Does God Approve the Abuse of Women? A Meditation on Genesis 3:16

051313One of the darker passages in the Scriptures comes just after the Fall of Adam and Eve. God is announcing the consequences they have ushered in, and, having spoken to Adam of the arduous quality of work and the hostility of the natural world, God turns to Eve and says,

I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; in sorrow you shall bring forth children; yet your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you. (Gen 3:16)

The Hebrew word מָשַׁל (mashal) means variously, “to have dominion, reign, or have ruling power over another.” The New Jerusalem Bible Says, “He will dominate you.”

While the text is not absolutely clear, the “rule” spoke of here does not seem to be a mere benign rule of headship by the husband, but rather, a headship marked by tension, domination and easily open to abuse.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says of this passage:

The harmony in which they had found themselves, thanks to original justice, is now destroyed: the control of the soul’s spiritual faculties over the body is shattered; the union of man and woman becomes subject to tensions, their relations henceforth marked by lust and domination.(# 400).

Every man experiences evil around him and within himself. This experience makes itself felt in the relationships between man and woman. Their union has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation. This disorder can manifest itself more or less acutely, and can be more or less overcome according to the circumstances of cultures, eras, and individuals, but it does seem to have a universal character.

According to faith the disorder we notice so painfully does not stem from the nature of man and woman, nor from the nature of their relations, but from sin. As a break with God, the first sin had for its first consequence the rupture of the original communion between man and woman. Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations; their mutual attraction, the Creator’s own gift, changed into a relationship of domination and lust…Nevertheless, the order of creation persists, though seriously disturbed. To heal the wounds of sin, man and woman need the help of the grace that God in his infinite mercy never refuses them. (#s 1606-1608)

In calling this a “dark passage” I merely call to attention the concern and critique by some that God seems to speak of this domination by way of approval, that Eve is somehow deserving of this, and that abuse and exploitation by men is to be her lot, by God’s will.

I do not agree with this concern since, as is the case with many of the dark passages of Scripture, we must be careful to distinguish that not everything the Bible reports or describes, means it is reported with approval. Eve’s experience is the result of Original Sin and the poisonous climate it has introduced. And, while God reports the effect, and even connects himself to it by way of primary causality, it is this sin and its poisonous climate that God spends the rest of scripture addressing and healing.

Thus the thought that this passage gives even tacit approval to the abuse of women cannot stand. Yet, some in the past may have invoked it as such, and some today, mainly feminists, critique it for such a possible misinterpretation.

That said, I have seen this passage strangely and sadly fulfilled in a small number of women who struggle with on-going issues of physical and emotional abuse by husbands and “boyfriends.” The vast majority of women are able to break free from physical abuse, unless and until the abusive man gets help to assuredly end his sinful behavior.

But there are a certain number of women I have met and counseled who habitually return to men who abuse them. In this, there is a kind of literal fulfillment of the text that her desire will be for her man, but he will (abusively) dominate her. There are, of course, many factors, such as low self esteem, poor family modeling, financial pressures and so forth.

Yet, one of the stranger and darker reasons I have gleaned from the women who return to abusers is caught up in the phrase, “your desire shall be to your husband.” There is something of a fine line between anger and passion, between a man who is virile and a “go-getter” and one who, on a dime, turns to anger and abuse. Powerful men are attractive to some women. Yet many (not all) powerful men are also aggressive and possessed of a temper. Their strength and their struggle are closely related. Many women intuitively know this, even if they have not consciously worked it all out. What they like in their man is closely related to what they hate and suffer from.

So, I am not so sure that every woman who returns to an abuser is simply lacking in self esteem or financially trapped etc. Some return knowing exactly what they are doing, despite counsel to the contrary. Their reasons are caught up in the complicated intersections of desire described above.

Please note dear reader that I am not reporting this with approval, I am simply observing it and trying to understand it. I, like most of you, would counsel a woman who is being physically abused to stay away unless and until the problem can be resolved. But some do not, and I cannot merely write them off as foolish for it.

But let us be clear, what ever the choice of the woman ultimately is, we cannot forget that the one who abuses is guilty of a great sin and in no way can the scriptures be seen to grant any approval whatsoever.

All of this makes me mindful of a very popular but dark song from the 1970s when I was in High School. It was by Jackson Brown and was called “You Love the Thunder.” My understanding of the words, in effect, have the man who is singing  say to the woman, “You really like my anger (thunder) and my abuse (rain) and they’re really worth it, given what else you get with me.”

I remember being quite alarmed by the words and also troubled that no one else seem bothered. (Frankly, most of my High School peers never paid much attention to the words of songs, they just like the melodies. But I have always been very sensitive to the words). I also understand that the words can be interpreted differently by others. But I remain alarmed by the words seem at best arrogant, and at worse celebrating of anger and abuse.

Consider the darkness of these words:

You love the thunder and you love the rain
What you see revealed within the anger is worth the pain
And before the lightning fades and you surrender
You’ve got a second to look at the dark side of the man ….
You love the thunder, you love the rain
You know your hunger, like you know your name
I know you wonder how you ever came
To be a woman in love with a man in search of the flame
Draw the shades and light the fire
For the night, it holds you and it calls your name
And just like your lover knows your desire
And the crazy longing that time will never tame…

These words are, to me, an “affirmation” of Genesis 3:16, but a Genesis 3:16 that is frozen there, having made no progress out of the climate of sin that caused it. Yet Jesus came to heal that and restore God’s original plan for marriage where a man clings to his wife in love and out of his delight says “She is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.” Loving the thunder and lightning (i.e. what they represent) is not the way forward, it is backward.

So, no,  God does not approve or affirm the abuse of women, or of men for that matter. God points to it, only to set about healing it.

How say you?

11 Replies to “Does God Approve the Abuse of Women? A Meditation on Genesis 3:16”

  1. You have again noticed and written about some very hard-to-articulate truths, Monsignor.

    But I have found my solution–since my abusive husband and I are divorcing, I am living a life of chaste celibacy. I am happy and at peace. 🙂

  2. Wasn’t Jackson Browne an abuser, too? I think so.

    I know many women who have lived with obnoxious, abusive husbands (not necessarily violent) because they believe that divorce is only an option (for Christians) if the spouse has been physically unfaithful. And so they hang in there, persevering in prayer and hoping that their spouses will change.

    I remember reading in St. Augustine’s Confessions how his mother, Monica, had her nose broken by her husband because she “provoked” his anger. The way St. Augustine describes it, she “watched her step” after that, and counseled other troubled women to do the same. I read this over 10 years ago, so maybe I’ve got it wrong here.

      1. Never mind Jackson Brown – the St. Augustine’s Confessions reference merits some thoughtful response.

  3. I was going through the Old Testament again, a couple of years ago. This time, instead of being struck by the Israelites failures at being God’s chosen people, I was struck by how many references there are to the kindness of God. Maybe, if we could somehow get in touch with that we would all do a little bit better.

  4. This is a fantastic look at what “other” motivations that abused women will have when staying with a man who has chosen evil (abuse) over good (self-sacrifice). It doesn’t over-psychologize what those motivations are (since they are different for every woman, that is a good thing!), but the source of this evil being the fall, in the beginning, is a fascinating start to the discussion. Having known women who chose to stay, and puzzled over the “why”, this is very helpful to me, and I will be sure to pass it on.

  5. This an insightful post, Monsignor.

    A controversial psychologist with the London School of Economics wrote a post at Psychology Today that seeks to answer the question “why do some battered women stay?” He says it is because, in prehistoric times, men had to be strong, aggressive and often violent in order to succeed in life. If they didn’t have these qualities, they could starve or be killed. Women thus mated with these men in order to ensure that their offspring would have a better chance at life than they would if they mated with gentle, timid men. The author notes that in the modern world, violent men often end up in jail while intelligent gentlemen are often successful. Unfortunately, he says, our brains are wired for the prehistoric world, not the modern world, and this is why many women today still choose violent men. You can read the whole post here:

    I know many Christians will reject this analysis because it relates to the theory of evolution. However, I think it is hard to argue with the logic of it. From the Christian viewpoint, as you alluded to in your post, Monsignor, the fact of many women being attracted to violent men is really a symptom of the Fall and this analysis is equally valid. Either way, both Christians and advocates of evolution can agree that some women are genuinely attracted to violent men.

    The Church, of course, has a duty to try to draw people towards the Good. I rarely hear priests talk about the dynamics of mate selection and I know of no priests besides you, Monsignor, who seem to be aware that some women are genuinely attracted to violent men. Instead, Christian leaders often take the view that the problem is with men alone. If only all men were good, they lament, all of women’s problems with men would be solved. It often does not occur to these Christian leaders that a number of women actually choose bad men over good ones. They fail to realize that many women find bad men “sexy” and good men boring. The Church can help draw people towards the Good on this issue by providing guidance to young women so that they can understand their feelings and make better choices. The Church needs to try to persuade women that the “sexy” is not the Good.

    The costs involved when women choose the wrong men are enormous – single motherhood, feminization of poverty, spousal abuse, child physical abuse, etc. The choice of a husband is by far the most important choice most women will make. If a woman makes a bad choice, it can ruin the rest of her life. The Church can and should take steps to try to correct this problem. The Church needs to persuasively say to women that it has far better guidance to give on mate selection than Hollywood can offer.

    1. I want to add in summary that many women in an abusive relationship simply don’t have good options. The first obvious problem is that considering divorce can have so many negative and risky outcomes. Will she face backlash from her own family and community? Will she be able to support herself? The next risky option is hoping and praying that her spouse can be convinced to reform. These risks are arguably parallel to some of the evolutionary conditions described in the article.
      My experience with priests and discussion of mate selection have been opposite of yours though. One example in particular I recall the Pre Cana sessions near the time of my marriage. All kinds of sensitive topics were discussed, including normal discourse, typical arguments and disagreements, what to do about abusive behavior, considering family compatibility, sexual expectations, financial matters. Deacons and their families were involved. Everything was covered, including questioning your decision to marry – at the time it is most important – before taking your vows. The overall discourse was constructive, and raised important questions for all of the couples involved. It definitely made us more sure of our commitments.

  6. Raniero Cantalamessa said in Sober Intoxication of the Spirit about this verse, “You, woman, after the Fall, will be attracted to your husband and will be dominated by your instinct to please the man, and you will not notice how the man will use this situation to dominate you.” (This after challenging men to not let their anger and pride dominate their lives.)

    I’ve seen this a lot in teens and young women – they will give up what is important to them to please a guy. And that include their dignity under abuse. Perhaps this is because we women don’t really understand our own value and dignity as daughters of God and buy into culture’s ideal that value comes from a guy liking you. And, well, we are hard-wired to want relationship.

    That being said, abuse usually happens so slowly (if someone yelled at you or hit you on the first date there would probably not be a second date) that the psychological damage is hard to see until one is entwined in a relationship. This of course applies to men who are being abused by women as well. And in cases of emotional abuse, there aren’t any physical marks to “prove” there’s a problem, which only leads to more challenges is realizing and accepting the problem exists.

    More theology of body to our youth so that they can grow up knowing who they are as beloved sons and daughters will help a lot. I can only imagine what my life would have been like if I had understood that at 15 instead of at 40. It will be a slow process to bring about change, but I think we can restore some of what we have lost with good teaching and lots of lots of love to those who are struggling.

    1. “I can only imagine what my life would have been like if I had understood that at 15 instead of at 40.”

      Exactly, Cathy. The Church needs to do what it can to help females in their teens and twenties to make good choices because the mating choices they make then will affect the rest of their lives. Young women are getting bad advice from Cosmopolitan magazine and Hollywood and this must be corrected.

  7. Msgr. Pope, could you please write on the next verse as well: Gen 3:17. The very first item that God holds against Adam is that he listened to his wife. This comes ahead of eating the fruit. Do you think this might explain that men sometimes find it difficult to listen to their wives?

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