The Consequences of the Covenant: the Woman (Genesis 3:16)

It is Judgement Day in the garden, Judgement Day for Adam and his wife, and for the serpent that convinced them to break covenant with their Father.

God had told Adam — the Prime Minister of God’s garden kingdom — to protect the tree of knowledge and reserve it for God alone. Instead, the man and his wife stole some of the fruit dedicated to God and ate it. And as soon as they did they became more like God: they saw everything more clearly — including the reality that they have just betrayed the Father who loves them.

So they hid from their own shame, just like children do. And when God arrived and drew them out and gently encouraged them to confess and repent…they both blamed God for what had happened, just like children do. The man said it was all God’s fault for giving him a woman. And when God asked the woman about it, she said it was all God’s fault for creating the serpent.

So God turned to the serpent, and dealt with it directly. He did not give the serpent a chance to confess or repent or even explain itself. Instead, he cursed it, condemning it to millennia of war against the woman and her children — with total defeat at the end of it all. And we saw how this curse actually revealed how the serpent was more than just a serpent: its programming had been hacked by an enemy agent, an ancient evil that delights in chaos because chaos conceals God character and keeps his creation from knowing him.

So the serpent — and the enemy agent who hacked it — has been cursed.

Now God turns back to the woman.

[16] To the woman he said, “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.”

Now, in one sense this means exactly what it seems to mean: because of the part she played in the conspiracy, God is going to make childbirth painful for her, and make sure that her husband rules over her.

And because it so plainly means this, some Christians over the years have tried to say that — therefore — women must submit to labor pains and male domination as the penalty for sin. But then, on the other side, some Christians over the years have tried to say that — because Jesus has lifted the curse — Christian women do not have to submit to labor pains or to their husbands.

And then, for many more among us, we look at God’s words here and say, “Isn’t this just a little bit random and spiteful? I thought the punishment was supposed to fit the crime: so why would God suddenly — ping! — change things so she feels pain in childbirth now? How does that make sense?”

And this, of course, is always the problem with over-simplified readings of scripture: it leads to one-dimensional misunderstandings. This passage is not meant to justify pain for women; neither is it meant to justify autonomy for women; it is meant to teach us more about God and about our relationship with God.

So what we are going to do here today is really just what we try to do every week: we are going to look carefully at what is said — and what is not said — we going to do our best to understand this passage as Moses’ people would have understood it, and we are going to assume that the surface meaning points also to a deeper meaning.

And in the end I think we’ll find that this passage does mean exactly what it seems to mean — and more. And I think we’ll find that it can be simple without being simplistic: it can be simple and yet it can be profound. And ultimately we’re going to find that it does not point us to the curse but to Christ.

So as we look at what God has said to the woman, we find that on a surface level he addresses two main aspects of her life: children and marriage. First, he says, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.” Then he says, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

We’ll start with the first bit: I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.

Now, as I have already mentioned, this means just what it seems to mean: God is ordaining pain for the woman.

But this also means more than it means. God is not just talking about the moment of delivery; he is talking about the entire process: from conception through pregnancy, birth, nursing, and motherhood.

This is more clear in the original Hebrew, which uses several different words to describe the whole thing. Our translation here tries to capture the nuances by also using different words: “childbearing” in the first part, “give birth” in the second part; “pains” in the first part, “painful labor” in the second part.

So we’d better look at those words and make sure we understand them. So, first, “Childbearing” here is actually the Hebrew word for conception; “give birth” is a word that means to bring forth or produce. So a more literal translation would say I will make your pains in conception very severe; with painful labor you will produce children.

But now we want to know: how can the pain of conception be “very severe”?

Well, to answer that question we had better look at these words for pain and make sure we understand them properly. This word “pains” is actually a Hebrew word that means anxiety or sorrow, it’s more of a psychological or emotional pain. And this word for “painful labor” is often used in scripture to describe the strenuous, painful work of a farmer in his fields.

So an even more literal translation would say I will make your anxiety and sorrow in conception very severe; with strenuous, painful work you will produce children.

And this broadens our understanding of this sentence little a bit, doesn’t it? God is not just talking about the moment of delivery. He is talking about how — from conception until birth — pregnancy will be a time of anxiety and fear, and how — from birth until adulthood — the raising of children will be strenuous, heartbreaking work.

God is basically telling his daughter that, from now on, being a mother — from beginning to end — is going to be painful, costly.

And now that we understand that first part about children a little more deeply, that will actually help us focus our understanding of the second part a little bit better: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

Now, over the last three thousand years there has been a lot of discussion about this sentence: what exactly does “your desire will be for” mean?

There are two main interpretations. The first one comes from the very next chapter of the bible, Genesis 4. In Genesis 4 this phrase is used again, and it is clearly talking about the desire to dominate. So some commentators would translate this verse to say, “Your desire will be to dominate your husband, but he will rule over you.”

But the second interpretation comes from the Song of Solomon, where this phrase is used again — except, that time, it is clearly talking about sexual desire. So some commentators would translate this verse this way: “Your sexual desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”

Now, the good news is: both of these interpretations make sense in this context. God was just talking about pregnancy, and pregnancy does require sex. God was also just talking about motherhood in general, and motherhood works best in a stable marriage.

So what God is telling his daughter is that, even though she knows that motherhood is going to be painful, laborious, and anxiety-inducing — she won’t be able to help herself. She will know the difficulties in advance, and yet she will seek it out. She will crave motherhood so strongly that she will be willing to marry anybody, she’ll be willing to accept any kind of jerk as long as he promises to help make her pregnant and then stick around to support the family.

So this sentence is not meant to justify the poor treatment of women in marriage. It is simply a description of what life is going to be like for her as she wrestles within herself with these two conflicting desires: on one hand the desire for autonomy and freedom — the desire to dominate her husband — but on the other hand the desire to produce children — the desire for sex and a stable marriage with her husband.

So, to put all the pieces back together here: God is not simply saying, “From now on birth will be painful, and your husband will dominate you.”

He is saying, “From now on, motherhood will be physically and emotionally painful, and marriage will be physically and emotionally painful — but despite the grief you are going to continue to seek out both marriage and motherhood. You are going to try to make things safe for yourself by controlling everything — but you’re going to keep on losing control.”

And at this point some of us are going to say, “How is that better? That sounds worse than just plain ‘pain in childbirth’!”

Well, this is why it is “better”: as we noticed a few minutes ago, if we limit this moment to just “pain in childbirth” it does seem a bit random and spiteful. I mean, how does it make sense for the woman to eat a fruit, and then, for her punishment, God says, “Shazam! Nerve endings that you never had before!”

See, we don’t think about it much, but obviously the woman was created with nerve endings. Nerve endings are a good part of creation. And we don’t think about this much, but that means pain is also a good part of creation, because pain alerts us to when we are doing something self-destructive. So presumably, for instance, Adam experienced pain in the garden when he stubbed his toe, because stubbing his toe would have been as destructive for him as it was for us.

There is no indication anywhere in scripture that the man and the woman in the garden were physically or genetically different from us. Ancient writers didn’t think in those categories the way we do; they didn’t think biologically, they thought relationally. So there is no indication here that God suddenly created nerve endings that weren’t there before.

Which means that probably childbirth would have been an uncomfortable process even before this moment.

So what changed, then?

What changed is this: it’s not that God suddenly invented physical “pain in childbirth”, it’s that the way the woman experienced that pain changed — because her relationship with God changed.

See, before they ate the fruit, the man and his wife were in covenant with their Father. One great blessing of the covenant was the promise that they would have lots of kids, and those kids would all grow up and have kids and fill the earth and bring everything into beautiful order. As long as the man and his wife continued in covenant with God, they would live. They would see their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren and on and on and on: they would never experience the sorrow of separation from God or from one another.

But now something else has entered the equation: death, just as God promised would happen if they ate the fruit.

The woman’s biological nerve endings haven’t necessarily changed; her relationship with her Father has. The covenant is broken; death has come between her and God. And with death comes grief and futility — the worst kind of pain of all.

And so from now on, as the woman dreams about the delight of having children, that delight will always be mixed with the fear of losing them, and the fear of dependence on men. Her life will be consumed with these concerns: can she even get pregnant? What if she can’t? What if she does, but miscarries? What if she dies giving birth? What if the baby dies? What if the child lives but handicapped in some way? What if it grows to age five and then is taken by disease? What if her husband abandons her somewhere along the process? Or what if he sticks around but abuses her: can she afford to leave, or should she stay for the sake of the children? And even if all goes well, even if her children grow up and start families of their own — is that the end of her anxiety as a mother?

The thing that has changed here is not the nature of nerve endings; what has changed is the nature of the woman’s relationship with God — which has also changed the nature of pain. Pain used to be the proof and the guarantee of eternal life. Now it has become the reminder of death and disobedience.

So this deeper understanding of what God has said is better because it means that God is not acting randomly or spitefully. Instead, he is gently and sorrowfully telling his daughter that these are the natural consequences of her changed relationship with God. Before this it was the man who was going to spend everything to win the girl, it was the man who was going to leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife. It was the man who was going to bear the cost of marriage and childbirth. Before this the woman had the guarantee of her husband’s faithfulness.

Now that guarantee is gone. And so from now on, if a woman wants a family, she is going to have to labour in uncertainty and grief, never knowing if all her sacrifices will be worth it in the end.

And what God says here has proven to be true. In every generation, in every culture, it is women who bear the cost of reproduction. Physically, mentally, emotionally, children cost women more than they cost men.

Why? Well, honestly, it comes down to simple economics. Men hold the upper hand not because they are generally faster, stronger, and more aggressive — although that helps — men hold the upper hand because a). they don’t physically carry the children, and b). because, generally speaking, they don’t want children as badly as women do. And as any economics major can probably tell you, the person who wants something more is always in the weaker bargaining position. Women, generally speaking, are willing to put up with more nonsense and more abuse from men because a). they want children more than men do, and b). once they have children they have a greater need for stability and protection than men do.

Now, women figured this out thousands of years ago, and what is going on in our modern society in regard to equality between the sexes is merely the latest and greatest effort to solve this problem without God. A long time ago, women realized that it is their desire for children that makes them dependent on men. So what is the obvious solution? Stop wanting children. A woman who does not want children now has bargaining power. She no longer needs the protection of a man while she is pregnant or raising her kids. She no longer needs the finances of a man. She is independent.

And this quest for reproductive independence reached its apex in the 1960’s with the invention of a reliable birth control pill. The promise the Pill made to my mother’s generation was that now she could finally be in total control of her life — total control over whether she wants a husband, total control over if and when she wants a family.

But just as God warned here in Genesis 3, that promise of total control has spun out of control. The Pill was supposed to give a woman control over when she gets pregnant, and that is not, in itself, a bad thing. God is a God of order, and he designed us to bring order to creation — and that includes regulating our own families. The problem is, however: sin took control, and twisted what was supposed to bring order into something that brought disorder.

This is how it happened: the Pill promised to regulate pregnancy; sin promised that the Pill could make sex consequence-free, as it is for men. In essence, women could finally use men as casually as men have always used women. The unintended consequence, however, is that when sex becomes cheap…so do women.

— by the way, I am not making this up. Secular economists have literally done the math on this one, and drawn these conclusion: women have less relational power now than they did before the Pill came along.

So instead of raising women up to an equal bargaining position with men, sin has used the Pill to make the bottom drop out of the sexual market. Now women cost much less than they used to, and many men are now able to get as many women as they want for almost free. Which is exactly what sinful men have been trying to achieve ever since the beginning, so…on behalf of sinful men everywhere I’d just like to say, “Thank you very much, Satan!”

In short, modern women are caught in a terrible Catch-22: the best way for them to gain relational control over men is by denying their desire to have children. But the more they deny their desire to have children, the more relational control they actually lose to men.

Which is exactly the reality God described to his daughter here in Genesis, Chapter 3, verse 16.

Now, so far, all of this has come off as just plain bad news. It seems like this is basically telling us that women are going to be oppressed one way or another and there’s nothing we can do about it.

The good news is: that is not true. There is hope here. This verse is actually a promise of redemption.

And we catch our first glimpse of that redemption in God’s special gentleness as he speaks to his daughter. He speaks more gently to her than he did to the serpent, and he speaks more gently to her than he will to the man next week.

When God spoke to the serpent he said, “Because you have deliberately deceived my daughter! — cursed are you…!” And next week we are going to hear him say to the man, “Because you have listened to your wife instead of protecting her from deception! — cursed is the ground…!” Very strong language: because you did that, you will receive this.

But God does not speak like that to his daughter. There is no “because you did this” mentioned here, and there is no “curse” mentioned here. And that is because, despite the part she played in this whole mess, the woman is a victim here. The serpent lied deliberately. The man sinned deliberately. The woman sinned because she was deceived.

And because of this God is especially gentle with her. He is not passing judgement upon her in the same way he did the serpent, or will the man. In her case especially he is simply describing the grief that now must come upon her because of the serpent’s deception and her husband’s weakness.

So we catch our first glimpse of redemption in the Father’s gentleness with his daughter.

We catch our second glimpse of redemption in this promise: she is going to give birth to children. God could have condemned her to infertility, and that would have truly been a curse. But instead he told her, “With painful labor you will give birth to children.” She has lost the guarantee of her husband’s faithfulness. But she has not lost the guarantee of her Father’s faithfuless.

What a hope! What a promise! What a redemption for her!

And here’s the really cool thing: this redemption is not just for her, it’s also for us. No — to be clear — this is not a promise that all Christian women will give birth to children. But it is a promise that this particular woman is going to give birth to children. And that is important to us because of what God said to the serpent last week. Remember? “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

This promise that this woman will give birth to children is a deepening of God’s promise to provide a saviour for mankind. Here, in the midst of her shame, in the midst of these prophecies of grief and pain, God has just reminded his daughter that she is going to give birth to the Messiah who will take away her shame and wipe away every tear from her eyes.

She does not know how many of her children she will fail to carry to full term; she does not know how many of her children will die before reaching adulthood; she does not know how much it is all going to cost — but she knows that in the end one of her distant descendants will save her children from the sorrow of death.

And that Messiah, of course, is Jesus Christ. His genealogy is available for anyone to check: it leads back, name by name, to this woman and her husband, the fulfillment of God’s promise of redemption.

And so, to summarize this one verse, what we are seeing here is a complete circle back to where everything started. The physical discomfort of birth before the Fall was bearable because it contained within itself the promise of eternal life: every child born was guaranteed to live, and that makes all the effort worth it. But then, because of sin and death, the pain of birth became the voice of frustration and grief and futility. But now, through God’s promise of a Messiah, the pains of birth have once again become the proof and the guarantee of eternal life.

Which means that the grief and the stresses of motherhood are not ultimately designed to point us to the curse, they point us to Christ. So brothers, listen up: women are designed to point us to Christ. Just think about it! This woman literally contained the gospel within her own body! And so does every woman, because women were designed to produce life.

And sisters, let me be clear: this does not mean that you must have children in order to reach your full potential as a woman. Even if for one reason or another you are unable to have children, even if you decide not to have children, even then you contain within yourself the essence of what God created you to be: a source of life and gospel in this world. It is built into who you are. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, all the griefs and the joys of what it means to be a woman ultimately point us all back to Christ.

So, at this point, as we do every week, we have to ask: what does this mean for us?

What is our Father calling us to do? — especially about this issue of the oppression of women?

Because, as we noticed before, the oppression of women seems to be a fact of life, and it doesn’t seem like there’s much we can do about it. We work and work, and just when we think we have finally brought equality to one part of life, three more areas of inequality pop up somewhere else.

So what can we do as a church, as Christians? How can we be a part of the solution, instead of contributing to the problem?

Well, this is how we are going to approach the issue. We are going to start by noticing that the at the root of this whole story is the sin of self-actualization.

In the beginning, God told the man and the woman to trust him to make them more like God. Instead, they stole the fruit of knowledge and tried to make themselves more like God. Other-actualization was at the core of God’s covenant, so it makes sense that self-actualization is what broke that covenant. Self-actualization is the anti-covenant.

Which means that self-actualization is actually at the root of women’s oppression. Or to put it another way: the ultimate source of the woman’s oppression was her husband’s self-actualization. Before he broke the covenant, the man was committed to actualizing his wife, and as a result she was able to produce children without fear or grief. After he broke the covenant, the man became committed to his own self-actualization — the anti-covenant — and this is what turned marriage and motherhood into a nightmare.

And women have been complaining about this ever since. They have been saying, for thousands of years, “It is not fair that men get to go through life actualizing themselves, pursuing their own selfish ambitions, while we have to do all the hard work of other-actualizing all these children that men leave behind!”

And you know what? Women are right: that is not fair!

So what is the solution?

Well, we have two basic solutions on offer. One comes from Satan, the other comes from Christ.

The Satanic solution says, “It’s not fair that men get to self-actualize while women have to other-actualize. So from now on women are going to self-actualize also!” This sounds like freedom, and empowerment. Unfortunately, history has proven that it is the opposite: increased self-actualization always always leads to more oppression, not less. But that doesn’t us from trying it again and again and again. Why not? Because Satan’s deception is behind the whole damned experiment, and humanity at large just keeps falling for the same old trick.

But Jesus’ solution says, “It’s not fair that men get to self-actualize while women have to other-actualize. So from now on, men are going to other-actualize also!”

And Jesus himself led by example. He put aside the glory of being God, and made himself nothing. He became a man, but instead of seizing power for himself — like men do — he gave it all away. He other-actualized for the sake of the whole world.

And he commands his people to follow his example.

Now, women are already very good at this. Biologically and psychologically, women are the producers and the sustainers of life. And as God pointed out to us today, even though it is often painful and thankless, women cannot help themselves: they serve others, especially husbands and children. They may complain the whole time about the injustice of it, but they do the work.

In short, women other-actualize more naturally than men do.

So, even though this whole verse is about the condition of women in this world, our most direct application today is going to be pointed at men.

So, brothers, stand up. Listen: our father Adam chose to self-actualize, and by this he condemned his wife and all his daughters to lifetimes of pain and grief. We are all just as guilty as he was.

So this is what we are going to do: we are going to learn, together, how to other-actualize. We are going to learn to value women above ourselves. We are going to learn how to turn our selfish ambition into other ambition. We are going to learn how to serve. Do you claim to love women? Are you all about the empowerment of women? Well, other-actualization is the only way to truly love and empower women.

Now, that sounds heavy. But don’t worry, we do have help. It must be acknowledged that we have a handicap that women do not have. Women are bound biologically to the need to serve; they are naturally stronger than we are in this area. So, what women do naturally we must do by willpower. But our Father knows just how weak our willpower is. So he has given us a powerful tool, designed to fit the psychological needs of men exactly.

That tool is the covenant. We are not bound biologically as women are, so God calls us instead to use our willpower to bind ourselves to women through the Covenant of Other-Actualization. Our Father did not have to bind himself to mankind, but he did. In the same way, God’s sons do not have to bind themselves to God’s daughters, but if we are God’s sons…we will.

And — let me be clear — we are not just talking about the marriage covenant here. This covenant call is for every Christian man, whether married or unmarried. Christ’s covenant with us is greater than the marriage covenant, so our covenant with our sisters is greater than a marriage covenant. These are the daughters of God! So God calls upon us to follow his example and speak gently with our sisters even in times of great tension, recognizing that, as men, we do have greater power, greater independence, and greater responsibility.

Brothers, our Father knows what we need, and we need a covenant structure to make this work. See, when women listen to their biology, generally good things happen. Life happens. But when men listen to their biology…bad things tend to happen. Death happens. As Paul pointed out in the New Testament: death came to mankind through one man — not through one woman. So our Father’s call upon us is not a call to our biology, it is a call to his image that lives within us. It is a call upon who we were created to be as God’s sons. That is why the covenant concept is so well suited and so necessary to the psychology of men: because, on the one hand, the covenant tells us that ultimately this is a voluntary brotherhood. No one is forcing us to be here; we can break faith with our sisters and our community any time we want. On the other hand, the covenant tells us that to break faith with our sisters and our community is to break faith with the very foundation of what it means to be a man.

So if you are here today and you are feeling weak or unfulfilled, if you feel like you’re not growing in the faith like you should — I’m going to advise you to take a good look at your covenantal commitments. Are you being faithful to the sisters, to the community Christ has commissioned you to serve? Or are you serving yourself by going from this church to that church, chasing spiritual tail, trying to self-actualize by drinking from many different wells at once?

This is the deal our Father has offered to us as men: keep faith, and you prove your manhood. Break faith, and you lose your manhood. It is as simple as that.

So what are we gonna do, guys? Are we gonna be faithful to our sisters and to the community of faith?

Yes! — by God’s grace, yes.

And sisters, in closing here, there is an application for you. This is what our Father has called you to do: remember. Remember that the pain and sorrows of womanhood actually serve to point us all back to Christ. Even the undeserved oppression you have suffered at the hands of men point to Christ, because he also suffered unjustly at the hands of men. Now — again, to be very clear — this does not mean that your oppression is justified. It simply means that on the day Christ returns, the wrongs you have suffered will be avenged along with his. There will be another Judgement Day, like this one here in Genesis. The difference, though, is that on that great Day your burden of pain and sorrow will be lifted from you forever.

And remember this, also: whether you are married or unmarried, whether you have many children or none, as women you carry the promise of the gospel within yourselves in a way that no man ever will. This is one reason why it is men who are especially called to the ministries of preaching and teaching: because that’s the only opportunity we get! But you, beautiful sisters, simply by living and enduring you preach the promise of eternal life to the brothers around you.

So preach it, sisters! And may our great Father give us all the ears to hear.


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