The other day I came across a series of blog posts by Phillip Cary, professor of philosophy at Eastern University, Yale Divinity alumnus and author of multiple books, three of which were even published by OUP. Given his credentials, my expectations were high and - after reading the posts - my subsequent disappointment, by their obvious lack of insight, commensurably deep.
The posts are an exegesis of the first chapters of Genesis regarding the relationship between man and woman, with the penultimate one focusing on Genesis 3:16 - the words God addresses to the woman after she and the man eat from the forbidden “tree of knowledge of good and evil”: “To the woman he said: I will intensify your toil in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Yet your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Cary is “puzzled” here by the juxtaposition of the woman’s desire for her husband and his ruling over her and sets out to interpret the meaning of these words of Scripture from the perspective of being God’s plan for how man and woman are to relate:
“My assumption has been that God’s word in Genesis 3 aims at a justice that sets things right. So how does patriarchy, the rule of a man over his wife, set things right? [...]What I understand from the above is that Cary is saying the following: making the man rule over the woman, in response to their joint disobedience, is a way to re-introduce the value of life in a world where death has entered as a result of the Fall. Life is an economic good and by making procreation a contributor to its proliferation, the husband - who is in charge of the household - benefits and consequently treats his wife well, like he would any other profit-generating asset.
[T]he key point about this patriarchal framework [... is]: because the property of the patriarch consists fundamentally of living things, the increase of wealth and the blessing of procreation are nearly the same thing in Genesis. [...]
[T]he man who rules over his wife has a deep economic interest in seeing that she lives well, is healthy and flourishes together with her children, being fruitful and multiplying.”
[And from the following post: T]hat is the framework within which I think we can begin to make sense of patriarchy, where procreation, wealth and the father’s rule of the household coincide. And that in turn is the initial framework we need to see the meaning of God’s word to the woman about her desire for her husband and his ruling over her.”
Before we get sucked into a diatribe against such a view, let’s take a breath and rewind to Genesis 2:24,1 where man and woman are described before the Fall and where their relationship is one of profound unity: “a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” In the “one body” there is no master versus slave, no ruler versus subject - there is only one union between man and woman. This is God’s plan for humanity, and, I believe, Cary’s basic mistake is in taking the punishment delivered to man and woman after their disobedience and mistaking it for how man and woman are meant to relate to each other, to the point of arguing for the economic benefits of a relationship that is instituted as punishment. This is like taking the punishing of a child by making them sit still and extolling the virtues of motionlessness in terms of its low carbon footprint.
In fact, Cary’s approach is also at odds with the interpretation Blessed Pope John Paul II makes of Genesis 3:16 in his Man and Woman He Created Them:2
“[T]he words of Genesis 3:16 signify above all a breach, a fundamental loss of the primeval community-communion of persons. This communion had been intended to make man and woman mutually happy through the search of a simple and pure union in humanity, through a reciprocal offering of themselves, that is, through the experience of the gift of the person expressed with soul and body.”He even goes on to characterize the state instituted in Genesis 3:16 as being a “deformation” of the “original beatifying conjugal union of persons” before the Fall. And if any more evidence were needed for taking this verse not as God’s plan for humanity but as a description of what happens when that plan is corrupted, we only need to look as far as the second reading from the feast of the Holy Family nine days ago, where St. Paul has the following to say: “Wives, be subordinate to your husbands [... h]usbands, love your wives” (Colossians 3:18-19). The advice here is not for husbands to rule, but to love, which, incidentally, also means to self-empty, to subordinate oneself - the exact same thing also asked of wives. The result is a mutual subordination of husband and wife to each other, or - as John Paul II put it - “a reciprocal offering of themselves [...] with soul and body.”
1 Just to avoid misunderstandings, speaking about the events described in Genesis does not presuppose considering them to be historical events. The opening chapters of Genesis are a myth, which does not mean to suggest that they are false, but instead that they speak about deep anthropological, psychological and ontological features in a more archaic form - by way of analogy instead of by description of events in this Universe.
2 For more on this book by John Paul II, see here.