The early chapters of Genesis raise questions for many readers about God’s intent for gender roles. Diverging perspectives have developed that generate controversy, especially related to what we believe and practice regarding male dominion.
Those who think the Bible shows a preference for male dominion or authority for all time refer to the Genesis episode that describes how the serpent deceived Eve and the first couple’s subsequent sin as support for their perspective (Gen. 3:1–7). Advocates of this position hold firmly that God’s follow-up response to Eve grants Adam God-ordained power to rule over her and likewise permits behavior that supports practices of gender inequality or patriarchy in all times and places, including today (Gen. 3:16).
But this isn’t the whole story. I’d like to offer a reading of the Genesis narrative in context by devoting attention to what God says will happen to the serpent under the heel of Eve’s offspring (Gen. 3:15). This contextual reading notes that Jesus’s death on the cross, represented by Eve’s offspring crushing the head of the serpent, frees humankind from sin’s consequences and reorders dominion for all time. To reexamine the dominion issue in our own relationships, I also recommend that we apply this rereading to gender relationships and ministries through a multigenerational, mixed-gender mentoring program that models equal regard for women and men.
Framing Patriarchy’s Origin in the Old Testament
It is helpful to consider the various contexts for “dominion” here. Aside from “to subdue the earth” (Gen. 1:28), the term can refer to interactions between people, as in Nehemiah 9:28, where the enemy had dominion over Israel. Biblical accounts also suggest that dominion in human relationships is an issue because of our sin condition (Lev. 26:14–17; Nehemiah 9:37; Ps. 49:13–14). Accordingly, the original sin situation (Gen. 3:1–7) challenges God’s design for equality in human relationships (Gen. 1:26–28) and creates an opportunity for a caste system of male dominion and female subjection to exist (Gen. 3:16).
The narrative of Scripture can seem to imply that God is commanding a system of male dominion where men take charge over women. As previously asserted, in Genesis 3:16, God informs Eve that her husband will exercise authority over her: “You will desire your husband, but he will rule over you” (CEB). This statement, however, signals God’s response to the consequence of sin entering the world, rather than proclaiming an irreversible system of male dominion.
Other narratives of the Old Testament show how the laws and practices of Israel seemingly uphold male dominion. Israelite culture valued ownership of the land that God had promised them, but women inherited land only in the absence of male heirs (Num. 27:8). And marital decisions were made by men for daughters (Deut. 7:3) and for widows (Deut. 25:5).
On the other hand, there are narratives of female dominion, or instances where women have authority and power. One of these is the tradition that identifies Jewish ethnic origin through the mother’s family. This matrilineal privilege, or preference for the mother’s lineage, permits Abraham’s barren wife, Sarah, to exercise control of decisions concerning the expansion of their family.1 Women also serve as judges and prophets in Old Testament narratives, notably Deborah (Judg. 4–5), Huldah (2 Kgs. 22:14–20), and Miriam (Exod. 15:20–22). These examples cause some to question whether God really commanded male dominion without qualification.
Reframing Dominion, or Rethinking a Risky Interpretation
A correct understanding of Genesis 3:16 requires us to understand God’s word to women in the full context of Genesis 1:26–28 and Genesis 3:15. This context will also present additional ideas for reframing the concept of male dominion.
Scripture uses inclusive language to record the creation of humankind in Genesis 1:26–28: “‘Let us make humanity in our image to resemble us so that they may take charge. . .’ God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them” (CEB). In unity, God created humankind in their image, according to their likeness. God likewise assigns them, humanity, the same role: “that they may take charge” of the entirety of the creation. Thus, equality among the Trinity in the creation of humankind reflects comparable formation and role assignment, regardless of gender. God created women and men equally to rule and tend the world together in mutuality. This should help us interpret what God says in Genesis 3:16.
Rethinking God’s declaration that Eve’s husband will “rule over” her (Gen. 3:16) may determine that his counsel to Eve forewarns her of behavior, that she will encounter a sinful state. Genesis 3:16 presents consequences for humankind’s disobedience; nonetheless, God’s merciful love is demonstrated as well. In the statement of punishment for Eve’s deceiver, the snake, God proclaims Eve to be one to bear more images of God (Gen. 3:15). He references the One—Jesus—who will “crush the head of the serpent.”2 God therefore establishes a method to reverse humankind’s sinful condition through Jesus’s mission and return women and men to their intended mutuality in relationship with one another.
In the New Testament, we can see this principle of mutuality and equality between men and women modeled among the associates of the apostle Paul. The apostle Paul’s associates were mixed gender, like Priscilla and Aquila (Romans 16:3–4), and multigenerational, like the elder Barnabas (Acts 13:42–43) and the young John Mark (Acts 12:25) and Timothy (Acts 16:1–5). Paul’s co-laborers in ministry included women who were in leadership, such as Phoebe (Romans 16:1–2), as well as men who were in leadership, one of whom was Apollos (1 Corinthians 1:12). We have the privilege to, once again, replicate this egalitarian pattern in the culture and in the church, and I think we can help one another accomplish this through reciprocal mentoring.
Reclaiming Equality and Mutuality Through Reciprocal Mentoring
Given what Jesus has accomplished on the cross and God’s intention to renew the relationship he created for men and women to share, we have the opportunity to reconsider the plan of Genesis 1:26–28. That is, God created men and women to mutually represent his image in the earth, and we are privileged to work together to embody this reality to the world.
I encourage advocates for gender equality and mutuality to model how women and men can work together across generations to confront the patriarchal norms of both society and the church because we have a lot to offer one another based on our unique experiences. The challenges of many generations of gender-based exclusion have inspired integrity and uncompromising conviction in elder egalitarian advocates of both genders. Furthermore, the experiences of younger advocates of gender equality can be beneficial for older egalitarians too. Hence, to reframe the male dominion controversy we must cultivate reciprocal mentoring relationships as mutually supportive interaction between men and women across generations.
The model I’m proposing includes multigenerational participants of both genders serving one another in mutually beneficial relationships, as they share wisdom that will prepare each other to succeed in degrading patriarchal environments. Participants will commit to be accountable for mutual growth. They will inspire one another to practice faith disciplines, such as study and prayer, to overcome discouragement and injury.
Moreover, in multigenerational, mixed-gender assemblies of various kinds, men will gain empathetic understanding of the damaging effects of gender discrimination, while women will benefit from men sharing their challenges regarding patriarchy. Through these mixed gender, multi-generational groups, God’s desire for both genders to share dominion will grow and raise up more advocates. The expectation is that participants will reframe/reexamine their perspectives, acknowledging that Jesus’s death has crushed sin’s power and has redeemed women and men to share dominion equally.
1 Margaret English de Alminana, “A Biblical Investigation of Matriarchal Structures in Ancient Semitic Life,” Journal of Pentecostal Theology 25, no. 1 (2016): 58–73.
2 Jan A. Sigvartsen, “The Creation Order: Hierarchical or Egalitarian,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 53, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 127–142.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Patricia Williams, am ordained clergywoman, a professor, and a pastoral psychotherapist, has over forty years of experience as a professor of English and Pastoral Counseling and in congregational ministry. She holds a PhD in English from the University of Illinois-Urbana, an MA in Pastoral Counseling and Psychology from Houston Baptist University, a doctorate in ministry from Wesley Theological Seminary, and a license in marriage and family therapy. She has published essays and poetry, and her writings also include a chapter in the seminal work, Texas Women Writers: A Tradition of Their Own, and coauthor of the chapter “Consecrated Women: Freedom to Lead by Faith” in African American Church Leadership: Principles for Effective Ministry and Community Leadership.