What was God’s intention for human relationships when he created mankind, male and female, and told them to take dominion over the earth and creatures? (And yes, in Genesis 1, God was giving those instructions to both male and female. Read closely.) Did God create women to be subservient to men, giving Adam dominion over Eve, too? Or is the subjugation of women part of the curse? And if it is part of the curse, how should we respond to it?
This debate isn’t as simple as it seems at face value. Since it discusses God’s ideal for relationships, it also raises questions about how humans will relate to one another in the next life (will women still be subjugated, and if there’s no marriage, who will they be subject to?) and how members of the Trinity relate to one another.
But that’s WAY beyond the scope of this blog post. So let’s get on with it, keeping the bigger picture in mind.
People in the patriarchal camp would respond that women were created to be subservient to men. After all, in Genesis 2:18, the woman is referred to as an “ezer kenegdo,” a helpmeet, or helper suitable. In this paradigm, the purpose of women is to come alongside and support the men in their lives. It is what they were created for.
Egalitarians, and some complementarians, would respond that “ezer kenegdo” is hardly a term of subjugation. In fact, the word ezer, helper, has military overtones, and is usually used to refer Israel’s allies, or to God himself. No subjugation there. Kenegdo means “corresponding to” or “face to face,” alluding to counterbalance and equality. The image is not of the woman coming alongside and supporting the man. The image is of the man and the woman facing each other and leaning in, palms together, holding one another up with the dynamic tension created by their equal stature.
So, we covered Genesis 1 in the first paragraph, and looked at two different positions on Genesis 2. Let’s take a deep breath and move on to Genesis 3, the bugaboo of human relationships (and pretty much everything else).
In Genesis 3, the man and the woman eat the forbidden fruit, and God explains what will come about as a result of their rebellion against him. Genesis 3:16 lays out the consequences for the woman. “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.”
Now, I grew up believing that “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” meant that the hierarchy existing between men and women was the female half of humanity’s punishment for eating the apple. Adam had to work hard, day in and day out, to feed his family, while Eve got to stay home with the babies, but had to put up with being bossed around, always at her husband’s whim. Juvenile, perhaps, and certainly indicative of my middle-class, Mid-Western mindset, but not too far from the view that dominated Christendom (thanks to the depravity of the Greek view of women) for about 1500 years. Women were being rightly punished for their moral failings. Adam never stopped blaming Eve for that incident with the forbidden fruit.
And while the Bible never insinuates this, many, many Christians adopted the secular belief that women were flat-out inferior to men, not only physically but morally and intellectually weaker than men. It wasn’t just that God was punishing women for their sin–it was that women were inherently unfit, and needed to be controlled.
Here are some choice quotes exposing the church’s predominant view of women over the past couple thousand years:
Clement of Alexandria says: “Every woman should be filled with shame by the thought that she is a woman.”
Tertullian says: “Woman is a temple built over a sewer, the gateway to the devil… It was your fault that the Son of God had to die; you should always go in mourning and rags.”
Augustine says: “Woman was merely man’s helpmate, a function which pertains to her alone. She is not the image of God but as far as man is concerned, he is by himself the image of God.”
Pope Gregory I says: “Woman is slow in understanding and her unstable and naive mind renders her by way of natural weakness to the necessity of a strong hand in her husband. Her ‘use’ is two fold; carnal sex and motherhood.”
So yeah, we’re dealing with a bit of baggage.
Nowadays I, like most egalitarians, believe that while Genesis 3:16 does indeed spell out the negative consequences of human sin, it is descriptive of what will happen, not prescriptive of what should happen, or what God wants to happen. Men should no more seek to rule over women than women should sabotage her husband’s work by throwing thorns in his fields. In the egalitarian view, the subjugation of women is just another part of the curse of sin and death that Jesus came to destroy. And as followers of Christ, we are called to live in light of the resurrection, not the fall.
Again, there is so much more that can and should be said, and so many more subtleties of both egalitarian and complementarian thought on this matter to be addressed. But time and space are limited, and I have a hot lunch date with my kenegdo to prepare for.
To get a brief overview of egalitarian thought on Genesis 1-3, read this article from Christians for Biblical Equality. The books and papers cited at the bottom of the article would make excellent reading as well.