Yesterday we began exploring Genesis 3, and looked closely at how curses factored into The Fall. Genesis 3 is such a complex text that we didn’t have a chance to get into the details of the punishments that God dealt to the man and the woman for eating from the tree.
We have used these punishments to explain a variety of concerns: from family life, to medical care, to the environment, droughts, and all sorts of highly impactful scenarios that we face in the world today. So let’s look at them a bit closer.
To the woman, God says, “I will make your pregnancy very painful; in pain you will bear children. You will desire your husband, but he will rule over you” (v. 16). Then, to the man God says, “cursed is the fertile land because of you; in pain you will eat from it every day of your life. Weeds and thistles will grow for you, even as you eat the field’s plants; by the sweat of your face you will eat bread— until you return to the fertile land, since from it you were taken; you are soil, to the soil you will return” (v. 17-19).
Essentially, God punishes the woman with painful pregnancies and subordination to her husband, and God punishes the man with strife and difficulty in cultivating the land.
Once we have the groundwork for the what the punishments entail, we can then figure out what we’re supposed to do with them. There are two main ways of reading the punishments in Genesis 3: as descriptive or as prescriptive. Is God describing to us what will happen, or prescribing what should happen?
For example, if God had described that women will feel pain during childbirth, then using medical intervention to mitigate the pain wouldn’t seem to contradict the biblical text. However, if God were prescribing that women should feel pain during childbirth, then medical pain relief would subvert the Will of God.
Similarly, if God had described that men will toil over the weedy and thistley land, then seeking more fertile land and using modern technology to cultivate it would simply seem like a solution to a problem. However, if God prescribed that men should sweat and labor to produce food, they would then contradict God’s Will if they chose to seek more fruitful land and to use modern technology to ease the burden.
For most, I think that using medical intervention in childbirth and using technological intervention in farming seem fairly unobjectionable. But then we get to the third punishment, which God placed on Eve: “Your desire (teshukah) will be for your husband, but he will rule over you.”
If we read this descriptively, it would mean that the woman longed for the man (perhaps to the detriment of other ambitions), and that the man had power over, rather than power with, the woman. As with childbearing and land-working, if we read this text descriptively, then the woman’s prioritization of other ambitions and her claiming leadership and strength would serve to improve a broken and unbalanced system. If, however, God prescribes that the woman’s desire should be for her man, and that her man should rule over her, the woman would then contradict God’s Will by striving to restore the perfect, balanced relationship that God originally created between the man and the woman in Genesis 2.
We have a choice about whether to read Genesis 3:16-19 as a description or as a prescription. In these punishments, God takes what once was perfect and organized, and makes it broken and chaotic again. He makes the reproduction of life, which was once simple and spoken, painful and difficult; he takes the man and the woman, who were once ezer k’negdo, equal partners, and makes one rule over the other; he takes fertile and rich ground, and fills it with weeds and thistles. The question is whether God hopes or demands for creation to remain in that state.
From a macro level, God is constantly trying to reconcile us back to Him throughout the biblical text, and the trajectory of the biblical narrative ultimately brings us back to the original state of Eden. On a micro level, we see God celebrate the correction of some of these punishments. For example, God gives the land of Canaan over to Abram in Genesis 12. We learn that Canaan is vast, and in Numbers 13 the Israelite leaders describe it as “filled with milk and honey” and they show Moses some of its fruit. God doesn’t give them a land filled with thistles and weeds to work, sweat, and toil over; rather, God wants them to have what is closest to that which He originally created in Eden.
What God created in Eden was peace, balance, and rest, and in the punishments, God introduced pain, subordination, and strife. But that that was never what God craved for us, and it still isn’t what He wants for us today. So we have some work to do. Out of our love for God and His continued desire for our redemption, we are called to do our best to return the world around us to how God originally created it: filled abundantly with good, good fruit, creating new life with ease and joy, and working together as one flesh to spread the Good News of God’s love. May we commit to and follow that commission today.