From Genesis 3:16 to Dinah – Man’s Desire to Rule Over Woman

Photo by Tiko Giorgadze on Unsplash

Trigger Warning: This article contains discussion of sexual assault and rape.

An Introductory Note

Today I will examine the Fall of Humankind and one of its characteristics: the subjugation of women to men. It is important that no one read this article and respond with a “well I guess this is just what it means to be a fallen man” attitude. The effects of the fall are not to be embraced, but warred against.

Last week I wrote an article responding to the myriad of sexual harassment and assault allegations that have rocked the entertainment and political worlds. As others have pointed out, the these sins are not the result of runaway lust but of power and control.

Where did this power dynamic come from? Why do men believe they have the power to treat women as objects for pleasure rather than as equals? How did this happen? The answer takes us all the way back to the beginning.

The Fall of Man and Woman’s Relationship

God created man and woman and put them in the garden where they would have dominion or rule over the creation. A covenant was made; the man and the woman (as they are called in Genesis 3) would steward the creation and commune with their Creator. As they went about this task they were to avoid a certain tree — the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil — caring for it but not partaking of its fruit. If they rebelled against their Creator by eating of that fruit, the man and the woman would pay for their rebellion with death.

One day, a serpent came into the garden and convinced the woman that the forbidden fruit was “good for food,” “a delight to the eyes,” and “was to be desired to make one wise.” She ate of the fruit and then gave it to her husband who also ate. Together, the man and the woman broke the covenant God had made with them and the curse of death was unleashed into the Created order.

The sin of the first humans tore at the very fabric of creation and its consequences have been felt and lived out from generation to generation. In response to that sin, God cursed the serpent, the woman, and then the man.

One aspect of this curse that is often missed is the way that the fall perverted the relationship between the woman and the man.

In Genesis 3:16b we read, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (ESV, 2011)*

We need to be sure we get the interpretation right. What is the curse? Is it that her desire is for her husband? Or that her husband will rule over her?

In order to interpret rightly we need to read this portion of the curse within the context of the curse as a whole.

The curse the woman and man receive bears a specific characteristic: a good thing has an evil “fall-effect” attached to it. Here’s what that looks like:

Childbearing is good. The curse attaches a fall-effect; childbirth is now accompanied by “multiplied pain.”

Work is good. The curse attaches a fall-effect; the ground is now cursed and the work will be hard and break down the body.

Being created out of dust is good. The curse attaches a fall-effect; the man and the woman will now return to the dust in death.

The pattern is clear. The curse takes something good that was created by God and attaches an evil fall-effect that accompanies the good.**

Our interpretation of v. 16b must follow this pattern. It is good for a woman to desire her husband. The curse attaches a fall-effect; the husband will respond to that desire with sinful rule.

To put it another way, the fall of humankind introduced a power dynamic into the husband-wife relationship that did not exist before the fall. The desire of a husband to rule over his wife is a perversion of the original intent of marriage.

From Genesis 3:16 to Dinah

If Genesis 3:16 is all we had, we could be led to believe that this power dynamic is restricted to the institution of marriage. However, later in the book of Genesis we see this power dynamic was not only introduced into the relationship between husband and wife but has marred the dynamic between men and women. Now men seek to rule over women.

The story is told in Genesis 34. Leah and Jacob’s daughter, Dinah, went to visit friends. While she was traveling, Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite prince saw Dinah and attacked. He raped and humiliated her.

After the rape, Shechem was attracted to Dinah and decided that he wanted her to be his wife. He spoke to Hamor his father and asked that Hamor pay the bride-price for Dinah so that he could have her as his wife.

Hamor agreed. But he had a larger picture in mind. Not only would Shechem get to marry Dinah, but perhaps he could convince Jacob to let his men have all the women under Jacob’s care. This would combine the two families and increase Hamor’s wealth. Dinah’s rape was now Hamor’s political opportunity. He went to Jacob in order to work out a deal.

Jacob, however, had heard what Shechem had done and alerted Dinah’s brothers. By the time Hamor arrived, Jacob was no longer the one who would be speaking; Dinah’s “indignant and very angry” brothers were holding court.

The brothers hatched a plan of revenge. They would agree to give Dinah to Shechem along with the rest of their women at an exorbitant price. But there was a catch; Shechem and the rest of Hamor’s men would have to be circumcised. To marry the women to uncircumcised men would be a disgrace to them.

Hamor and Shechem readily agreed. Every man was circumcised and the women were sent to Hamor’s city.

Three days later, while Hamor’s men were still recovering from their circumcisions, two of Dinah’s brothers, Simeon and Levi, entered Hamor’s city and killed all the men, including Hamor and Shechem. They rescued Dinah and the rest of the women while also taking back to Jacob everything that Hamor and his men had owned, along with all their wives and children. In vengeance for Dinah’s rape, her brothers destroyed Shechem’s entire city.

Interpreting the Story

Many observations could be made, but for our purposes we will limit ourselves to three.

1. Dinah has no agency of her own.

Dinah is silent through the entire narrative. She is the victim of rape but has no voice when the consequences of Shechem’s crime are discussed and carried out.

More than this, Dinah is forced to accompany her rapist back to his home where she is held for three terrible days. She and the rest of the women are used as pawns so that the brothers can exact their revenge.

Through all of this, Dinah is relegated to silent obedience to the men around her. By choosing to tell the story this way, the writer of Genesis is underscoring her victimization by highlighting her silence.***

2. The story of a rape becomes a story of political manipulation.

Importantly, the writer of Genesis highlights the depravity of Hamor and Shechem. Instead of caring for Dinah, Hamor sees an opportunity to use her rape for his gain. Shechem, his favorite son, will be rewarded with the wife that he wants and Hamor will gain more wealth and property.

The writer of the narrative leaves Jacob to the edges of the story (Leah is conspicuously absent altogether). When Jacob does return, his response to the actions of his sons is hard to reconcile. Rather than considering Dinah, Jacob is worried that the actions of his sons will bring retribution. Thanks to the actions of his sons, Jacob worries, he will lose everything and maybe even his own life.

The brothers are painted in a better light by the writer. Their concern is to avenge Dinah. But even they are shown to be concerned with furthering their power by plundering the city and increasing their wealth. The brothers answer Hamor’s power-grab with one of their own. In response to Shechem taking Dinah, the brothers take the women of children of Hamor’s city. They compound the sin of Shechem by engaging in the abuse of women themselves.

3. The story of Dinah is an example of Genesis 3:16 on a broader scale.

The story of Dinah shows us that the fall-effect of power introduced into the marriage covenant plays itself out in the broader relationships between men and women. Patriarchy has been fully established.

Shechem feels powerful enough to rape a woman and then demand that she marry him.

Hamor feels powerful enough to take advantage of a woman’s rape for political gain.

The brothers feel powerful enough to sell women into marriage in order to set up their revenge.

At every point in this story, men rule over women which is a direct result of the fall. The curse has introduced a power dynamic not only into the marriage covenant, but into all relationships between men and women.****

Pushing Back the Fall

In my next article I hope to show the way that Jesus confronted this effect of the fall in the way he interacted with women. I will then, in a later post, discuss ways that the church can follow Christ’s example.

But I think it’s important to close this article by reminding us of who we are in Christ. In our adoption, we are made children of light who shine in the darkness. As ambassadors of Christ, we carry the Gospel of Peace wherever we go. As sons and daughters of the King, we share the good news of God’s Kingdom with those who live in the domain of the evil one.

It is our job to war against the effects of the fall. The power men feel they can wield over women is one such effect. The Church must stand against the subjugation of women, because in so doing we push back against the Fall of Humanity with the power of the Kingdom.

The Church has a duty. We must see sexual harassment and abuse as what it is — a direct manifestation of the fall. It is evil. Christian men must ever be on guard against this evil. In our presence, Christian women should feel safe, empowered to speak out, and stand as equals with men. May we all pursue this goal together in the power of the Spirit with repentance and grace.

*This verse has been the focus of some controversy. Famously, the ESV translation committee decided to change their translation of the verse from what you read above to, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” (ESV, 2016)

Two interpretive options are available. In the first, the godly desire that a woman has for her husband is met with ungodly “rule.” In the second, the ungodly desire of the woman is to rebel against her husband, but her husband will react in a godly way, restricting her rebellion through his rule.

Following scholars and writers much smarter than me, I reject the second interpretation and translation. This translation ignores centuries of biblical translation and interpretation (the only other English Bible to ever translate the verse this way is the also recent New Living Translation) and paves the way for sinful men to subject women to domination and abuse in the name of “curbing their wives sinful contrarian spirit.” If you think this is a illegitimate fear to guard against, talk to women who have suffered abuse at the hands of Christian husbands. You may find this to be more prevalent than you thought. A good place to begin your study is Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife by renowned church historian and missiologist Ruth Tucker.

**The Westminster Confession of Faith recognizes this pattern in its discussion of a person’s free will. The ability to choose is good. The curse attaches a fall-effect; choice is now bent away from God so, if left to our own choices, we will always choose rebellion (WCF Chapter 9).

***Some feminist theologians argue that the way the writer of Genesis casts the story reveals his patriarchal worldview. I think we have another option. Instead of reading this story as a condemnation of the writer of Genesis, I believe we can read this narrative as a truthful portrayal of what happened. God’s Word does not sugarcoat the sinful realities of our world. Instead of condemning the writer, I believe we can recognize God’s outrage over the way Dinah and the women were treated by the way He has chosen to have this story written. For more on the relationship between the Divine and Human authorship of Scripture, see WCF Chapter 1.

****For clarity, I do not mean to say that every male-female relationship necessarily has this dynamic but that the possibility and tendency toward male “rule” is present and needs to be guarded against.

Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

6 thoughts on “From Genesis 3:16 to Dinah – Man’s Desire to Rule Over Woman

    • December 6, 2017 at 7:36 am

      Thank you brother! I appreciate your insights as well!

  • December 6, 2017 at 11:00 am

    Assuming that in the Hebrew worldview, naming was an act of authority, could it be said that Adam naming the woman Eve after the Fall was the first act of a man ruling over a woman?

    • December 6, 2017 at 1:14 pm


      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      I think you’re absolutely right. A friend recently mentioned to me that Justo Gonzalez goes so far as to say that this was the beginning of sexism, the actual working out of what I call a “fall-effect.”

      God did not command Adam to name Eve, he does this of his own volition. Up until this point they are called “ish” and “isha,” the masculine and feminine forms of the same word. They are identical even in their naming. When Adam names Eve, he distances himself from her and takes power over her through the act of naming.

      Thanks for making this observation! And thanks again for reading!

  • December 13, 2017 at 9:07 am

    You don’t really elaborate on what you think this woman’s “desire for her husband” is, but assuming it’s a healthy “godly” desire as you say, why would that be contrasted with her husband ruling over her? That seems like a stretch especially in light of Genesis 4:7.

    Also, based on 1 Timothy 2:13, there is clearly a gender-based “power dynamic” that goes back to Creation, not the Fall. What would you say that is and how does that contrast with your reading of the “rule” of Genesis 3:16, which you seem to read as necessarily a “sinful rule”?

    Also, the fall-effects you mentioned are not “sinful.” There is nothing “sinful” about work being hard or dying or pain in childbirth. They simply make life more difficult for the one being cursed, with of course death ending life. For what reason then do you read sinfulness into the husband’s rule of Genesis 3:16?

  • Pingback:Moral Formation and Sexual Abuse, Pt. 1 | Mere Orthodoxy

Leave a Reply

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.