be helpful to start where others have gone before to understand just how complex this verse is, and show why previous interpretations of it have encouraged, not solved, the problem of the gender wars. The phrase, “rule over you,” has usually been interpreted by scholars in one of three different ways. Let’s review them:

  1. Descriptively, meaning simply what will happen as a result of Adam and Eve sinning without any action on God’s part. In other words, God is fully aware that men are typically physically stronger, and this will affect most couples psychologically. Men will rule, and for obvious reasons their ruling will extend beyond the marriage relationship, because they are usually stronger. (This view can take on  extreme dimensions: men are stronger physically, mentally, emotionally, etc., in the minds of some men in some cultures. Those holding to this view simply say, “This is the way things are.”)
  2. Prescriptively, that is, what should be normal or common post-Fall. Perhaps relating to their sinful psychological dispositions post-Fall, God realizes that to preserve harmony between sinful couples, God must institute a hierarchy of leadership, telling husbands and wives how they should relate to achieve harmony. God knows sinful people often disagree, so God said that for certain non-moral situations, when husbands and wives disagree, the wife should be more yielding. If this is so, of course, exactly what the psychological dynamics behind such a hierarchy might be must be taken from the first part of the verse; see below. Additionally, the extent of such yielding is often debated; is it from wives to husbands, or from all women to all men, and how should we describe appropriate yielding? We’ll return to this issue later.
  3. Proscriptively, wherein God informs Eve of the relational law subjugating wives to their husbands for possibly two different reasons. First, perhaps, owing to a pre-Fall male headship that we all will struggle to psychologically understand as sinners post-Fall, God needs to remind Eve of what she should not do, that is, usurp Adam’s authority, which she did in tempting him to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, that is, telling him what to do. Second, and related to the first, as well as the rest of the verse (see below), perhaps after the Fall women are psychologically predisposed by their sinful condition to seek to dominate their husbands in particular (versus other people, including men, who also surely seek to sinfully dominate others at times!). So God specifically reminds Eve that she should not do this in the marriage relationship, where she may apparently be especially naturally disposed to seek domination after the fall.

Ellen White on Adam’s Rule

Ellen White, with what I believe to be inspired insight, makes it clear that the negative psychological elements that sin introduces into all human minds, insofar as they relate to the phrase, “rule over you,” must refer exclusively to a post-Fall situation. As White put it, “Sin had brought discord, and now their union could be maintained and harmony preserved only by submission on the part of the one or the other” (PP58, italics mine). (These words naturally make one wonder, what if Adam had sinned first, and then tempted Eve? We simply don’t know.)

Seventh-day Adventist theologians (and other Christians) continue to express differing opinions on the function that natural gender roles and the concept of male headship (and what headship implies, if it even existed prior to the Fall) may play in this discussion. Is Adam’s headship in their marriage (Eph 5:23) instituted or merely reaffirmed here in Gen 3:16, and in either case, what is the nature, psychologically, of the change that is introduced here concerning the need for “ruling”?

Let’s try to offer a few words for why this is an important question, even though I won’t try to resolve it here. White makes it clear that there is an unpleasant change brought about by sin in their relationship:

When God created Eve, He designed that she should possess neither inferiority nor superiority to the man, but that in all things she should be his equal. The holy pair were to have no interest independent of each other; and yet each had an individuality in thinking and acting. But after Eve’s sin, as she was first in the transgression, the Lord told her that Adam should rule over her. She was to be in subjection to her husband, and this was a part of the curse. In many cases the curse has made the lot of woman very grievous and her life a burden. The superiority which God has given man he has abused in many respects by exercising arbitrary power. (3T484, italics mine)

White’s explanation is quite penetrating. It seems Eve after the Fall is, logically, in an inferior position relative to her husband so far as authority is concerned, though White was quick to point out that husbands have often abused the authority of their “superior” position. How precisely this may have affected men psychologically, and women psychologically, we can only speculate from this phrase alone. Importantly, though, White also highlights God’s original intent for the marriage relationship, one of equality, and indicates that this is the ideal even today (again, see below).

But then where are we now? Doesn’t sound like great news for the ladies, does it? And, wow, is it good to be a guy, right? Is equality, then, if we’re being realistic, “a dream not to be” in a sinful world? For Adventists, it does seem White has embraced part of the second prescriptive view.

Hold on! We’re not done just yet. Let’s keep learning.

We have several questions. First, is the judgment above about gender in general or about the marriage relationship in particular? If in some way God does give preference to husbands, does this mean that simply being a male grants one preference or superiority? And what should we make of the “desire” that was mentioned above? Is it part of a curse, too—something negative? To answer these questions, I’ll begin by trying to unpack the meaning of this “desire.” This may prove helpful to determine in what way this verse illuminates the psychology behind the gender wars that we experience today, and also point toward a path of harmony and equality! Prepare to be surprised.

The Woman’s “Desire”

Illustrative once again of just how complex some passages of Scripture can be, four traditional views are referred to in most biblical commentaries concerning the “desire” of Gen 3:16.

  1. The first view is that it references sexual desire. Meaning, a wife’s sexual/physical/emotional (psychological) desire for her husband will remain strong enough that she will be willing to face the pain of childbearing, even while simultaneously being subjugated to Adam’s rule. In other words, God says a woman’s desire for physical intimacy will outweigh her concerns about the physical pain that often comes as a result of such intimacy later during childbearing, creating a logical connection between these two aspects of the judgment upon Eve for her sin. In this interpretation, it’s possible to imagine that the disharmony sin introduces might remove any true desire for loving physical intimacy between husbands and wives post-fall, but God assures them that Eve in particular will still desire intimacy. This view most closely correlates with the first descriptive view above.
  2. Second, some think that the “desire” refers to the fact that women are more willing (desire) to be made the “servant/slave” of a man, and thus the phrase in 3:16, “your desire shall be for your husband,” explicitly expresses the psychological dependence of most wives upon their husbands as their heads (which also closely ties this view with the first descriptive position above on “ruling.”) Women are, perhaps, “naturally weaker,” so under sin, post-Fall, this weakness takes on a new psychological dimension.
  3. Third, some think that this means the wife should desire only what her husband desires, that is, her desires post-Fall should align with her husband’s for achieving the most harmony.  Thus wives will have no command over themselves in punishment for Eve’s sin. This view is closely related to the second prescriptive position above on “ruling,” or also possibly the first reason for the third proscriptive view.
  4. Fourth, because the Hebrew can also be translated “Your desire will be against your husband,” others think that the desire mentioned refers to Eve’s desire for control or mastery over Adam, just as “Sin” apparently desires to control or master Cain (see Gen 4:7, we’ll return to this verse shortly!). Thus Adam is commanded to rule over and control Eve’s desire for mastery of her husband that sin has introduced. In this interpretation, one of the effects of sin upon Eve was that a wife’s (or woman’s) desire would be to usurp her husband’s (or man’s) headship, but he should resist her desire for mastery and rule over her instead. In other words, sin has corrupted the willing submission of wives, so that now husbands must struggle to exercise their God-mandated leadership authority or headship in marriage. This closely reflects the second reason of the third position above.

Interestingly, this fourth view has become very popular lately, both with Adventists and other Christians. Whether it is true hinges upon the proper use of a certain Hebrew preposition. I’ll go ahead and reveal ahead of time that I do not think this is the correct interpretation. Let me share why below.

Why a New Interpretation Is Needed for Gen 3:16

Sin always brings unpleasant consequences. I think we can all accept that concept; it’s a central theme of the great controversy. But we do have a challenge and a puzzle within our current study: In all of the above, the word “desire” appears to represent something negative—a gender-specific weakness, predisposition, or other negative trait, such as a sinful urge for control.

Are any of the above options really the best reading of this desire? Or does God have something else completely different in mind concerning this mysterious desire of women? Is equality what God really wants between men and women, even after sin? (Note that the subject of gender roles is a related but not identical topic.) How we understand the way God deals with human minds (psychology) depends upon our conclusions about this verse. In what follows I’m going to carefully explore the meaning of this verse, pointing the way toward something, indeed, completely different.

First things first. Throughout history women have surely suffered in relation to the curse in Gen 3:16 (as White herself affirms; PP59). But looking at the verse very closely gives us both additional questions and insights. It so happens that the language in which the Old Testament was primarily written, Hebrew, has 15 different words that are often translated “desire” in common English translations! The Hebrew word here, teshuqa, appears only three times in the entire Old Testament. It’s a rare word with an unclear meaning in the Hebrew lexicons (most likely ‘a longing for,’ ‘yearning,’ or ‘desire’). Looking at all three occurrences of teshuqa, then, may provide additional insight into the real meaning of this verse . . . especially for psychologists!

Very importantly, the second occurrence of teshuqa is just a few verses later in the story of Cain and Abel! I don’t think the Holy Spirit did that by accident. Surely its close proximity should shed light on the meaning of “desire,” correct? Let’s turn to this second occurrence and see what it tells us. And it’s best if you’re prepared for more complexity. Don’t worry, we’ll sort out at least some of it below!

Charting a New Path for Gen 3:16–Insights from Gen 4:7 on Biblical Psychology

First, the common reading from the NIV. Gen 4:3-7 reads:

In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the LORD. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must master [rule over] it.” (emphasis mine)

In these verses, it appears that God’s response to the first notable post-Fall shortcoming on humanity’s part is to step in and issue an ominous warning concerning how “Sin” works. God appears to tell Cain that Sin (metaphorically, as a beast, thus my capitalization of the word “Sin”) lies or crouches down, ready to spring upon him with its uncontrollable “yearning” or “desire.” But Cain is admonished that he must “rule over it,” just as, so it seems, Adam rules over Eve, who also desires to control her husband (as some women are surely inclined to do) in the third and fourth views of ruling and desire, respectively, noted above.

This emphasizes a negative view of “rule” and “desire,” in that they are both connected with sin. This reading is reinforced by the fact that the Hebrew words of both phrases are, in fact, identical!

The above paints “desire” in a rather negative light, doesn’t it? But that is how both passages, Gen 3:16 and Gen 4:7, have often been read. “Desire” has become associated with Eve’s curse and the “beast of Sin’s” urge to control and possess us. Again, notably, the Hebrew is in fact identical for Adam “ruling Eve” and Cain “ruling Sin.”

Ah, herein lies the real problem. The Hebrew is complicated! Hang on for the ride; we’re going to completely upend your understanding of both Gen 3:16 and Gen 4:7!

“Desire” Takes a Surprising Turn

Ellen White strongly endorses a legitimate but uncommon reading of the Hebrew in this verse, which I believe is a more insightful reading. (She was likely unaware of such tensions in the original text and does not comment upon them, as she did not know Hebrew.)

The different reading stems in part from the way gender works in the Hebrew language, where nouns and prepositions contain gender within them. (Those of you who know Spanish or other Romance languages may appreciate this more.) It so happens that the feminine gender for the noun “sin,” chattath, does not match the masculine gender suffix of “desire,” teshuqa, in Gen 4:7.

The King James Version alone among popular English translations preserves the natural Hebrew linguistic gender cues: “Sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him.” “Him” in this verse cannot be “sin,” which is a feminine word. So who or what is it?

Ellen White explains: “If Cain would correct his error, he would not be deprived of his birthright: Abel would not only love him as his brother, but, as the younger, would be subject to him. Thus the Lord declared to Cain, ‘Unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him’” (BEcho 4/8/1912).

So the “him” is Abel, and “desire” refers to Abel loving his older brother, when Cain does what’s right in leading by example!

White also commented elsewhere: “The fact that Abel ventured to disagree with him and even went so far as to point out his errors, astonished Cain. It was a new experience; for Abel had hitherto submitted to the judgment of his elder brother; and Cain was enraged to the highest degree that Abel did not sympathize with him in his disaffection. Abel would yield when conscience was not concerned” (ST 12/16/1886).

Ah, but it gets even more complex! Keep that grip on the handlebars.

“Sin” at the Door

Now, the word for “sin” here in Gen 4:7, chattath, has two meanings, depending on the context. It can mean “sin” or “sin-offering.” Yes, really. Welcome to the ambiguity of language. In either case, in Hebrew the emphasis is on something tangible, something real. Not abstract. So White’s interpretation above has great significance. If the word “desire” refers to Abel respecting his older brother Cain when he does what’s right, not Sin desiring to control Cain, then why is Sin (as a beast) crouching, or lying, at the door? It does not desire Cain, because the word “desire” refers to Abel desiring Cain. So, there is no particular reason to favor a metaphorical reading of “Sin” here, because Sin would be left without a clear action or role in what is otherwise a literal and straightforward sequence of events and dialogue.

White provides support for an alternate reading. “At the cherubim-guarded gate of Paradise the glory of God was revealed, and hither came the first worshipers. Here their altars were reared, and their offerings presented. It was here that Cain and Abel had brought their sacrifices, and God had condescended to communicate with them” (PP83-84). In other words, it was by the door or “gate” of Paradise that the offerings of Cain and Abel were presented and God communicated with the two brothers!

So what is crouching or “lying down” at the “door” here? Would not a sin-offering be a more logical reading? (In fact, if Moses is accepted as the author of the first five books of the Bible, then it is noteworthy that Moses’ preferred use of the word chattath was sin-offering throughout the Pentateuch.)

White again supports this possible reading of the Hebrew, but it requires a careful reading of her writings, which adds even more information into the relational or psychological dynamics at play in the Gen 4 narrative:

The Lord gave Cain and Abel directions regarding the sacrifice they were to bring Him. Abel, a keeper of sheep, obeyed the Lord’s command, and brought a lamb as his offering. This lamb, as it was slain, represented the Lamb of God, who was to be slain for the sins of the world. Cain brought as an offering the fruit of the ground, his own produce. He was not willing to be dependent on Abel for an offering. He would not go to him for a lamb. He thought his own works perfect, and these he presented to God (ST 3/21/1900, italics mine).

Again, White writes:

Cain knew that God desired him to bring a lamb without blemish. But he was a tiller of the ground, and he did not wish to add to his offering a lamb of his brother’s flock. . . . [Cain] was angry that the offering of Abel, his younger brother, had been accepted, while his had been rejected. He was angry with Abel for maintaining that God is just (ST 12/25/1901, italics mine).

Now one must ask, what was on Abel’s mind during all this? White provides detailed insight: “Abel advised his brother not to come before the Lord without the blood of a sacrifice. Cain, being the eldest, would not listen to his brother” (1SP55). Putting all of White’s insights together, it appears that Abel, knowing Cain would need a lamb from him, happily brought an extra lamb for Cain to use. But Cain wouldn’t accept a lamb from his younger brother, even though it was lying down, ready to be prepared for sacrifice, at the door or gate of Paradise. (White notes that before the Lord condescended to speak to Cain through an angel, Cain already had evidence of his error in that no fire from heaven consumed his sacrifice, implying Abel probably already had offered Cain the lamb that was needed for a sin-offering. See ST 12/16/1886.)

So let’s conclude our deeper reading of Gen 4:7 (my interpretation):

[God’s angel speaking to Cain] If you do well, there is no problem. As you haven’t done what’s right the first time, accept your younger brother Abel’s lamb for a sin-offering that he gladly has brought for you, that lies down at the doorway of Eden. Then, as your younger brother, Abel will again desire your leadership, and you will rule Abel as the one holding the birthright as the firstborn.

Relating Gen 4:7 to Gen 3:16

Focusing especially on their psychological implications, the above insights from White give a very different spin on the words “desire” and “rule,” don’t they? “Desire” is certainly not negative, nor limited to a gender-specific context! In much the same way as God related to Eve and Adam, God assures Cain that Abel’s desire, or love, will be for his leadership, in the broader context of this sinful world, if Cain does as he ought to do.

Furthermore, it’s significant that Cain was dependent upon Abel, even so far as to be unable to fulfill his religious/spiritual requirement to God without Abel’s, his younger brother’s, lamb. It seems that only if Cain depended upon and listened to Abel would he, as the younger brother, have unreservedly both loved and followed after Cain’s leadership, allowing Cain to retain the birthright.

It’s very interesting that in Genesis, right after the Fall, husbands and wives are directly compared with older and younger brothers, and are shown to be somehow psychologically parallel, isn’t it? Is not a man dependent upon a woman for many things (far beyond the reproduction mentioned in 1 Cor 11:11-12), as was the older brother Cain dependent upon his younger brother Abel?

There’s Sanctification by Faith Here, Too

The story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 also sheds new light on the tenor and sensitivity of God’s approach to dealing with sin. God’s warning to Cain addressed not only his status as a sinner, but also his relationship with his brother. God’s first response to a “sin” after the Fall included the work of a psychologist, a Counselor.

God saw and was concerned about Cain’s “downcast” face. God’s message was not an ominous warning, but an open dialogue with Cain and an invitation to Cain to listen to God’s explanation of how to restore his psychological need for leadership over Abel as the elder brother while simultaneously regaining a right standing with God. God saw every dimension of the problem facing Cain: the psychological, the temporal, and the spiritual.

God is less interested in scaring us with a metaphorical beast of Sin crouching at our door than He is in preserving relational harmony with our families and imploring us to participate in the simplicity of salvation by faith. The entire gospel and salvation by faith that leads to obedience is encapsulated within this short story! If Cain would simply accept Abel’s lamb that pointed to Christ by faith, then Cain would be sanctified and happy, as well as the leader over his brother.

God’s words to Cain were more along the lines of “Depend on Abel’s lamb, that points by faith to My own blood to be shed, and then paradoxically your younger brother, who has pointed out your shortcoming, will follow your lead again as the eldest!” “My ways are not only about sin, but what sin affects, which is relational harmony and peace. Please listen to Me!” In both occurrences in Genesis of teshuqa, the context is how sin affects family relationships, and how sin, by its nature, inhibits our ability to love, desire, or yearn for others.

“Desire” in the Song of Solomon

Yes, I did mention there were three occurrences of teshuqa (desire). And the third time the word appears will not disappoint. The third use of teshuqa is once again found within a male-female context, this time in the Song of Solomon. Its usage there is particularly noteworthy. It appears within the third and climactic repetition of the uninhibited equality and mutuality of love, all voiced by the woman (Song of Songs 2:16: “My beloved is mine and I am his; he browses among the lilies”; Song of Songs 6:3: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine; he browses among the lilies”).

In Song of Songs 7:10 the woman summarizes the matter: “I am my beloved’s, and his desire is for me.”

Yes, this “desire” is teshuqa, the third and final occurrence of this rare word in Scripture! The man desiring the woman is the climax of love’s expression, a reversal, or mirror image, of Gen 3:16!

Of course, given Cain and Abel’s example, this “desire” is about more than any mere gender-specific psychological or sexual desire, though it certainly does not exclude it in this context. It is a deep yearning or longing that either gender can share for those close to them, that is uniquely manifested in marriage. Recall that Ellen White’s choice of word to describe the “desire” between Cain and Abel was simply “love.” True love “desires” another person in the purest of ways.

Thoughts on Biblical Psychology and Gender

We’ve covered a lot of ground so far! The key point we’ve learned is that the word “desire” is positive in two of its three appearances, and in light of its positive use, according to White, in the frequently misunderstood Gen 4:7, it is also very likely that Gen 3:16 is positive as well. So, contrary to any who see the “desire” of Gen 3:16 in a negative light, with women being psychologically weaker, or desiring to dominate their husbands with their contrary wishes, or somehow “cursed” or predisposed to unwillingly having sexual desire for their husbands, it is far more likely to say that God “cursed” wives to be more naturally loving to their husbands, to help them endure the curse of being subjected to an inferior position under them!

Quite the opposite of the view that many Christian men today are unfortunately promoting. How many husbands think of their wives as advantaged over them, more naturally loving in the very same way God would like men to be?

Sadly, it’s no mystery why the gender wars are intensifying when men choose to see a negative desire here, as if women are more naturally disposed to want dictatorial control over husbands than men are over their wives, or other people outside the family. By placing upon women a psychological disposition that is not natural and creating a view of them as unequal or inferior by their innate gender and position, the gender wars are further inflamed. Eve was created as Adam’s equal, but in authority she was placed inferior to her husband within the marriage relationship—a curse that was nevertheless designed to preserve harmony between two fallen beings of both genders. But the woman’s love for her husband remains! A female is still a male’s psychological equal in every way. Eve’s subjection did not include an imposed psychological weakness or defect because of her gender, but rather a strength revealed through a loving marriage. Eve’s position is not so different from Abel’s as a younger brother, which I’ll add a few words on below.

Indeed, if the contrast between Cain and Abel is further considered as a key to understanding Gen 3:16, then we may also see a very strong point made about how and why gender is not the issue affecting the psychology behind the gender wars, but truly it is sin and power itself.

Think about it. The problem between Cain and Abel was that the one “in charge,” Cain, was in the wrong. He needed his younger brother Abel’s lamb. God was no respecter of Cain and Abel’s professions. God had made known His requirement of a lamb, not merely fruits and vegetables. And it so happened that Cain’s younger brother had the lamb Cain needed. This meant Cain would have to submit to Abel to fulfill his requirement before God! And Cain’s pride wouldn’t allow it. Abel was happy to help and offered his lamb. But Cain would rather not take anything from his “inferior” younger brother; Cain wanted to justify his leadership on his own merits, by his own work. Cain was more interested in being first than in being right. But God told him, “That’s not how it works! By using Abel’s lamb, and doing things My way, you’ll actually preserve Abel’s natural love and respect for you as the leader!”

If we apply this sort of dynamic to Gen 3:16, while there are surely subtle differences, one will see that Gen 3:16 is clearly no mere curse, but indeed a blessing in disguise.[1] With humanity encumbered after the Fall with a sinful nature (a big topic!), without women desiring or loving their husbands, God knew men would uncontrollably continue to blame their wives, as did Adam (Gen 3:12).[2] There could be no harmonic love. By assuring Adam that his wife would continue to love him, God helped encourage man’s yielding to the desire men should likewise have for their wives to allow love’s consummation in equality (SoS 7:10).

Oh, that all men would desire their wives with the very desire of Gen 3:16! Every woman should share that with her current or future husband. Indeed, sometimes perhaps it takes us men longer (three times? SoS 2:16, 6:3, 7:10) to understand, appreciate, and communicate our love such that a woman can perceive it fully. Be patient with us, ladies!

Interestingly, as the woman’s desire is first mentioned in Gen 3:16, so also is God’s love toward us first mentioned (1 John 4:19: “We love because He first loved us”). God desired us first, and so for wives to offer their love toward their husbands first is no weakness, but a great way to strengthen a relationship. God-fearing men will come around eventually to communicate their more loving, “desiring” nature.

But there was an interesting condition for that love in Gen 4:7! And I don’t think the similarities are insignificant. God’s message to Cain was that he would lose Abel’s unreserved love or “yearning” and admiration if Cain didn’t do what was right. Abel would yield to Cain, but only on condition of Cain yielding to Abel’s pleas for Cain to do the right thing! Desire is not something that can be commanded; love must be freely given.

Further Psychological Parallels Between Gen 3:16 and 4:7

White reinforced the potential connection of the words “desire” and “rule over” found in Gen 3:16 and Gen 4:7 in a way that may further our understanding of biblical psychology, including how it relates to our problem of the gender wars. Remember that White makes plain that this phrase is spoken by God as a result of sin in the context of Gen 3:16 (PP58). Concerning Gen 4:7, where sin again abounds, White comments: “Abel would yield when conscience was not concerned; but when the course of the God of Heaven was brought in question, and Cain spoke derisively of the sacrifice of faith, Abel was courageous to defend the truth” (ST 12/16/1886).

Note the words “yield” and “conscience.” White also uses them in describing the relation of a wife to her husband. In perhaps her strongest statement on the matter (I recommend reading her other statements that express both sides of the issue: 7T47-48; AH117-119), White acknowledged: “We women must remember that God has placed us subject to the husband. He is the head, and our judgment and views and reasonings must agree with his, if possible. If not, the preference in God’s Word is given to the husband where it is not a matter of conscience. We must yield to the head” (6MR126).

The point here is that White really does see these two passages as a close parallel, psychologically. Food for thought, especially if the “desire” is positive while the “ruling over” is a result of sin between Adam and Eve (3T484), wherein Adam was placed in a relationally superior position to his wife that did not exist before the Fall, when they were equals in a way they were no longer after the Fall.

Of course, I would be remiss at this point if I didn’t highlight White’s quote encouraging mutual yielding between the husband and wife: “Both should be yielding,” even if “the word of God gives preference to the judgment of the husband.” For “it will not detract from the dignity of the wife to yield to him whom she has chosen to be her counselor, adviser, and protector” (1T 307). Of course, if the husband is to maintain the love of his wife, it would be best for him to encourage her to return to her original status: “Woman should fill the position which God originally designed for her, as her husband’s equal” (CTBH 77), and “her individuality cannot be merged in his. She should feel that she is her husband’s equal—to stand by his side” (AH 231).[3]

Lastly, we must not omit White’s observation that if the husband “is a coarse, rough, boisterous, egotistical, harsh, and overbearing man, let him never utter the word that the husband is the head of the wife . . . for he is not the Lord, he is not the husband in the true significance of the term” (AH 117).

God Cares About Relationships

In Gen 3:16 and SoS 7:10, God assures Adam and Eve, and later husbands and wives, that He will maintain the possibility of genuine loving attraction between them; God will work to preserve marriage in those who submit first to Him. This may be seen in connection with the enmity against the serpent that God placed in humanity after the Fall as well (Gen 3:15). Sinful humans would otherwise not have any desire to love one another as they should. God must intervene to help us. God tried to help Cain and Abel, just as He worked to maintain Adam and Eve’s love toward one another, even through His judgment upon them as fallen sinners who will struggle psychologically to remain in harmony.

God’s first move in responding to sin, for Adam and Eve as well as Cain and Abel, was to address the relational disharmony that was afflicting them. God cares a lot about human relationships! He’s not just interested in our personal or individual relationship with Himself. Unfortunately, of course, our sinful natures are often persistent, and many men and women struggle to attain the appropriate level of loving desire that we ought, as both men and women, to possess.

Now, this article has focused on the “psychology” revealed by a few key texts, so I’ll conclude with a few additional thoughts to tie all the above together. To review, the same word used for the wife’s desire toward her husband is also used for a younger brother desiring or loving his older brother (Gen 4:7, per White’s interpretation). Therefore, there can be no rigid gender-specific interpretation of this desire, psychologically, that excludes other dimensions (such as exclusively sexual desire or the whims of the “female mind” [apologies, ladies… just sharing what my male friends are saying….]). Nor should the desire be viewed as “negative” or weak in any way. Importantly, this same desire is also applied to the husband’s affection for his wife (SoS 7:10); thus it is also not reserved only for the one in the so-called weaker or “ruled over” position, i.e., wives and younger brothers.

Therefore, aspiring for the positive desire of Gen 3:16 should be the mutual ideal for all familial relationships. Possessing the “desire” of Gen 3:16 is a good thing for both genders and all people. Remember this is a special and unusual form of “desire,” which should emphasize our close attention to the contexts of the verses it is used in (Gen 3:16, Gen 4:7, and SoS 7:10).

To answer our original question: God did not create or authorize the gender wars in Gen 3:16. Unfortunately, a lot of people have assumed Gen 3:16 authorizes or explains psychological principles of the gender wars. A closer reading of the verse and its context reveals this is not the case; all of the above popular positions for “rule over” and “desire” are flawed in subtle ways. Women are not uniquely cursed with some negative “desire” and ruled over in some unique way by their husbands that can be defined or described psychologically and limited to the female gender. So long as any of the negative views of desire mentioned above are held and advanced by Christians, we will be undercutting the very avenue we should pursue to overcome the gender wars.

Men, or more specifically younger brothers in our biblical example, can also be subject to being ruled over in a parallel manner, and should possess the same desire toward their older brothers, wives, and families that women should toward their husbands. Furthermore, in all cases, those placed in positions of authority in a sinful world must learn how to, in turn, psychologically submit to those under them, who very well may have something that they need. Leaders must learn how to properly depend upon those under them, even so far as to submit to their wisdom in many cases, as we all are truly mutually dependent upon each other.

Lastly, we must never forget that it is sin that causes disharmony between people. The Bible doesn’t reveal the principles governing a theory of sinless psychology, so we must do the best we can while submitting, by faith, to God’s will, relying on Him for help to overcome our sinful tendencies and enjoy relationships that reflect His loving ideal as closely as possible.



[1] White concurs: “It was by her solicitation that Adam sinned, and she was now placed in subjection to her husband. Had the principles enjoined in the law of God been cherished by the fallen race, this sentence, though growing out of the results of sin, would have proved a blessing to them; but man’s abuse of the supremacy thus given him has too often rendered the lot of woman very bitter and made her life a burden.” (PP 58-59, emphasis mine)

[2] As White put it, “[Adam] who, from love to Eve, had deliberately chosen to forfeit the approval of God, his home in Paradise, and an eternal life of joy, could now, after his fall, endeavor to make his companion, and even the Creator Himself, responsible for the transgression. So terrible is the power of sin. (PP 57, emphasis mine).

[3] Interestingly, Ellen White even used this phrase for where she saw herself with her husband, James White, in their ministry as a married couple. “You will . . . see us standing side by side in the sacred desk, speaking the words of truth unto eternal life” (6MR 300).

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About the author


Michael Younker is a consulting editor for The Compass Magazine. He is completing a doctoral degree in philosophical theology (2019) at Andrews University.