One 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?