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My upcoming book is dedicated to Anna Anderson, as we have done so much thinking, studying, and discussing in awe and wonder over the typology of man and woman that unfolds throughout Scripture. Rather than a natural theology from below, we have come to embrace an anthropology of man and woman that is anchored in eschatology. Anna is currently working on how Revelation 12 helps inform our reading of Genesis 3:16. I asked if she would write out her insights to share for my readers. Here is her guest post:

I am not the only one who has been stumped by Genesis 3:16b, “your desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you.” If you open the commentaries, you will find all of the following opinions on the subject of the woman’s desire and the man’s rule. If you charted them, it would look something like this: 

Woman’s Desire Good Woman’s Desire Bad
Man’s Rule Good Desire Good, Rule Good  (Church fathers)1 Desire Bad, Rule Good (Foh, Ortlund )2
Man’s Rule Bad Desire Good, Rule Bad (Trible,  Powell)3 Desire Bad, Rule Bad (Wenham, Ross, Waltke, Motyer, Knight)4

The church fathers were unanimous in their opinion that both the woman’s desire and man’s rule over her were good. The woman turns to her husband, and he rules over her, for her good.5 Like Aristotle, they judged that the woman by nature was incapable of ruling herself and required the man’s governance. Aristotle’s reasons were biological, not theological. He considered the female a poor outcome for the active male seed.6 Thus woman was regarded as sub-ideal and thus situated between man and the animals on the scale of nature, with the ethical implication that she should be ruled. Aristotle’s view was institutionalized in the church for many reasons. One is that a superficial reading of Genesis 2 seems somewhat compatible with Aristotle’s view. The woman was from the man (Aristotle’s male seed) and second (secondary). Like animals, she is man’s helper — you might say, created “to affirm, receive, and nurture” male strength specifically.7 These ideas have changed very little in church history, whether we care to admit that or not.

Aristotle (4th century BCE)Augustine (c. 400) Aquinas (1265) Gouge (1622)Piper (2006), Wilson (2006)
By nature, woman cannot rule herself; her virtues are obedience and silence.8The woman, inferior by nature, has the virtues of subordination and silence.9See Aristotle.10 The woman, inferior by nature, has the virtues of subordination and silence unless she is responding to her husband’s wisdom.11 Femininity is  submission, obedience,  and gratitude, and responsiveness.12

The starting point for Aristotle was himself, not the self-contained triune God of Scripture. In Genesis 1:26-31, the woman is seen first and foremost as God’s complement, from him and through him and for union and communion with him, confirmed by her nature as a personal image-bearer. We stay on track if we keep Genesis 1 in mind when we come to Genesis 2. Like the man, the woman bears the image of God, and by nature is formed for unmediated personal communion with him before, in, and beyond the shadow and type of marriage (cf. 1 Cor. 7:29-34; Matt. 22:30).13 God blesses and speaks to them in Genesis 1:26-31. The prevailing plurals of the passage show that the one mankind is a plurality—both the man and the woman hear his voice and receive his blessing. Like the man, she is “very good,” made in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over “every living thing that lives on the earth.” 

In 1974, a student at Westminster Theological Seminary wrote a journal article on the woman’s desire in Genesis 3:16b that caused a seismic shift in how the woman is perceived. Her article, “What is the Woman’s Desire?” is the basis for a prevailing view of woman’s “desire” today.14 Unlike the church fathers who spoke of her inferiority by nature (Gen. 1-2), this article surmised her inferiority by her new fallen nature in Genesis 3. God cursed her with a desire to overthrow the man in Genesis 3, in a way analogous to sin’s desire to destroy Cain in Genesis 4. Her view, though novel in the 1960s, has been incorporated into the most recent versions of the NLT, “And you will desire to control your husband,” and the ESV, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband.” Her article threw biblical weight to a long-ripened idea that what the woman wants most is to overcome her position as second and her “role” as helper.15 This has resulted in heavy-handedness in the church. The passions warring within us, that lead to power struggles among us, are thought to be especially the woman’s lot (cf. James 4:1-12). Believed to be ethically cursed at the core of her being in Genesis 3:16b, many think that the woman requires preemptive and expeditious rule from the men in authority over her. So whether it is the biology of Aristotle (natural law), the anthropology of the church based on Genesis 2 (natural theology),16 or the recent understanding of woman based on Genesis 3:16b (the new natural theology), woman continues to be understood according to what she supposedly lacks naturally and ethically. 

I suggest that our anthropology, our understanding of who we are as male and female, has never taken flight. I would like to offer a new angle, a Christological and redemptive-historical reading of Genesis 3:15-20, in the light of Revelation 12. Perhaps the reason we have not been able to come to a consensus on Genesis 3:16b is that we cling to the dust and do not set our minds on things above, on God and the Lamb enthroned in Sabbath rest in the heavens.17 

Anyone familiar with Aimee’s writing knows that she aims at the heart of what woman is. She sees woman as a type of Zion, both the heavenly mother realm and the bridal people destined for it. Time moves toward a consummation inaugurated in Genesis 1:1 with the creation of the heavenly throne room and earthly footstool (Is 66:1; Neh 9:6).18 From Genesis 1-2 until the full light of Revelation 21-22, God’s people await the day when he will make his dwelling among them and he will be their God and they will be his people. On that day, the realm of Zion will come forth as a bride with her people dressed in white. In the middle of the unfolding testimony of Scripture stands the Song of Songs, a bird’s-eye view of desire for this. In the misty otherworldliness of its verse, we find the shepherd-king with his beloved, a bride in the wilderness. Their desire for one another (Song 7:10) carries them forward toward a time when their temporal bond (8:8) promises to give way to consummate mutual delight on mountains of spice (8:10-14). 

While woman represents heaven, both mother city and bridal people, man represents the earth in its press heavenward through covenantal obedience. God identifies man (adam) with the earth (adamah) from the beginning. He is formed “to work the ground” (2:5). He is “from the ground,” (7), tasked with keeping the plants that have sprung up “from the ground” (9), and he names every beast of the field and the birds of heaven that God formed “out of the ground” (19). He is given the command, “you shall not eat,” under threat of the penalty, that he will die, returning into the ground from which he came. His fall leads to the cursing of the ground in 3:17-19. He is representative of the earth specifically in its press toward consummation implied in the commands “work and keep” and “do not eat,” seen in the light of the promise held out in the tree of life.19 Thus the union and communion of the man and the woman in Genesis 2:24-25 could be seen to anticipate a future union and communion of earth and heaven and their inhabitants, men and angels, when heaven and earth will become bone of each other’s bone and flesh of each other’s flesh, to the knowledge and glory of the triune God in exhaustive union and communion within himself. 

With this, we turn to Genesis 3:15-20. A wooden translation of these verses without regard to typology is a problem for many reasons:

  1. Gen. 3:16-20 follows that great announcement of the gospel spoken of figuratively in 3:15, that the Seed of the woman would bruise the serpent’s head
  2. The two curses are diverted from the woman and man to the serpent (3:14) and the ground (3:17), so seeing 3:16-20 as merely punitive for the man and woman is unlikely
  3. The Hebrew word “childbearing” (3:16a) is more comprehensive than childbirth, and its pain would belong to both Adam and Eve in losing their first two sons to death and exile in 4:1-12
  4. Some women are exempted from the supposed “curse” of childbearing (3:16); similarly, some men are exempted from working by the sweat of their face (3:19), while all over the world, many women sweat to feed their families and men toil to rear their children
  5. Only the man is told that the ground will bring forth thorns and thistles and that he will return to the dust, and yet the woman also experiences the obstinacy of the earth and returns to dust (3:19)
  6. The word for the man’s “rule” in 3:16b is used in 1:18 for the sun ruling the day, and the moon ruling the night, meaning to hold supreme control under God for good or as an omen of evil (cf. Joshua 10; Luke 23:45). yet the man is never explicitly commanded in Scripture to rule over the woman; and when he is presented as holding absolute sway, it never bodes well beginning immediately in Gen. 4:19-24 (cf. 6:1-4; 12:10-15; 19:8; 20:1-3; 26:6-11; 34:1-29; 38:24-30; etc. )
  7. A much missed emphasis in Genesis 3:15 is that the Seed belongs to the woman specifically, which does not fit well with the readings stressing her natural or ethical inferiority. In the unfolding revelation, Christ is first the woman’s seed, before he is revealed as the seed of Abraham (12:7) and David (2 Sam 7:12).20 

The enigma of Genesis 3:15-20 may be answered in Revelation 12, a reading which does not lead to our self-exaltation in its many forms today.21 What lines up? 

Genesis 3:15-20Revelation 12
woman “And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.” (12:1)
pain in bearing the Seed “She was pregnant and crying out in the pains and the agony of giving birth . . .. . . “ (2)
serpent “And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon . . . that ancient serpent.” ( 3, 9)
enmity “And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it.” (4)
woman’s seed “She gave birth to a male child. . . “ (5a)
rule “. . . one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron.” (5b)
(Despite thorns and thistles) . . you shall eat“And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.” (6)
Seed will bruise the serpent’s head “. . . but he (the dragon) was defeated . .. . he knows that his time is short.” (8-9)
serpent “And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” (9)
Ruler“Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come down.” (10)
Woman   “But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent . . .” (14a)
(Despite thorns and thistles) . . . you shall eat“ . . .into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.” (14b)
Man as Earth“The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth.” (15-16)
Woman as Zion, mother of the “all living”“Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” (17)

In Revelation, we see the mother of the male child who is born to rule the nations. The woman is crowned and clothed with honor from on high. Mother Zion above, often mentioned in prophetic Scripture, gives birth to the Seed amidst heavenly warfare with the dragon, while facing his malice and wrath against her after being thrown down.22 Not only does she birth the male child, but other offspring, the “all-living” born from above, who “keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.” The man as Earth comes to the help of the woman as Zion, relentlessly pursued by the serpent in the wilderness. He swallows the flood of venomous accusations from the serpent that threatens to sweep away the woman. Thus the male child who ascended in Rev 12:1-6, is the slain Lamb of vv. 7-12, is the Earth, the man Jesus, in vv. 13-17. The woman and her offspring will prevail, holding to the testimony of Jesus, who causes her to overcome in death and be brought to the end for which she is destined, consummate union and communion with the triune God. The ascended Lord brings heaven and earth together (Eph 1:10), thus he alone is worthy “to receive power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing.” He sovereignly rules over the woman bringing the fruition of her desire in Revelation 21-22. At the end, Zion is no longer the mother in labor but the bride at rest. Thus the woman’s desire is realized. Heaven and earth, the bride and the Groom, embrace, and he will rule over her as the substance and pledge of her everlasting blessedness.

Anna Anderson has a MA in Religion from Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington and is pursuing her ThM at Union School of Theology in Wales.

1 Ancient Christian Commentary of Scriptures I, ed. Andrew Louth, 92-94.

2 Susan T. Foh (Schindler), Women and the Word of God, 69; Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr., “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship, Genesis 1-3,” Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 109. 

3 Phyllis Trible, God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality, 126; Sam Powell, Genesis 3:16 

4 Gordon Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 1: Genesis 1-15, ; Allen P. Ross, Creation and Blessing, 146-147; J. A. Motyer, The Message of Genesis 1-11, 93-94, George W. Knight III, “The Family and the Church,” Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 346; Bruce K. Waltke, Genesis, 94. The commentators who fit in this category tend to agree that the man’s rule can be prone to harshness. 

5 Anna Anderson, “The Church Fathers on Genesis 3:16cd,” https://www.academia.edu/43654934/THE_CHURCH_FATHER_ON_GENESIS_3_16cd

6 Aristotle, Generation of Animals, I, 728a. See Prudence Allen, Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution, 223. 

7 See Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 46. 

8 Aristotle, Politics 1.1260a.

9 Literal Commentary on Genesis, IX, 5; Confessions Book IX, 9. 

10 Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (1a, q. 92, a.1, Obj.1). 

11 William Gouge, Building a Godly Home: A Holy Vision for a Happy Marriage, 103-105, 114, 118, 168. 12 John Piper, Recovering, 46; Douglas Wilson, For Glory and a Covering, 44. 

13 For an understanding of image as a natural communion bond, see Lane Tipton, Foundations of Covenant Theology, 67-74, 136. 

14 Susan T. Foh (Schindler), “What is the Woman’s Desire?”, Click to access foh-womansdesire-wtj.pdf

15 George Knight wrote extensively on “role,” which seemingly rescues the woman from being understood as ontologically inferior, and yet fails to root her “role” biblically-theologically. See “The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Male and Female with Special Reference to the Teaching/Ruling Functions in the Church.” See also his book Role Relationships of Men and Women: New Testament Teaching

16 Steve Wedgeworth, “Male-Only Ordination is Natural: Why the Church is a Model of Reality,” https://calvinistinternational.com/2019/01/16/male-only-ordination-is-natural-why-the-church-is-a-model-of-reality/17 Tipton, Foundations, 9.

17 Tipton, Foundations, 9.

18 Ibid., 33-41. 

19 Ibid, 93. 

20 For more on the connection between the mother and ruler, see Anna Anderson, “The Church Manifest in New Jerusalem as Woman With Special Emphasis Given to the Gevirah Figure,” https://www.academia.edu/43655168/The_Church_Manifest_in_New_Jerusalem_as_Woman_With_Special_Empha sis_Given_to_the_Gevirah_Figure20200718_37792_u7i74y.

21 I find this quote by Lane Tipton especially helpful, “The central concern of Scripture is the glory of the self-contained triune God—-not man, not the earth, not angels, not Satan, but God himself,” Foundations, 23. 

22 Meredith Kline, God, Heaven, and Harmageddon, 173.