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Ladies First? Genesis 3 and Gender Roles

I once heard a young woman tell me, "women shouldn't take the initiative in relationships because it was Eve who took the initiative in Eden and caused the fall."  I think her point was, not that women shouldn't take the initiative because they were responsble for the fall, but that the fall proved that women were never meant to take the initiative.  From there it seems a short step to this kind of thinking,

It is fair to say that there are a number of women in Genesis who take the initiative with negative results and in ways that disobey God.   Apart from Eve, the examples of Sarai telling Abram to impregnate Hagar (Gen 16) and Potiphar's wife attempting to seduce Joseph (Gen 39) come to mind.  However, in none of those examples is there any indication that the problem with their actions is that they are women.  In each instance those actions are simply expressions of sin regardless of gender.  Adam, Abram, and Potiphar, hardly serve as shining examples of ethical initiative taking in those narratives either.

On the other hand, in two significant narrative sections women take the initiative in highly unorthodox ways, and yet, within the world view of Genesis, are richly rewarded.  The first story is that of Lot's daughters, to our modern minds a tale of depravity and incest, but in Genesis actually the story of how Lot's daughters take the initiative when their father is too scared and useless to find them husbands and ensure the survival of the family by nay means necessary.  Their reward is that their offspring become two great nations, the Moabites and the Ammonites, the women are vindicated by history (Gen 19:30-38).  The second story is of Judah and Tamar, where in a scarcely less sordid episode Judah's daughter in law has to disguise herself as a prostitute in order to seduce him and preserve the family line.  She is rewarded by success and the recognition that her actions were righteous (Gen 38, not to mention Matt 1:3).  None of this is to suggest that women's place is only in preserving the family line, i.e. breeding, but in Genesis that is pretty much all anyone, male or female, cares about.  The point is that women take the initiative throughout Genesis, sometimes it results in bad and sometimes in good, just like it does with the men.

If anything, Gen 3 actually shows the Eve taking some responsibilty and admitting being deceived (3:13), whereas Adam just tries to blame both Eve and God for putting Eve in the garden with him (3:12).  


  1. Interesting post. I wonder, however, if we should think of what Sarah did with Hagar as negative. After all, when she hands Hagar over to Abraham it looks as if she will never have children. In fact, it is not until 17:15-22 that the promise of Abraham having a son also includes Sarah. Also, Ishmael is given a specific promise by God in Gen 16. Since Sarah had yet to be promised a child by God, perhaps what she did was more courageous than we sometimes interpret it.

  2. Hi John, thanks for stopping by. :-)
    You may well have a point, I have always seen her actions as unfaithful, trying to do God's work for him and demonsrating a lack of trust, but you are right, by the criteria i stated in the post above the act of giving Hagar to Abram was not her sin, being harsh and jealous of Hagar later on was.

  3. Jonathon,

    Yes, I agree her treatment of Hagar and Ishmael is what gets her in trouble. But what do you make of the fact that God seems to agree with her and tells Abraham to put them out of his house?


  4. JB - Agrees with her or just tells Abraham how to have a quiet life? ;-) While the other human dramas are important, God's priority is the keeping of his promises to Abraham, despite her failings Sarah is key to that, besides God takes care of Hagar and Ishmael, and I think there is a sense that Isaac might be in danger from Ishmael. God promises Abraham that he will look after them so it is not like a total turning out in the cold. The sharing of the inheritance is an interesting issue too, what would it have meant if Ishmael shared in Abraham's inheritance? Could he have without being a child of faith?

    But in terms of application, i take care to remain "a man of one wife," it keeps life simple! :-)


  5. Well monogamy is always the best way to stay sane!

    One more poke.

    I find it interesting that while all of Abraham's "other sons" are sent away (25.6), Ishmael is allowed to return and help bury Abraham (25.9). It seems that Ishmael and Abraham still had a special bond. I am not sure he was not a child of faith. Of course Paul's reading of the story is quite different (Gal4)

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  7. I wrote an essay on Sarah and Hagar last year. One of the crucial things in the story is that when Sarai requests--the particle נָא softens the imperative--Abram to 'come unto' her servant, her motives are completely selfish. She says 'אוּלַי אִבָּנֶה מִמֵּנָּה'--'perhaps I will be built up from her'. I find it hard because of this to see anything other than complete selfishness in her actions and no greater motives.

    That said, and I think this was the point of the post, it is not just women who take initiative and it all goes wrong. We only need to look at Gen. 12 to see what happens when Abram flees to Egypt. The point is that both sexes have a tendency to go wrong by acting on their own initiative (cf. Proverbs 3:5) without reference to God.

  8. Gentlemen, I really appreciate this interaction, brilliant!

  9. Matthew,

    An interesting point, but I am not sure how this makes her "selfish." You are correct that the particle softens her request, makes it more polite I would say, but how does that make her request selfish?

    Without a child a woman in antiquity is ambiguous. She has no guaranteed future. I would argue that Abraham's attempt (at least 2xs) to abandon her by calling her his "sister" would have been a threat to her and made her seek a child even more.

  10. It is not the particle that makes her selfish in my view, but rather her perspective on her being built up. To me, this completely cancels out any notion of doing it for Abra(ha)m or anybody else. She does it to be built up herself. Though you are right that her value (?) as a woman was in bearing children to preserve the line and safeguard the property, I think her motives are still completely selfish in the sense that she cannot see beyond herself in offering her maid to Abram.

  11. Matthew,
    The idea of being "built up" is probably an idiom since the exact same phrase appears in Gen 30:3 when Rachel gives Bilhah to Jacob. I suppose you could argue that she is being selfish too. But do ever see Sarah being condemned for what she has done? She is barren and Abraham needs an heir. God has yet to say anything about Sarah being the mother of that heir. So far we only know that Abraham will be the father. Gen 16 opens with a description of Sarah as barren, the second time this happens to her in Genesis. This opening seems to explain why she did what she did, but I can't see how you find her to be selfish.


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