29 April 2017

The Woman's Desire


The question over the woman's desire in Genesis 3 has been a battleground for several decades now. The linked Rachel Miller article on the Aquila Report refers to a Westminster Theological Journal article from the 1970s by Susan Foh. I remember being pointed to the article in the late 1990s. I think by then the controversy had been resolved in the minds of most people. After all this was the era of Hillary Clinton as first lady. The culture wars were on and in earnest. How could you even question this reading of Genesis? Are you pro-feminist?

And yet I did then and continue to question it to this very day. And I'm not in the least bit conciliatory to feminism which I consider to be largely pernicious. The Miller critique was to me a breath of fresh air. But there is a danger. Feminism in 2017 has far outstripped what was happening in the 1990s. What was pushing the envelope then is normative or even mild by today's standards.
This doesn't change the nature of the question with regard to Genesis but it must be weighed when considering the Christian response (or in many cases embrace) of feminism.
The case for Eve's desire to rule over her husband (Genesis 3.16), a desire that must be suppressed is based on the usage of the term in the following chapter (Genesis 4) with reference to sin vis-à-vis Cain. Sin desires to dominate him and he must rule over it. Likewise we're told the woman will attempt to rule and control the husband and he must effectively dominate or master her.
Women are consequently told they must 'fight' and suppress this urge to control their husbands. Husbands are told their wives will (as a consequence of the curse) constantly seek to take over control of the marriage and family. They as husbands have to make sure their wives are kept in a state of submission.
This doctrine has been utilised as an excuse for Patriarchal rule and absolute control of the household. A burden is laid upon women, what some perceive as something of a guilt complex.
The fact that many women do indeed hen-peck their husbands and in many cases dominate the marriage does not legitimise this reading of the verse. It's true enough in many cases (though not all) and yet to argue thus is to miss the theological point being made. I don't want cultural evils to dominate and define how I read the text.
This issue and the Foh interpretation are further complicated by the reactions to it... often egalitarian-leaning complimentarianism. By this I mean that Complimentarians who argue men and women are equal but have separate roles (the man being the head of the household), are increasingly giving in to the more Egalitarian view. The latter is a theological position that embraces the culture's view of feminism and equality. Marital leadership is viewed as a 50/50 proposition.
There are many Complimentarians who are pegged as Patriarchal by Evangelical and Liberal Egalitarians. And yet at the same time there are Complimentarians who seem to interpret that position as one that allows for career women, breadwinners and the like. Their 'complimentary' position functions very much like the Egalitarian position.
It's a bit of a mess and all sides attempt to use the Scripture to justify their positions.
As a Biblicist who believes in the supremacy and authority of the New Testament, I tend toward a rather conservative view. In other words I'm not going to appeal to the Proverbs 31 woman as one who worked outside the home (a case of eisegesis) or Deborah as an excuse for Christian women in spiritual and cultural leadership. Some will remember this divide was brought to the fore during the Palin candidacy for vice-president in 2008. Patriarchalists were against her being a political candidate while many (if not most) Complimentarians supported her as a political leader. They would of course reject her as a Sunday School teacher but have no problem with women having careers or being in positions of cultural authority. It was actually an instructive episode.
When Paul says that women aren't to teach but are to be silent in the meeting, I take him at his word. When women are exhorted to be keepers of the home that the word of God be not blasphemed... and to guide the house giving no occasion for the adversary to speak reproachfully, I think we are meant to follow that command regardless of the cultural context. Or to put it another way, the shift in cultural context does not affect the import of the doctrine.
The more conservative wing of Complimentarians as well as the adherents of the Patriarchal position have been willing to follow through on this. And yet the majority of them have also embraced the 'desire' view with regard to husband-wife relations.
Ironically this seemingly ultra-conservative position has created a strange opening for feminism.
The woman becomes the focus of responsibility. The husband rules but it is the woman's obedience or lack thereof that is held accountable for the relationship.
I have seen this firsthand. I've seen a few wives that on the one hand are domestic and submissive but on the other hand because they believe the 'balance' of the marriage is on them and (as a strange sort of consequence) they almost treat their men as if they're some kind of Neanderthals.
The once popular radio psychologist Laura Schlesinger put out a book some years ago that was about the proper care and feeding of husbands. Basically if you keep the man fed and provided for... meet their male needs as it were, you'll have a happy marriage.
Feminists decry this as debasing women and making them subservient to the man. But you know it can also become debasing to men, treating them like they're some kind of dog or animal. This plays up all the clichés about women being complicated and sophisticated and men being real simple.
The funny part is (and it's actually not funny at all) is that when I've seen this at work I find that the woman actually takes a sort of patronising posture toward her husband. While manipulation isn't necessitated it seems to (in my observation) accompany this view and one is reminded of the 'Big Fat Greek Wedding' movie line about the husband being the head but the woman being the neck that turns it. All too often I've seen women 'submitting' to husbandly dictates that they themselves manipulated. They get to have their way even while they protest (Scarlet O'Hara fashion) that they're just doing as they're told, being good little housewives.
The part that always struck me as ironic is that I've seen this phenomenon in marriages that profess to believe and live out the Genesis 3 'desire' mentality.
This has all been further complicated by what has occurred in 'Biblical Counseling' circles. The fact that Reformed people now push someone like Leslie Vernick who in my estimation teaches rebellion is disturbing. It is a form of pseudo-psychology built on top of John Piper's Christian hedonism which in its anti-deontological zeal, seeks to eliminate all notions of ethics wed to duty.
In many ways this view is a repudiation of the 'desire' view of Foh and Patriarchy and yet I have (at times) found both to be present in congregations and even within Presbyterian sessions (their contrived term for the council of congregational elders).
Of course once you add in a little all-too-common Presbyterian tyranny you can have a real mess on your hands... and in some cases marital strife.
In my opinion the present confusion is a bad harvest that's born of some very rotten seeds. In every case the Church seems to be reacting to or being defined by the culture. We need to understand the culture we live in and evaluate it but we need not react to it. Instead let us patiently determine what the Scriptures say and live it out, no matter the cost.
It's just somewhat amazing to me that no matter which way everyone seeks to respond to this question and react to the culture... somehow the focus shifts to the woman. And not just that she more or less determines the health of the relationship. This is true in the Patriarchal reading of Genesis 3/4 and in the various Evangelical filters for these questions. Post-Fundamentalist American Evangelicalism has been culturally compromised since its inception so the fact that they have capitulated to the culture on this point or that through figures like Vernick they have sought to couch feminism in the language of Scripture is no great surprise.
What's my own position? I've written about this before. Something of a tertium quid I suppose. I reject the idea that the woman desire is to rule over the husband and that the husband must 'keep her down' so to speak.
I probably tend toward point #2 that Foh rejected, namely that women as part of the curse are placed in a position of vulnerability, almost a pathological desire to be with a man, slavishly and to be dominated. I think of the countless women who are treated like absolute garbage, beaten by a stream of spouses and boyfriends and yet cannot be alone.
I remember a seminarian arguing with me on this point. He said that such a view suggested male headship was a consequence of the fall and therefore must be wrong.
I'm not saying male headship is wrong or a result of the fall but rather it was heavily distorted by the fall. The garden while not quite egalitarian was perhaps more so. In fact the categories probably don't even apply. While Adam was indeed over Eve I don't see the hierarchical arrangement as one based on threat or sanction. The authority wasn't backed up by force or punishment.  That wasn't the nature of the relationship. In fact I don't think we can really understand the harmony of the pre-lapsarian situation. While Adam was indeed the lord of Eden, I don't know that we should understand it the same way. Adam was indeed over Eve but this relationship doesn't fit any of our post-fall categories.
In heaven, will men and husbands be over wives? Clearly not. In Christ we are all one and yet what this means in eternity... is not entirely clear either. Marriage is clearly not part of the eternal order.
But the salient issue is... what about now? What about our lives in This Age? This temporary order is what we're concerned with when it comes to this question.
Those that try to force eternity into the present and argue that since we're all one in Christ and the barriers between Jew and Gentile, man and woman are eliminated therefore women can preach, teach, lead families etc... are guilty of hyper-eschatology. They're trying to force the Eschaton into the present. The reality is we're in the time of the Already-Not Yet. We have the foretaste or earnest of Eternity through the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church and with us as individuals. But the order of Heaven (as it were) is not yet fully with us. We still have to rely on a temporal order of things. Within the Church it's actually very basic and simple and though the various types and symbols are fulfilled in Christ, there is still of hint of them in the much-closer-to-reality sacramental ordinances... and in the structure of the Church with regard to male headship.
Many controversies seem to be all but 'resolved' in the minds of many.  The Genesis 3 passage is but one of them. To many people this issue is not even worthy of re-consideration, so confident are they in their reading. I think they're wrong on this point and not a few others as well.