The Context of Genesis 3:16

Interlocking Ovals

This is part of a series on patriarchy, headship, and submission. See this index.

Let’s continue where “An Analysis of Genesis 3:16” left off, this time discussing the comments of prolific commentor, thedeti. His comments are illustrative of some common arguments that I’ve seen.

Intermingled Context

Thedeti begins his exegesis of Genesis 3:16 in the context of quotes of Ephesians 5:22-24, and 1 Peter 3:1-6 and says:

This isn’t hard to understand. [..] 1) Submit to your husbands [..] 2) Submit in everything. [..] 3) When you submit, do so gently and quietly.
comment by thedeti @ SigmaFrame, “The Tennant Authority Structure”

In this post we will examine whether or not the context of Genesis 3:16 can be combined with that of Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter 3.

In “Headship: An Evidence Summary“, I showed how the interpretations of the patriarchal passages are determined by their context. The grammar of the passages thedeti cited constrain the meanings somewhat, but is not sufficient by itself to establish his claims. The grammar quite plausibly supports a few different alternative interpretations.

Of course there is nothing wrong with arguing for a particular interpretation of Genesis 3:16 and then interpreting Ephesians 5:22-24 and 1 Peter 3:1-6 in light of the context of Genesis. If we can agree that your interpretation of Genesis is correct and you have made no unsound arguments, then you have won the day. But by making the interpretations of the latter dependent on the interpretation of former, if it turns out the former only shows a negative or cursed view of a husband’s authority over his wife (as suggested in “An Analysis of Genesis 3:16”), then the interpretations of the latter are not evidenced by the former. Since those interpretations rely on external context to support them, and we lack that context, we cannot accept the conclusions presented.

Having just argued that Genesis should be used to interpret Ephesians and Peter, there is something wrong with turning around and defending Headship submission in Genesis by citing Ephesians and Peter. It is circular reasoning. A piece of evidence used to support another cannot be evidence by that same piece of evidence, or what remains is a uselessly arbitrary circular claim.

The contexts cannot be intermingled.

Inconvenient Context

There are a lot of different interpretation possibilities for Genesis 3:16.

  • Your shall desire to help your husband, And he shall rule, by right, over you.
  • Your shall desire to help your husband, yet he shall dominate you.
  • Your lustful desire shall be for your husband, And he shall rule, by right, over you.
  • Your lustful desire shall be for your husband, And he shall dominate you.
  • Your desire shall be to dominate your husband’s authority, And he shall rule, by right, over you.
  • Your desire shall be to dominate your husband’s authority, yet he shall dominate you.
  • You shall turn away from your rights and towards your husband’s needs, yet he shall rule, by right, over you.
  • You shall turn away from your rights and towards your husband’s needs, yet he shall dominate you.
  • You shall turn against your husband, yet he shall rule, by right, over you.
  • You shall turn against your husband, but he shall dominate you.

These are just some of the possibilities. There are a lot of options, each with their own nuances and difficulties.  Which one (or, perhaps, more than one) is correct? After deciding what the correct words are, you then have to decide the following for each half clause:

  • Is it a curse, a blessing, both, or neither?
  • Is it prescriptive and/or descriptive?
  • Is it optional or mandatory?
  • Does it apply to all husbands or wives, or just some of them?
  • Does it apply to men/women, not just husbands/wives?
  • Does it apply (or not apply) the same way in the church? in the home? in public? everywhere?

It is unusual to see anyone pushing Headship Submission commit to a particular interpretation and stick to it. Nor is it common that those who believe in Headship Submission agree on precisely how to interpret it. Most vaguely cite some sort of tradition, as if that is sufficient. And yet, they are all certain and unified that Headship Submission is found in Genesis 3:16, Ephesians 5, and 1 Peter 3. They might even write a book of masculinity or headship without ever answering these questions.

How can this be? Genesis 3:16 is not explicit on these points. If one abandons looking for explicit answers within the grammar—which doesn’t readily support the headship submission argument—the only thing left is, you guessed it, context. The simple answer is eisegesis: already deciding to believe, no matter what the text actually says or means. Whatever is convenient is a correct interpretation. Anything goes…except the wrong things, of course.

An eisegetical approach is invalid. Context—especially when inconvenient—is important.

Selective Context

Thedeti demonstrates one of the most common techniques used to defend an argument: taking only a selection of passage out of its larger context, which—intentionally or unintentionally—alters its meaning.

Ephesians

The first problem is choosing to quote Ephesians 5:22-24. To illustrate, let’s quote v22 by itself using a strictly literal translation:

“…wives to their own husbands as to the Lord.”

Does this show that wives should submit to their husbands? Who knows, because the quote isn’t even a complete sentence or thought. In fact, the minimal sentence ending in verse 22 begins in verse 18 (if not earlier). How can one rightfully develop an entire doctrine of headship submission out of a sentence fragment? Here is the full sentence, split to show how it is structured:

  • And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless living, but be filled with the Spirit:
    • be speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
    • be singing and making music with your heart to the Lord
    • be giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ
    • be submitting to one another in the fear of Christ, wives to their own husbands as to the Lord

There is one main verb in the sentence “be filled” followed by a set of (highlighted) participles that refer back to the verb. The conduct is (1) contrasted with reckless living; (2) for all men and women; and (3) we do it all for God, the Spirit, and/or Jesus Christ. But most importantly, the submitting is mutual: to one another. The primary goal of submission is to be filled with the Spirit. We could go back a few verses and improve our understanding by adding even more context, but the point has been made.

The idea that wives submit to their husbands in a strict hierarchical, unidirectional, non-mutual authority structure might make some sense in a tightly selected context—a sentence fragment—but that flies in the face of what Paul was actually saying and how he was saying it. The verb “be submitting” in elided in v22. It isn’t actually there, rather its presence is implied from v21 before it. The submitting in v21 is the same as v22. Interpreting the latter without concern for the former is poor exegesis, when the most logical and simplest explanation is that v22 is an example of v21. Moreover, the participle “be submitting” is in the middle voice, implying that the person submitting is doing so of their free will, not an act of force, command, or authority. The emphasis of Ephesians 5 is inward focused (e.g. choice), not outward focused (e.g. authority).

By eliding the verb, Paul can be delicate and deferential as possible, taking care not to offend. He tells everyone to submit to one another (including men and women) without having to explicitly state that husbands should submit to their wives and only implicitly and indirectly stating that wives should submit (this is relevant when we discuss Peter below). And just to prove it was no accident, right after Paul tells the church to submit to Christ in Ephesians 5:24 to has the opportunity to directly tell wives to submit to their husbands, but he elides the verb again.

This is also why Paul told husbands to love their wives, rather than submit, even though it means the same thing. It was a softer, but no less revolutionary command. For a man to apply the Golden Rule to his wife (by loving her) was to give up his primacy, to culturally debase himself: an unambiguous act of submission. For this, his wife is told to respect him. Under normal circumstances in a patriarchal society a man submitting to his wife would make him the cause of ridicule and disrespect from his wife. But Paul commands wives not act on this natural inclination. This is why she must respect him.

Peter

The second problem is choosing to quote 1 Peter 3:1-6. As with Ephesians, the quote appears to support headship submission within a selective context. But when the wider context is included, the meaning changes.

Just as with Ephesians 5:21-22, the finite verb “submit” in 1 Peter 3:1-6 is elided in 1 Peter 3:7. Just as the verb submit was elided for women in Ephesians 5:22, it is elided for men in 1 Peter 3:7. Rather than being told explicitly to submit, the husband is told indirectly. As with Paul, Peter is also being diplomatic, keeping the language as soft as possible. And just like Paul did, Peter implicitly calls for mutual submission, an explicit humbling of one’s self, in 1 Peter 5:5.

In the same way, you who are younger, submit to the elders. And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

When we look at 1 Peter as a whole, a book whose theme is suffering through trials, we notice that the three times Peter uses “homoiōs” (translated “in the same way”), he does so in he context of submission: 2:13, 2:18, 3:1, 3:7, 5:5 (which Peter states is mutual). Peter uses this term “in the same way” to clarify what he means by submission:

“…Household servants, submit to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and reasonable, but also to the cruel.”

In other words, the submission of servants and slaves to their abusive masters is applied “in the same way” to the submission of a wife to her abusive husband or a husband to his ungodly wife. It is the duty of the one doing the submitting to suffer and endure it for the name of Christ. This is the context of 1 Peter and it is the context of submission. Peter never once tells a Christian to exercise authority over another. Quite the contrary, he implores submission by all, even at great personal cost, and even men to women (e.g. male slaves to their female masters; believing husbands to their ungodly wives), with the goal of sanctification.  Like Paul, we are to freely choose to submit to each other.

Context Matters

In this series, we’ve examined how the meaning of the patriarchal passages is highly context dependent. If one desires to know the Bible actually says about the husband and wife relationship, then we must examine the full context of scripture and not import traditions that match what we want it to say. As we’ve seen in this post, it is a very simple matter to alter the apparent meaning of a passage by deciding what to include or exclude.

Only once we’ve established the proper context of these passages are, can we ask what the scope of submission is. In particular, we can see if Genesis 3:16 even has submission, as Paul and Peter understood it, in view.

7 Comments

  1. Pingback: Divine Command Theory

  2. Pingback: Male-Female Roles in Marriage

  3. Pingback: Paul's Use of Submission

  4. Pingback: Christian Discernment

  5. Pingback: Men Act; Women Acted Upon

  6. Pingback: Eve Is Trying To Subvert Her Curse

  7. Pingback: Mutual Submission

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *