Adam and Eve just transgressed God’s law, thereby bringing guilt and shame upon themselves, and resulting in a separation from God. God is here pronouncing curses upon them as a result of their sin, but our focus is specifically under the curse pronounced on the woman, which actually says something of the man, as well.
The text before us speaks of the sinful propensities or inclinations or tendencies of the sexes — the woman toward her husband and the man toward his wife. If you are married or preparing for marriage, you will especially do well to heed these words. These propensities are unique to each, for as we will see, they are related to the God-ordained roles between man and woman. Now, I understand the meaning of this text, in the eyes of our secular, feminist culture, and even in the eyes of many who call themselves Christians, is backward and unenlightened. The truth, however, is that to properly understand God’s word, and to believe it and conform one’s life to it, is the mark of one who has been enlightened by the grace of God. To live in this way is to have one’s back turned to the ways of the world, with eyes fixed on and feet firmly set in the way of God. So, let us take this text to heart and suppress whatever sinful impulses may arise within us to kick against the goads of nature and heavenly instruction. Let us, man and woman alike, seek to be faithful to God’s word in all things; for God’s word is not only authoritative but is also good.
It should be made clear at the outset that what God says to the woman, and implicitly to the man, is not something God puts in them. God is not saying, “I am going to put these sinful desires within you because you sinned against me.” By no means! The words of James are clear on this matter:
Rather, it is as if he were saying, “Because you have sinned, sin now rules over you, and here is how it will control you” (cf. Rom. 6-7).
I. Woman: The Sinful Desire for Her Husband
How are we to understand this desire of the woman for her husband? Some have suggested a sexual desire, but that would imply sexual desires for one’s spouse are sinful, and that men don’t have such desires for their wives, as God’s pronouncement here is unique to the woman. This is so absurd it needs no further mention. Others, however, have suggested the desire is one of attention seeking — the wife longing for the attention of her husband who always seems to have his head in the clouds or busying himself with his work. We are making progress in our analysis here. I think we can all agree, men and women alike, that women tend to desire the attention or affection of their husbands more than men tend to desire that of their wives. This is not to say that husbands don’t genuinely love and care for their wives; it’s simply to say that men can easily get caught up in their work. Women, too, are by nature more affectionate and tender creatures. That being said, I do believe there is a great deal more to be said on this text, especially in the light of another place in Scripture where this same language is utilized.
In Genesis 4:7 God tells Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it” (emphasis added). Sin’s desire is for Cain (it’s against him), as we already see its work in Cain’s offering an unacceptable sacrifice to God, one not prescribed. Clearly, the previous two ways in which “desire” has been understood in Genesis 3:16 would not make much sense here. Sin’s desire for Cain was a desire to master, to manipulate, to overtake, to overthrow, to make him go astray from God’s will. It is, in short, a desire to control or usurp. In light of this text, as well as the context of Genesis 2 — Adam’s headship or leadership over Eve being evinced by the fact of his being created first, of Eve being made from his rib, of Adam’s naming Eve “woman,” and of God’s covenantal dealing specifically with Adam — we must understand God’s warning to Eve in 3:16 as referring to the woman’s propensity to usurp the God-given authority of her husband.
There are, of course, many ways this can take place — some rather matter-of-factly and others more inconspicuous. The Bible gives some examples of such occurrences. There is, for instance, Potiphar’s wife who deceived her husband when Joseph would not sin with her by laying with her. Or there is Job’s wife who, seeing Job’s steadfast commitment to God in the midst of great suffering, encouraged him to “curse God and die”. I do not think it too far-fetched to think that his wife secretly desired to be rid of him, seeing that he had lost all that he had, even the comeliness of his appearance. More generally, we have Proverbs 25:24 which says, “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife.”
So, as a result of the Fall, women have the sinful propensity of usurping the God-given authority of their husbands. Sin, working in the woman, desires to rule over her by having her think that God’s way in marriage is beneath her and not worthy of her submission. In contemporary parlance, her desire is to “wear the pants in the house”.
II. Man: The Sinful Rule Over His Wife
We may likewise gain insight into the meaning of this rule by looking again to Genesis 4:7. God told Cain that he must rule over sin. Certainly, to rule over sin is a good thing, but one does not engage in such rule lovingly, as if sin were a blessed companion. Not at all! To rule over sin is to be at war with it, to fight it, to dominate it. And this here is the sinful propensity of men toward their wives — to rule them with a heavy, domineering hand; to treat them as lesser than themselves.
So, whereas God told the woman, “You are going to desire your husband like sin desires to overthrow and control a man,” He tells the man, “You are going to be puffed up with your position of authority, and thereby rule over your wife in an unloving and domineering manner.” God tells them these things to warn them: Be on guard by guarding your hearts (cf. Prov. 4:23-27).
It’s not long after God gives this warning in Genesis 3 that we see an example of domineering husbandry in Genesis 4:23-24 with Lamech and his two wives. The fact he had two wives might suggest something of his prideful husbandry. But we especially see his pride and demanding character in his words, ensuring his wives know that if one were to hold him accountable for the murder of a man, he is to be avenged seventy-sevenfold, beyond that of Cain:
His thoughts of himself are arrogant, and it shows with the way in which he speaks to his wives and pronounces a seventy-sevenfold vengeance on his life. Some have viewed Lamech as acting justly (he did not kill in hatred but in self-defense) and demonstrating the existence of some kind of law-code in the city of Enoch (seventy-sevenfold revenge). This, however, is a stretch. Especially when one considers that Lamech’s account comes in the context of Cain’s lineage and immediately precedes mention of Seth’s birth and Enosh’s birth, which marks the “time people began to call upon the name of the LORD” (4:26). No, Lamech was a wild and boastful man who had no regard for monogamy and the life of others.
Husbands and wives, be warned. Take heed. Know that these sinful propensities are real. To be aware of it is the first step in being prepared to keep them at bay. Rather than seeking to subdue one another, you are to love and serve one another, recognizing your God-ordained roles in marriage, and to carry out those responsibilities with humility and gladness.
III. Christ and the Church: A Marriage Made in Heaven, but Won on Earth
Men and women. Husbands and wives. God has not left us without forgiveness of these sins of which we are prone to commit. Nor has he left us without example of the way marriage was intended to be. The clearest passage on marriage as God intended is of course Ephesians 5:22-33. This text also contains further support for the way I have explained Genesis 3:16.
The wife is told to submit to her husband as to the Lord, implying that women are prone to not submit to their husbands. Like faithful Sarah, who called Abraham lord (1 Pet. 3:6), so women today are to submit to their husbands, recognizing God’s wisdom and order in placing the husband as head of their home. This does not mean that women must call their husbands lord (certainly a cultural element); but what it demonstrates is that Sarah recognized Abraham’s leadership in their marriage. Wives, you have a leader in the home, and that leader is the one to whom God has joined you — your husband. Do you submit to the Lord? Then submit also to your husband, for your Lord has commanded you to do so. Think not of submission as a dirty word to be spat out and trampled upon with feminist fervor. Did not Christ submit to his Father who is in heaven? Far be it from you, then, to think of submission as a thing to be cringed at. It’s time to take back submission from the secular world and herald it as a thing for rejoicing.
We move on. Husbands are told to love their wives and to care for their physical and spiritual well-being, implying that men are prone to not lead in a loving and caring manner. Men, give deep thought and consideration to the weightiness of your calling as a husband. It is not an easy thing to nurture your bride. It is not a task to check off a list. It is an ongoing responsibility and privilege, requiring a servant’s heart. Be careful you do not mistake your position of authority for one of autonomy. You cannot do whatever seems fit to you, but you must be faithful to your Master’s orders, or have you forgotten that you too are in a position requiring submission?
Now, for the most glorious part of all. Paul says that marriage is a picture of Christ and his bride, the Church. The Lord Jesus Christ washed his bride by taking her sins upon himself and embraced a bloody death for those sins, satisfying the just wrath of God against sin. This is love; this is care; this is leadership; this is manliness. In short, marriage is a picture of God’s lovingkindess in the gospel.
Wives, hope in the gospel and submit to your husbands in obedience to God. Husbands, hope in the gospel and lovingly lead and serve your wives in obedience to God. Husbands and wives, look to Christ together as one flesh, being of one mind, intent on pleasing the Lord.