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Four Hard Questions: Standards for Women in the Bible (Part 1)

A friend of PT described four difficult questions that others have presented to her in discussions. Today I present Part 1 (of 3), answering the first of the four questions.

Question 1:

Why does it seem like women were dealt with more harshly in the Bible, especially under the Law? This is my first question: After the fall, Eve had to give birth to babies in pain and was given the desire to rule over her husband—but she wasn’t supposed to rule over her husband? Men just had to work the ground, etc. … and we see in history men and women working the ground; not just men do it. Both men and women have to work hard and women have to work hard birthing a child and go through so much to birth the baby and raise the baby. (I know that Adam and Eve are before the Law, but it seems these issues are not resolved by the Law, they just get more complicated.)

Answer:

Questions like these can be difficult to unwind, depending on how we read the text and feed personal experiences into it. Let’s start here: when something seems unfair in God’s dealings, we need to look for two possible problems in how we are reading the Bible:

  1. We don’t read the full context, which may be larger than a few verses, or even require comparing several passages.
  2. We bring assumptions from our culture and experience which don’t align with the time and place of the Scriptural narrative.

I will refer to these as “point (1)” and “point (2)” throughout this series. Of course, a third problem would be unbelief: I have decided God is wrong, and want validation. That’s a different conversation. But if you can agree that points (1) and (2) are reasonable, then let’s look briefly at Scripture for each question. I’ll bring in references and some quotations, but keeping in mind point (1), I encourage you to read each passage in context and see whether I am using Scripture accurately.

Adam and Eve and the fruit of disobedience

To understand this passage, we must see that an important theme in the creation account is headship. God is head over all things. Next, there is a headship order in the created world.

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion…’ ” (Gen. 1:26–27).

The first chapters of Genesis show that God is head over all things. He created the human race to be a subordinate head over the natural creation. Within mankind, He subdivided to male and female:

“Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:23–24).

Adam and Eve show God’s pattern for the human family. It has one man and one woman, joined as “one flesh.” It has a significant order: Adam created first, then Eve (1 Tim. 2:13)1. Within the human race, both men and women should submit to God, and both should exercise authority over creation.

Within the marriage, the man should exercise headship, to which the woman submits. Now, recall point (2): this is not headship and submission in the twisted view of modern western culture. Instead, it is a willing acceptance of roles necessary for order. When both parties participate lovingly, it is a good thing, even though flawed humans sometimes reach flawed results. (Ideally, they learn from their mistakes and become wiser.)

But in Genesis 3, the first humans failed in their headship. Satan used a serpent to offer a deceiving temptation to Eve. Instead of exercising headship over this created being, Eve submitted and took the forbidden fruit. Eve then offered it to Adam, who submitted and failed to exercise headship both in his family and over the creation. Finally, God speaks.

First, God stated consequences to Satan who was acting through the serpent. Creation would continue, but in a sin-marked condition. In Genesis 3:15 God also gave the first prophecy of the coming Christ who would provide redemption by crushing the serpent’s head. Remember that the Son of God paid a far greater price to resolve the sin question than what either Adam or Eve received on earth as the just consequences of their sin!

Next, He addressed Eve:

“To the woman he said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you’ ” (Gen. 3:16).

Eve acted against the headship authority God delegated through her husband, and brought sin into the family unit. So, her troubles would be focused there. Childbirth would be painful. Adam’s headship would continue, but so would the friction. She would resent her husband’s authority but he would generally be able to force his will. God’s harmonious order for the family would be disrupted by pain, conflict, and the possibility of oppressive behavior.

Finally, God turned to Adam:

“And to Adam he said, ‘Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, “You shall not eat of it,” cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ ” (Gen. 3:17–19).

Adam’s refusal of God’s headship had consequences for his own headship over the created world. His headship would continue, but he would no longer live in a protected garden. He would work hard to cultivate and maintain fields, and that labor would bring pain to his body and be spent fighting against thorns and thistles. In the end, he would die.

What does it mean? 

When spoke to Adam and Eve as representatives of their race. Sin’s consequences fall generally upon all descendants of Adam (including death, without exception – see 1 Cor. 15:22). The consequences were proportionate to their headship responsibility, and reflect the sinful nature of their own choices. But we humans continue to sin in both new and old ways, which brings more trouble into the pattern.

As you stated, farm labor sometimes falls on women (and children, I would add). On the other hand, childbirth troubles sometimes reduce a woman’s capabilities or even kill her (maternal mortality rates in childbirth without modern medicine are notably high).2 The man is then obligated to to both till the ground and manage the domestic sphere for a season.

Also, there’s no such thing as a man “just” having to till the ground. This returns us to point (2) again, because in pre-modern agrarian societies – that’s most of human history – agriculture is back-breaking work and consumes the majority of human time and energy. Modern technology has reduced many human burdens, and most of us are able to buy food that someone else produced. We also have technology that reduces the difficulty of childbirth. But God’s pattern continues for all people: food is obtained by work, childbirth is difficult, and headship conflicts are present in marriage (and appear in society generally).3

Later, when the Law was given, it certainly did not resolve these issues. The Law was given to restrain the flesh, but it could not change hearts. We’ll dig deeper in the next part of this series.

Summary and pause (for now)

I think your examples of fairness have the problem of being presented in an unfair way: each considers only some parts of a complex problem. However, “fairness” as a category cannot capture the depth of what sin and redemption mean. God could have judged us all for our sins. Instead, the Son of God came to earth as Son of Man and paid that price for Adam’s entire race. Adam’s headship failed through sin, and now everyone dies. Christ’s headship is unfailing, and He gives life to all who are “born again” (John 3) into His line (1 Cor. 15:22). How wonderful that in spite of our sin and rebellion, God provided such an incredible plan for salvation!

On a related note, Scripture shows that in a Christian’s life, God gives grace to overcome some of the consequences of Adam and Eve’s fall. For one interesting example, consider a previous Patterns of Truth post on what it means to be “saved in childbearing.” 

With that positive view of Christ’s work in mind, I’ll close this Part 1. Next week, Lord willing, I will continue responding to your questions in Part 2.

Continue to part 2


Endnotes

1.  Additionally, if and when children enter the union, they are subject to both parents per Ex. 20:12 and Eph. 6:1.

2.  Maternal mortality in birth: see, for example:ourworldindata.org/maternal-mortality.

3.  God did not establish a clear pattern for human government until after Noah’s flood (Genesis 9:1-7), so it isn’t addressed here in Genesis 3. But once He did, we see the same resentment of human authority emerge in the human race more generally.


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