Wednesday, January 11, 2006

"And He Shall Rule Over Thee" (a rereading of the Garden of Eden story)

© Berel Dov Lerner. This article is a slightly corrected version of “And He Shall Rule Over Thee,” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought Vol. 37, No. 4, Fall Issue 1988 pp. 446-9.

Michael L. Rosenzweig’s article, “A Helper Equal to Him” (JUDAISM, Summer, 1986) took Jewish biblical exegesis an important step forward toward making the story of Adam and Eve palatable to the modern reader. He demonstrated that the Hebrew phrase, “ezer kenegdo,” used to designate Eve’s role vis-à-vis Adam, may be plausibly translated as a helper equal to him where the word helper does not carry its usual connotation of inequality.

Nevertheless, Rosenzweig’s article fails to address the much more problematic passage:

Unto the woman He said, “I will greatly multiply the pain of thy childbearing; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and yet thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (Genesis 3:16).

Proper treatment of this verse requires more than philological analysis. It calls for a reinterpretation, within the broader context of the first book of Genesis, of the punishments meted out to the snake, to Adam and to Eve.

My interpretation of the list of punishments is rooted in the simple observation that each aspect of life that was made difficult by God’s curses has been referred to earlier in the text. For example, the snake is told (3:14) and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life. According to an earlier passage, the snake would have eaten plants: And every beast of the earth and to every bird of the air and to everything that creeps on the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for food (1:30). So, too, Eve is cursed with in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children (3:16) when previously she had been blessed with fecundity: be fruitful and multiply (1:28). Adam, cursed with hard work: in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread (3:19), at the outset had been placed in the Garden of Eden, to till it and to keep it (2:15).

In each, a basic activity of living, i.e., eating, reproducing, and working, is first mentioned in a positive context and then distorted and made difficult by God’s curse. Food, described as God-given, becomes dust for the snake. The blessing of human fecundity becomes a source of pain and danger. Work, the divine purpose of man’s creation, is transformed into a bitter struggle for survival. Although God’s curses distort the activities of eating, reproduction and work, Jewish Scripture retains their basic positive value. Thus, throughout Scripture, children are counted as a much sought-after blessing. Unlike the well-documented disparaging attitudes that are voiced in classical Greek and Roman sources, Jewish Scripture and tradition accord honor to productive labor. Thus, the role of God’s curses is somewhat paradoxical. The activities which are the objects of God’s curses had been formerly declared by God to be valuable in themselves. They then remain valuable even when deformed by God.

Having dealt with the three activities tainted by God’s curses, I turn now to the two basic relationships affected by the divine punishments. The first is mankind’s relationship with the snake, which can be taken as man’s relationship with Nature in general. As originally depicted, man’s relationship with Nature is that of straightforward human sovereignty:

…replenish the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth (1:28).

Following the commission of the sin, the clear dominion of man breaks down and is replaced by continuous struggle:

And I will put enmity between thee [the snake] and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel (3:15).

The earth, which man was to replenish and subdue, will become cursed ... for thy sake (3:17). Originally designated to rule Nature, mankind must forever do battle with it.

I come now to the central problem addressed in this essay: the second relationship affected by God’s curses, that between man and woman. We must apply to this case the principles developed in the examination of the punishments of the snake and of Adam. As in those cases, here, too, we are dealing with a valuable aspect of life which has been made distorted. Indeed, the value and original nature of the man/woman relationship is clearly depicted in Genesis. When first presented, men and women are on quite egalitarian terms. The genders are mentioned almost as an afterthought: So God created Mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them (1:27). The blessings that they received, including dominion over the earth and the charge to subdue it, are all addressed in the plural, indicating that both man and woman would share them.

The detailed account of woman’s creation, in chapter two of Genesis, might be construed as indicating feminine inferiority (e.g., Paul’s declaration: A woman ought not to speak, because Adam was formed first and she afterwards (Timothy 2:13). Yet, a careful reading of Genesis will reveal an insistence upon the importance of Adam and Eve’s relationship and her equality within that relationship.

Throughout the creation narrative we read of God declaring things good. God saw the light, that it was good (1:4). So, too, the separation of water and land was good (1:9) as was the creation of vegetation (1:12), the heavenly bodies (1:18), creatures of the seas and the air (1:21) and of the land (1:23). All were declared good. The first chapter of Genesis ends with the verse: And God saw everything that he had made and, behold, it was very good (1:31). After such a persistent affirmation of creation’s goodness, any hint of imperfection in God’s world takes on a special salience. All the more so when God, Himself, bluntly states the problem:

It is not good that the man should be alone (2:18).

The solution to the problem is obvious: I will make a help to match him (2:18). (Or, in Rosenzweig’s words: a helper equal to him.) Strangely, the biblical narrative does not proceed directly with Eve’s creation, but, rather, tells of how God created specimens of all of the living creatures and brought them before Adam so that he might name them.1 The purpose of this interruption in the narrative becomes clear when we read its concluding verse:

And man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every beast of the field; but for the man there was not found a help to match him [a helper equal to him] (2:20).

Man was in need of the companionship of an equal. By presenting him with all of the animals of Nature, God was telling Adam that here were all of the beings that he was meant to rule, yet none of these creatures which were subservient to him could dispel his loneliness. Finally, when presented with Eve, Adam declares with relief: This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh (2:23). He has finally discovered the partner with whom he can share the privileges and purpose given to him by God.

As in the case of man’s relationship to Nature, man’s relationship to woman is also damaged by God’s punishment. We read: Unto the woman he said ... he [man] shall rule over you. The proper order of things has been completely overturned. Nature, which was created to serve mankind, rebels against man’s authority. Woman, who was to be man’s equal, becomes subservient to man. Thus, Genesis instructs us that, while initially posited in ideal terms, four central aspects of human existence (i.e., reproduction, work, the relationship of mankind to Nature and the relationship between man and woman) were negatively altered and distorted as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve.

What is the meaning of their punishment for us? Some anti-feminists would like to count and he shall rule over thee as the 614th commandment of the Torah. The implausibility of such an interpretation should now be triply clear. Firstly, the verse and he shall rule over thee describes a punishment, a state of affairs which is, by definition, undesirable. Secondly, the ideal man/woman relationship, as fully explicated earlier in the text, is a condition of shared privileges and responsibilities between equals. Thirdly, there is no indication given that any human being is called upon to enforce God’s punishments.
Although God may have made work difficult for man, it is no human’s job to insure that weeds choke my vegetable garden. The Torah does not depict these punishments as a penance to which we must dutifully submit, but, rather, as objective difficulties against which we must struggle. Although God has caused childbirth to be painful and dangerous, the Torah has nothing but praise for the midwives, Shifra and Puah, who served the Jewish women in Egypt (Exodus 1:15-21). Later Jewish tradition also supports the efforts of those who could try to lighten the burden of God’s curses. Rashi explains that Noah eased the toils of his generation by inventing agricultural implements (see his comments on 5:29).

In sum, I believe that it has been demonstrated that the Torah does not offer the verse and he shall rule over thee as a recipe for marital bliss, but, rather, as a critical depiction of an evil of human existence of no less consequence than the ravages of Nature or the constant struggle to make ends meet. If we extrapolate from the attitudes towards God’s curses as they are evidenced in Jewish Scripture and tradition, we can only conclude that the struggle against the social inequality of women is as legitimate as the struggle to wrest material sustenance from intractable Nature.

l The interpretation of this section largely follows U. Cassuto, From Adam to Noah (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1986) pp. 83-90 (in Hebrew).


Blogger Celal Birader said...

Hello Berel,

Helpful exposition. Thank you. However, you do not address (Gen 3:16) "... and toward thy husband is thy desire..."

8:56 PM  
Blogger Berel Dov Lerner said...

No, I didn't explain the "desire" part - and I don't have anything particularly intelligent to say about it (yet!) The phrase is especially difficult because it reoccurs in God's speech to Cain (Gen. 4:7), and I am a bit baffled by the obvious connections it sets up between the Garden of Eden story and the story of Cain and Abel. (The notion of "ruling over" is also repeated there). As I think I mentioned in my Ten Curses article, some rabbis interpreted "toward thy husband is thy desire" as refering to the idea that a woman can only marry one man, while the Torah allows a man to marry more than one woman (later rabbinic decrees made bigamy illegal for men).

11:33 PM  
Blogger Celal Birader said...

That probably does explain why polygamy is more common than polyandry.

10:23 PM  
Blogger Berel Dov Lerner said...

Here's a different take on it: Rabbi Meir Simkha of Dvinsk (a major early 20th century rabbi)attempted to show that the ban on polyandry is connected to Eve's other punishments. Eve was cursed with a long and difficult pregnancy. There is a midrash which infers from this that before the sin, reproduction was entirely enjoyable - Adam and Eve could have had sex and a baby would have arrived on the spot ("two would enter a bed and three would leave it"). In that case, there would never be a question about the identity of a newborn child's father. After the sin, pregnancy took nine moths, leaving plenty of time for a woman to have sex with a number of men who could all be long gone before she even gave birth. So Meir Simkha concludes that the biological curse of a long pregnancy made the normative curse of a ban on polyandry necessary as the only way to ensure that a child's father could be reliably identified!

11:52 PM  
Blogger Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

Very interesting!

It definitely makes sense to read "and he shall rule over you" describing sexism as a punishment-curse.

10:52 PM  
Blogger Uri Cohen said...

Thanks for posting this! I just gave a shiur this week that included these ideas.

Also, compare Rabbi Yehuda Henkin, Equality Lost (Urim, 1999), chapter 1, which is abridged at

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then why would man leave the natural use of the woman as the perfect helpmeet and companion and burn in their lust for one another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was due.

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Blogger smoo said...

I have a very different way of approaching the "curses" of Eve.

For a reference to full elaboration please see

In short, Eden represents the childhood home and with the coming of maturity and knowledge, Adam and Eve learn the facts of life. He will have to work hard, she will have difficult childbirth, a desire for her husband and be ruled by her emotions ( see ).

Note the radically different understanding of 'he shall rule over you'. My post shows how the he shall rule is modifying the preceding word in the sentence ('your DESIRE').

So the Torah isn't subjecting woman to man's dominion but rather is elaborating on the fact that emotions have a strong hold upon women. Anyone deny that?

12:12 AM  
Anonymous Shmuel said...

The Bible is meant to be understood on so many different levels; there is "Pshat," the simple meaning of the verses to which you refer. The fact is, that seeing it from a different perspective the things you mention are cause and effect rather than punishment. Before the sin, evil, the evil inclination, was a separate entity from mankind. It existed within the snake. Once Adam and Eve consumed the forbidden fruit, it became one with them. They changed the innate makeup of man from the potential for which he was created. Pain, which is a physical sign that something is not right with the body, it is likewise a spiritual sign that something is amiss with the soul; the two form a complete person.
There is a great deal more to be discussed regarding this subject, and I hope to discuss it when there is more time.

1:16 AM  

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