When Adam and Eve chose the rule of humankind over the rule of God, they tragically ushered in the Age of Patriarchy
I fell in love with the erotic poem Song of Songs in the Bible when I was twelve years old. Of all the different ways a young girl could receive her sexual education, I’ll be forever thankful that mine was partially formed by a poem celebrating mutual male and female ecstasy. The Song revealed that sex was a good gift, and the refrain “do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires” taught me that it was something powerful to be handled with care. I do not regret those lessons. Song of Songs guided me well during my sexual awakening, so it’s fitting the Song again led me to a spiritual epiphany during my mid-life crisis of faith when I discovered the “desire” of the man in 7:10 is the same “desire” of the woman in the Genesis curse.
I was raised in the church. I love my upbringing, but I had reached a point where I could no longer ignore the rampant sexism permeating the conservative white evangelic tradition in which I moved and breathed. During that intense season of grief, my husband and I happened to be working through the ESV Knowing the Bible Song of Solomon study guide. I learned the word desire in Song of Songs 7:10 is the same Hebrew word used in the curse of Genesis 3:16, and along with Genesis 4:7, only occurs a total of three times in the Bible:
In 7:10 the woman speaks of her husband’s desire for her. This word for “desire” occurs only here and in Genesis 3:16 and 4:7. Compare the context of the word in Genesis 3:16; 4:7 to its use in Song of Solomon 7:10.
That was it. The only information the author offered on a word that connected this passage to one of the foundational verses of the Bible. I’m a self-identified evangelical church brat who has spent many years pondering over the meaning of the Genesis curse. I have read many different explanations, but none of them ever sat quite right with me. Though they often referenced Genesis 4:7, none of them referenced Song of Songs 7:10. I am not a biblical scholar, but I know enough about interpreting difficult passages to know that this omission is mind-blowing. And it makes me angry. I took the author up on his suggestion. I did compare the context of the word desire in Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 to its use in Song of Songs 7:10, (thankfully I was using the NIV translation instead of the poorly translated ESV). Many things finally started to click into place for me, and ironically, during a deep study of Song of Songs with an ESV study guide, I was freed from the chains of patriarchy, deceptively taught as complementarianism within the church.
Before we dig deeper into the Bible, I need to backtrack and talk about another book. Before my study on Song of Songs, I had recently read the novel The Power by Naomi Alderman. I thought I understood sexism and power dynamics, but I found this on-the-nose satire where the author simply role-reverses all the male and female characters deeply insightful. In the book, females mysteriously evolve an electric organ (like eels) and become physically more powerful than their male counterparts. When I first read the plot, I was reminded of the rumors of a female-casted Lord of the Flies movie a few years prior and the pushback it received:
I began The Power expecting the author to have similar sentiments on how women would wield power. I absolutely didn’t expect the women to behave like toxic men. But once the women became physically more powerful, they didn’t behave like women, they behaved like men. And men, as the physically weaker sex, began to behave like women. I was unprepared. The book brutally illuminated the indignities, both subtly and forcefully, that women have historically faced as the physically weaker sex. I was unprepared for the pain I experienced reading about men being dehumanized by women. Heartbreakingly, I had so internalized patriarchy and misogyny that I had a more visceral reaction to male subjugation than I do to female subjugation.
The Power surprised me because, in my experience, my peers in liberal circles tend to downplay the physical power differences between men and women, and my peers in conservative circles tend to downplay the institutional power differences between men and women. In The Power, Alderman does neither. Alderman taught me that patriarchy—a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it—exists because, generally, men are physically more powerful than women. Patriarchy is the abuse of male physical power, which also enables mental, emotional, and spiritual abuse.
Now, what does any of this have to do with the curse of Genesis 3:16? Before we move forward, we must backtrack once again:
In the beginning, God said: “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (1:26-28)
In the beginning, Man and Woman were called to an equal, complementary partnership to fill the earth and subdue it. Male and Female were gifted with different physical bodies, but both were called as equal partners “made in the image of God” to “fill the earth and subdue it.” We can assume that Woman, with child-bearing hips and nourishing breasts, would have allocated more time to child rearing, and Man, with wider shoulders and muscular arms, would have spent more time at the plow, but both would have spent time with the family and on the field. They were called together, as partners, to creation care.
Why did it all go so terribly wrong?
In The Very Good Gospel, Lisa Sharon Harper writes,
[The tree] was the one place in the vast garden where humanity was confronted with the question Do I love God?…Trust and choice are two of the most basic requirements of an adult love relationship…To love God is to trust God, to choose God, and to choose God’s way to peace and wholeness. To choose the tree would be to turn our backs on God in favor of the illusion of human fulfillment apart from God. (46)
Humans chose not to love. The story of the fall is the story of relationships broken—between God and humankind, between man and woman, and between humankind and the Earth. Humans lost paradise and ushered in hell on earth. Hell is simply the rejection of God’s rule. We catch glimpses of hell through the evil acts of humanity committed against one another in disobedience to God’s call to love. The human rebellion against God and one another led to the earth’s rebellion against humans. When we broke trust with God, we broke trust with the rest of creation, including our own bodies. The relationship of love binding all things together broke.
In a broken world, the gift of child-bearing leaves a woman physically vulnerable and the gift of physical strength leaves a man susceptible to the abuse of power. As feminist scholar Camille Paglia once observed, women “do not know the temptation of forcibly invading the sanctuary of another body” (Free Women, Free Men 36). The Genesis curse was not prescriptive, but prophetically descriptive:
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”
After the fall, through the vast expanse of human history, every instance of sexual intercourse for a woman risks pregnancy. And every pregnancy, and every infant that needs cared for and nursed, leaves a woman physically vulnerable. Even if only for reasons of necessity, the woman’s desire remained for her husband, but his desire began to wander. Only twenty-six verses and seven generations after Adam and Eve, the Bible introduces Lamech:
Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah. (4:19)
When Adam and Eve chose the rule of humankind over the rule of God, unbeknownst to them, they ushered in the Age of Patriarchy. In Genesis 4:7, “sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it,” God encouraged Cain to resist sin’s desire, but instead of ruling over sin, humans began to sin by ruling over one another. God called the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt to begin anew in the Promised Land, an Eden restored, but each time God presented the Israelites with the opportunity of Eden restored, they chose their own hubris over God’s way of love, and women were sacrificed on the altar of human pride. It is no coincidence in the Bible that the reign of Judges and the reign of David ends with the rape of multiple women (Judges 19:25-6, 21:20-3; 2 Sam 11:4, 13:14, 16:22). The rape of women testifies to the complete and utter failure of the Israelites to save humanity from the devastation of the Fall—the desire to rule over one another—and achieve the Promised Land.
The Israelites reached the height of their glory during the reign of Solomon. Solomon’s kingship, when the Temple was built and peace reigned across the land, was an archetype for Eden restored. It is here in the Song of Songs, when Eden is symbolically restored under Solomon, that the woman finally sings:
I belong to my beloved, and his desire is for me.Song of Songs 7:10
In the Age of Shalom, when the curse of Genesis has been broken, the woman sings, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—for your love is more delightful than wine…Take me away with you—let us hurry! Let the king bring me into his chambers,” and she finds her desire for the man reciprocated. She no longer fears that her lover’s eyes will wander. Man is no longer her master, but once again her partner: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (6:3, emphasis added).
Of course, we know that Eden was not achieved in Solomon’s time; even at Israel’s zenith, the height of their shalom, stood a king who was one of the most notorious womanizers of all time. Like all the patriarchs before him, Solomon revealed humanity’s lack of ability to save itself. Solomon was only a foreshadowing of something better yet to come. In The Sexual Reformation, Aimee Byrd writes, “As the book of Hebrews teaches us how Jesus is the ultimate Priest, the ultimate Prophet, and the ultimate King, the Song teaches us that Jesus is the ultimate Lover” (35). The failure of the patriarchs to usher in an Age of Shalom is one of the overarching themes of the Old Testament. The OT ends with the voice of the prophets, their poetic voices longing for a promised peace never fully realized.
Jesus opens his ministry on earth singing, “The time has come…The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). Jesus walked on this earth as God in the Flesh to usher in the long-awaited Kingdom of God, the new Eden. Jesus, as the new Adam, showed us Heaven on Earth. He showed us what it means to be a Man. But his model was unexpected. He did not restore God’s rule on earth through physical power. As at the Fall, respecting the dignity of choice, God chose the hard path of love over the easy path of power. Unlike the men who followed Adam and used their physical strength to seize power, Jesus washed feet like a slave and laid down his life on a cross. In Jesus’ Kingdom, men and women are called to serve the least, lay down power at the foot of the cross, and love others as Jesus loved us.
For so long in the church, I was taught that men are designed to exercise authority over women. On this earth, under patriarchy, men already rule over women. Christ came to set us free. When men in church demand power, when they demand their right to rule, they are operating under the law of sin:
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.Matthew 20:25-28 (NIV)
The great apostle Paul, whose words are often twisted and weaponized by the patriarchy, understood Jesus was calling us back to the time in Genesis before the fall. Paul called men to love, to return to their original calling: Husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loved the church, to lay down their power and share it with their wives, as Christ shares his power with the church, both his Bride and Co-Heir:
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.Romans 8:14-17
Aimee Byrd writes,
It’s not his ontology that gives man authority, it is his receiving the gifts of creation and of woman. What is man authorized to do? He is authorized to sacrifice his very body in loving her. He is authorized to welcome her–first and last as sister…As God gives man woman, and woman man, they are both authorized to love and promote the holiness of the other in their aim for eternal communion with God and his people. And man, created first, is authorized to be the first to love, the first to sacrifice, the first to serve, the first to give power to other persons, not to exercise power over them.Sexual Reformation 119
Song of Songs freed me from the chains of patriarchy, deceptively labeled complementarianism by white evangelicism. Yes, on the individual level, there have always been women who stray, who attempt to rule over others. The story of Potiphar’s wife reveals that women too, when given power, often wield it to rule over others. And there have always been men, like my favorite patriarch Boaz, who remain faithful. On the grand scales of human history, however, as the physically weaker, child-bearing partner, women have never even had the option to rule over men. Since Genesis, the woman’s desire has remained for man, but he chose to rule over her.
The Hebrew word translated in English as “desire” is a complex, layered word used in three prophetic/poetic passages which themselves have layered meanings. On a first, literal reading, Song of Songs speaks of the sexual desire between a man and woman. Read at a deeper level with eternal perspective, where “people will neither marry nor be given in marriage” (Mt 22:30), the return of Man’s desire in Song of Song 7:10 to the Woman’s desire in Genesis 3:16 symbolically represents the restoration of humanity. No person will any longer desire to rule over any other person.
Now that the veil that separated us from the Holy of Holies has been torn down, and the Lord of Lords has entrusted us with his Spirit, the woman can finally sing the Song of Songs: “I belong to my beloved, and his desire is for me.” Jesus came to end the Age of Patriarchy and usher in the “Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 4:17). Echoing the original Genesis mandate, he commissioned men and women, together as co-heirs, to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to love God and love their neighbor sacrificially, as God loves us.
Title Image: Samson and Delilah, by José Echenagusía
For more on Song of Songs, I share specific ways I found sexual healing as a woman raised in a Christian culture that overwhelming focuses on male sexual desire in my post
Sexual Healing in the Song of Songs.
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